Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Tim O’Brien first wrote about the Vietnam War in his memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, published in 1973. His first novel, Northern Lights (1975), depicted characters dealing with the aftereffects of the war. He returned to Vietnam in his next novel, Going After Cacciato, which was an immediate critical success, winning the National Book Award in 1979. At the time, many critics considered it to be the finest piece of literature to grow out of the Vietnam War, and it has continued to be held in high esteem. O’Brien continued to write about Vietnam in The Things They Carried (1990) and In the Lake of the Woods (1994); although he has remarked that he does not want to be thought of as a “Vietnam” writer, his works concerned with the war have been better received than his other works.

Some of the chapters of Going After Cacciato had been printed earlier as short stories in a variety of magazines. Likewise, O’Brien published nearly all the chapters of his next Vietnam War novel, The Things They Carried, before collecting and revising the material for the book. The technique allows for some of the chapters of Going After Cacciato and all of the chapters of The Things They Carried to stand alone as complete works. However, when the stories in each of the novels are brought together, the ongoing cast of characters, the repeated references to events in the past, and the continuing reflections on the nature of truth serve to connect and amplify the stories. Indeed, the technique seems to work in the same way that memory works: The same scenes are replayed in different stories with slightly different emphases and details. Sometimes the scene is merely a fragment; sometimes it is a fully developed story.

Going After Cacciato is an important contribution to the canon of Vietnam War literature for a number of reasons. First, it depicts with utter realism the lives of infantrymen in the front lines. Second, and perhaps more important, it does not limit itself to that experience but rather probes and questions the nature of reality itself. It demonstrates the unavoidable ambiguity of memory and imagination.