Tim O'Brien Essay - Tim O'Brien Long Fiction Analysis

Tim O’Brien

Tim O'Brien Long Fiction Analysis

Tim O’Brien draws material for his novels from his own experience. He uses imagination and fiction to find meaning in these experiences, and because he was part of defining events of the post-World War II generation, the passions and ideas in his novels appeal to American readers with broad differences in political allegiance and social background. Having fought in Vietnam, O’Brien can create fictional soldiers so realistic in attitude, speech, and behavior that readers who are veterans of the war readily identify with them. An activist in the antiwar movement of the 1960’s, O’Brien likewise draws faithful imitations of the political rebels of the times. A former graduate student in political science and a campaign worker, O’Brien offers fictional politicians who are convincingly lifelike enough to appeal to the American passion for political scandal. Moreover, coming from a small town in the Midwest, O’Brien (and some of his characters) appears to fulfill a particularly American literary convention: the small-town kid who does well for himself in the outside world. His characters include a university professor, a wealthy geologist, a broom manufacturer, and a lieutenant governor.

Some critics have complained that the distinction between historical or personal facts and fiction is blurred in O’Brien’s work. Indeed, the “Tim O’Brien” who narrates his two volumes of memoirs is a fictionalized construct, as the author admitted. Similarly, he incorporates historical records, apparently quoted verbatim, in the novel In the Lake of the Woods. This mixing of fact and fiction, as well as of memory and fantasy, underlies O’Brien’s thematic interests, all of which concern his characters’ emotional struggle during events, more than the verisimilitude or logic of the events themselves. The novels are intimately personal, psychological, and exploratory. Among the major themes are the relation between storytelling and truth, father-son relationships, true courage, the psychological effect of war, loneliness, magic, disappointment in love, and obsession.

To develop such themes, O’Brien usesnarrative techniques that give readers access to the minds of characters in order to portray their reactions to events in the plot. Northern Lights, Going After Cacciato, In the Lake of the Woods, and July, July are told from the third-person point of view either of an unnamed narrator or of a narrator whom readers are encouraged to identify with the author. This narrator recounts the thoughts and emotions of characters so that readers may empathize with their confusion and obsessions. The Nuclear Age and Tomcat in Love both employ the first-person point of view of the main character. Some episodes are told in the present tense and some in the past tense, as the characters reminisce. These techniques enable O’Brien to place readers even more intimately in the minds of characters and to display the tricky, often self-deluding action of memory. Moreover, rapid changes from past to present, changes from one story line to another within a novel’s plot, intricate wordplay, and dreamlike sequences immerse readers in the mental states of the principal characters.

O’Brien has told interviewers that as a youth he was obsessed with American writer Ernest Hemingway, and Hemingway’s influence on O’Brien’s work is apparent. O’Brien writes in short, crisp sentences that often derive their power from vivid verbs. He relies on extensive dialogue and uses description more to reflect the impressions of his main characters than to construct visually detailed settings. Unlike Hemingway, O’Brien frequently uses fragmentary sentences and questions to imitate the thought processes of characters, especially when they are under stress. Cumulatively, his style establishes an energetic narrative pace.

Going After Cacciato

Going After Cacciato, O’Brien’s second published novel, was his first critical and popular success. A best seller, it quickly earned notice as one of the first serious literary treatments of the Vietnam War, winning the National Book Award in 1979, and it remained a classic statement of the war’s bewildering effects on the young Americans drafted to fight there. Paul Berlin, the point-of-view character, is a member of an infantry platoon. With his platoon, he chases one of their number who has deserted, Cacciato (“the hunted” in Italian). Cacciato has vowed to escape the war and walk all the way to Paris, a crazy idea that nevertheless earns him admiration among the other soldiers.

The platoon catches Cacciato near the Laotian border, and the literal plot of the novel is over. While on guard duty, however, Berlin fantasizes. He imagines that Cacciato constantly manages to evade them, and the platoon must pursue him to Paris. He dreams up grotesque adventures in countries along the route, some hilarious escapades, some adolescent sexual fantasies, and some chilling encounters....

(The entire section is 2057 words.)