The Man I Killed, by Tim O’Brien
Read it here in 10 minutes.
Thinking about structure and effects…
O’Brien’s use of structure is amazing throughout the collection The Things they Carried; many of the stories spiral around events, revisiting them, reconsidering them, which I think reflects how memory works, especially in relation to trauma.
The collection is metafictional – there is a character named for the author, who is not him in an autobiographical sense, but represents him and his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam, and who narrates most of the stories. This story explores the aftermath of this character killing an enemy.
The story returns, again and again, to a description of the body. All the little details suggest how closely the narrator looks at it, how long he sits and stares. He’s shocked by what he’s done. The jaw, the star-shaped hole, the ear lobe, every time the narrator returns to the body he zooms in, seeing something else, something new.
The name of the body is unknown, so the narrator repeats ‘the man I killed’, as though this is his name. The narrator gives the dead man a backstory. He uses the third-person and close psychic distance to imagine his life, his hopes and dreams. Tim chooses not to see the man as an evil enemy who needed to be killed, but as a patriot who accepted his fate but didn’t deserve it. This sympathetic portrayal suggests the narrator’s guilt; it would have been easier to paint the body in a negative light, to feel validated, vindicated.
The same solider characters circle throughout the collection. Their personalities are maintained between the stories. Some of them meet their own fates.
The dialogue here is brilliant – Kiowa speaks to Tim, our narrator, trying to ease his guilt. You had no choice; it was you or him, it was his decision to walk on the trail today, etc. He tries to persuade Tim to leave. Tries to make Tim talk to him, to get the emotions out. But Tim never replies.
We know time is passing, or elongated by shock; Kiowa’s sentiments are repeating, we see the same dialogue over and over, and we’re told ‘Later, Kiowa said…’; ‘Then later he said…’; ‘Then he said…’. We know the body is changing, the blood that was initially ‘spreading out across his shirt’ stop, then turns black. A butterfly comes and goes. Gnats arrive. Finally, Kiowa covers the body.
At the end of the story, the description of the body seems to wind down; shorter descriptions, but no less vivid. Perhaps Tim is ready to stand up and move on, but only in the physical sense; the memory and guilt will last a lifetime.