Study Guide

Tim O'Brien

by Tim O’Brien

Tim O'Brien Essay - Critical Essays

Tim O'Brien American Literature Analysis

All of O’Brien’s books touch on the Vietnam War, if only peripherally. However, Going After Cacciato, The Things They Carried, and In the Lake of the Woods, along with the memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, are deeply concerned with the experience of the war. O’Brien uses the Vietnam War as a means to explore courage, memory, truth, and the art of storytelling in these books.

Courage, and its reverse, cowardice, are important themes throughout O’Brien’s work. In both his memoir and his stories such as “On the Rainy River” from The Things They Carried, O’Brien reaches the conclusion that he found himself in the infantry not because he was brave but rather because he lacked the courage to go to Canada in order not to have to participate in what he believed was an immoral war. In Going After Cacciato, the central event of the book is Paul Berlin’s collapse from fear as his unit rushes Cacciato’s position. Unable to control his bladder, Berlin finds his response to fear to be both shameful and humiliating. Although he dreams of the Silver Star, he experiences himself as cowardly. The Silver Star figures as a central image in a series of stories in The Things They Carried as well: “Speaking of Courage,” “Notes,” and “In the Field” all relate the events surrounding the death of a particularly beloved character, Kiowa, in a sewage field. For character Norman Bowker, this event is the central one of his life. He believes that a failure of courage causes Kiowa’s death and also costs him his chance at a Silver Star. In a particularly metafictional story, “Notes,” the narrator (who also is named Tim O’Brien) considers the event, noting that Bowker “did not freeze up or lose the Silver Star for valor. That part of the story is my own.” These closing lines reveal some of the most difficult and interesting parts of the novel: Does O’Brien imply here that he was a coward? Does he imply that, as a writer, he created the situation and thus all parts of the story are his own?

O’Brien also uses memory (and most particularly traumatic memory) as an important theme in his work. In Going After Cacciato, Paul Berlin’s memories and imagination serve to structure the entire novel. Likewise, The Things They Carried uses as a device the memories of narrator Tim O’Brien (as distinct from writer Tim O’Brien) some twenty years after the close of the war. In both of these books, O’Brien uses a few central events, generally the death of comrades, and then circles around them, retelling the story with increasing detail. By so doing, he leads the reader on a journey of discovery, one in which the story becomes clearer as it goes along. The journey becomes increasingly circuitous, however, with his later books. In In the Lake of the Woods, for example, O’Brien appears to be leading the reader to a resolution of the central mystery of Kathy Wade’s disappearance. However, resolution is not to be had in this ambiguous, self-reflexive novel that uses all of the conventions of the mystery story but none of the expected outcomes.

Finally, and perhaps most important, O’Brien explores the way stories are told throughout his work. In Going After Cacciato, he demonstrates how the mind sifts through the jetsam and flotsam of past experience and past knowledge to piece together a coherent narrative. In stories such as “How to Tell a True War Story” from The Things They Carried, he demonstrates the way truth always seems to be just around the next story, if only the words are right. Finally, in In the Lake of the Woods he explores the whole notion of revision, how memories can be erased, rewritten, and revised to produce a narration with which one can live. Tellingly, O’Brien himself revises his stories. There are subtle differences between the early versions of the stories of The Things They Carried when they appeared in magazines and the later versions when they were collected in the book. He also has revised Going After Cacciato between editions of the book. It is small wonder, then, that the subject of revision itself surfaces in stories such as “Notes,” “How to Tell a True War Story,” and in his novels, particularly In the Lake of the Woods. The chapters called “Hypothesis” in this novel are, after all, revision after revision of what could have happened, what might have happened, what did happen, and what did not happen.

Going After Cacciato

First published: 1978; revised, 1989

Type of work: Novel

An army private reflects on and imagines a journey to Paris as he stands sentry duty in Vietnam.

Going After Cacciato, O’Brien’s third published book, was a breakthrough for the writer. He returned to his experiences in Vietnam, first developed in his 1973 memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, for his material; however, Going After Cacciato is a very different book from the earlier one in content, style, theme, and organization. Winner of the 1979 National Book Award, the book was widely regarded at its publication as the finest work of the Vietnam War experience.

O’Brien organizes the book into three threads that weave together a fully realized novel. One thread is the story of Spec Four Paul Berlin’s experiences over the previous six months during his tour of duty in Vietnam. The sixteen chapters constituting this thread are not arranged chronologically. At the heart of these chapters are the deaths of several of Berlin’s companions, the desertion of Cacciato, and Berlin’s responses to both. Another strand forms ten chapters of the novel, each titled “The Observation Post.” These chapters are set in...

(The entire section is 2400 words.)