Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

O’Brien’s craft is often compared to that of Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Heller, other twentieth century American writers who shared the project of telling a true war story. Like them, O’Brien creates a carefully controlled net of unstated meaning. Through understatement, oddities of style, and the juxtaposition of superficially unrelated information, O’Brien shows and does not tell. Much is implied. By cooperatively reconstructing the implicit material, the reader actively participates in cocreating the story. Because of this, readers may find themselves more engaged with O’Brien’s work than with other, more explicit, texts.

For example, at the beginning of the story, Doc Peret must say three times that Cacciato has gone AWOL before he gets any response from his lieutenant. The unexplained repetition requires the reader to hypothesize a reason and, through this process, information about the lieutenant’s mental state is conveyed. Perhaps he is emotionally exhausted. Perhaps he does not want to hear the news: It will require action on his part, and it foretells a tragedy for one of his men.

Readers can never know for sure that they have decoded the implied material correctly, so the understanding of implicit texts is always more uncertain than the understanding of explicit ones. O’Brien has written elsewhere that chronic uncertainty was one of the defining characteristics of the Vietnam soldier’s experience and must be...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Beidler, Philip D. American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1982. A classic study of Vietnam War literature. Contains a chapter-length study of Going After Cacciato and If I Die in a Combat Zone.

Gilman, Owen W., and Lorrie Smith, eds. America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War. New York: Garland, 1990. A collection of critical essays that includes two important chapters on Going After Cacciato. Catherine Calloway examines the way O’Brien problematizes reality, while Robert M. Slabey discusses O’Brien’s style.

Herzog, Tobey. Tim O’Brien. New York: Twayne, 1997. An excellent introduction to O’Brien’s work, with a helpful bibliography. Chapter 3 offers a discussion of the themes and structures of Going After Cacciato.

Kaplan, Steven. Understanding Tim O’Brien. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. Kaplan provides an overview of O’Brien’s career before turning to chapter-length analyses of his major works. Annotated bibliography.

Schroeder, Eric James. Vietnam, We’ve All Been There: Interviews with American Writers. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1992. A collection of interviews with important writers of the Vietnam War. The chapter on O’Brien offers an important, often-quoted interview in which O’Brien discusses the roles of memory and imagination in fiction.