I suppose that where verisimilitude comes from doesn't matter in the end. The more common way of emphasizing "this is true, this really happened" is to be a reporter of events. But this doesn't guarantee at all that the reporter gets anything right, much less everything right. Using fiction, a writer can perhaps get closer to the truth that really matters to him or her. O'Brien appraises the freedom that stories give him to say what really happened at the level that concerns him most, the gut level. The same approach wouldn't have been very good for political analysis of the war, obviously.
The parallel with Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage
is interesting. Crane did not have the option of blurring the distinction between the first-person narrator and the writer because he had never experienced war. Crane's story is a war story without the editorial comment of O'Brien's. It is also a novel, whereas O'Brien's work is usually described as linked stories. But I think the two are close in the way they strip away the illusions that people want to project on the experience of war.
I have to admit unease with O'Brien's technique. I might be stuck on keeping a distinction between story and history. Books that use historical figures, such as E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime
, in purely fictive ways have seemed to me to want to benefit from the real-world notoriety of such figures, but what is the point if the author just makes all the stuff up? Wouldn't it be more honest to start with a fiction character? O'Brien, also, is benefitting from the notoriety of a historical situation, which would include the Vietnam War itself, the choice faced by young men whether to go or not, and the fact that Tim O'Brien was one of these. But then he wants to tell us that this framework should not confine him. He has made himself, in a certain sense, into an unreliable narrator on the basic level of whether he was or was not an actor in the story and whether any of the vignettes in the book--for example, returning to the field with his daughter--happened to Tim O'Brien, author. Should this matter to me? I don't know. A writer can create verisimilitude in either fiction or memoir; it's my preference just now that she or he do one or the other in a work.
Maybe this aspect of the book is too post-modern for me. It's very successful in conveying the truth about fighting. I'll have to think more, and probably reread the book, to decide whether "writing about writing" and the shape-shifting of the narrator/author add to or detract from the book.