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."
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).
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.
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."