Tim O'Brien O'Brien, Tim (Vol. 103) - Essay

Tim O’Brien


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tim O'Brien 1946–

(Full name William Timothy O'Brien) American novelist, short story writer, and journalist.

The following entry presents criticism of O'Brien's work through 1995. For further information on his life and career, see CLC, Volumes 7, 19, and 40.

A veteran of the Vietnam War, O'Brien is best known for his fiction about the wartime experiences of American soldiers in Vietnam, often combining the realism of war zone journalism with the surrealism of a soldier's day dreams. The novel Going after Cacciato (1978), which won the 1978 National Book Award, and the short story collection The Things They Carried (1990), which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1991, are valued by many as definitive fictional works about the war. Most of O'Brien's writings deal with the Vietnam War and his stories commonly blend memories of his own experiences with fictional treatments of such themes as courage, heroism, brutal violence, and emotional upheaval in the face of death and destruction by impersonal, global forces. O'Brien's interweaving of fact and fiction has generated much commentary, particularly about the ambiguous nature of his narratives and the metafictional quality of his storytelling techniques. Pico Iyer remarked that "O'Brien's clean, incantatory prose always hovers on the edge of dream, and his specialty is that twilight zone of chimeras and fears and fantasies where nobody knows what's true and what is not."

Biographical Information

Born in 1946 in Austin, Minnesota to William T. O'Brien, an insurance salesman, and Ava Schulz O'Brien, a teacher, O'Brien moved with his family to Worthington, Minnesota, when he was ten years old. As a youth, he studied the techniques of magic and then practiced the art, fascinated by the mystery of illusion. In 1968 O'Brien graduated summa cum laude from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, with a bachelor's degree in political science. Soon after he was drafted into the U.S. Army. He completed basic and advanced-infantry training at Fort Lewis, Washington, and arrived in Vietnam in 1969. He served with the 198th Infantry (Alpha Company) in the Quang Ngai region, near the South China Sea, where he earned a Purple Heart for wounds suffered at My Lai a year after the infamous massacre. During this time, O'Brien began writing vignettes about his army experience. Following an honorable discharge as an infantry sergeant in 1970, O'Brien accepted a scholarship to attend Harvard University as a graduate student in government studies. In 1971 he received an internship at the Washington Post and continued to work there as a national-affairs reporter until 1974. Meanwhile, O'Brien continued to write stories, publishing some of them in national periodicals. These he collected into his first book, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973); two years later he published his first novel, Northern Lights (1975). After leaving Harvard in 1976 without a degree, O'Brien devoted himself to writing fiction full-time, regularly contributing to numerous magazines and often submitting selected stories to anthologies. The publication of Going after Cacciato in 1978 established O'Brien as a major voice of war literature, although his next novel, The Nuclear Age (1985), was generally not well received. The critically acclaimed The Things They Carried earned the 1990 Chicago Tribune Heartland Award and a listing in the New York Times Book Review as one of the six best works of fiction published in 1990. Since then, O'Brien has published the novel In the Lake of the Woods (1994).

Major Works

Classified as both a novel and a memoir, If I Die concerns the initiation of an inexperienced and bemused young man into the harsh realities of war. The newspaper and magazine vignettes collected here relate incidents that occurred before and during the war, including an account of the social pressures and traditions that led the youth to fight in Vietnam despite his personal objections. Northern Lights centers on the conflicts between two brothers—one a wounded but still physically powerful war hero, the other intellectually and spiritually motivated—who bond while they attempt to survive natural threats during an outing in the wilderness. Going after Cacciato reflects the surrealistic atmosphere of war as narrated and dreamed by Paul Berlin, a young soldier on guard duty in Vietnam. Blurring the present tedium and horrors of war with memories of a past pursuit of an AWOL soldier, Berlin imagines his patrol team chasing the soldier on foot from Vietnam to Paris, where peace talks are being held. The blend of realism and fantasy leaves the reader to ponder which events actually occurred. The Nuclear Age relates the anguish of a man acutely sensitive to the threat of nuclear annihilation as the narrative shifts from his childhood during the 1950s to a future set in 1995. The Things They Carried, a collection of linked stories about a platoon of soldiers who lack any understanding of the reasons for their involvement in the Vietnam War, features a character named Tim O'Brien who comments on the process of writing the stories—twenty years later. The interplay between memory and imagination, again, makes it difficult for the reader to distinguish the truthful elements of the story. In the Lake of the Woods tells of the mysterious disappearance of the wife of a politician after the two retreat to a remote lakeside cabin in the Minnesota woods.

Critical Reception

The enormity of critical acclaim bestowed upon Going after Cacciato and The Things They Carried—Robert R. Harris, for instance, has recommended the inclusion of the latter on "the short list of essential fiction about Vietnam"—has extended subsequent commentary beyond pure literary concerns and into the realm of morality and philosophy, especially where O'Brien explores the nature of courage and the writer's interest in transcending reality to represent the truths of experience. Much discussion of O'Brien's body of fiction examines such topics as the relationship between reality and dream in O'Brien's works; whether a connection between the "magic realism" of Borges and Marquez exists in O'Brien's style of writing; structural analyses of O'Brien's fiction to illuminate the ramifications of war and its effects on the individual; and the significance of O'Brien's overriding concern in his writings with the relationship between fiction and experience. Some scholars have addressed the problems associated with the generic classification of individual works in O'Brien's multi-faceted canon, while others have attempted to determine which elements constitute a "true war story"; still others have challenged O'Brien's belief that "stories can save lives." Suggesting the reason for O'Brien's allure, Iyer remarked: "No one writes better about the fear and homesickness of a boy adrift amid what he cannot understand, be it combat or love."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (memoirs) 1973
Northern Lights (novel) 1975
Going after Cacciato (novel) 1978
The Nuclear Age (novel) 1985
The Things They Carried (short stories) 1990
In the Lake of the Woods (novel) 1994

Robert Wilson (review date 19 February 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dreaming of War and Peace," in The Washington Post Book World, February 19, 1978, p. E4.

[In the following review, Wilson favorably comments on O'Brien's realistic descriptions of war from a footsoldier's perspective in Going after Cacciato.]

Fantasies must have fed the spirit of the American infantryman in Vietnam just as the canned peaches he carried in his knapsack nurtured his body. Hell means no escape; but in dreams the soldier can escape his fear and dread, and war can become, merely, a ghastly purgatory.

That is why Paul Berlin, an intelligent, sensitive foot soldier in Tim O'Brien's novel about Vietnam [Going after Cacciato],...

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Grace Paley (review date 17 November 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Digging a Shelter and a Grave," in The New York Times Book Review, November 17, 1985, p. 7.

[Below, Paley offers a mixed review of The Nuclear Age, faulting O'Brien's characterizations but praising his choice of "disparate and essential themes."]

What subjects! The probable end of the world, survival, madness. Whose madness? One-person madness or world-madness. Fear. When Tim O'Brien's new novel, The Nuclear Age, begins, the year is 1995 and a man is digging a deep hole in his backyard. Why? Because the world hasn't changed too much and neither has he. The world is still accumulating its thousands of nuclear death heads. And he, although he now...

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Tim O'Brien with Martin Naparsteck (interview date 20 April 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 32, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 1-11.

[In the following interview, originally conducted on April 20, 1989, O'Brien talks about his literary influences, characters and thematic concerns, and the relationships between memory, imagination, and literature.]

Tim O'Brien is widely considered the best of a talented group of Vietnam veterans who have devoted much of their writing to their war experiences. Sections of his most recent book, The Things They Carried, have won a National Magazine Award and an O. Henry Prize and have been included in Best American Short Stories. It follows by twelve years his National...

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Robert R. Harris (review date 11 March 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Too Embarrassed Not to Kill," in The New York Times Book Review, March 11, 1990, p. 8.

[In the following positive review, Harris commends the war stories in The Things They Carried, suggesting that the work merits inclusion on "the short list of essential fiction about Vietnam."]

Only a handful of novels and short stories have managed to clarify, in any lasting way, the meaning of the war in Vietnam for America and for the soldiers who served there. With The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien adds his second title to the short list of essential fiction about Vietnam. As he did in his novel Going After Cacciato (1978), which won a National...

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Richard Eder (review date 1 April 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Has He Forgotten Anything?" in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 1, 1990, pp. 3, 11.

[In the favorable review below, Eder relates O'Brien's memories of war to the actual writing of The Things They Carried.]

Why is he still writing about the Vietnam War, Tim O'Brien's 10-year-old daughter asks him. Why not write about a little girl who finds a million dollars and spends it on a Shetland pony?

The reader may ask the same question, though probably not about the pony. Writing that commands the graceful and unsparing strength that O'Brien used in Going After Cacciato a dozen years ago is rare. How we need writers to give us an equivalent...

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D. J. R. Bruckner (review date 3 April 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Storyteller for a War that Won't End," in The New York Times, April 3, 1990, pp. C15, C17.

[Below, Bruckner assesses O'Brien's storytelling abilities in The Things They Carried, especially the way he interweaves fact and fiction.]

For the first time since his Army tour of duty in Vietnam ended 20 years ago, Tim O'Brien will be going back in June. The official reason for the trip is a conference of American and Vietnamese writers in Hanoi. A more personal one for Mr. O'Brien is to return to the area around the village of My Lai.

"When the unit I went in with got there in February of 1969," he said the other day, "we all wondered why the...

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Julian Loose (review date 29 June-5 July 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Story that Never Ends," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4552, June 29-July 5, 1990, p. 705.

[In the following review of The Things They Carried, Loose examines some elements of what constitutes a "true war story" in O'Brien's fiction.]

For nearly two decades Tim O'Brien has written about the impossibility of telling stories true to the American experience of Vietnam, and he is getting better all the time. In his latest sequence, The Things They Carried, the narratives O'Brien brought back from the war are enlivened by an increasingly sophisticated sense of genre. A "true war story", O'Brien argues, has no moral; it exhibits an absolute and...

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Catherine Calloway (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pluralities of Vision: Going After Cacciato and Tim O'Brien's Short Fiction," in America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, edited by Owen W. Gilman, Jr., and Lorrie Smith, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1990, pp. 213-24.

[In the following essay, Calloway contrasts different versions of the same events and characters represented in O'Brien's fiction in terms of the author's concern with the "problematic nature of reality."]

Tim O'Brien's second novel, the critically acclaimed Going After Cacciato, has long been considered one of the best works to have emerged from the canon of Vietnam War literature, due in part...

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Albert E. Wilhelm (essay date Spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ballad Allusions in Tim O'Brien's 'Where Have You Gone, Charming Billy?'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 218-22.

[In the essay below, Wilhelm observes a difference in use of allusions to the ballads "Billy Boy" and "Lord Randal" in O'Brien's short story and the version that appeared in Going after Cacciato as "Night Watch."]

Before being joined and published as a novel, several chapters of Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato appeared as individual short stories. Frequently these stories were much shorter than the corresponding chapters in O'Brien's novel, and they usually bore different titles. For example, in the...

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James Griffith (essay date Spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Walk through History: Tim O'Brien's Going after Cacciato" in War, Literature, and the Arts, Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 1-34.

[In the essay below, Griffith explicates the meanings of both the characters' actions and the narrative's events in Going after Cacciato by situating them in their historical context.]

Going After Cacciato, Paul Berlin's surname would (or used to) suggest that he is a soldier divided against himself. His immediate circumstance finds him on watch duty atop an observation post at Quang Ngai, Vietnam, from midnight to six a.m. in late November 1968. It is "a bad time," for several of his comrades have been lost....

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Steven Kaplan (essay date Fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Undying Uncertainty of the Narrator in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried," in Critique, Vol. XXXV, No. 1, Fall, 1993, pp. 43-52.

[Below, Kaplan examines the emphasis on ambiguity behind O'Brien's narrative technique in The Things They Carried, noting the relation between "real truth" and uncertainty.]

Before the United States became militarily involved in defending the sovereignty of South Vietnam, it had to, as one historian recently put it, "invent" the country and the political issues at stake there. The Vietnam War was in many ways a wild and terrible work of fiction written by some dangerous and frightening story tellers. First the...

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Richard Eder (review date 2 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Vanishing Act," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 2, 1994, p. 3.

[In the following review, Eder calls In the Lake of the Woods "an artistic botch."]

The German writer Theodore Adorno questioned whether art could survive the Holocaust. The new novel by Tim O'Brien, author of Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried, raises a similar question. It carries the suggestion that no human project can survive the contamination of exposure to the Vietnam War: not the political ambitions and private sanity of the veteran who is the novel's protagonist, and perhaps not even the possibility that O'Brien, who wrote so brilliantly about...

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Verlyn Klinkenborg (review date 9 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Self-Made Man," in The New York Times Book Review, October 9, 1994, pp. 1, 33.

[In the favorablereviewbelow, Klinkenborgpraises O'Brien's ambitious efforts in In the Lake of the Woods, especially his characterization of John Wade.]

"What stories can do, I guess, is make things present." That's how Tim O'Brien put it in The Things They Carried, which was published in 1990 and which is one of the finest books, fact or fiction, written about the Vietnam War. I don't remember ever hearing a novelist make a more modest claim for the power of stories, at least not a novelist of Mr. O'Brien's stature. The statement itself—stories make things...

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Jon Elsen (review date 9 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Doing the Popular Thing," in The New York Times Book Review, October 9, 1994, p. 33.

[Below, Elsen relates O'Brien's personal reasons for writing fiction about the Vietnam War, specifically In the Lake of the Woods.]

Like the protagonist of his new novel, In the Lake of the Woods, Tim O'Brien has been driven to do what be considers terrible things because of his need for love.

For Mr. O'Brien, the commission of sin began in earnest in 1969, when he decided to go to Vietnam instead of to Canada after he was drafted into the Army, he said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He believed the war was wrong—he...

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William O'Rourke (review date 16 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Into Troubled Waters," in Chicago Tribune Books, October 16, 1994, Section 14, pp. 1, 8.

[In the review below, O'Rourke concludes that In the Lake of the Woods is "a risky, ambitious, perceptive, engaging and troubling novel, full of unresolved and unresolvable energies and powerful prose."]

Tim O'Brien is one of his generation's most deservedly acclaimed authors. O'Brien's writing career has recorded both hits (Going After Cacciato, The Things They Carried) and peculiar misses (Northern Lights, The Nuclear Age)—his novels set in America having alternated with, and fared less well than, books that use Vietnam as their subject.


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Pico Iyer (review date 24 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Missing in Contemplation," in Time, October 24, 1994, p. 74.

[In the following positive review of In the Lake of the Woods, Iyer comments on "the time-released traumas of Vietnam," which the critic marks as "the elemental theme" of O'Brien's fiction.]

Some writers are born with a theme, some acquire a theme, and some have a theme thrust upon them. But however writers come by it, their great subject provides a surge of intensity to their work that no other material can. The novels of Mona Simpson, for example, go electric as soon as she touches on the figure of a mother; Amy Tan's fiction reaches its heights the minute she turns to China. For Tim...

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Maria S. Bonn (essay date Fall 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Can Stories Save Us? Tim O'Brien and the Efficacy of the Text," in Critique, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, Fall, 1994, pp. 2-15.

[In the essay below, Bonn discusses the significance of O'Brien 's persistent concerns about the relationship between fiction and experience throughout his writing career, highlighting "the effective potential of the stories" related in If I Die, Going after Cacciato, and The Things They Carried.]

Tim O'Brien tells us at the beginning of the final story in The Things They Carried, an installment of his literary exploration of the terrain of the Vietnam War, "But this too is true: Stories can save us." But the Vietnam veteran and...

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Michael Kerrigan (review date 21 April 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Memories of War," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4803, April 21, 1995, p. 20.

[In the following review, Kerrigan suggests that In the Lake of the Woods reveals "a people at ease but never at peace," referring to the impact of Vietnam on the American psyche.]

For Wilfred Owen, apparently, the poetry was in the pity; for America's Vietnam literature it is in the irony. The tone of swaggering cynicism we recognize from so many novels and films is that of men who feel utterly confused as to where—and ultimately who—they are. "What's the name of this goddamn place?" asks one man in O'Brien's memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973). "I don't...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Johnson, George. Review of The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien. The New York Times Book Review (14 April 1991): 32.

Places O'Brien's The Things They Carried "high up on the list of best fiction about any war."

Ridenhour, Ron. "Riding the Night Winds." London Review of Books 17, No. 2 (22 June 1995): 12-14.

Reviews In the Lake of the Woods, asserting that O'Brien produced "a mystery so clever and so mysterious that few reviewers appear to have understood it."

Schweninger, Lee. "Ecofeminism, Nuclearism...

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