Tim O'Brien Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1291

Tim O’Brien is in essence a writer of the Vietnam War, but his relationship with that war is not simple. It is his setting, the geographical and historical reality in which his best stories are played out. It is his story, his material, the subject matter of his telling. It...

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Tim O’Brien is in essence a writer of the Vietnam War, but his relationship with that war is not simple. It is his setting, the geographical and historical reality in which his best stories are played out. It is his story, his material, the subject matter of his telling. It is also the reason he must write—because he went to Vietnam, certain things happened to him that require him to write, trying, as he says “to save Timmy’s life with a story. ”

Vietnam also defines for him a constituency. The three and a half million people who served in Southeast Asia between 1964 and 1975 constitute the group to which he is responsible, the men and women for whom and to whom he speaks in his best work. He is sharply aware of his responsibility to this audience, which requires him to tell the truth about Vietnam—to shun oversimplifying, moralizing, or taking the easy way out. Scrupulous honesty about Vietnam—a situation where confusion, mystery, fear, uncertainty, and moral ambiguity reigned supreme—require O’Brien to shun straightforward narrative techniques, easy moralizing, or self-protective authorial distance.

Out of this need to be faithful to the deep truth about the Vietnam War experience, O’Brien developed his way of building a story like a jigsaw, out of a set of interlocking pieces. Books are built of story-pieces; stories are built of moment-pieces. In the spaces between the pieces, there is room for interpretation, for uncertainty, for mystery. It is because of this structure built up from fragments that it is impossible to categorize some of O’Brien’s work as either a unitary novel or a collection of short stories, either fiction or nonfiction: He has deliberately abandoned the security of categories.

“Going After Cacciato”

This story, which was selected for The Best American Short Stories 1977 and The Pushcart Prize (and also grew into the novel Going After Cacciato), deals with the Vietnam draftee’s terrible ambivalence about the war—the passionate desire to be someplace else, balanced against the utterly unthinkable act of leaving. O’Brien writes about this conflict in a number of his works. In this story, the two sides of the issue are embodied by the deserter Cacciato, on the one hand, and the obedient soldiers pursuing him, on the other.

Cacciato is a fool. His simplemindedness frees him to think simple, direct thoughts and take simple, direct action. His foolishness liberates him from the weight of duty, propriety, inertia, and expectation that chains the more “mature” soldiers to the war. When he wants to be elsewhere, he simply goes. His going is a radical act that threatens the whole conceptual structure of the war, because he enacts the possibility of saying no. The entire war mentality, as seen by O’Brien, depends on individual men finding it unthinkable to say no in such a way. Thus, Cacciato, always seen in the distance (like a wishing star or a mirage), becomes the image of unthinkable possibilities to the obedient soldiers still caught in the war. As one of them puts it, “Can’t hump away from a war, isn’t that right sir? The dummy has got to learn you can’t just hump your way out of a war.”

The Things They Carried

Throughout his career, O’Brien continued to write short pieces for a number of magazines. One of these, his prizewinning “The Things They Carried,” he later developed into a full-length book which was published in 1990 under the same title. It is a related sequence of short pieces about the experience of a foot soldier in Vietnam. The vignettes` range from one to twenty-five pages in length. In them, O’Brien mixes the techniques of the action/adventure war story with the self-doubting exploration of a contemplative. He intersplices war memories with present reflection, fact with fiction, novel with short story. This is his most successful book, telling the particular story of one soldier’s war but also turning its attention to the universal questions of the nature of war, truth, healing, and courage.

O’Brien’s craft in The Things They Carried is often compared to that of Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Heller, two 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 co-creating the story. Because of this, readers may experience themselves as more engaged, more immediately involved, than with other, more explicit, texts.

Another way in which O’Brien strives to “tell a true war story” is in his attention to physical details, the details that make up the life of a soldier. The rain, the mud, the fungus that grows in the socks, the jungle rot that attacks the skin, the precise physical sensation of bowel-loosening terror—these are the facts of a soldier’s life, and these are the details that enrich the texture and reality of The Things They Carried. Through careful sensory detail, O’Brien attempts the impossible task of telling the true story of Vietnam so clearly that even those who were not there may stand in witness.

“The Things They Carried”

The physical details of the experience of a soldier are primary in this story, which is structured as if it were a simple list of what infantrymen carried on their backs, with the exact weight added to underscore the reality of the load. It is almost as if the author had set himself a memory assignment of writing a straightforward inventory of a soldier’s pack and found that the physicality of the list opened out into story, because each item is needed for a reason. Those reasons tell the daily lives of the soldiers. (He also used the list format to powerful effect in “What They Didn’t Know” in Going After Cacciato.) Some things they all carry, some things are particular to certain roles in the group, reflecting the shared and uniquely personal experience of war. As the list develops, it begins to include the psychological and spiritual loads the men carry, things like fear and responsibility, until it becomes a full catalog of the weight that crushes humans at war.

“Loon Point”

Published in 1993, this story is an example of an O’Brien work that does not implicitly or explicitly refer to the Vietnam War. However, much of the same confusion, mystery, fear, uncertainty, and moral ambiguity that rule his work about the war also dominate his work about the intimate conflicts between men and women. In this story, a married woman lies to her husband in order to go on a romantic getaway with her lover. During their interlude, her lover drowns before her eyes, and she returns to her husband with a wall of lies spoken and unspoken between them.

“Loon Point,” like The Things They Carried, reflects on the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of telling the truth about the important things—love, war. Truth is necessary in order to heal, to mend the damaged heart, but it is also impossible because the inscrutable Other (the partner, the enemy) is so mysterious and the truth is so complex that putting it into words would require an oversimplification so gross as to constitute a lie. The wife elects silence because “there is nothing she could say that was entirely true”—which could also be a condensed statement of why O’Brien’s work about the truth of both war and relationships is veiled in fiction, implicitness, and ambiguity.

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