Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1090
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...
(The entire section contains 44703 words.)
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- Critical Essays
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."
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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
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1029
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], spends so much time fantasizing. On patrol, his eyes may be focused on the ground in front of him, as he looks for the enemy mine which could blow off his legs, but his thoughts are somewhere else: home, or places he might visit after the war. And on a particular night, as he keeps watch in an observation tower near the South China Sea, he conjures up a fantasy of escape to a place as distant geographically and in every other way from wartime Vietnam as it is possible to be: Paris.
The dream journey begins in reality, as a mission to find an AWOL soldier named Cacciato (in Italian, "the pursued"), a member of Paul Berlin's platoon whose own fantasy has been to walk away from the war, westward, until he reaches Paris. The search party sets off in that direction, picks up Cacciato's trail, and traps him on a small hill near the Laotian border. Paul Berlin remembers this much, a month later in the observation tower, and then his imagination takes over: What if Cacciato had slipped away, he asks himself, and we had followed him to Paris?
Well, for one thing, Paul Berlin might get a chance to meet a woman. (A soldier's fantasies are not exclusively of escape, after all.) And improbably, as suits a dream, the search team does overtake a beautiful young Vietnamese woman, a refugee, who is going their way through Laos. It's his dream, so Paul Berlin claims her. Dream journeys tend to the picaresque, and Paul Berlin imagines several episodes in this mode. Having reached Iran, the soldiers are (accurately) accused of being deserters themselves, and barely escape execution by firing squad. They hitchhike through Eastern Europe, where they are picked up by an American flower child. She offers them her mindless sympathy (not to mention her body), and they take her van instead, leaving her behind.
It's a long way to Paris, but Paul Berlin has a long watch to pass that night. And we pass it with him as he weaves the boredom of the watch and the horrible memories the war has produced with the potential pleasures and dangers of dreams.
Tim O'Brien was an infantryman in Vietnam, and his first book, If I Die in a Combat Zone, a nonfiction account of his year there, shows how closely Paul Berlin is patterned after himself. In the earlier book, O'Brien writes, "Do dreams offer lessons: Do nightmares have themes, do we awaken and analyze them and live our lives as a result? Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories." War is one of fiction's great subjects, but the soldier who can tell war stories is a rarity. Merely for having been there, the soldier, like the journalist, can describe war. But the storyteller aims at something more, a knowledge so perfect that the reader can be there, too. Anyone who has read Tolstoy's account of the battle of Borodino knows that this is not too grand a claim for what fiction can do.
Cacciato approaches these heights at times, when O'Brien describes a helicopter assault or a soldier who dies of fright after being wounded by a mine or any of the deaths that Paul Berlin remembers witnessing. For example after the partly headless body of one soldier they called Buff was carried away by helicopter, there was this to witness:
Very carefully, keeping it steady and close to his stomach, Cacciato picked up the helmet and carried it down the ditch to a patch of high grass.
Life after death, Paul Berlin thought. It was a stupid thought. How could it be? Eyes and nose, an expression of dumb surprise—how could this promise anything? He tried not to look. He wanted to feel grief, or at least pity, but all he could feel was curiosity. So he looked.
He watched as Cacciato stepped over a log, stopped, and then, like a woman emptying her wash basin, heaved Buff's face into the tall, crisp grass.
This is the reality out of which a soldier's dreams of escape arise. (Several of these extraordinary realistic chapters have appeared in publications as different as Redbook and Shenandoah, the literary magazine; one was an O. Henry award winner.) But it is Berlin's dream—with its fantasy elements—which often seems out of place, hard to reconcile with the evocative realism of the rest of the narrative. Of course, a realistic account of war need not ignore the dreams any more than it can ignore the horrors. Nonetheless, the reader and writer of fiction must strike a bargain in order for the reader to be transported to Borodino, say, or Vietnam. If the writer earns his trust, the reader suspends his disbelief, as Coleridge put it. He doesn't say to himself, "This is only a story." Unfortunately, when the fantasy intrudes, that is just what the reader says. The bargain has been broken.
However, that failure is a minor one; and at its best, Going After Cacciato is a telling depiction of the footsofdier's war. Most of what we know about Vietnam we've learned from journalists, and some of the best books to come out of Vietnam are essentially about the journalist's experience there. But it is the experience of the soldier that is important. Tim O'Brien knows the soldier as well as anybody, and is able to make us know him in the unique way that the best fiction can.
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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 owns the blonde wife and clever child any American male assumes is his due, is still the boy we meet in flashbacks. About 40 years earlier, William Cowling was a child suffering such extreme clear-sightedness that he was unable to put on the soft cloth of faith threaded with reason and common sense with which most children begin to dress their terror as soon as they hear the bad news we grownups have to tell them.
In books, in real life, we say to them, "Well it's true what you learned in the street the other day, there are these thousands of bombs. There is the possibility that people could get awfully angry and push some button somewhere. Yes, it has happened before, but no one's that crazy and anyway (we may add if we happened to have signed a couple of antinuke petitions) we won't let it happen." Since children have to thicken their little bones, get meatier and absorb tremendous amounts of difficult knowledge, they're happy to think, of course no one is that crazy and besides my body doesn't have time for so much fear.
Still, the information is there and for this child, William, the pinkest, fattest cloud of parental love can't obscure the fact that it did happen once, no twice, and he can see clearly how, out of the middle of Kansas a missile is rising, rising. No one is paying attention.
His knowledge is so sure that he begins to build a bomb shelter under the Ping-Pong table in the basement. He hears about the usefulness to this enterprise of lead and buys lots of pencils. His father has to say sadly when he sees the dozens of lead pencils covering the table, "I hate to break the news, kiddo, but pencils don't contain real lead."
In the sections dealing with William's childhood there's kind of gentle but rugged play with the American family—with the idea of the American family. Because Mr. O'Brien is truthful, not mean or vengeful, he is able to be pretty tough though kind.
Time passes. William acquires a strategy of silence, a natural arrogance. There is no one worth speaking to. He's the only one who knows or cares. He lives through the famous 60's which burn into the 70's the way they really did, with the American bombing of Cambodia, the fall of Saigon. In the course of these years he becomes a member of a group of antiwar campus radicals who with their mixed agendas, guns, armor dreams, disturb the purity of his vision but not the clarity. They all eventually descend into a military underground in Florida and Cuba. When the Vietnam War ends they rise as he does into big money, real estate, uranium.
Suddenly I'm angry with Tim O'Brien. What's wrong here? Is it my sense of the history of that period, my own experience of the deep-in and far-out women and men I knew and still know? It seems as though Mr. O'Brien has become afraid of the political meaning of William's sensible madness. Where William is consistently clear-sighted (which means he is more and more not out of his mind but out of the world's mind), Mr. O'Brien becomes devious and settles for mockery which usually means easy narrow characterization. In the case of the women this was particularly painful to me. William's love of Bobbi, the blonde poetry-writing stewardess, and his long pursuit of her seem fictionally just right. But the other women, his political comrades, are overly unattractive or extraordinarily beautiful. They seem to be the interfering author's clichéd decision. This is a tack a writer would take who is not particularly interested in the life and art of the nuclear age—or in any age for that matter. I believe that Mr. O'Brien is profoundly interested and probably dark with grief because of it, so I'm sorry to see these easy flaws.
What to do? What to do? William older, richer, madder, trying to be as American as possible owns a shovel and a stewardess wife. The hole he is digging in his backyard has become deeper. He has barricaded his wife and little girl in the upstairs bedroom. He is now using dynamite to deepen the hole when necessary. We begin to wonder whether he's digging for protection or burial.
I wish the novel could have been either more surreal or less. It falls into an untranscending middle which muffles the important cry of "Doom, doom." I do wonder with William why we are not all out on the street comers and village greens crying "Stop!" I wish either William or Mr. O'Brien had been more thoughtful about the powerful places from which the real madness radiates; I know it's not from my worried next-door neighbor. Is this because of the general discomfort American writers have confronting political complexity, or the way we are all stuck (even against our will) in a trough of private, individualistic complaint? Still, I thank Tim O'Brien (who wrote that wonderful, inventive novel, Going After Cacciato) for pouring these important concerns into fiction, which is not fed often enough with such disparate and essential themes.
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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 Book Award-winning Going After Cacciato, which until recently was often called the best work of fiction to come out of the war; the critical reaction to The Things They Carried, however, now makes it a prime candidate for that accolade. The latest book resists easy categorization: it is part novel, part collection of stories, part essays, part journalism; it is, more significantly, all at the same time. As O'Brien indicates below, he may have created a new literary form. His other books are If I Die in a Combat Zone, a memoir of his year in Vietnam; Northern Lights, an out-of-print novel about two brothers who become lost on a cross-country skiing trip in Minnesota; and The Nuclear Age, about a man who, while building a bomb shelter in 1995, recalls his life as a radical.
This interview took place at O'Brien's home in Boxford, Massachusetts, about twenty-five miles north of Boston, on April 20, 1989. O'Brien had completed writing The Things They Carried and was working on some final revisions.
[Naparsteck:] You have two Pauls in your fiction, Paul Perry in Northern Lights and Paul Berlin in Going After Cacciato. Is that just a coincidence?
[O'Brien:] I doubt it's a coincidence, though I can't explain it. The first Paul, the Northern Lights Paul—that's a terrible book. I'm embarrassed by it; it's hard to talk about it. It's the first novel I ever tried to write, and unfortunately it was published. It was done logically. Paul was chosen for Paul on the road to Damascus, the Damascus Lutheran Church [which appears in the novel], all the imagery of light throughout the book. The same thing with his middle name, Milton—you know, blindness. Whereas Paul Berlin: just sound. No reason for it.
Why do you say that you're embarrassed by Northern Lights? It seems to me to have a lot of things that an early book has, a lot of easy Hemingway references, for example.
That's part of it. I was under two influences: one was Hemingway, one was Faulkner. They both penetrate that book every which way, but beyond that there are a lot of other flaws with it. Overwriting is probably the chief flaw of the book. It's maybe a hundred pages too long. Too much gratuitous repetition. I continue to use repetition in my work to this day, but not so that it's done just for its own sake. I think that if at some point I were to run out of ideas for a new work I might go back to Northern Lights and rewrite it. I've done that with Cacciato over the last year and a half or so; I've rewritten substantial portions that are appearing in the latest edition. Northern Lights would require at least two years of work. The story is O.K., the essential story, that wilderness stuff. The rest of it needs a lot of work, and someday I think I may do it.
The ski trip is what you see as the heart of the book, then?
Yeah, the essential story. I like some of the other stuff, but the other stuff is out of proportion to the narrative heart of the book, I think. I know.
The opening strikes me as in many ways very appealing, with Harvey coming back from Vietnam. I think a lot of stories about returning veterans oversentimentalize the return, which Northern Lights doesn't do; it's one of the very few stories about a veteran coming home that seems to get things right.
Yeah, I think those parts I do like. The story about two brothers and the father is solid, and Harvey's not sentimentalized. He's a good, hard character; I like his character. Still, it's a question of language. Language equals content. Unfortunately, there are so many echoes that are Hemingwayesque—language coming out of Harvey's mouth and descriptions and things that get in the way.
Were you conscious of writing with these Hemingwayesque influences?
I was trying to parody Hemingway. I wrote the book not knowing it was going to be published. I was just a beginner, and I was sort of having fun with it, so I tried to spoof The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and I thought I did a pretty neat job of doing the spoofs, but unfortunately good literature should be more than just gamesmanship, and I think there is too much gamesmanship in that book.
Let's move to a book you like better. Is Cacciato's decision to leave the war related to his refusal to touch the grenade? You never specifically say that.
It's never said directly, because Cacciato is never there to say it, but, yes, I think it's related pretty directly. The chronology of the book—of which I am fond—is all scrambled throughout the narrative. You can actually map that this event happened first, second, third, and his departure follows pretty quickly after. Refusing to touch the grenade is the first war event prior to his departure. I don't think it's necessarily the only reason for his running, but in a way it's got to be so. I try to keep him off in the horizon and try to keep his motives as removed as he is physically from the rest of the men; they can never figure out precisely what his motives were.
There's something else that's never said directly: is that the grenade that kills the lieutenant?
Again, definitely the lieutenant's off-stage; there's no scene where they kill him. No, maybe it's a different grenade; the grenade is symbolic. I've always pictured it as being the same grenade, but it doesn't necessarily have to be.
And it would be the black guy, Oscar, who throws the grenade?
I think that once they've all touched it, it doesn't much matter. It's like naming the executioner of Ted Bundy; who killed Bundy? It was the state, the whole judicial system. I don't know who threw the grenade; I don't think it very much matters.
Except that a guy like Berlin might be able to touch the grenade, but I have a hard time seeing him being able to throw it.
I have a hard time seeing him do it, too, but I don't have a hard time, for example, seeing Stink do it. He's the sort of guy you'd expect to throw it. Oscar certainly would be a main candidate. But, as I say, I don't think it really matters. If I had to take a guess, it would probably be Oscar who's done it.
Not answering questions like that in the book, is that deliberate?
Yes. It's a question of what matters, I guess, both to the writer and the reader. It doesn't matter to me who did it. It's like if you were doing a scene of the execution of Bundy and you suddenly were to concentrate on the executioner, who's really a stand-in character. The key thing is that touching.
Do you ever feel that you've written so much about Vietnam that you've been typecast, tike the town drunk?
Yeah, I do. I can't deny it's part of my material, my life, things I care about. Even if I don't write often, specifically, about Vietnam, a lot of the stuff, for example in The Nuclear Age and in Northern Lights—courage and obligation and so on—flows from that experience. Beyond that, I think all writers get typecast. I think Melville is typecast as a sea writer. And Conrad certainly is. Updike is a suburban-hyphen-domestic affairs writer. Shakespeare is a king writer. That has to happen, because an author like any other human being naturally gravitates toward a center of concerns that are particularly his or hers. Being typecast still irritates me at times, but not enough to make me say I'm not going to write about Vietnam, because I am, and I'm sure I will in the future.
Your characters spend a great deal of time thinking about courage, which is a fairly common subject for Vietnam stories, but you handle it differently. One symbol that comes up a lot in other writers is John Wayne; Ron Kovic, for example, implicitly rejects that symbolism. You never mention John Wayne, and you do not write of courage as something that drew you to Vietnam. You handle courage in a more realistic way.
It's such a complicated subject, it's hard to know what to say. It's easy to break down courage into categories. There's moral courage versus physical courage and so on. Even that seems oversimplifying it. To break it down into categories of John Wayne and Socrates, for instance, seems to me to be really artificial. Like everything else, courage interpenetrates the whole fabric of a life. To take a strand out and say this is courage and this is something else violates a central humanness. In my own particular case, I hated the war in Vietnam and didn't want to go. I had no desire to test my capacity to charge a bunker; I had no desire to do that. Some guys did. And I never really understood it, from the moment of basic training. Why would guys want to die? Take the chance of dying? I just didn't get it. So I think my perspective on the issue probably varies a lot from that of a guy like Kovic who wanted to test himself. My concerns aren't those of other people, and the writing probably echoes that.
It seems that your characters are very much concerned about courage, but they typically don't reach conclusions about it. You're not really making a statement about one type of courage being better than another.
The best literature is always explorative. It's searching for answers and never finding them. It's almost like Platonic dialogue. If you knew what courage is, if you had a really wonderful, philosophical explication of courage, you would do it as philosophy, as explication; you wouldn't write fiction. Fiction is a way of testing possibilities and testing hypotheses, and not defining, and so I think that more than anything the work is a way of me saying, yes, courage is clearly important in this character's life; he thinks about its importance in circumstances; the work is a way of searching for courage, finding out what it is. That's especially true in Cacciato, I think, where it's both a search for courage for him to walk away from that war and also a kind of search for what courage is, what the courageous thing to do is.
Your first three books differ from the fourth in the treatment of courage. Courage doesn't seem to be a major theme in Nuclear Age, which is more about figuring out what sanity is and is not. Do you think it was inevitable that in moving away from Vietnam you would move away from courage as a dominating topic?
It's the same issue. It's like the other side of the coin in that this guy in The Nuclear Age had the courage to do what I didn't and a lot of other people didn't, which is to risk embarrassment and censure and endure humiliation about walking away from the war. If there's a courageous character in that book, it's that William character, who despite his service in a kind of Waspism and his wimpy attitude toward the war manages to do for the most part what he thinks is right. So I think it's not a departure from the earlier work but a looking at it from another angle. To me, he's the only hero I've written.
It seems to me that in your first three books you were dealing with philosophical issues, such as courage, while The Nuclear Age is more political. Do you feel that way?
Not really. I see all four books as political in that they all deal with the impact of global forces on individual lives. In my own life and in If I Die, this huge thing—global politics—pushed me into the war, and similarly in The Nuclear Age, William Cowling is pushed into hiding and pushed away from his own life by global politics. I think anything I've ever written has that as its center theme, even more than issues of courage—how individual human lives are influenced by global forces beyond the horizon.
I sensed in reading The Nuclear Age that you were coming close to making a statement there, saying we should do something about this nuclear madness.
I don't think I was making a statement; I certainly wasn't trying to. I was trying to write a comedy, basically, and a book that was funny, and I think the real difference between The Nuclear Age and the earlier works is tone. It had a more comedic tone to it. I'm not sure people cared for that. But my intent was to be different—like Shakespeare saying, "My subject may be life and death, but I want to have a comedic perspective on it."
The reviewers were not always kind to The Nuclear Age. Do you think a lot of them missed the comedic intent?
That's probably it. I was trying to write a funny book. I think it is funny. But it's up to the ages. Cacciato may, a hundred years from now, not be read at all, while The Nuclear Age could be. The best road for most writers is to turn them out at the time. Moby Dick, for example, was trashed, worse than Nuclear Age. It was "the most hideous piece of garbage ever written," and what happens is that over time, I think, these things straighten themselves out. You can't as a writer defend your work or knock it. You have to say, "Let time take care of it." So I don't get too excited about bad reviews or good ones. I feel happy if they're good, feel sad if they're bad, but the feelings disappear pretty quickly, because ultimately I'm not writing for my contemporaries but for the ages, like every good writer should be. You're writing for history, in the hope that your book—out of the thousands that are published each year—might be the last to be read a hundred years from now and enjoyed.
Was the story "Speaking of Courage" originally intended to be part of Cacciato?
Yes. It was a piece I took out. It's kind of an orphan. I've since rewritten it for The Things They Carried—pretty substantially rewritten it, in fact, changing everything except the lake, driving around the lake, but all the war stuff has been completely changed, and now I'm really fond of the story. I didn't care for it at all when it was originally written.
Is that why it was left out of Cacciato?
Partly that and partly because it just didn't fit. It's a postwar story; Cacciato was a war story, and it just didn't have a proper home in that book.
In rewriting it, you changed the character from Paul Berlin to Tim O'Brien.
The character becomes Tim, even though the Tim character is made up entirely, and then the Tim is transformed again into another guy, another character in The Things They Carried named Norman Bowker.
Is the Tim character Tim O'Brien? In "The Lives of the Dead" there's a Timmy O'Brien.
Yeah, it is, in part. It's made up, but I use my own name. The Things They Carried is sort of half novel, half group of stories. It's part nonfiction, too: some of the stuff is commentary on the stories, talking about where a particular one came from. "Speaking of Courage," for example, came from a letter I received from a guy named Norman Bowker, a real guy, who committed suicide after I received his letter. He was talking to me in his letter about how he just couldn't adjust to coming home. It wasn't bad memories; it was that he couldn't talk to anybody about it. He didn't know what to say; he felt inarticulate. All he could do was drive around and around in his hometown in Iowa, around this lake. In the letter he asked me to write a story about it, and I did. This was after I published If I Die.
Was this somebody you knew?
Yeah, in Vietnam. I sent him the story after it was published, and he said he liked it. Then I didn't hear from him for a long time. His mother finally wrote me. I wrote her and she wrote back saying he committed suicide by hanging himself in the locker room of a YMCA. So that's the terrible-happening anecdote that I include after the story in The Things They Carried. The commentary is partly about writing sources and partly about the writing itself.
The Things They Carried is my best book. There's no doubt in my mind about it. When I was writing Cacciato I had that feeling; I have that feeling now. I can tell by the strangeness of it. It's a new form, I think. I blended my own personality with the stories, and I'm writing about the stories, and yet everything is made up, including the commentary. The story about Norman Bowker is made up. There was no Norman Bowker. The point being, among others, that in fiction we not only transform reality, we sort of invent our own lives, invent our histories, our autobiographies. When Melville wrote Moby Dick, he was inventing himself, for posterity.
Have you ever been approached about doing movies?
Cacciato and The Nuclear Age have both been taken by the movies. I've seen a few scripts. I've seen three on Cacciato, none of which are any good. There are some good parts in them, but by and large they tend to take all the dreamlike, fantastic, surrealistic elements of the book out and tell a pretty straightforward, realistic story, which to me violates the whole aboutness of the book. The book is about the interweaving of memory on the one hand and the imagination, how one frees the other and back again, and that's gone. To me you don't have Cacciato anymore; you've got some new thing. I was asked to write a screenplay of the book, and I said "No," because you end up having to do what they did. You have to, the way movies are made. You have to screw up your own work, and if it's going to be screwed up, I would prefer that somebody else do it, not me.
I've seen the term "magical realism" used in connection with your writing. Do you think Cacciato fits into that grouping?
I don't know. I think the term is a shorthand way of saying something that's much more complicated than that. No writer wants to be grouped in any category. Writing is being an individual; it's a creative enterprise, and a writer wants to make an individual, creative statement that's unrelated to anything that's been said before or afterward yet is simultaneously totally related not just to one thing but to everything. "Magical realism" is shorthand for imagination and memory and how they interlock, for what realism is, for what's real and not real.
"How to Tell a True War Story" in The Things They Carried seems to me to be very directly about the interlocking of memory and what actually happened. It also strikes me that this story is as much an essay as it is a story. Did you have that sense in writing it?
It's a mixture, yes. It's like the rest of the book, in that it's part story, just raw story—six guys go up to the listening post in the mountains—and also a discussion about the making of the story, not a discussion by me as much as by the guys themselves. In a way it's part essay and part fiction, but in a way it's neither. I think that when you're reading the thing you have a total effect. To me, it has a singleness or unity to it. Rather than being part this and part that, it's all those things together. That story is the genesis for the idea for the whole book. When I'm talking about a happening, it seems essayish, but that stuff is invented and imagined; it isn't true in a literal sense. I don't, for example, believe that war is beautiful in any aesthetic way whatsoever. Even though the character sounds like me and says pretty pointblankly that war is beautiful, the harmonies and shapes and proportions, it's not me saying that. The guy who's narrating this story has my name and a lot of my characteristics, but it isn't really me, I never felt or thought that war's pretty, even though I can see how people such as Bill Broyles have said that. My personal feeling is that it's pretty ugly. I was in danger, and my perception never let me see any beauty. All I felt was fear. What I'm saying is that even with that nonfiction-sounding element in the story, everything in the story is fiction, beginning to end. To try to classify different elements of the story as fact or fiction seems to me artificial. Literature should be looked at not for its literal truths but for its emotional qualities. What matters in literature, I think, are pretty simple things—whether it moves me or not, whether it feels true. The actual literal truth should be superfluous. For example, here's a story: four guys go on a trail, a grenade sails out, one guy jumps on it, takes the blast, and saves his buddies. Is it true? Well, yeah, it may have happened, but it doesn't feel true, because it feels stereotypical, hackneyed; it feels like Hollywood. But here's another story: four guys go on a trail, a grenade sails out, one guy jumps on it, takes the blast, and dies; before he dies, though, one of the guys says, "What the fuck you do that for?" and the dead guy says, "The story of my life, man," and starts to smile. He's dead. That didn't happen. Clearly, ever, and yet there's something about the absurdity of it and the horror of it—"What the fuck you do that for?"—which seems truer to me than something which might literally have happened. A story's truth shouldn't be measured by happening but by an entirely different standard, a standard of emotion, feeling—"Does it ring true?" as opposed to "Is it true?"
The narrator of "How to Tell a True War Story" comes to a different understanding of what happens at the end of the story than he had at the beginning. At the end he climbs into the tree to pick out parts of his friend, who's died in an explosion, giving the impression that he didn't quite understand the truth at the beginning, maybe because it was too difficult to remember, too hard on him. It's the exercising of his imagination that gets him at the truth.
Yes, I think it is. I think exercising the imagination is the main way of finding truth, that if you take almost any experience of your own life that means something to you, that really hits you, let's say the death of your mother, over the course of time your imagination is going to do things with that experience to render it into something that you can deal with and that has meaning to it. You're going to select some details and forget others: she's lying in bed dying for five weeks; you're not going to remember every detail of that; you're going to pick out of your memory, pluck out, certain conspicuous elements, and then you're going to reorder them. The experience that you remember is going to have a power to it that the total experience didn't have. You went to fix breakfast while she was dying, the phone rang, you had to deal with it—all that random stuff that you've forgotten will be rearranged by your imagination into a new kind of experience. I think in war we tend to block out the long, hard moments of boredom, standing around, sitting around, waiting, which is a lot of what war is. It's ninety-nine percent monotony, and what the imagination does is to push that away and take what's left and reorder it into patterns that give meaning to it.
In Cacciato you have the observation post scenes, which seem to be almost directly essays, and in one of them you talk about how to use imagination. There are a lot of dream sequences in literature, but Berlin is not really dreaming; he's wide awake, and he's controlling what he's thinking about, and what he thinks about makes up half the novel.
Dreams are dangerous. I don't think I've ever used a real dream. Berlin is awake the same way you and I are now, only alone, and he's staring at the beach and thinking; he's imagining in a way we all do at times. It's a kind of daydream, but it's not an Alice in Wonderland or Hobbity sort of thing where events happen at random that come only from the subconscious. It's a mixture of the subconscious and the directed, the same way stories are written. What Berlin is doing is what I do with a typewriter: I'm half living in a rational world and half living in a kind of trance, imagining. Berlin's process in the observation post was meant, at least in part, to echo my own process of imagining that book—not dreaming it and not just controlling it, but a trancelike, half-awake, half-alert imagining.
A lot of guys from Vietnam go to the Breadloaf writers conference in Vermont because they know you teach there every summer.
There are always some, which is good.
They usually try to select you as their teacher.
They try to. They don't always get me. I think of myself not as a soldier anymore. That's all over. I think of myself as someone who now and then writes about the war, but my daily concerns are just the same as yours. When you're writing a book about Vietnam you don't think of yourself as a soldier; you think of yourself as a writer. The subject matter is war, and you're trying to make a sentence that's graceful, you're trying to make a character come alive, you're trying to make a scene shake with meaning and also with a dramatic feel; your attention is on writing that matters. I feel bad when I meet a vet who thinks that because we both shared this soldiering thing we can also share the other thing, writing, without work, and to me writing is really hard work. Anybody who's done it knows that just making a simple sentence is work. My chief asset as a human being, as a writer, is that I'm tenacious; I work just constantly, stubbornly, and like it. I mean I really like it—I get angry, I feel rotten, if somebody calls me in the middle of work and says, "Let's go play golf," because I like writing that much. If you want to be a writer, you've got to learn to be an eagle soaring up above and a mule who keeps climbing and climbing and climbing.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1178
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 Book Award, he captures the war's pulsating rhythms and nerve-racking dangers. But he goes much further. By moving beyond the horror of the fighting to examine with sensitivity and insight the nature of courage and fear, by questioning the role that imagination plays in helping to form our memories and our own versions of truth, he places The Things They Carried high up on the list of best fiction about any war.
The Things They Carried is a collection of interrelated stories. A few are unremittingly brutal; a couple are flawed two-page sketches. The publisher calls the book "a work of fiction," but in no real sense can it be considered a novel. No matter. The stories cohere. All deal with a single platoon, one of whose members is a character named Tim O'Brien. Some stories are about the wartime experiences of this small group of grunts. Others are about a 43-year-old writer—again, the fictional character Tim O'Brien—remembering his platoon's experiences and writing war stories (and remembering writing stories) about them. This is the kind of writing about writing that makes Tom Wolfe grumble. It should not stop you from savoring a stunning performance. The overall effect of these original tales is devastating.
As might be expected, there is a lot of gore in The Things They Carried—like the account of the soldier who ties a friend's puppy to a Claymore antipersonnelmine and squeezes the firing device. And much of the powerful language cannot be quoted in a family newspaper. But let Mr. O'Brien explain why he could not spare squeamish sensibilities: "If you don't care for obscenity, you don't care for the truth; if you don't care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty."
In the title story, Mr. O'Brien juxtaposes the mundane and the deadly items that soldiers carry into battle. Can openers, pocketknives, wristwatches, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, matches, sewing kits, C rations are "humped" by the G.I.'s along with M-16 assault rifles, M-60 machine guns, M-79 grenade launchers. But the story is really about the other things the soldiers "carry": "grief, terror, love, longing … shameful memories" and, what unifies all the stories, "the common secret of cowardice." These young men, Mr. O'Brien tells us, "carried the soldier's greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to."
Embarrassment, the author reveals in "On the Rainy River," is why he, or rather the fictional version of himself, went to Vietnam. He almost went to Canada instead. What stopped him, ironically, was fear. "All those eyes on me," he writes, "and I couldn't risk the embarrassment…. I couldn't endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule…. I was a coward. I went to the war."
So just what is courage? What is cowardice? Mr. O'Brien spends much of the book carefully dissecting every nuance of the two qualities. In several stories, he writes movingly of the death of Kiowa, the best-loved member of the platoon. In "Speaking of Courage," Mr. O'Brien tells us about Norman Bowker, the platoon member who blames his own failure of nerve for Kiowa's death. Bowker "had been braver than he ever thought possible, but … he had not been so brave as he wanted to be." In the following story, "Notes" (literally notes on the writing of "Speaking of Courage"), Mr. O'Brien's fictional alter ego informs the reader that Bowker committed suicide after coming home from the war. This author also admits that he made up the part about the failure of nerve that haunted Bowker. But it's all made up, of course. And in "The Man I Killed," Mr. O'Brien imagines the life of an enemy soldier at whom the character Tim O'Brien tossed a grenade, only to confess later that it wasn't "Tim O'Brien" who killed the Vietnamese.
Are these simply tricks in the service of making good stories? Hardly.
Mr. O'Brien strives to get beyond literal descriptions of what these men went through and what they felt. He makes sense of the unreality of the war—makes sense of why he has distorted that unreality even further in his fiction—by turning back to explore the workings of the imagination, by probing his memory of the terror and fearlessly confronting the way he has dealt with it as both soldier and fiction writer. In doing all this, he not only crystallizes the Vietnam experience for us, he exposes the nature of all war stories.
The character Tim O'Brien's daughter asks him why he continues to be obsessed by the Vietnam War and with writing about it. "By telling stories," he says, "you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths." In "Good Form," he writes: "I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again." You come away from this book understanding why there have been so many novels about the Vietnam War, why so many of Mr. O'Brien's fellow soldiers have turned to narrative—real and imagined—to purge their memories, to appease the ghosts.
Is it fair to readers for Mr. O'Brien to have blurred his own identity as storyteller-soldier in these stories? "A true war story is never moral," he writes in "How to Tell a True War Story." "It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil." Mr. O'Brien cuts to the heart of writing about war. And by subjecting his memory and imagination to such harsh scrutiny, he seems to have reached a reconciliation, to have made his peace—or to have made up his peace.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1090
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 strength and discrimination for the more inchoate puzzlement of our own days!
O'Brien, whose reflections and comments run through this new chain of Vietnam stories [in The Things They Carried], faces the question. He takes it up, puts it down, takes it up again. He tells us that you get your material where you find it. That's off-hand, even crude. Then, later:
I'm 43 years old and I'm still writing war stories…. The remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story which makes it forever. That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past and the present.
If you are in prison, you write to get out; O'Brien's memories still encircle him. But the fuller justification for The Things They Carried is the writing itself. Some of it does seem like the most acute of second thoughts. Some of the less interesting pieces do seem like a harking-back in order to re-live the extra aliveness that came with the horrors.
But the best of these stories—and none is written with less than the sharp edge of a honed vision—are memory as prophecy. They tell us not where we were but where we are; and perhaps where we will be.
O'Brien draws upon his own experience in Vietnam, of course, but the characters and incidents are fictional, he writes. He casts himself, though, both as a fictional member of the platoon where the stories are set and as the narrator meditating upon them years later.
His voice advances, halts, doubles back. An incident will be told in two or three different ways; it will be interrupted, it will peter out, and resume. Sometimes it will deny some of what it has told us, or tell us that it happened differently.
"How to Tell a Story in Wartime" is the title of one set of story fragments, reflections and comments. A story cannot be told straight, it informs us. What is to be told is so hideous, unpredictable and absurd that the narrator has to manipulate it, duck away and invent. In war, you tell a story to escape or change the thing you have to tell.
These 19- and 20-year-olds, plucked from their ordinary lives and hijacked into a nightmare, have to invent themselves as well as their stories. Jensen and Strunk get into a fight over a jackknife; Jensen smashes Strunk's nose so badly he needs to be hospitalized. When Strunk returns a few days later, Jensen begins to worry that he may use one of innumerable opportunities to kill him. He breaks his own nose with his pistol butt; now they're even.
Not only are they even, but they are buddies. They sign a contract that if either is so badly wounded as to become a wheelchair case, the other will kill him. Strunk's leg is blown off; Jensen comes over to comfort him. "Don't kill me," Strunk begs. "Swear you won't kill me." Jensen swears. All this is told, in fact, in two successive stories, the first called "Enemies," the second "Friends." The two, in this unhinging light, are synonymous.
A patrol goes up to a highland to stay a week and listen for enemy activity. It is foggy up there; listen is all they can do. And they begin to hear music: string quartets, choirs, the tinkling glasses and chatter of a cocktail party. One of the patrol describes it to the narrator:
The rock—it's talking. And the fog too, and the grass and the goddamn mongooses. Everything talks. The trees talk politics, the monkeys talk religion. The whole country. Vietnam. The place talks. It talks. Understand? Nam—it truly talks.
They radio for air strikes; all night long, the empty hill is hit with napalm, incendiaries, fragmentation bombs. It is irrational and utterly rational at the same time. To these farm and city boys, all explanations of why they are there are no less imaginary than the hills talking.
There is beastliness, and there are odd, invented moralities. The platoon goes through a village where an air strike has silenced everything. Only a 14-year-old girl is left, dancing crazily outside the house where her dead parents lie. That night, one of the soldiers does an obscene burlesque of her movements. "Dance right," another screams at him.
The most extraordinary piece in the collection is the first, which bears its title. "What They Carried" begins as nothing but a list, it seems. It is a list of everything that the members of a platoon carry, and the weight of each item.
Knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, salt tablets, packets of Koolade, C-rations, water and so on—15 to 20 pounds. Helmets—5 pounds. Boots—2.1 pounds. Rifle—8.2 pounds, loaded. Extra ammunition, 14 pounds. Grenade launcher, 5.9 pounds. Twenty-five grenades—16 pounds. A machine gun—23 pounds. A medic's kit—20 pounds. And then a host of individual choices: foot powder, canned peaches, comic books, condoms, dope, a Bible, a slingshot, brass knuckles. And much more.
O'Brien goes on and on, gradually extending the verb "to carry."
The soldiers carry love letters, photos, fungus, lice and each other when wounded. They carry lucky charms and the thoughts they cling to. They carry grief, terror, confusion. And gradually, a haunting picture is assembled.
They are as heavily equipped as Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Each item has its purpose: for killing, protecting, preserving. Yet all the purposes add up to a grotesque purposelessness. These soldiers are not so much warriors as carriers of war, pack mules on which firepower is placed and among which a terrible mortality is inflicted. This absurd cargo of purposes they carry through a land and a war from which they are utterly divorced, and through which they move in a state between dream and nightmare.
It is an ultimate, indelible image of war in our time, and in time to come.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1576
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 place was so hostile. We did not know there had been a massacre there a year earlier. The news about that only came out later, while we were there, and then we knew. There is a monument in My Lai now and I want to see it."
Vietnam has never left Mr. O'Brien. The country, the war and the men who fought it have filled most of his published fiction, and his latest volume, The Things They Carried, is a series of interconnected stories about the war and its victims—and about the whole business of concocting stories.
There will probably be more war stories. In a telephone interview from Minneapolis, where he was promoting The Things They Carried, Mr. O'Brien said: "After each of my books about the war has appeared, I thought it might be the last, but I've stopped saying that to myself. There are just too many stories left to tell—in fact, more all the time. I suppose that for the sake of my career, I ought to turn in another direction. And the novel I am working on now is about life in the north country of Minnesota. But I know more war stories will come out. They have to."
For Mr. O'Brien the stories are larger than the war, and considerably more important. Those in The Things They Carried are at least as much about storytelling as about men at war. Some retell in a different way stories already told. Narrators dispute the accuracy of what they themselves are saying. Occasionally a narrator will come to the end of a harrowing tale and then insist that the protagonist did not do the terrible or heroic things he has just recited, but that he himself did them.
Characters snatch stories from one another's mouths and tell them in a different way, with different incidents. A character may take part of a story away from a narrator and refashion it. A first-person commentator who intervenes to critique or correct a story just told, and who can easily be mistaken for Mr. O'Brien, may turn out to be a character in a later story. The stories themselves eventually seem to be engaged in a dialogue about invention. "As you play with stories you find that whatever is said is not sufficient to the task," Mr. O'Brien said.
In 1978, when Mr. O'Brien's third novel, Going After Cacciato, appeared, some critics said his tale of an American soldier who simply walked away from the Vietnam War had strong elements of the Latin American school of fiction called magic realism. In his new work the magic is in the storyteller's prestidigitation as the stories pass from character to character and voice to voice, and the realism seems Homeric. Mr. O'Brien seems a little startled when he is asked about that, but he admits that the Trojan War epics of the ancient Greek poet keep drawing him back. There is not a line in The Things They Carried that imitates Homer, but at times he is such a presence that he might be included as an unnamed character—in the underlying assumptions about fate, in the enmity of the earth itself toward men in battle, in the sheer glory of fighting, in the boasting of young men.
Storytelling preceded war for Mr. O'Brien, or at least some kind of writing did. He grew up in the southern Minnesota town of Worthington—"the Turkey Capital of the World"—and was there, a month out of Macalaster College in St. Paul, when his draft notice arrived. He had always liked fiction, and books, but he had majored in political science and certainly had no intention to be a writer.
His reaction to the draft notice still surprises him. "I went to my room in the basement and started pounding the typewriter," he recalled. "I did it all summer. It was the most terrible summer of my life, worse than being in the war. My conscience kept telling me not to go, but my whole upbringing told me I had to. That horrible summer made me a writer. I don't know what I wrote. I've still got it, reams of it, but I'm not willing to look at it. It was just stuff—bitter, bitter stuff, and it's probably full of self-pity. But that was the beginning."
He tried to abort the impulse. After he returned from Vietnam in 1970 he went back to political science, doing graduate work in government at Harvard University—"I think I thought I might become the next Henry Kissinger," he said—before a brief stint as a reporter for The Washington Post.
But the stories would not be stopped. So far they have filled five books; his impression is that they are multiplying all the time in his head. He talks about them like an evangelist or a prophet. "My life is storytelling," he said. "I believe in stories, in their incredible power to keep people alive, to keep the living alive, and the dead. And if I have started now to play with the stories, inside the stories themselves, well, that's what people do all the time.
"Storytelling is the essential human activity. The harder the situation, the more essential it is. In Vietnam men were constantly telling one another stories about the war. Our unit lost a lot of guys around My Lai, but the stories they told stay around after them. I would be mad not to tell the stories I know."
The stories, then, live on their own, and their relationship to reality is not direct. Mr. O'Brien uses his infectious laugh to punctuate his confession that the insistent reality of characters he has been imagining for 20 years often makes him impatient with people he has not imagined: "I live in my head all day long and the world is a little dreamy."
The intense reality of his characters explains a puzzle in The Things They Carried. The book begins with a disclaimer: except for a few details all the characters and incidents are imaginary. But then there is a dedication to a company of soldiers, especially to six who are named. Then these six turn up in the stories. "Well, yes, I dedicated the book to my characters," Mr. O'Brien said. "After all, I lived with them for five years while I was writing. In Vietnam people were being rotated constantly, so men you served with you would know six or eight months. These characters are the people I know best."
Where do they come from? Invariably they begin with "a scrap of dialogue, a way of saying something, in one form or another always with language. There's a whisper inside the ear that begins each of them." They spring from spoken words, even those who are quite inarticulate. In The Things They Carried, the central character of one story, "The Man I Killed," is, as Mr. O'Brien puts it, "offstage," and writing a story about a character who is not there was "a wonderful technical challenge."
But the character's voice, the "way of saying something" that inspired his creation, is not silenced. He turns up elsewhere as a narrator. His name is Tim; other people call him O'Brien. And therein lies another tale. A reader is well advised to heed the book's opening caution that "this is a work of fiction" in which all the characters are made up, as are all the disputes the narrators have about the truth of the stories. This Tim, like Mr. O'Brien, comes originally from Minnesota and is 43 years old. Everything else, even most of the convincing personal details about his life and family, is made up.
It is disappointing to find that Tim's 9-year-old daughter is an invention, not just because she is appealing but because her father's feelings about her role as an interrogator of his conscience are so powerful. She was the most difficult of all the characters to create, Mr. O'Brien said: "I had to keep going back and cutting a lot for the verisimilitude. But, you see, in a way she is real, the child I do not have. Storytelling can even do that for you."
But stories are not all he dreams about. Several years ago he told a reporter he wanted to have a best seller, "not just read in English classes." Now, he said: "I want both. After all, I don't write just for myself. It's really annoying to be on a plane coming out here and see the guy in the next seat reading someone else. So, sure, best seller. I'd love to knock Stephen King off the top of the list. I know I won't but, after all, I spend my life inventing a different reality."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 883
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 uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil; it is never really about war, it is about love and memory and sorrow. Above all, a true war story may never have happened:
Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it's a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, "The fuck you do that for?" and the jumper says, "Story of my life, man," and the other guy starts to smile but he's dead.
O'Brien convinces us that such incredible stories are faithful to the reality of Vietnam. Courage, always an unpredictable and unreliable response to the moment, often seems absurd in a war so grotesquely misconceived—O'Brien actually charges himself with cowardice for not having evaded the draft. The foot soldiers staved off fear, and the greater fear of seeming afraid, by turning the conflict into a tragicomedy, with themselves as the actors. The terrible softness of human flesh was disguised by a language "both hard and wistful", which turned the Vietnamese into "dinks" and "slopes", transformed lethal mines into "Toe Poppers" and "Bouncing Betties", reduced a Vietcong nurse and a dead baby, fried by napalm, to a "crispy critter" and a "roasted peanut", and left a fellow soldier (or "grunt") not dead but "greased", "offed", "lit up" or "zapped".
In his first two books, the memoir If I Die In A Combat Zone and the novel Northern Lights, O'Brien was indebted to Hemingway's depictions of war and its lingering aftermath. He then adopted a manner later ascribed to one of his characters who, when he told a story, "wanted to heat up the truth, to make it burn so hot you would feel exactly what he felt". Going After Cacciato employed the framing fantasy of a soldier who goes seriously AWOL and walks overland from Vietnam to Paris: The Nuclear Age was the fable of a pacifist who dodges the draft, joins a gang of terrorists and makes his fortune selling uranium. The Things They Carried includes a few tales similarly "heated up", such as that of the man who brings his girlfriend from hometown America to a quiet outpost in Vietnam, only for her to slip off into the jungle with a sinister group of Green Berets: she discovers that proximity to death brings a new proximity to life, and is last seen wearing a necklace of human tongues.
Fantasy, however, is only one element of the present collection, and many stories impress by their bleak immediacy: a member of Alpha Company steps on a booby-trapped 105 round while playing catch, another drowns in a field of human excrement during a mortar bombardment, a third breaks down and shoots himself in the foot. O'Brien fully exploits the freedoms offered by the sequence, a form which encourages variety and experimentation. A number of the twenty-two "stories" are not conventional narratives at all—"The Things They Carried", for example, vividly evokes the war through a simple naming of parts: the soldiers carry steel helmets, flak jackets and bandages; they hump assault rifles, fragmentation grenades and anti-personnel mines; for good luck they may take letters, a girlfriend's pantyhose or the thumb from a VC corpse: invariably they bring with them infections and the powdery orange-red dust of Vietnam; but they also carry unweighed fear, shameful memories, all the emotional baggage of men who might die.
Long passages of commentary and reflection, which had seemed to interrupt the action of the author's earlier books, are crucial to the success of the new sequence. "The Man I Killed" combines a stunned description of a Vietnamese torn apart by O'Brien's grenade with a detailed, imaginary biography of the dead man. "Ambush", which follows, fills in the circumstances of the killing and gives voice to the author's retrospective guilt ("There was no real peril. Almost certainly the young man would have passed by.") In "Good Form", some pages later, O'Brien reveals this all to be a fiction, stating that he only witnessed the man's death, although "presence was guilt enough". Yet then comes a further, irresolvable twist: "But listen. Even that story was made up." A confession develops into an exploration of authorial responsibility ("Almost everything in this book is invented. It's not a game. It's a form"), but the sustained urgency of tone marks O'Brien's distance from a merely fashionable reflexivity. By creating a work which so adroitly resists finality, O'Brien has been faithful both to Vietnam and to the stories told about it—for, as he says, "you can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end".
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4144
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 to its emphasis on the subjective nature of perception. Like other postmodernist writers, O'Brien questions the problematic nature of reality itself, a process that engages both the protagonist and the reader. Can there be any definite objective reality in the war? Does absolute truth really exist? Like the elusive Cacciato, the soldier on whom the imaginary journey from Vietnam to Paris is centered, Going After Cacciato taunts us with many faces and angles of vision. The protagonist Paul Berlin cannot distinguish between what is real and what is imagined in the war just as the reader cannot differentiate between what is real and what is imagined in the novel. As O'Brien writes, "It was a matter of hard observation. Separating illusion from reality. What happened, and what might have happened." Paul Berlin is forced, as is the reader, into an attempt to distinguish between illusion and reality and in doing so creates a continuous critical dialogue between himself and the world around him.
The impossibility of simplistic judgments—of knowing the reality of the war in absolute terms—is further illustrated in a number of short stories that O'Brien published shortly before Going After Cacciato. These stories contain many of the same events and characters as the novel, but differ somewhat from the novelistic versions. While some stories reveal only minor stylistic changes, others contain major differences that serve to provide another perceptual dimension to Going After Cacciato, another window on the ever-elusive reality of war or war of reality.
That reality is an on-going process is first illustrated by seemingly minor details that O'Brien changes between the publication of the short fiction and the novel. For example, in the short story entitled "Going After Cacciato," the mileage from Vietnam to Paris is noted as being exactly 6,800 miles, but in the novel by the same name the distance is precisely 8,600 miles. O'Brien further mocks the reader with mathematical discrepancies in the story "Where Have You Gone, Charming Billy?" There only 26 soldiers go on a night march, while 32 go in the novel, and Paul Berlin counts to 3,485 to keep his mind off of the war, not to 8,060 as in the later version. Similarly, in "The Way It Mostly Was," the soldiers number 58, in the novel only 38. Such shifts in detail include characters as well as figures. Whereas in the novel Going After Cacciato only Lieutenant Sidney Martin is mentioned as having died in a tunnel, in the short story "Going After Cacciato," a Lieutenant Walter Gleason dies as well. Also, when Paul Berlin thinks of the death of Billy Boy of a heart attack on the battlefield, he is comforted in the story "Where Have You Gone, Charming Billy?" by a character named Buff. However, in the novel, Buff is mentioned as having died face-down while in a praying position in a ditch, and it is Cacciato, not Buff, who comforts Paul Berlin while on the night march the evening after Billy Boy's death. O'Brien even adds details to Billy Boy's accident. "Where Have You Gone, Charming Billy?" reveals not only that Billy Boy dies of a heart attack when his foot is blown off by a mine, but also that his body suffers further abuse when it falls out of a helicopter removing it from the combat zone:
the helicopter pulled up and Billy Boy came tumbling out, falling slowly and then faster, and the paddy water sprayed up as if Billy Boy had just executed a long and dangerous dive, as if trying to escape Graves Registration, where he would be tagged and sent home under a flag, dead of a heart attack … Later they waded in after him, probing for Billy Boy with their rifle butts, elegantly and delicately probing for Billy Boy in the stinking paddy, singing—some of them—Where have you gone, Billy Boy, Billy Boy, Oh, where have you gone, charming Billy? Then they found him. Green and covered with algae, his eyes still wide-open and scared stiff, dead of a heart attack …
Such differences in versions draw the reader into the text, leading him to question the ambiguous nature of reality. What really is the exact distance between Vietnam and Paris? How many soldiers actually go on the march? Who was Lieutenant Gleason, and what was his story? Which soldier comforts Paul Berlin when he thinks of the dead Billy, and did Billy's body really fall out of the helicopter? The questions posed are, of course, far more important than any definite answers or resolutions.
Even more significantly, O'Brien's denial of a fixed, objective reality in Going After Cacciato and the short fiction is revealed through inconsistencies in characterization. Many of O'Brien's characters are ambiguous, and he heightens this ambiguity by changing details about the characters from the short fiction to the novel. A good illustration is Lieutenant Sidney Martin whose view of soldiering differs considerably from that of Paul Berlin. Through Sidney Martin's observation of Paul Berlin, O'Brien makes the point that no two people may know what goes on in the mind of the other, especially in warfare. In Going After Cacciato, Lieutenant Martin is a professional soldier who believes in mission and in war. War, he feels, was invented "so that through repetition men might try to do better, so that lessons might be savored and applied the next time, so that men might not be robbed of their own deaths." Lieutenant Martin watches Paul Berlin march on the way to battle, seeing Paul Berlin "as a soldier. Maybe not yet a good soldier, but still a soldier." From his perspective, Sidney Martin admires Paul Berlin with pride, thinking that the youth is steady and persistent:
Lieutenant Sidney Martin watched him come. He admired the oxen persistence with which the last soldier in the column of thirty-nine marched, thinking that the boy represented so much good-fortitude, discipline, loyalty, self-control, courage, toughness. The greatest gift of God, thought the lieutenant in admiration of Private First Class Paul Berlin's climb, is freedom of will. Sidney Martin, not a man of emotion, felt pride. He raised a hand to hail the boy.
However, O'Brien points out that Paul Berlin does "not have the lieutenant's advantage of perspective and overview and height." Paul Berlin is not thinking of mission or of winning battles; instead, "He knew he would not fight well. He had no love of mission, no love strong enough to make himself fight well." It is ironic that Paul Berlin lacks the very qualities that Lieutenant Sidney Martin thinks he possesses: "He marched up the road with no exercise of will, no desire and no determination, no pride … moving, climbing, but without thought and without will and without the force of purpose." What O'Brien states in this passage is that the reality in a person's mind, his own subjectivity, may have no connection with what is happening in the external world. People project their own personal misunderstandings onto the world at large, just as the pragmatic Lieutenant Sidney Martin projects his heroic attitudes about war onto the unsuspecting Paul Berlin, who really has no will, no heroic goals. In fact, long before this passage, the reader is told that Paul Berlin's "only goal was to live long enough to establish goals worth living for still longer." He is more interested in survival than in a military victory.
This concern with the problematic nature of reality is revealed even further in O'Brien's short story version of the same march. "The Way It Mostly Was" contains the same ironic contrast between Sidney Martin and Paul Berlin as Going After Cacciato, but adds details that make Sidney Martin a more ambiguous figure. In the novel, Sidney Martin is portrayed as being so unprofessional that he lacks a human element. He makes his men undertake dangerous tasks such as searching Vietnamese tunnels, and he marches his men "fast and hard." According to a paragraph included in the novel but omitted in the short story, Sidney Martin advises his men prior to the march that "if a man fell out he would be left where he fell." "The Way It Mostly Was" also reveals that the men must suffer hardships; for instance, they must carry "forty-pound rucksacks" and march until "Their legs and feet were heavy with blood." Sidney Martin, though, is never directly blamed for placing the men under these adverse conditions, and they demonstrate no hostility toward him. The beginning of "The Way It Mostly Was" chapter in the novel indicates that the soldiers are not happy with their lieutenant. There, one character comments that Lieutenant Martin "always looks for more trouble. He want it? Is that the story—do the man want trouble?" Sidney Martin also hopes that someday his men will understand why he believes "in mission first … that in war it is necessary to make hard sacrifices." In contrast to the novel's soldiers, the short story's characters seem more understanding of Sidney Martin's view about mission and do not complain about their leader or hint of threatening him.
Thus, in spite of his strict view of soldiering, Captain Sidney Martin of "The Way It Mostly Was" is presented as being somewhat more humanistic than the Lieutenant Sidney Martin of Going After Cacciato. Certain passages in the story add a new dimension to the character and challenge the reader to try to determine which version, if either, is accurate. We are told in O'Brien's novel that Sidney Martin is "not [emphasis added] a man of emotion," yet in the story we are told just the opposite—that the captain is "a man of emotion." He is so emotional, in fact, that watching Paul Berlin march makes him want "to cry." There is no mention of the extremely dangerous tunnel searches. This Captain Sidney Martin believes, "in human beings deeply" and feels "sad and defeated when one of the human beings in his company of soldiers died or got maimed."
Another character whose nature O'Brien leads us to question is Jim Pederson, a Texan who appears in two short stories as well as in Going After Cacciato. Paradoxically, Pederson is described as both a good missionary and a "fine" soldier, and he seems to inspire both good works and evil deeds in his fellow soldiers. In Going After Cacciato and the short story "Landing Zone Bravo," Pederson is perhaps best remembered as the soldier who is shot and killed by American helicopter gunners who fire into the same rice paddy where they have dropped the soldiers. The gunners become annoyed when Pederson, who has a real fear of helicopters, is too frightened to exit the aircraft. After throwing Pederson out and then shooting him in the legs, the gunners do not stop but continue to fire methodically until Pederson collapses. Pederson's reaction to being gunned down by his own countrymen is to take careful aim and return fire at the gunship in an effort to make it crash and kill the pilots on board.
This incident demonstrates well the moral ambiguity that confronts Pederson and his fellow squad members in the war. O'Brien uses the characters' recognition of the problematic nature of evil to exemplify problems in the nature of reality itself. Eleven chapters after Pederson's death, the novel presents an image of him that totally denies an inherently violent nature. In Chapter Twenty-two, Pederson is portrayed as a peaceful figure, one whom the other soldiers see as having a "Moral Stance." Pederson "gave first aid to a dying VC woman" and wrote a letter of condolence to the parents of a dead soldier. He also treated the Vietnamese villagers kindly. Yet Pederson's death at the hands of his fellow American soldiers serves only to incite Paul Berlin's squad to violence. After Pederson's body is removed, the soldiers reduce a Vietnamese village to rubble. Ironically, while Pederson had previously prevented the squad from burning a village, they now channel their frustrations over his death into emotionlessly doing just that. They are, in fact, not content with just burning it, but must savagely fire into it as well:
They lined up and fired into the burning village. Harold Murphy used the machine gun. The tracers could be seen through the smoke, bright red streamers, and the Willie Peter and HE kept falling, and the men fired until they were exhausted. The village was a hole.
The duality of Pederson's own nature is demonstrated further in a short story "Keeping Watch by Night" that develops Pederson's character much more fully than does the novel. O'Brien tells us that "Jim Pederson had been a missionary in Kenya before he was drafted, and was fond of witnessing to the powers of Christ as Healer." Pederson ironically narrates a story about his involvement in religious faith and healing to Doc Peret and Paul Berlin as he plants Claymore mines on a road and sets up an ambush against the Viet Cong. Therefore, as he is telling the story of the saving of the life of an Indandis woman, he is constructing an L-shaped ambush, "a reliable killing zone" designed to take a number of lives. Pederson is also portrayed as being trustworthy, yet possibly untruthful. The story reveals that Pederson has been selected to prepare such a difficult ambush because he is particularly trustworthy, and the comment that "no one had better eyesight in the dark" than Pederson implies that he can see both physically and spiritually better than the other soldiers. However, the soldiers to whom Pederson tells his supposedly true story of faith healing, his miracle of vision, question its validity: "there were too many uncertainties, too many spots for misinterpretation…."
Perhaps the most significant textual changes deal with the characters of Cacciato and Paul Berlin. In Going After Cacciato, O'Brien offers only a segmented portrait of Cacciato, the character in the imaginary journey who is described frequently, yet who is not really described fully. Cacciato is as elusive in description as he is in action. O'Brien deliberately omits any fine detail about Cacciato in order to keep him from being too familiar. We know only that he is "A smudged, lonely-looking figure" with a "broad back" and "a shiny pink spot at the crown of the skull." He has "big and even and white" teeth, "short, fat little fingers with chewed-down nails", and a "pulpy" face "like wax, or like wet paper. Parts of the face, it seemed, could be scraped off and pressed to other parts." Cacciato is "curiously unfinished," lacking "fine detail," and the images surrounding him are always fuzzy. Most frequently, Cacciato is described in negative terms. As "Dumb as a month-old oyster fart," he "missed Mongolian idiocy by the breadth of a genetic hair." Furthermore, he is a "dumb slob," as "Dumb as milk," "a dumb kid," a "sleazy little creep," and a "gremlin." "But who was he?" asks Paul Berlin.
The short story entitled "Going After Cacciato" continues the same segmented portrait as the novel. Cacciato is a "rockhead" and a "blockhead" who is "tolerated" by the other soldiers "The way men will sometimes tolerate a pesky dog." He is not only going bald, but is as "Bald as an eagle's ass" and as "Bald as Friar Tuck." Whereas we learn little, if anything, about how the novelistic Cacciato feels about himself, in the short story version we learn of another side to this problematical character, one that is somewhat sensitive to his own ugliness. O'Brien tells us that "Cacciato always took great care to cover the pink bald spot at the crown of his skull."
Ambiguous images of Cacciato permeate O'Brien's fiction. For example, in Chapter One of Going After Cacciato when the squad begin their pursuit of the real Cacciato, he waves to them from the summit of a mountain, flapping his arms with "wide spanning winging motions." Cacciato's flying motions have been interpreted as Christ-like, although Cacciato also exhibits the traits of an anti-Christ. His actions can be compared to those of Satan, the great tempter, who must beat his wings in Canto 34 of Dante's Inferno while crunching traitors in his mouth. And, in a sense, Cacciato is a Satanic figure. While he guides the squad and rescues them from perils on their imaginary journey, he also serves as the temptation which leads them further into their possible desertion of the war, an act that would condemn them as traitors to their country. Consequently, Cacciato can be viewed as both a symbol of good and evil. How does one distinguish between the two polarities? Such ambiguities draw the reader into the search for Cacciato along with the characters. As Cacciato's face appears, only to metamorphosize into the moon or a Halloween jack-o-lantern, the reader creates his own version of the mythical soldier, the same process of constituting reality that is undertaken by the individual members of Paul Berlin's squad.
Cacciato's ambivalence is complicated even further by the appearance of different details in the short story. Whereas in the novel Cacciato's palms are down when he flaps his arms to signal the squad, in the short story his palms are up, another reinforcement of a Christ-like image. Yet the reader of both the novel and the short stories learns that Cacciato is both compassionate and unfeeling. On one hand, he is kind to Paul Berlin in the novel, offering him gum and talking to him after Billy Boy's death. He is also the one soldier in the squad in both the novel and the short story "The Fisherman" who does not want to see Lieutenant Sidney Martin die, stating that Martin is "not all that bad." However, O'Brien makes Cacciato even more problematical by showing us a horrific side of him that coexists along with the compassionate part. While Cacciato does not want to participate in the fragging of Lieutenant Sidney Martin, evidence indicates that he is certainly not adverse to atrocity. His perverse nature is revealed in the photograph of "Cacciato squatting beside the corpse of a shot-dead VC in green pajamas, Cacciato holding up the dead boy's head by a shock of brilliant black hair, Cacciato smiling."
Paul Berlin's attitude toward Cacciato also varies somewhat between the novel and the short story. In the novel we are told that Paul Berlin has "nothing" against Cacciato, but in the short story we are told that he has "nothing special [emphasis added] against him," implying that he does indeed have something against Cacciato. Some readers of the novel have concluded that Paul Berlin would like to harm Cacciato. Peter Roundy, for instance, suggests that Paul Berlin wishes to kill Cacciato, his double, in "an act of symbolic suicide," because he feels guilty that he himself has not left the war, a war in which he has never believed. Katherine Kearns advocates that the novel implies that Paul Berlin really kills Cacciato. Certainly the novel contains statements that could be interpreted that way. In Chapter One, Paul Berlin experiences "a vision of murder. Butchery, no less: Cacciato's right temple caving inward, silence, then an enormous explosion of outward-going brains." Then in Chapter Two, an observation post chapter, Paul Berlin thinks of the possibilities, the many ways in which the pursuit of Cacciato could have ended. At one point, he questions, "Had it ever ended in tragedy?" Yet, at the same time, he posits, "Had it ever ended?"
The ambiguity is heightened even further in the short story when Paul Berlin elaborates on his "vision of murder." "It was no metaphor; he didn't think in metaphors," he states, indicating that the murder is real and not imagined. However, he also adds, "it was a simple scary vision … Nothing to justify such a bloody image, no origins…. Where, he thought, was all this taking him, and where would it end?" He further thinks that Cacciato does deserve to die:
Murder was the logical circuit-stopper, of course; it was Cacciato's rightful, maybe inevitable due. Nobody can get away with stupidity forever, and in war the final price for it is always paid in purely biological currency, hunks of toe or pieces of femur or bits of exploded brain. And it was still a war, wasn't it?
Is Paul Berlin suggesting that he wishes to kill Cacciato or merely that Cacciato may take so many risks that he will be killed in the war? This ambiguity is important because such a technique potentially involves the reader in the process of creation. The "deep, jagged, complex country" in which the squad travels as Paul Berlin has these thoughts perhaps suggests that Vietnam contains no simple answers or resolutions.
The fate of Paul Berlin is left as uncertain as that of Cacciato. At the end of the novel, Paul Berlin is still in Vietnam, and we never learn whether or not he survives his tour of duty, just as we never learn whether or not certain events in the novel actually take place. O'Brien, however, has written a story, "Speaking of Courage," which focuses on Paul Berlin after his return home from the war. While the story is not included in Going After Cacciato, it plays off of Chapter Fourteen, "Upon Almost Winning the Silver Star," where Lieutenant Sidney Martin orders someone to search a Vietnamese tunnel. None of the men, including Paul Berlin, will volunteer for the dangerous task, so Lieutenant Martin forces Frenchie Tucker to search the tunnel by threatening him with court martial. Frenchie Tucker enters the tunnel only to die of a gunshot wound. In "Speaking of Courage," Paul Berlin is thinking about how he might have won the Silver Star for bravery in Vietnam had he managed to rescue Frenchie Tucker himself.
Although the story begins by stating that the war is over, we have no way of knowing whether Paul Berlin's return to the United States really takes place or whether it is conceived in the mind of Paul Berlin as he "pretends." In fact, Paul Berlin makes it clear that he is "pretending" in certain parts of the story. He imagines a conversation with his father:
"How many medals did you win?" his father might have asked.
"Seven," he would have said, "though none of them were for valor."
"That's all right," his father would have answered, knowing full well that many brave men did not win medals for their bravery, and that others won medals for doing nothing. "What are the medals you won?"
And he would have listed them, as a kind of starting place for talking about the war …
The use of indefinite verb forms such as "might" and "would" in specific passages provides a clue that Paul Berlin is more than likely fantasizing once more, even though the story itself is told as if Paul is really at home and only thinking about the war in his past. Again, though, we are left with no definite answers or resolutions. While "Speaking of Courage," supposedly takes place after Vietnam, it by no means answers the question of whether or not Paul Berlin survived the war.
It is O'Brien's refusal to allow us final knowledge, the suspension of final judgment through all of his works, that contributes to his fiction's distinction. Both Going After Cacciato and the short fiction are arguments against viewing reality in terms of fixed perceptions. How in life and in literature can one distinguish between what is real and what is not? By raising issues and by still not resolving them, O'Brien continues to resist simplistic answers while portraying the complex tangles and nuances of actual experience. Even more importantly, he demonstrates the need of American culture to reject any oversimplifications of the Vietnam War's inconsistencies and discrepancies and shows us the dangers of imposing final definitions on this elusive and on-going chapter of our American history. Going After Cacciato and the short fiction are significant in that they are postmodernist works that carry their readers far beyond a one-dimensional view of reality or the war. Not only do they project the war's pluralities of vision, its moral complexities, and its unsolvable oppositions, but they also prove that there is no one definite way in which to tell a war story. In both theme and technique, Tim O'Brien allows for what he terms "a million possibilities."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1665
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 October 1977 issue of Esquire, O'Brien published a story entitled "Fisherman." Subsequently he expanded this piece to form two separate chapters in Going After Cacciato, and he renamed these chapters "Lake Country" and "World's Greatest Lake Country."
Critical commentary on Going After Cacciato is, of course, both extensive and illuminating, but O'Brien's early short stories have been largely ignored. Even though many of these stories were absorbed into a longer work, the individual stories are significantly different both in text and in context from corresponding chapters of the completed novel. Indeed, several of the stories won prizes as pieces of short fiction and thus deserve attention as examples of that genre. In order to illustrate the distinctive features of O'Brien's short stories, this note will focus on a story entitled "Where Have You Gone, Charming Billy?," which was first published in the May 1975 issue of Redbook. After much revision it reappeared with the title "Night March" as Chapter 31 of Going After Cacciato. In its original version, O'Brien's story contains persistent allusions to folk ballads, and these allusions provide significant clues for interpretation.
With his change of title to "Night March," O'Brien shifts his focus from the plight of an individual to the joint activities of a military unit. In its original form, however, the piece is a very moving initiation story, and its allusive title works nicely to reinforce important themes. This title refers, of course, to the old folk song "Billie Boy," and lines from the song appear at several points in the account of Paul Berlin's "first day at the war." Even though O'Brien's title alludes to the second line of the folk song, his phrasing is distinctive. Bertrand Bronson has identified twenty-nine variants of "Billie Boy," but none of them exactly matches the wording of O'Brien's question. Numerous versions of the song ask, "Where have you been, Billie Boy," and five versions ask, "Where are you going?" O'Brien's use of the verb go with a shift in tense may appear insignificant, but it establishes an elegiac tone not present in the lighthearted song. On his first day in battle, Paul has witnessed the bizarre death of Billy Boy Watkins. As he reflects on the death of his fellow soldier, he also mourns the loss of his own innocence—especially that sense of himself "when he was a boy … camping with his father in the midnight summer along the Des Moines River." In O'Brien's story, then, the question from a comic folk song becomes a plaintive reiteration of the ubi sunt motif.
The text of the Redbook story (but not that of the novel) quotes part of the folk song's description of Billie Boy's girl. Each stanza of the song typically ends with a line affirming that she is "a young thing and cannot leave her mother." This "young" girl's actual age remains indefinite, but in various versions of the song she is said to be "twice forty-five eleven" and "a hundred like and nine." Even though these ages may be difficult to calculate precisely, it seems clear that the girl is far from young. Indeed, the folk song's outrageous math may imply a triple-digit age. If, at this stage, she is still too young to leave her mother, what can be said of the confused adolescents who populate O'Brien's story? The reader is invited to transfer the song's comic assertion about a young girl and see its more painful relevance in describing the dead Billy Boy, Paul Berlin, and all the youthful soldiers who are suffering the shock of separation from mothers and motherland.
O'Brien's Redbook story depicts Paul's painful initiation, but it also shows his attempt to deal with that pain by means of an imaginative transformation. During the march Paul "pretended he was not a soldier" and "that Billy Boy Watkins had not died of a heart attack that afternoon." By the end of the march he has transformed tragedy into comedy by creating a parody of a death notification:
He imagined Billy's father opening the telegram: SORRY TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON BILLY BOY WAS YESTERDAY SCARED TO DEATH IN ACTION IN THE REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM, VALIANTLY SUCCUMBING TO A HEART ATTACK SUFFERED WHILE UNDER ENORMOUS STRESS, AND IT IS WITH GREATEST SYMPATHY THAT … He giggled again. He rolled onto his belly and pressed his face into his arms. His body was shaking with giggles.
In the last paragraph of the story, Paul copes with his immediate pain by projecting into the future. The horror of Billy's death is reduced to "a funny war story that he would tell to his father." The bizarre episode will become the basis for "a good joke."
If allusions to the song "Billie Boy" are useful in emphasizing the theme of initiation, they are equally apt in reinforcing this idea of imaginative transformation. According to Bronson, "Billie Boy" is a "spirited parody" of the tragic ballad "Lord Randal." Just as Paul Berlin takes the horrors of war and recreates them in a ludicrous and hence more tolerable form, this song takes a tragic episode of courtship and transforms it into a comic series of questions and answers.
To understand how "Billie Boy" functions as a parody, one must examine the grim materials on which it is apparently based. Like O'Brien's story and the song "Billie Boy," the ballad "Lord Randal" begins with a question addressed to a young man: "O where have you been, Lord Randal, my son?" Later stanzas of the song focus on the source of the poison Lord Randal has consumed and the various legacies he will leave his survivors. These narrative elements, although they have been radically altered in "Billie Boy," provide an additional subtext for O'Brien's story about the war in Vietnam. "Lord Randal" emphasizes betrayal by one who should be worthy of trust, and O'Brien's soldiers in Vietnam feel equally betrayed and abandoned. The murderer of Lord Randal is identified differently in various versions of the ballad. Typically the villain is Randal's sweetheart, but some of the 103 variants collected by Bronson place the blame on his wife, sister, grandmother, and even his father. In all cases, however, the betrayal is even more devastating because it is executed by one who is presumably so close and loving. Still another detail that suggests misplaced confidence is the specific source of the poison consumed by Lord Randal. Here again the many versions of the ballad differ greatly. Most of the variants printed by Bronson identify the poison source as eels or fishes, but some versions specify "dill and dill broth," "sweet milk and parsnips," "eggs fried in butter," and bread with mutton. The common element in all these cases is a deceptive wholesomeness. What appears healthful and nutritious is in fact deadly. Such are the lessons that Paul must rapidly learn in "Where Have You Gone, Charming Billy?" A path that looks safe may be planted with "land mines and booby traps." His fellow soldier Watkins may seem "tough as nails," but he suffers a fatal attack of fear. The mission in Vietnam may at first appear grand and glorious, but soon Paul will see only hollowness and horror.
Among the legacies that Lord Randal will leave his survivors, the most notable are those intended for the one who betrayed him. In various versions of the ballad, these bequests include "the rope and the gallows," the "keys of hell's gates," "hell fire and brimstone," and a "barrel of powder, to blow her up high." If the prevailing tone of "Lord Randal" is bitter and vengeful, that of "Billie Boy" is outrageously comic. Instead of brutal legacies left to a false lover, we find in the later song a list of singular achievements attributed to one who will apparently remain endlessly faithful. For example, in the version of the song that Bronson identifies as number 26, Billie's sweetheart "can bake a cherry pie / As quick as a cat can wink her eye." She can "sweep up a house / As quick as a cat can catch a mouse" and even "make up a bed / Seven feet above her head." In "Billie Boy" then, hyperbolic comedy displaces the cynicism and bitterness of "Lord Randal." In a similar fashion Paul Berlin's comic telegram uses hyperbole to keep the horrors of war at bay.
Other differences between "Where Have You Gone, Charming Billy?" and "Night March" could be noted, but this difference in use of ballad allusions is central. While some ballad allusions are retained in the novel, such references are more persistent and more significant in the Redbook story. Throughout O'Brien's story the ballad subtexts provide ironic resonance. With its references to cherry pies and protective mothers, the song "Billie Boy" conjures up an image of home and family that contrasts sharply with the dangerous world into which Paul is initiated. Descriptions of Billie Boy's sweetheart and her remarkable domestic skills suggest fidelity and invincibility—qualities prominent in the rhetoric but seldom in the reality of Vietnam. The ballad "Lord Randal" offers a subtext that is more deeply submerged but equally important in O'Brien's story. Most versions of the song focus on the last words of a young man who courted unwisely and suffered death at the hands of his treacherous lover. Such materials echo the American dilemma in Southeast Asia where idealistic commitments turned bad and left behind a bitter legacy.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8201
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. Unmentioned is the frightful history of the year: the Tet offensive and siege at Khe Sanh, the massacre at My Lai, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the riots in Chicago during the Democratic convention, and, finally, the prospect of peace talks in Paris—with the shape of the table first on the agenda. Bad time, indeed. Nevertheless, these particular facts of history do not explicitly occupy Paul's mind.
In If I Die in a Combat Zone, a memoir of his participation in the history of that time, O'Brien writes that he was persuaded that "the war was wrong." Even so, when he was drafted in the summer of 1968, doubts about his ability to understand the issues, and feelings of duty to family and country, prevented him from going to Sweden by way of Canada: "I simply couldn't bring myself to flee. Family, the hometown, friends, history, tradition, fear, confusion, exile: I could not run." Although O'Brien served his tour of duty in 1969, he places Paul in Vietnam a year earlier—a time of several important tides' turnings, whether Paul thinks about them or not. The personal issue of moral courage remains, though, and the novel thereby becomes what O'Brien has called a fictional "flip side" of the memoir in which he can imagine the consequences of running. The novel, however, does more than revise personal history: it confronts and struggles with history, personal and national.
As Dennis Vannatta has correctly observed, the novel has three kinds of chapters. First are those chapters marking Paul's hours on the observation post where he tries to think through his fears and doubts and recollect the order of terrible experiences since arriving in Vietnam. Second, in no particular order, are his flashbacks, some of home and youth, but mostly of terrible experiences of fear and death in six months of combat, including the deliberately indirect memory of his complicity in the platoon's fragging of Lt. Martin because of Martin's insistence upon searching tunnels. Last are the fantastic chapters in which Paul imagines a mission to pursue and capture Cacciato, the rather simple-minded soldier who, profoundly disillusioned by Martin's murder, has left the war to walk to Paris. (Even in this fictional world, then, Paul contemplates running only as a fanciful possibility; moreover, feeling the same doubts O'Brien mentions in his If I Die in a Combat Zone, Paul cannot even imagine desertion without the excuse of pursuing a real deserter, Cacciato.) This fantastic journey raises the questions I wish to address: Why Paris? For such a desperate plan, would not Hong Kong or even Rome be closer? What purpose do the several characters met along the way serve? And why does Paul encounter certain kinds of events?
In broad terms, Eric James Schroeder has described the journey as more than an escape: when Paul plays solitaire and pretends he is winning in Las Vegas, "This type of 'pretending' is simply escapism …"; but when he imagines the journey, his "'working out of the possibilities' represents a mode of not only coping with the war's reality (paradoxically, through the illusion of escaping it) but also of coming to terms with his identity as a soldier." Thomas Myers notes that, even if Paul did wish for escape in the imaginative journey, the "pursuit of Cacciato is filled with the same hazards, personal fears, and moral quandaries offered by the reality experienced in unfiltered Vietnam daylight." Instead of a replay of actual conflict, Edward Palm finds a contemporary morality play in the journey: Cacciato's "nondescript quality" represents the idea that
the idealistic concepts of honor, courage, and patriotism we traditionally pursue in time of war are vague and without substance. Seen in this light, the pursuit of Cacciato becomes an ironic allegory for the Vietnam War itself with yet another character, a young Vietnamese girl named Sarkin Aung Wan, serving as foil to Cacciato and representing the tempting expedient of simply abandoning a futile and pointless quest.
Each of these views suggests points worth pursuing, but none specifically addresses the questions raised above about the particular characters and events. The answers lie in seeing that, as Schroeder writes, the journey turns into more than a wishful escape: to be precise, Paul tries to imagine a walk to Paris, but the implied author directs his route through history, a six-hour fantasy that blends six months of Paul's history with the country's; if not the literal allegory that Palm claims, the fantasy certainly places mimetic details of Paul's life in a much larger context of political issues. That is, the itinerary and events force Paul to relive some of his recent, chaotic past—as Myers suggests—and, unconsciously, to retrace some of the war's history. Along the way, Paul confronts the difficulty of making sense of his role in the war's moral and political confusion, for he has no settled ideas about the conflict. An implied author, on the other hand, "will never be neutral toward all values. Our reactions to his various commitments, secret or overt, will help to determine our response to the work." In this instance, the implied author, quite aware of the contesting parties' histories and the war's outcome, hopes to show how this war cruelly forced soldiers personally to face terrible issues—with sometimes heroic and sometimes ignoble results—for politically vain reasons.
The sense of history holds much importance in the novel. Along the road to Paris, Paul's squad spends a night in Ovissil, Afghanistan. The town's mayor, their host, is a "history-teller" (whose stance resembles the implied author's over Paul's story): "Fortune telling is for lunatics and old women. History is the stronger science, for it has the virtue of certainty without the vice of blasphemy." He then tells Lt. Corson's history but refuses to tell Paul's: "You are young…. I cannot tell unmade histories." Paul feels slighted, insisting he has a history, and the ensuing chapter recounts—in fewer than two pages—his life up to the age of twenty when he was drafted.
Although Paul does not realize it, his first two decades were the easy part. His last six months present the difficulties and hardly reflect any "virtue of certainty": "Keeping track wasn't easy. The order of things—chronologies—that was the hard part." This confusion will never disappear for Paul or for the reader. Careful attention allows us to put many events in order, but we cannot resolve the contradictory facts that Pederson is present when Bernie Lynn dies in Chapter 14 and that Bernie Lynn is present when Pederson dies in Chapter 20. (In addition to questions brought on by Paul's confused memory, we might also ask how his imagination, in November 1968, could accurately predict that Dwight Eisenhower would die about the time the squad arrives in Paris on April Fools' Day 1969.) Nevertheless, the imaginary trek gives Paul the opportunity to review and, at least, attempt to comprehend his recent past.
Fear dominates that recent past, and Paul feels ashamed of his lack of courage. In fact, he knows he could have killed a comrade in panic, actually firing the rounds himself—quite a different matter from his passive complicity with the squad's murder of Lt. Martin. The mission to capture Cacciato ends on a hill where the squad thinks they have Cacciato surrounded. As they charge, Paul begins firing uncontrollably, even setting the grass on fire. Fortunately, Cacciato has decamped, for otherwise he would certainly have been caught in the fusillade of Paul's automatic weapon. Soon thereafter, in Paul's imagined continuation of the mission, Stink's capture of some refugees imaginatively revises the act. Stink shoots suddenly, without warning, "without aiming," on automatic fire—"It was Quick Kill. Point blank, rifle jerking"—and slaughters two water buffalo while miraculously missing the three women on the cart. Stink boasts of his quick reactions, but the others call him stupid, much as they were disgusted with Paul on the hill. At the end of the imaginary mission, however, Paul cannot displace the responsibility onto Stink, nor displace his panic with something like Stink's bravado: when the squad bursts into Cacciato's Paris apartment, Paul shoots up the room uncontrollably. Paul realizes that the room, like the hill, "was empty," but he knows that he could not have stopped his panicky firing in any case. Paul calls the charge up the hill the "last known fact," but in his imagination, the fear that ensues is the first and lasting fact—a fear that can cause one to turn on innocents and comrades.
Of course the war has much that anyone would reasonably fear. For instance, the elaborate system of tunnels led soldiers to believe that the enemy could pop up and just as suddenly disappear anywhere. Also, for a platoon under the command of a Lt. Martin, finding a tunnel entrance requires, according to Standard Operating Procedure, dispatching one man into the tight, dark hole to search it. On the fantastic journey, when "a hole in the road to Paris" spills the squad into an international network of tunnels, the lone Vietcong, Li Van Hgoc (a Southeast Asian "Leewen'oek?"), pushes Paul to look through a periscope, forcing him to examine that particular fear out of the recent past. Through the mouth of a tunnel, Paul watches a replay of two comrades' deaths, those of Frenchie and Bernie Lynn: having been threatened with court martial, Frenchie has crawled into the tunnel and been shot; when no one volunteers to go in after him (although Cacciato is willing), Bernie Lynn swears, drops his gear, and goes in where "his feet were still showing when he was shot." Paul also sees himself standing aside, "careful not to look at anyone" when Lt. Martin is asking for volunteers. As Li Van Hgoc tells him, "From down below, or from inside out, you often discover entirely new understandings."
By force of imagination, Paul manages to escape this tunnel with his remaining comrades, but reminders of fear and death persist along the road to Paris. In Tehran, they witness the beheading of an Iranian soldier who had gone AWOL. Besides reminding Paul that running is a crime, the execution also recalls a kind of shame and futility surrounding death in combat. Buff, another comrade killed in action, is found dead in the "unpretty" position of kneeling face-down: "… all hunched up on his knees, ass stickin' up in the air … like the way Arabs pray…." After a helicopter removes Buff's body, the rest of the platoon notices his face has been left in the helmet. Doc says it is "not decent … not respectable" to leave Buff's face that way, and Cacciato casually disposes of it in some tall grass, "like a woman emptying her wash basin—." The Iranian soldier, kneeling face-down before the chopping block, as Paul observes, shows no emotion until a fly settles on his face: "It was not fear. It was shame…. The boy's tongue was still groping toward his nose when the axe fell." The fear of death grips deeply enough, but the cruel feelings of ridiculous futility, embarrassment—the literal loss of face—linger for those whom death spares.
The squad's escape from Tehran—they have been arrested for desertion—recalls another fearful sensation Paul would have felt in combat: the feeling of chaos. Cacciato springs them from Savak's jail and sends them off in a Chevy Impala, but they soon find themselves surrounded in a traffic circle:
The sounds of the rifle fire were lost in the deeper sounds of artillery, but the soldiers were firing, and red tracers made pretty darts in the wind. The car bucked. There was the sudden smell of burning metal, then tearing sounds. The red darts made holes in the door. A window crashed open and the wind sucked in.
… Stink's door had come open. He was weeping, hanging on to the elbow rest, but spinning forces kept the door open, dragging Stink out. He screamed and clawed at the door…. Paul Berlin tried to get his eyes to close.
Details of this chaotic ambush—the sounds of gunfire and the wind, the holes shot through metal, the burning smell, the inability of one soldier to maintain his balance, and the inability of another to watch—come directly from memory of the hot landing where Pederson was eventually cut down by the indiscriminate "friendly fire" of the helicopter's door gunners:
Then there were new sounds. Like dog whistles, high pitched and sharp…. Holes opened in the hull, then more holes, and the wind sucked through the holes, and Vaught was shouting. A long tear opened in the floor, then a corresponding tear in the ceiling above, and the wind howled in all around.
… There was a burning smell—metal and hot machinery and the gunners' guns. Harold Murphy was still on the floor, smiling and shaking his head and trying to get up, but he couldn't do it. He'd get to his knees and press, and almost make it, but not quite, and he'd fall and shake his head and smile and try again. Pederson's eyes were closed. He held his stomach and sat still. He was the only one still sitting.
This bedlam in combat brings about the death of Pederson. In the imaginary replay of the scene as they escape from Tehran, no casualties from "friendly fire" occur, but Paul's mind quickly turns to another self-inflicteddefeat, the fragging of Lt. Martin: "The way events led to events, and the way they got out of human control." Paul does not want to fight in Vietnam, and Cacciato does not want to kill Lt. Martin, but both are "pressed" into service: the draft brings Paul to Vietnam, and, as one event uncontrollably leads to another, he presses Cacciato's hand onto the grenade that the squad has touched to signify their votes for Lt. Martin's murder.
Paul thinks now that "Cacciato was dumb, but he was right." Thus, even if Paul cannot simply walk away from the war, he cannot completely dismiss this response in anyone else. In Paris, the men never actually lay hands on Cacciato, and even before their final attempt to capture him, Lt. Corson and Sarkin, the refugee whom Paul loves, disappear as well: "Heading east. A long walk but we'll make it." Out of Paul's recent, chaotic history, then, the imaginary trek leads to difficult resolutions: the first and last fact is fear, and the first and last escape is walking away—unless he can face that dominating fear.
These imagined events sort out and rehearse Paul's recent past the way dreams may refashion events and feelings from waking life: some leave tremendously awful impressions—such as the hot landing that ends with Pederson's death—or strangely minor ones—such as Cacciato's getting "bites" while fishing in rain-filled craters, a detail that transforms into Stink's getting bitten by Cacciato on the road to Paris (that is, a bite from something that is not there). Thus, to the extent so far discussed, the daydream's fearsome events, as those in a nightmare, have no more motivation than the emotion of fear and the reaction of flight. On another level, however, above the concerns of the character, the implied author uses Paul's imaginative escape to dramatize some of the larger historical issues about which Paul is ignorant. Paul seems, as mentioned earlier, unaware of the extraordinary turmoil that marked 1968. With no knowledge of current events, he certainly will have little understanding of their historical context, a circumstance that, Myers states, raises the difficult question of "how to act properly within a configuration that affords the entrapped soldier little historical understanding or moral justification as he experiences the most jarring imagery of waste and death." James C. Wilson emphasizes that Going After Cacciato succeeds because, like so few other novels set in Vietnam, it perceptively "explores the problem that arises from the absence of historical perspective." The chapter "The Things They Didn't Know" neatly summarizes this ignorance:
Not knowing the language, they did not know the people. They did not know what the people loved or respected or feared or hated.
… [Paul] didn't know who was right, or what was right; he didn't know if it was a war of self-determination or self-destruction, outright aggression or national liberation; he didn't know which speeches to believe, which books, which politicians; he didn't know if nations would topple like dominoes or stand separate like trees; he didn't know who really started the war, or why, or when, or with what motives; he didn't know if it mattered; he saw sense in both sides of the debate, but he didn't know where truth lay; he didn't know if Communist tyranny would prove worse in the long run than the tyrannies of Ky or Thieu or Khanh—he simply didn't know.
… They did not know even the simple things: a sense of victory, or satisfaction, or necessary sacrifice. They did not know the feeling of taking a place and keeping it, securing a village and then raising the flag and calling it a victory…. They did not know how to feel when they saw villages burning. Revenge? Loss? Peace of mind or anguish?… They did not know good from evil.
The imaginary walk to Paris does not resolve such doubts for Paul, but in the arrangement of incidents that refer to larger historical issues, we can perceive the shape of O'Brien's belief.
The simple act of crossing the border out of Vietnam should recall the expansion of the war into Laos and Cambodia—incursions that were more common than the public realized until Nixon made the operations public in 1970. The squad's mission is to pursue Cacciato who is seeking respite from the war by fleeing Vietnam; the American military's tactics were to pursue Vietcong who sought sanctuary in neighboring countries. If the objects of pursuit differ, the national strategy and the squad's mission yield similar results. The squad's mission is doubly fruitless: Cacciato always eludes them, and inasmuch as Paul wishes to escape the war, his imaginative journey keeps returning him to the war, its sensations and its issues. Crossing borders solves no problems; in fact, it leads to confronting them instead, for Paul, unlike Cacciato, cannot simply walk away from the war.
For the US, the incursions into Laos and Cambodia were fruitless and even destructive. In Laos, proxy bombing raids in the early 1960s and then actual US bombing, in a decade's time, forced over 140,000 people off the Plain of Jars and onto the road as refugees. Another proxy incursion by Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops to cut the Ho Chi Minh trail within Laos resulted in disaster when the troops were drawn in, surrounded, and then cut up despite heavy American air support; the ARVN suffered a 50% casualty rate, and supply traffic along the trail returned, not only to normal, but reached even higher than previous volumes within three months. All along, the diplomatic struggles of Souvanna Phouma, favoring the North Vietnamese and later turning a deaf ear to the bombing of their supply routes in his country, came to naught when, upon the US's general withdrawal from southeast Asia, Phouma had to negotiate for a coalition government that the Pathet Lao quickly abandoned and overran.
Similarly, the more infamous invasion of Cambodia yielded no real benefits. US troops destroyed plenty of materiel but inflicted relatively few casualties, thereby delaying the "North Vietnamese offensive by no more than a year." Prince Norodom Sihanouk, like Souvanna Phouma, allowed the bombing of enemy supply lines without complaint, and his political life fared as well as his neighbor's in Laos. Faced with contending ideas on how to handle the challenge of the indigenous Khmer Rouge, Sihanouk's government was overthrown by Lon Nol; Lon Nol first adamantly condemned all foreign intervention in Cambodia but soon asked for help—which came in the form of the US incursion that the Nixon administration had planned already. Of course, when the secrecy of Nixon's Cambodian moves was revealed, the backlash at home was politically costly and even incendiary at Kent State where four students died during protests on campus. As for Cambodia, in the intervening years 1970 to 1975, Lon Nol's government relied on the support of the US, and the American withdrawal from Southeast Asia left Cambodia powerless to repulse Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge and the coming of what we know as the "killing fields." For Paul Berlin's squad's military mission and America's military policy, then, crossing borders solves nothing and even creates additional problems; what begins as pursuit of Cacciato becomes a running from the original conflict. The fictional squad's motives may be understandable, but the larger US policy shows blundering and shame.
Once into Laos, Berlin's squad encounters the refugee problem, personified in Sarkin Aung Wan. Paul has always considered the native population with sadness and regret: "He wanted to be liked. He wanted them to understand, all of them, that he felt no hate. It was all a sad accident, he would have told them—chance, high-level politics, confusion." He cannot explain himself because he cannot speak their language. With Sarkin, though, Paul can talk and even fall in love. Their different problems keep them separate, however. Sarkin needs to find peace by any means to survive; Paul needs to find peace in the means by which he survives. As he would confess to the people, he is "guilty perhaps of hanging on, of letting myself be dragged along; of falling victim to gravity and obligation and events, but not—not!—guilty of wrong intentions." In the end, Paul has almost nothing to offer Sarkin that can help. Long before Paul arrived in Vietnam, the policy of the Diem government was to move the villagers out of hamlets and into refugee camps, and American strategy "completed the process the Diem regime had begun." Michael Huynh, of the Southeast Asia Resettlement Program, underscores the final impact of uprooting so many:
… more than a million people were forced out of Vietnam at the end of the war…. Even during the famine of 1945, when more than two million people died from lack of food, we did not leave our country. The results of this war displaced a whole population.
Paul loves Sarkin and wants to save her, but the common soldier's lot is to be frustrated in such humane desires. Not surprisingly, therefore, out of their "peace talks" in Paris, "there is no true negotiation."
Of course, even if Paul could speak to the people, many may not care to listen, for the issues escape him as surely as Cacciato does. Paul knows how he feels but cannot understand how the Vietnamese feel: how and why they suffer. Paul assumes that only the war's killing and destruction oppress the people. This assumption proves to be naive once Paul spots Cacciato among a crowd of monks in Mandalay. Paul wades into the crowd, apparently believing that an American soldier can count on the passivity of monks everywhere. But these monks administer quite a thrashing to Paul, for as Sarkin explains, he is "disturbing Cao Dai. Disrupting evening prayers. Touching the untouchables." Paul's blunder ought to remind the reader of American ignorance concerning the religious issues in Vietnam: early on, the US was supporting Diem, a Catholic who was suppressing Buddhism. Frances Fitzgerald points out that reporters who discussed protests in terms of religious versus political motivations "were so entrenched in their Western notion of the division of church and state that they could not imagine the Vietnamese might not make the distinction." In addition, the Vietnamese monks hardly behaved with total passivity: during protests, they carried signs in English, which they did not speak or understand, and they quickly "came to know which TV crews to phone when a self-immolation was scheduled, and how much time to give them to get to the appointed place and set up their cameras." These visual records of monks burning themselves in protest against Diem dealt American viewers a severe shock, and the naivete of the reporting only added to the bewilderment.
These political martyrs were Buddhist whereas Paul confronts Cao Dai monks. Aside from general religious issues, this reference to a specific sect carries other implications. The Cao Dai show western influence insofar as their worship is eclectic: they reverse Jesus and Buddha, but also "saints" such as Joan of Arc, Victor Hugo, and Sun Yat-sen. Their political loyalties would have baffled Paul all the more had he known the Cao Dai's history. In the late fifties, the US ambassador forestalled a possible overthrow of Diem by bribing, along with other leaders, influential members of the Cao Dai; Diem survived, but thousands of the Cao Dai soon joined the opposition that would become the Vietcong. Of further interest, in terms of problems O'Brien considers, the Cao Dai, in the early fifties, attracted many youths who joined in order to avoid a military draft. Paul Berlin cannot realize that he takes a beating from people who might share his feelings of resistance—without the confusion—regarding the war.
Paul, like most Americans, knows little about such historic forces in Vietnam and, further, knows just as little about the historic force he represents himself. Whatever the morality of American policy, the presence of such a large military commitment meant dislocation for the Vietnamese culture anyway. The causing of destruction and the meddling in foreign affairs aside, America's presence in Vietnam precipitated changes that appear less obvious. In the novel, Paul Berlin confronts these changes in the person of Hamijolli Chand (whose name means "jolly moon," which recalls the characterization of the happy, moon-faced Cacciato). In Delhi, she houses the squad in her hotel and clearly enjoys their company. Jolly Chand, as the Americans call her, tells of how she once lived in America and fell in love with its shopping malls, televisions, and other temptations: "'Corrupted,' she said brightly. 'That's what my husband contends—corrupted by hamburgers and french fries and Winston One Hundreds.'" As if the materialistic desires were not condemning enough, Jolly has a taste for beef and, soon, a taste for Lt. Corson—appetites in a country that reveres sacred cows and supports the tradition of purdah, the practice of keeping women secluded from men not their husbands.
Just so, entering Vietnam involved more than a military presence; the American presence represented a cultural invasion whose soldiers brought their language, their music, their food, and much other "artillery" in the war to make a home away from home. The US, however, was not alone in initiating such corrupting influence. Archimedes L. A. Patti quotes a French report criticizing the High Commissioner for turning Saigon into a place "where gambling, depravity, love of money and of power finish by corrupting the morale and destroying willpower…." Frances Fitzgerald states, however, that the French occupation and war at least left the family intact, but with the American war came a complete cultural death: "'That is, above all, what the Vietnamese blame the Americans for,' said one Vietnamese scholar. 'Willfully or not, they have tended to destroy what is most precious to us: family, friendship, our manner of expressing ourselves'"; in addition, those peasants who moved into the cities and became "used to the luxuries of the West and the freedoms" were all the more destitute when the Americans left. Don Luce describes the cultural collision bluntly, noting that South Vietnam suffered more than the North, for it was "faced not only with the physical problems of rebuilding but also with the problems of readjustment for most of its citizens." On the one hand, "'Country Fairs' brought rock-and-roll music, hot dogs, and Kool-Aid to remote villages…." On the other hand, those Vietnamese who fled to the cities, farm boys turned to crime for survival, "became addicted to the drugs they were pushing" and forgot all about the necessary occupation of farming; and the young women also fell out of the true work force, for after "working in the bars and brothels … two-thirds of these women had venereal disease, and many were addicted to hard drugs." Jolly Chand claims to be happy with her western outlook, but such an outlook puts her at odds with life in Asia. The confrontation must be harsher for the actual populace of Southeast Asia for whom the cultural clash was unwelcomed and unexpected.
These matters of religion and culture have to do only with the "friendly" population. Meeting the enemy raises an even more immediate issue: the strategy and tactics of the war. The interlude with Li Van Hgoc forces Paul Berlin to relive the incident when two comrades die in the tunnels, but that fanciful meeting also exhibits the fundamental level of battle. When the squad asks Li for directions out of the tunnel, he is almost embarrassed to inform them, "… according to the rules, I fear you gentlemen are now my prisoners." Li's arresting statement points out how all soldiers, captured or not, suffer as prisoners in this kind of seemingly fruitless war. The squad has no time for this philosophizing, though, and is in fact incredulous:
"Outmanned, outgunned, and outtechnologized." Lieutenant Corson tapped his finger against the weapon's plastic stock.
"Well spoken," the enemy said. "A neat summary of the issues. Very well spoken."
In response, the Americans point their guns at the unarmed Li, tie him up, and set out to find their own escape from the tunnels—to find the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, and to accept a simple "exit" sign as light enough. Now, Li is incredulous: "Violence will not—…. Please! The puzzle, it cannot be solved this way." The Americans get away, but Li has a point.
Earlier, Li told the squad that they are fighting the land: the traps, the tunnels, and the paddies all present danger because the land is fighting back. He describes the force as Xa, meaning "that a man's spirit is in the land, where his ancestors rest and where the rice grows." According to Fitzgerald, the term also conveys the sense that a Vietnamese is connected to the land in such a way that it embodies one's "face" or personality. Hence, the ease with which the Vietnamese could blend into the landscape. On the surface, American soldiers saw primitive villages, but beneath them were networks of tunnels holding not-so-primitive supplies. The enemy's retreats were thereby "doubly invisible: invisible within the ground and then again invisible within their own perspective as Americans." North Vietnam's General Giap promulgated this guideline of evasion: "Concerning tactics, practice guerrilla methods: secrecy, speed, initiative (today in the East, tomorrow in the West); appear and disappear by surprise, without leaving a trace…." Analysts on both sides retrospectively agreed that American firepower and manpower reflected strategy appropriate to some earlier combat: the Americans were big, burdened by equipment, and therefore clumsy and slow to adapt. Ho Chi Minh described his revolution, before the Americans arrived, as "grasshoppers that dare stand up to the elephants." He showed some prescience about American involvement when he added, "Tomorrow, it's the elephant that leaves its skin behind." Paul Berlin's squad, too, fails to understand from Li's pleading that having more troops, more guns, and more technology will not avail in Vietnam; anyone who comes into the country thinking otherwise condemns himself to being a prisoner of that war and that strategy.
Such war by attrition displays an ignorance of the enemy and the issues—the kind of ignorance that leads the promotion board to push Paul into answering that the reason for fighting the war is only "To win it" and that the death of Ho Chi Minh will affect the North Vietnamese population only to the extent that it will "Reduce it by one, sir." The enemy does not foist this problem on Paul Berlin's squad, nor does the problem come from the location or circumstances of the war. The problem comes from within, and within himself is where Paul has his toughest confrontations.
Paul plays out his confusion about the tactics and the overall mission of the war in the dialogue between Doc and Fahyi Rhallon, the obsequiously polite security officer the Americans meet in Tehran. Over drinks, Doc states that the war is like any other war:
"Politics be damned. Sociology be damned. It pisses me off to hear everybody say how special Nam is…. I'm saying that the feel of war is the same in Nam or Okinawa—the emotions are the same, the same fundamental stuff is seen and remembered."
In terms of horror and fear, Paul's experience would tend to fit Doc's analysis; however, in terms of purpose and motivation, Rhallon's position speaks for Paul as well:
"… but I understand that one difficulty for you has been a lack of purpose…. An absence of aim and purpose, so that the foot soldier is left without the moral imperatives to fight hard and well and win-ningly."
Like the meeting in Paris between Sarkin and Paul, this exchange produces statements of position without any true negotiation. When the conversation turns to desertion—a sensitive subject for Paul and the others—Rhallon repeats that purpose keeps men from running: "Without purpose men will run. They will act their dreams, and they will run and run, like animals in stampede." Doc replies, "Maybe purpose is part of it. But a bigger part is self-respect. And fear." This "debate" exposes Paul's inner divisions, reflecting his imagined actions so far and anticipating his imagined resolution to come. As always, the issue boils down to fear: fear of facing death or fear of facing a cowardly self.
In pursuit of Cacciato, Paul imagines that others would question the squad's motives. Paul subconsciously enacts these questions by having the squad, before they can vindicate their actions by capturing the deserter, run into other deserters. Li Van Hgoc resisted the war and deserted, for which he is sentenced to the tunnels; in Tehran, just before meeting Rhallon, the squad sees a young man beheaded for, they later learn, being AWOL—"For true deserters the punishment is not so kind." Paul wrestles with this question in his mind, but he is hardly alone in actuality. Until 1968, military absenteeism remained below rates for World War II and Korea. Then, in the next three years, the rate doubled twice:
These desertions were both in Vietnam and at US bases world-wide indicating the wider military demoralization…. The combined desertion and AWOL numbers meant that about one in four of the US forces had mutinied or were defying military orders….
One British draft counselor claims that in one of the war's peak years, "seventy-three thousand soldiers deserted—the equivalent of three full combat divisions with supply units." These deserters certainly had numerous motivations, but in many cases, the war's lack of clear or moral purpose may have given running from it an apparent sense of purpose. Michael Novak, with a group that interviewed several dozen deserters in Paris and Stockholm, reports that, like Paul, these former soldiers arrived at such a sense only after being in the war:
Although in the small towns from which most of them come they had no tradition for examining and questioning American political life, and particularly American foreign policy, they were acute enough to see through the Army and its propaganda…. Their resistance to the war grew out of their own guts, in confrontation with the army…. To accept induction was the easy, natural path of the conformity and docility it is the business of American grammar schools and high schools to teach them: not critical, not questioning. Almost all of those who spoke to me were not pacifists; they were not absolutely against war, or the army; except for the peculiar nature of the Vietnamese war, a war on the poor, on civilians, in support of a vastly unpopular Saigon government, they would still be in the army, getting their term of duty over with.
In short, the announced purpose of the war could not bear scrutiny, especially under fire, and another purpose—survival, obviously, or honor—filled the void.
Cacciato, for one, has more than survival as a reason for running. Pressed into cooperating with Lt. Martin's assassination, he must feel the war has no identifiably moral goal anymore. Cacciato displays great sensitivity, but again, the history of the war shows he was not alone in encountering the issue:
The term fragging derived from the use of a fragmentation weapon, usually a hand-grenade, as the surest way of dispatching an unpopular officer…. Prior to 1969 "fragging" was apparently so rare that official statistics do not record any incidents. Between 1969 and 1971 assaults on officers in Vietnam averaged 240 a year, eleven percent fatal.
In other words, doubts about the war effort spread through much of the military, even if soldiers such as Paul agonized over them seemingly alone. In the novel, Paul's squad encounters the revolutionary woman from California outside Zagreb. Wearing her politics like a latest fashion, she presumes that the American squad's courage resides in the ability to witness "evil firsthand" and walk away in guilt. But her views show no more sophistication than those of Paul's promotion board. At the time of the novel's events, antiwar sentiments held sway because the media's coverage of the Tet offensive showed what many Americans viewed as enemy resilience:
The pictures of corpses in the garden of the American embassy cut through the haze of argument and counterargument, giving flat contradiction to the official optimism about the slow but steady progress of the war. Those who had long held doubts and reservations now felt their doubts confirmed.
In any case, the revolutionary woman from California still represents division, and division represents most of the doubts examined in the novel. Paul Berlin is a soldier divided against himself, fighting in a force divided against itself, on behalf of a country divided against itself, over another country divided against itself.
The revolutionary from California can argue these issues in a flip manner, but for Berlin's squad, the issues involve life or death—which to Paul's frightened mind means death. Paul imaginatively mulls over this feared inevitability in the scene wherein he witnesses the beheading in Tehran. Myers calls the incident "a grisly symbol of the true inertia on the road to Paris," but the symbolism should bring more specific ideas to mind. The execution, for being AWOL, includes a ceremony that recalls the beginning rather than the end of military involvement. The platform has patriotic decorations, martial music plays over loudspeakers, and several officers attend in full dress uniforms; before the ax falls, the young man's neck is shaved, his cheeks are kissed by the officers, and speeches are made. In sum, the whole spectacle parodies a ceremony to send new draftees to the front: first comes a haircut, then comes the final cut.
The history of the home front, of course, included plenty of anti-draft agitation. For the protest movement, tactics to avoid the draft included deferments, exile, conscientious objection, and sometimes jail. Until 1969, when deferments were abolished, the result, according to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was that "the war in Vietnam was being fought in the main by the sons of poor whites and blacks whose parents did not have much influence in the community." For Paul, the choice is academic and, to his way of thinking, cruelly rigged against him: running may be a capital offense in the military, but simply being drafted is tantamount to kneeling before the chopping block anyway.
Accordingly, Paul runs, but only in his imagination, and his hoped-for destination is clarity of mind. The trek leads to Paris because Cacciato said he was going there, but the city suggests a historical destination also. As Sarkin says in leading the squad out of Li's tunnels, "The way in is the way out." Paul knows almost nothing about Vietnam, so he does not know that the way into the modern history of the war in Vietnam leads through Paris. As early as 1856, Napoleon III proceeded with plans to take Vietnamese territory as retribution for Vietnamese abuse of French missionaries; in 1887, despite violent resistance, the fall of Napoleon III, and internal debate, France consolidated all of present-day Vietnam and Cambodia into the Indochinese Union, a "pacified" colony. The area remained in French hands, with a brief Japanese interruption during World War II, until the siege at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 when the French command "woefully miscalculated [Vietnamese General] Giap's intentions and capabilities even before the shooting started," largely because they "had wrongly disregarded intelligence that did not fit their prejudices, and instead 'substituted their preconceived idea of the Vietminh for the facts.'" If Paul remains ignorant of this preview of American involvement in Vietnam, he must know of the contemporary role Paris was playing in the war as the site for the peace talks. Those talks, which began just one month before Paul came to Vietnam, took "seven months just to resolve the seating arrangements (so that the Saigon and N[ational] L[iberation] F[ront] delegations could avoid face-to-face recognition and discussion)"; in fact, according to Michael Novak, the NLF even suspected their North Vietnamese allies would sell them out and negotiate in ways that "would benefit the North at the expense of the South." In any event, the United States certainly did not prevail at the table, despite the table's shape or its seating arrangements. The 1973 treaty the U. S. signed allowed 150,000 North Vietnamese troops to remain in the South while US troops withdrew. One of our negotiators, John Negroponte, stated,
We got our prisoners back; we were able to end our direct military involvement. But there were no ostensible benefits for Saigon to justify all of the enormous effort and bloodshed of the previous years.
Thus, even some of America's political leadership finally saw the futility of the war, and they had adopted Sarkin's other maxim of escape: "We have fallen into a hole. Now we must fall out." Similarly, Paul's imaginary negotiation with Sarkin offers neither of them any benefits from the effort to walk all the way to Paris, but Paul's adherence to duty, whether out of honor or fear, is more genuinely face-saving than the historical treaty.
So how much has been accomplished in Paul's six hours of dreaming on the observation post? James C. Wilson offers a negative view of Paul's resolution, seeing it as a failed effort: "Even in his imagination, Berlin retreats into official slogans and platitudes, unable to either imaginatively or intellectually transcend the propaganda of his own government." Schroeder responds that "personal politics blinkers critical assessment" in the view that the "peace conference" fails. "Rather," Schroeder continues,
resolution is realized morally and aesthetically both within the text and without it…. The question which Paul Berlin asks (and answers) at the peace table is the one which O'Brien leaves unresolved in If I Die: "If inner peace is the true objective, would 1 win it in exile?"
Myers agrees that Paul's outcome bodes well for Paul's mental and spiritual stability:
The willed ingenuity in the observation post produces finally a classical boon—self-knowledge within travail, the partial ordering of chaos that even a statement of positions can provide, the move toward, if not the attainment of, a proper peace.
Dale W. Jones adds that Paul has learned more about the true nature of fortitude:
… courage is not genuine when it is divorced from either wisdom or fear…. If he has not actually become a hero after his nightlong vigil, he has at least come a step closer in attaining courage, wisdom and self-knowledge. By the end of the novel, Paul Berlin has integrated the disconnected fragments of his experience and transcended the chaos in his own mind.
The chaos may not be completely overcome, for some memories still overlap while others remain unexamined. As for courage, though, Paul at least imagines a heroic journey, and in order to complete it, he performs a slight, but real-world, act of bravery: remaining on duty atop the observation post, even through the "dangerous time" of the "darkest hours" when attack is most likely.
Occupying a middle ground, Vannatta thinks that O'Brien's novel ends in "indefiniteness": Paul may have asserted "an existential commitment to one's own choices," but
… there is no reason to believe that flight will not once again become an attractive alternative to Paul. For that matter, even the seemingly vanquished goal of heroism, of fighting for God, country, and family, has an obstinate resiliency.
The novel's motifs of irresolvable conflict and Paul's divided mind would support such ambiguity. In the encounter with Li Van Hgoc, both sides are right: Li correctly calls Paul's squad prisoners, and the squad correctly shows its intent and ability to escape. In the debate between Doc and Fahyi Rhallon, Doc may be more cynical, but both positions could find vindication in Paul's experience. And in the final negotiation between Sarkin and Paul, both statements of commitment show nobility, but Paul speaks for himself and thereby takes a stand on one side of the division. No sense of irony accompanies this scene, for although the implied author knows more than Paul knows, Paul's actions are not treated in a condescending or disdainful manner; Paul Berlin's stand then does not, as Wilson would suggest, rest on something so flimsy as mere "slogans and platitudes." Nonetheless, the victory of the one side, like most victories in Vietnam, could yet prove temporary; taking a stand and holding to it could be no more attainable for Paul than "taking a place and keeping it, securing a village and then raising the flag and calling it a victory." In any case, the important point remains that, for the solitary soldier such as Paul, this kind of moral, if temporary, victory can sustain him rather than wear him out.
Paul's qualified triumph must stand in contrast to the verdict of history as represented by the implied author. Vannatta sees ambiguity on this level as well: "O'Brien exposes the horror and suffering of war, but he stops short of saying that war is ultimately without meaning or justification—even the Vietnam war." The narrative will not, I think, support the phrase after the dash. On the way to Paris, the lessons are several. For instance, superior firepower cannot prevail over committed manpower. And: when the land itself becomes the enemy, deadly conflict follows wherever troops go, virtually imprisoning them before putting them to ignominious flight. And: if an enemy cannot be defeated, then war serves only to destroy the people and culture allegedly being defended. Such conclusions carry no endorsement of the North Vietnamese goals, only the point that, if noble goals of freedom and prosperity merely decorate a policy supporting a government that offers little hope of freedom and prosperity, then war waged is simply for winning and no higher purpose. Furthermore, simply winning in Vietnam, prevailing by attrition, O'Brien's novel instructs clearly, is impossible. Sending soldiers into such combat may prompt speeches of the proper sentiments but will result in the practical execution of troops: the Vietnam War had been fought and lost before by the French; the US brought only new faces to its involvement in Vietnam, not new policies.
Paul encounters such lessons in the persons of Sarkin, Li Van Hgoc, the Cao Dai, Hamijolli Chand, Fahyi Rhallon, and others, but he needs only to face himself, not answer for his country's policy. If Paul Berlin knew the political history of the war beforehand, perhaps he would have avoided the draft; if he absorbed accurate political history while in the country, perhaps he would have deserted with Cacciato. Either way, Paul would still need to confront himself and need to justify himself in his own mind. Knowledge may alter choices, but it does not necessarily secure confidence in those choices. Vietnam made choices on all sides insecure. In other wars, the American soldier could sometimes know that, whatever his own involvement, the war's goal was correct and honorable. Not so in Vietnam. The implied author's introduction of several fantastic teachers of history suggests that, regardless of the enemy policy, the allied policy offered no hope of an honorable outcome. Cacciato, in despair, walks away from the war to Paris, prefiguring the American decision to walk away in Paris also. Paul feels fear more than despair, and under the circumstances, his resolution—finding a modicum of personal honor in a terrible enterprise—exhibits an imaginatively humane response to an absurdly vain combat.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5135
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 United States decided what constituted good and evil, right and wrong, civilized and uncivilized, freedom and oppression for Vietnam, according to American standards; then it traveled the long physical distance to Vietnam and attempted to make its own notions about these things clear to the Vietnamese people—ultimately by brute, technological force. For the U.S. military and government, the Vietnam that they had in effect invented became fact. For the soldiers that the government then sent there, however, the facts that their government had created about who was the enemy, what were the issues, and how the war was to be won were quickly overshadowed by a world of uncertainty. Ultimately, trying to stay alive long enough to return home in one piece was the only thing that made any sense to them. As David Halberstam puts it in his novel, One Very Hot Day, the only fact of which an American soldier in Vietnam could be certain was that "yes was no longer yes, no was no longer no, maybe was more certainly maybe." Almost all of the literature on the war, both fictional and nonfictional, makes clear that the only certain thing during the Vietnam War was that nothing was certain. Philip Beidler has pointed out in an impressive study of the literature of that war that "most of the time in Vietnam, there were some things that seemed just too terrible and strange to be true and others that were just too terrible and true to be strange."
The main question that Beidler's study raises is how, in light of the overwhelming ambiguity that characterized the Vietnam experience, could any sense or meaning be derived from what happened and, above all, how could this meaning, if it were found, be conveyed to those who had not experienced the war? The answer Beidler's book offers, as Beidler himself recently said at a conference on writing about the war, is that "words are all we have. In the hands of true artists … they may yet preserve us against the darkness." Similarly, for the novelist Tim O'Brien, the language of fiction is the most accurate means for conveying, as Beidler so incisively puts it, "what happened (in Vietnam) … what might have happened, what could have happened, what should have happened, and maybe also what can be kept from happening or what can be made to happen." If the experience of Vietnam and its accompanying sense of chaos and confusion can be shown at all, then for Tim O'Brien it will not be in the fictions created by politicians but in the stories told by writers of fiction.
One of Tim O'Brien's most important statements about the inherent problems of understanding and writing about the Vietnam experience appears in a chapter of his novel Going After Cacciato appropriately titled "The Things They Didn't Know." The novel's protagonist, Paul Berlin, briefly interrupts his fantasy about chasing the deserter Cacciato, who is en route from Vietnam to Paris, to come to terms with the fact that although he is physically in Vietnam and fighting a war, his understanding of where he is and what he is doing there is light-years away. At the center of the chapter is a long catalogue of the things that Berlin and his comrades did not know about Vietnam, and the chapter closes with the statement that what "they" knew above all else were the "uncertainties never articulated in war stories." In that chapter Tim O'Brien shows that recognizing and exploring the uncertainties about the war is perhaps the closest one can come to finding anything certain at all. Paul Berlin, in his fantasy about escaping the war and chasing Cacciato to Paris, is in fact attempting to confront and, as far as possible, understand the uncertainties of the Vietnam War through the prism of his imagination. Once inside his make-believe world, Berlin has the opportunity to explore all of the things that he did not know about the war: The elusive enemy suddenly becomes his partner in a long debate about the meaning of the war; he explores the mysterious tunnels of the Vietcong; one of the victims of the war becomes Berlin's tour guide as he and his fellow soldiers go after Cacciato; and, most important of all, Berlin is given a chance to test and ultimately reject his own thoughts of desertion by imagining how he would react to the desertion of another soldier.
In his most recent work of fiction, The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien takes the act of trying to reveal and understand the uncertainties about the war one step further, by looking at it through the imagination. He completely destroys the fine line dividing fact from fiction and tries to show, even more so than in Cacciato, that fiction (or the imagined world) can often be truer, especially in the case of Vietnam, than fact. In the first chapter, an almost documentary account of the items referred to in the book's title, O'Brien introduces the reader to some of the things, both imaginary and concrete, emotional and physical, that the average foot soldier had to carry through the jungles of Vietnam. All of the "things" are depicted in a style that is almost scientific in its precision. We are told how much each subject weighs, either psychologically or physically, and, in the case of artillery, we are even told how many ounces each round weighed:
As PFCs or Spec 4s, most of them were common grunts and carried the standard M-16 gas operated assault rifle. The weapon weighed 7.5 pounds, 8.2 pounds with its full 20-round magazine. Depending on numerous factors, such as topography and psychology, the rifleman carried anywhere from 12 to 20 magazines, usually in cloth bandoliers, adding on another 8.4 pounds at minimum, 14 pounds at maximum.
Even the most insignificant details seem worth mentioning. One main character is not just from Oklahoma City but from "Oklahoma City, Oklahoma," as if mentioning the state somehow makes the location more factual, more certain. More striking than this obsession with even the minutest detail, however, is the academic tone that at times makes the narrative sound like a government report. We find such transitional phrases as "for instance" and "in addition," and whole paragraphs are dominated by sentences that begin with "because." These strengthen our impression that the narrator is striving, above all else, to convince us of the reality, of the concrete certainty, of the things they carried.
In the midst of this factuality and certainty, however, are signals that all the information in this opening chapter will not amount to much: that the certainties are merely there to conceal uncertainties and that the words following the frequent "becauses" do not provide an explanation of anything. We are told in the opening page that the most important thing that First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried were some letters from a girl he loved. The narrator, one of Cross's friends in the war and now a forty-three-year-old writer named Tim O'Brien, tells us that the girl did not love Cross, but that he constantly indulged in "hoping" and "pretending" in an effort to turn her love into fact. We are also told "she was a virgin," but this is immediately qualified by the statement that "he was almost sure" of this. On the next page, Cross becomes increasingly uncertain as he sits at "night and wonder(s) if Martha was a virgin." Shortly after this, Cross wonders who had taken the pictures he now holds in his hands "because he knew she had boyfriends," but we are never told how he "knew" this. At the end of the chapter, after one of Cross's men has died because Cross was too busy thinking of Martha, Cross sits at the bottom of his foxhole crying, not so much for the member of his platoon who has been killed "but mostly it was for Martha, and for himself, because she belonged to another world, and because she was … a poet and a virgin and uninvolved."
This pattern of stating facts and then quickly calling them into question that is typical of Jimmy Cross's thoughts in these opening pages characterizes how the narrator portrays events throughout this book: the facts about an event are given; they then are quickly qualified or called into question; from this uncertainty emerges a new set of facts about the same subject that are again called into question—on and on, without end. O'Brien catalogues the weapons that the soldiers carried, down to their weight, thus making them seem important and their protective power real. However, several of these passages are introduced by the statement that some of these same weapons were also carried by the character Ted Lavendar; each of the four sections of the first chapter that tells us what he carried is introduced by a qualifying phrase that reveals something about which Lavendar himself was not at all certain when he was carrying his weapons: "Until he was shot…."
Conveying the average soldier's sense of uncertainty about what actually happened in Vietnam by presenting the what-ifs and maybes as if they were facts, and then calling these facts back into question again, can be seen as a variation of the haunting phrase used so often by American soldiers to convey their own uncertainty about what happened in Vietnam: "there it is." They used it to make the unspeakable and indescribable and the uncertain real and present for a fleeting moment. Similarly, O'Brien presents facts and stories that are only temporarily certain and real; the strange "balance" in Vietnam between "crazy and almost crazy" always creeps back in and forces the mind that is remembering and retelling a story to remember and retell it one more time in a different form, adding different nuances, and then to tell it again one more time.
Storytelling in this book is something in which "the whole world is rearranged" in an effort to get at the "full truth" about events that themselvesdeny the possibility of arriving at something called the "full," meaning certain and fixed, "truth." By giving the reader facts and then calling those facts into question, by telling stories and then saying that those stories happened, and then that they did not happen, and then that they might have happened, O'Brien puts more emphasis in The Things They Carried on the question that he first posed in Going After Cacciato: how can a work of fiction become paradoxically more real than the events upon which it is based, and how can the confusing experiences of the average soldier in Vietnam be conveyed in such a way that they will acquire at least a momentary sense of certainty. In The Things They Carried, this question is raised even before the novel begins. The book opens with a reminder: "This is a work of fiction. Except for a few details regarding the author's own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary." Two pages later we are told that "this book is lovingly dedicated to the men of Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa." We discover only a few pages after this dedication that those six men are the novel's main characters.
These prefatory comments force us simultaneously to consider the unreal (the fictions that follow) as real because the book is dedicated to the characters who appear in it, and the "incidents, names, and characters" are unreal or "imaginary."
O'Brien informs us at one point that in telling these war stories he intends to get at the "full truth" about them; yet from the outset he has shown us that the full truth as he sees it is in itself something ambiguous. Are these stories and the characters in them real or imaginary, or does the "truth" hover somewhere between the two? A closer look at the book's narrative structure reveals that O'Brien is incapable of answering the questions that he initially raises, because the very act of writing fiction about the war, of telling war stories, as he practices it in The Things They Carried, is determined by the nature of the Vietnam War and ultimately by life in general where "the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity."
The emphasis on ambiguity behind O'Brien's narrative technique in The Things They Carried is thus similar to the pattern used by Joseph Conrad's narrator, Marlow, in Heart of Darkness, so incisively characterized by J. Hillis Miller as a lifting of veils to reveal a truth that is quickly obscured again by the dropping of a new veil. Over and over again, O'Brien tells us that we are reading "the full and exact truth," and yet, as we make our way through this book and gradually find the same stories being retold with new facts and from a new perspective, we come to realize that there is no such thing as the full and exact truth. Instead, the only thing that can be determined at the end of the story is its own indeterminacy.
O'Brien calls telling stories in this manner "Good Form" in the title of one of the chapters of The Things They Carried: This is good form because "telling stories" like this "can make things present." The stories in this book are not truer than the actual things that happened in Vietnam because they contain some higher, metaphysical truth: "True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstractions or analysis." Rather, these stories are true because the characters and events within them are being given a new life each time they are told and retold. This approach to storytelling echoes Wolfgang Iser's theory of representation in his essay "Representation: A Performative Act":
Whatever shape or form these various (philosophical or fictional) conceptualizations (of life) may have, their common denominator is the attempt to explain origins. In this respect they close off those very potentialities that literature holds open. Of course literature also springs from the same anthropological need, since it stages what is inaccessible, thus compensating for the impossibility of knowing what it is to be. But literature is not an explanation of origins; it is a staging of the constant deferment of explanation, which makes the origin explode into its multifariousness.
It is at this point that aesthetic semblance makes its full impact. Representation arises out of and thus entails the removal of difference, whose irremovability transforms representation into a performative act of staging something. This staging is almost infinitely variable, for in contrast to explanations, no single staging could ever remove difference and so explain origin. On the contrary, its very multiplicity facilitates an unending mirroring of what man is, because no mirrored manifestation can ever coincide with our actual being.
When we conceptualize life, we attempt to step outside ourselves and look at who we are. We constantly make new attempts to conceptualize our lives and uncover our true identities because looking at who we might be is as close as we can come to discovering who we actually are. Similarly, representing events in fiction is an attempt to understand them by detaching them from the "real world" and placing them in a world that is being staged. In The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien desperately struggles to make his readers believe that what they are reading is true because he wants them to step outside their everyday reality and participate in the events that he is portraying: he wants us to believe in his stories to the point where we are virtually in the stories so that we might gain a more thorough understanding of, or feeling for, what is being portrayed in them. Representation as O'Brien practices it in this book is not a mimetic act but a "game," as Iser also calls it in a more recent essay, "The Play of the Text," a process of acting things out:
Now since the latter (the text) is fictional, it automatically invokes a convention-governed contract between author and reader indicating that the textual world is to be viewed not as reality but as if it were reality. And so whatever is repeated in the text is not meant to denote the world, but merely a world enacted. This may well repeat an identifiable reality, but it contains one all-important difference: what happens within it is relieved of the consequences inherent in the real world referred to. Hence in disclosing itself, fictionality signalizes that everything is only to be taken as if it were what it seems to be, to be taken—in other words—as play.
In The Things They Carried, representation includes staging what might have happened in Vietnam while simultaneously questioning the accuracy and credibility of the narrative act itself. The reader is thus made fully aware of being made a participant in a game, in a "performative act," and thereby also is asked to become immediately involved in the incredibly frustrating act of trying to make sense of events that resist understanding. The reader is permitted to experience at first hand the uncertainty that characterized being in Vietnam. We are being forced to "believe" that the only "certainty" was the "overwhelming ambiguity."
This process is nowhere clearer than in a chapter appropriately called "How to Tell A True War Story." O'Brien opens this chapter by telling us "THIS IS TRUE". Then he takes us through a series of variations of the story about how Kurt Lemon stepped on a mine and was blown up into a tree. The only thing true or certain about the story, however, is that it is being constructed and then deconstructed and then reconstructed right in front of us. The reader is given six different versions of the death of Kurt Lemon, and each version is so discomforting that it is difficult to come up with a more accurate statement to describe his senseless death than "there it is." Or as O'Brien puts it—"in the end, really there's nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe 'Oh.'"
Before we learn in this chapter how Kurt Lemon was killed, we are told the "true" story that Rat Kiley apparently told to the character-narrator O'Brien about how Kiley wrote to Lemon's sister and "says he loved the guy. He says the guy was his best friend in the world." Two months after writing the letter, Kiley has not heard from Lemon's sister, and so he writes her off as a "dumb cooze." This is what happened according to Kiley, and O'Brien assures us that the story is "incredibly sad and true." However, when Rat Kiley tells a story in another chapter we are warned that he
swore up and down to its truth, although in the end, I'll admit, that doesn't amount to much of a warranty. Among the men in Alpha Company, Rat had a reputation for exaggeration and overstatement, a compulsion to rev up the facts, and for most of us it was normal procedure to discount sixty or seventy percent of anything he had to say.
Rat Kiley is an unreliable narrator, and his facts are always distorted, but this does not affect storytelling truth as far as O'Brien is concerned. The passage above on Rat Kiley's credibility as a storyteller concludes: "It wasn't a question of deceit. Just the opposite: he wanted to heat up the truth, to make it burn so hot that you would feel exactly what he felt." This summarizes O'Brien's often confusing narrative strategy in The Things They Carried: the facts about what actually happened, or whether anything happened at all, are not important. They cannot be important because they themselves are too uncertain, too lost in a world in which certainly had vanished somewhere between the "crazy and almost crazy." The important thing is that any story about the war, any "true war story," must "burn so hot" when it is told that it becomes alive for the listener-reader in the act of its telling.
In Rat Kiley's story about how he wrote to Kurt Lemon's sister, the details we are initially given are exaggerated to the point where, in keeping with O'Brien's fire metaphor, they begin to heat up. Kurt Lemon, we are told, "would always volunteer for stuff nobody else would volunteer for in a million years." And once Lemon went fishing with a crate of hand grenades, "the funniest thing in world history … about twenty zillion dead gook fish." But the story does not get so hot that it burns, it does not become so "incredibly sad and true," as O'Brien puts it, until we find out at the story's close that, in Rat's own words, "I write this beautiful fuckin' letter, I slave over it, and what happens? The dumb cooze never writes back." It is these words and not the facts that come before them that make the story true for O'Brien.
At the beginning of this chapter, O'Brien asks us several times to "Listen to Rat," to listen how he says things more than to what he says. And of all of the words that stand out in his story, it is the word "cooze," (which is repeated four times in two pages), that makes his story come alive for O'Brien. "You can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil." This is just one way that O'Brien gives for determining what constitutes a true war story. The unending list of possibilities includes reacting to a story with the ambiguous words "Oh" and "There it is." Rat Kiley's use of "cooze" is another in the sequence of attempts to utter some truth about the Vietnam experience and, by extension, about war in general. There is no moral to be derived from this word such as war is obscene or corrupt: "A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct." There is simply the real and true fact that the closest thing to certainty and truth in a war story is a vague utterance, a punch at the darkness, an attempt to rip momentarily through the veil that repeatedly re-covers the reality and truth of what actually happened.
It is thus probably no coincidence that in the middle of this chapter on writing a true war story, O'Brien tells us that "Even now, at this instant," Mitchell Sanders's "yo-yo" is the main thing he can remember from the short time encompassing Lemon's death. This object, associated with games and play, becomes a metaphor for the playful act of narration that O'Brien practices in this book, a game that he plays by necessity. The only way to tell a true war story, according to O'Brien, is to keep telling it "one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth," which ultimately is impossible because the real truth, the full truth, as the events themselves, are lost forever in "a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent." You only "tell a true war story" "if you just keep on telling it" because "absolute occurrence is irrelevant." The truth, then, is clearly not something that can be distinguished or separated from the story itself, and the reality or non-reality of the story's events is not something that can be determined from a perspective outside of the story. As the critic Geoffrey Hartman says about poetry: "To keep a poem in mind is to keep it there, not to resolve it into available meanings." Similarly, for O'Brien it is not the fact that a story happened that makes it true and worth remembering, anymore than the story itself can be said to contain a final truth. The important thing is that a story becomes so much a part of the present that "there is nothing to remember (while we are reading it) except the story." This is why O'Brien's narrator is condemned, perhaps in a positive sense, to telling and then retelling numerous variations of the same story over and over and over again. This is also why he introduces each new version of a story with such comments as: "This one does it for me. I have told it before many times, many versions—but here is what actually happened." What actually happened, the story's truth, can only become apparent for the fleeting moment in which it is being told; that truth will vanish back into the fog just as quickly as the events that occurred in Vietnam were sucked into a realm of uncertainty the moment they occurred.
O'Brien demonstrates nothing new about trying to tell war stories—that the "truths" they contain "are contradictory," elusive, and thus indeterminate. Two hundred years ago, Goethe, as he tried to depict the senseless bloodshed during the allied invasion of revolutionary France, also reflected in his autobiographical essay Campaign in France on the same inevitable contradictions that arise when one speaks of what happened or might have happened in battle. Homer's Iliad is, of course, the ultimate statement on the contradictions inherent in war. However, what is new in O'Brien's approach in The Things They Carried is that he makes the axiom that in war "almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true" the basis for the act of telling a war story.
The narrative strategy that O'Brien uses in this book to portray the uncertainty of what happened in Vietnam is not restricted to depicting war, and O'Brien does not limit it to the war alone. He concludes his book with a chapter titled "The Lives of the Dead" in which he moves from his experiences in Vietnam back to when he was nine years old. On the surface, the book's last chapter is about O'Brien's first date, his first love, a girl named Linda who died of a brain tumor a few months after he had taken her to see the movie, The Man Who Never Was. What this chapter is really about, however, as its title suggests, is how the dead (which also include people who may never have actually existed) can be given life in a work of fiction. In a story, O'Brien tells us, "memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness." Like the man who never was in the film of that title, the people that never were except in memories and the imagination can become real or alive, if only for a moment, through the act of storytelling.
According to O'Brien, when you tell a story, really tell it, "you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself." By doing this you are able to externalize "a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse." However, the storyteller does not just escape from the events and people in a story by placing them on paper; as we have seen, the act of telling a given story is an on-going and never-ending process. By constantly involving and then re-involving the reader in the task of determining what "actually" happened in a given situation, in a story, and by forcing the reader to experience the impossibility of ever knowing with any certainty what actually happened, O'Brien liberates himself from the lonesome responsibility of remembering and trying to understand events. He also creates a community of individuals immersed in the act of experiencing the uncertainty or indeterminacy of all events, regardless of whether they occurred in Vietnam, in a small town in Minnesota, or somewhere in the reader's own life.
O'Brien thus saves himself, as he puts it in the last sentence of his book, from the fate of his character Norman Bowker who, in a chapter called "Speaking of Courage," kills himself because he cannot find some lasting meaning in the horrible things he experienced in Vietnam. O'Brien saves himself by demonstrating in this book that the most important thing is to be able to recognize and accept that events have no fixed or final meaning and that the only meaning that events can have is one that emerges momentarily and then shifts and changes each time that the events come alive as they are remembered or portrayed.
The character Norman Bowker hangs himself in the locker room of the local YMCA after playing basketball with some friends, partially because he has a story locked up inside of himself that he feels he cannot tell because no one would want to hear it. It is the story of how he failed to save his friend, Kiowa, from drowning in a field of human excrement: "A good war story, he thought, but it was not a war for war stories, not for talk of valor, and nobody in town wanted to know about the stink. They wanted good intentions and good deeds." Bowker's dilemma is remarkably similar to that of Krebs in Hemingway's story "Soldier's Home": "At first Krebs … did not want to talk about the war at all. Later he felt the need to talk but no one wanted to hear about it. His town had heard too many atrocity stories to be thrilled by actualities."
O'Brien, after his war, took on the task "of grabbing people by the shirt and explaining exactly what had happened to me." He explains in The Things They Carried that it is impossible to know "exactly what had happened." He wants us to know all of the things he/they/we did not know about Vietnam and will probably never know. He wants us to feel the sense of uncertainty that his character/narrator Tim O'Brien experiences twenty years after the war when he returns to the place where his friend Kiowa sank into a "field of shit" and tries to find "something meaningful and right" to say but ultimately can only say, "well … there it is." Each time we, the readers of The Things They Carried, return to Vietnam through O'Brien's labyrinth of stories, we become more and more aware that this statement is the closest we probably ever will come to knowing the "real truth," the undying uncertainty of the Vietnam War.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1019
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 the war, will be able to write his way out of it.
In the Lake of the Woods tries to tell the story of John Wade, a young Minnesota politician whose promising race for the Senate is stopped dead by the revelation that he covered up his membership in the Army company that butchered the inhabitants of My Lai. As a child, Wade was a dedicated practitioner of magic and disappearing tricks. His candidacy, in what it concealed, was another disappearing trick. And when he and his wife, Kathy, retreat to a lakeside cabin in the north woods to recover, Kathy disappears.
When I say O'Brien "tries" to tell the story, I do not mean that he has necessarily failed in his intention. In a sense, he may have intended to fail. He sets up two related stories: that of a political chameleon who does not so much violate the truth as make it vanish, even for himself; and a darkly gruesome mystery about what happened to Kathy. But the two stories are hostages of the bloody presence of Vietnam, waiting in a back room.
They speak under constraint. The story of Wade's childhood, marriage and career is formulaic and desultory; whereas the mystery of the disappearance, written more powerfully, blurs in the nightmarish mutter from behind the door. It is as if O'Brien were telling us that even fictionally, there is no possibility of connecting Vietnam with anything that follows; as if it were a kind of antimatter that annihilates any story that tries to build from it.
O'Brien's back room is a group of chapters that alternate with the story of Wade and Kathy. They consist of pages of quotes. Some are from fictional witnesses to the fictional story. Others consist of press reports and trial testimony about the My Lai affair, and of passages from books about the stress of combat and from memoirs of atrocities committed in other American wars.
Underneath these, as footnotes, comes O'Brien's own passionate voice; not as narrator but as a man who was there. He comments on his story, at least on that part of the story in which the fictional Wade takes part in the historical massacre. And the book's key passage occurs not in the fiction, but in the footnote. Here it is, in part:
I know how it happened. I know why. It was the sunlight. It was the wickedness that soaks into your blood and slowly heats up and begins to boil. Frustration, partly. Rage, partly. The enemy was invisible. They were ghosts…. But, it went beyond that. Something more mysterious. The smell of incense, maybe. The unknown, the unknowable, The blank faces. The overwhelming otherness. This is not to justify what occurred on March 16, 1968, for in my view, such justifications are both futile and outrageous. Rather, it's to bear witness to the mystery of evil. Twenty-five years ago, as a terrified young PFC, I too could taste the sunlight. I could smell the sin. I could feel the butchery sizzling like grease just under my eyeballs.
Such a voice drastically overshadows the fiction designed to embody its message. Except in his nightmares, Wade is an uninteresting, sketchy cliché; and Kathy exists thinly as someone who sees through him but loves him anyway. He is not, in fact, one of the real villains of My Lai. He shoots one civilian, but it was because he mistook a hoe for a gun. The other man he kills is one of the bloodiest of his fellow soldiers, who approaches him after he collapses into a ditch, sickened by what he has seen.
If Wade is loathsome, in fact, it is insofar as he is designed to represent the slickness and superficiality of a national public morality. Wade as the soldier who re-enlists after the massacre, gets a spot as battalion clerk and expunges his own company records, as a politician who conceals his past: all these are part of the universal spin that depends on obliterating history in order to be able, comfortably, to repeat it.
Wade pays for his cover-up by being found out and losing shamefully his race for the Senate. But the real price is internal. He no longer is capable of remembering, of distinguishing what he has done from what he wants to appear to have done. His punishment comes when Kathy disappears. As the sheriff cautiously and fruitlessly investigates, O'Brien dramatizes a series of hypotheses. They range from the routine—she has simply decided to leave him, taking their boat—to the bloodier—she has struck a shoal and drowned—to the monstrous—in a Vietnam-vintagenightmare, Wade has killed her in a manner too horrible to describe here—to the possibility, after Wade himself vanishes, that they have staged a two-part flight.
To disappear and to make truth disappear is to enter a wasteland of moral anarchy in which even the most hellish actions are conceivable. O'Brien narrates each version of what Wade has done in equally firm detail. Thematically, this is appropriate, but it makes for an artistic botch. Suspense, like suspension bridges, needs pillars to rest on. With his memory x'd out—and with O'Brien, in order to emphasize his character's spiritual anomie, refusing to supply a memory for him—what Wade has or has not done is of relatively little interest. This is particularly so, since the author has taken so few pains to make him, before and after the killing field, in any way distinctive.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 587
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 had even protested it—but he served anyway. "I went to the war purely to be loved, not to be rejected by my hometown and family and friends, not to be thought of as a coward and a sissy," he explained.
Once in Vietnam, he committed what he considers to be sins to gain the love and respect of his comrades. "If friends are burning houches, you don't want to be thought of as a bad person, so you burn along," he said. "You'll do bad things to be loved by your friends, realizing later you've made a horrible mistake."
A year after the My Lai massacre, which he recounts in In the Lake of the Woods, Mr. O'Brien was stationed in the village. He understands the fury felt by the soldiers who did the killing, though he says their actions can never be justified. "There's a fine line between rage and homicide that we didn't cross in our unit, thank God," he said. "But there's a line in the book about the boil in your blood that precedes butchery, and I know that feeling."
When he returned home, he said, he compounded his sins by keeping them secret, fearing that otherwise he would lose people he loved. "The deceits I write about in the book are magnified versions of the secrecy and deceit I practice in my own life, and we all do. We're all embarrassed and ashamed of our evil deeds and try to keep them inside, and when they come out, the consequences are devastating." He added that he wanted to "write a book where craving for love can make us do really horrid things that require lifelong acts of atonement. That's why I write about Vietnam. It was given to me, and I'm giving it back."
Now he plans to make some changes. Writing In the Lake of the Woods, which took him six years, was a start. He said he decided to put a mystery at the heart of the story and to break away from a straight narrative (though he feared that critics would object) because that is how the novel worked naturally. "This book is a way of helping myself to start to say, 'No, I'm not going to do things I think are wrong and stupid so people will like me.'"
He also plans to stop writing fiction for the foreseeable future. "The object of writing is to make a good piece of art," he said. "As you're making that art, you're tussling with the wicked self inside. That can get depressing, when you tussle with it for six years."
For now, he aims to stick with writing essays, working out, quitting smoking and improving his golf game. "I feel like I've gone to the bottom of a well with this book," he said.
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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.
The challenging and provocative In the Lake of the Woods follows that pattern in part. Coming after the widely praised, Vietnam-based The Things They Carried, the new novel is set in the States, but it combines both worlds—doing so with mixed but ultimately satisfying results.
The protagonist of In the Lake of the Woods, John Wade, is a middle-aged politician who had been a member of Charlie Company when it ran over the number of small Vietnamese villages now collectively known as My Lai, killing most every man, woman, child and animal they found there—though it was mainly, in descending numerical order, women, children and old men. In the Lake of the Woods is Wade's biography; but the problematic premise of the novel is that it is written by a fellow veteran who has set out to discover the mystery of Wade's life: "Biographer, historian, storyteller, medium—call me what you want—but even after four years of hard labor I'm left with little more than supposition and possibility. John Wade was a magician; he didn't give his tricks away."
These interpolations, which come at chapters' end, are done by means of footnotes (other secondary source materials are also footnoted with standard bibliographic references). But O'Brien is giving away some fictional tricks with this choice, and it is hard not to question his methods.
The story, without footnotes, is in another tradition of American fiction, bringing to mind Dreiser's An American Tragedy, which also makes potent, criminal use of an isolated body of water. Lakes have played a metaphoric role in our literature that is both benign and malevolent, a medium always mysterious and unknowable. And O'Brien fills the novel with that quality:
It is by the nature of the angle, sun to earth, that the seasons are made, and that the waters of the lake change color by the season, blue going to gray and then to white and then back again to blue. The water receives color; the water returns it. The angle shapes reality. Winter ice becomes the steam of summer as flesh becomes spirit. Partly window, partly mirror, the angle is where memory dissolves.
After losing a primary election for U.S. senator, Wade and his wife, Kathy, rent a cabin in the Minnesota wilderness: "They needed the solitude. They needed the repetition, the dense hypnotic drone of woods and water, but above all they needed to be together." Wade had become lieutenant governor of the state at 30. He seemed to be a shoo-in for senator until his presence at My Lai was uncovered during the campaign. (It was a fact he had hidden from everyone since he had left military service.)
Wade's life unravels still more: His wife "disappears" near the end of their vacation, lost in the Great North. Or was she murdered by Wade? The unnamed biographer can't decide.
O'Brien has set two contradictory narratives forward: one a compelling mystery, the other a investigation into the nature of mystery, of knowing itself. They do conflict. Readers hooked on one are likely to be irritated by the other.
Wade is a compelling character; his wife, Kathy, is much less so. As Wade's life history is revealed, O'Brien recounts step by step the killings at My Lai. These pages are shocking after 25 years, even if one knows the facts. (O'Brien makes liberal use of a 1992 nonfiction book, Four Hours in My Lai, which is equally unsettling to read).
I suspect O'Brien's novel will be the first account of My Lai many younger readers will encounter. O'Brien, it appears, wants to place his fact-based fiction in the service of history (rather than the more usual history in the service of fiction), and he is for the most part successful. Even mainstream Hollywood, not especially reticent these days, has shied away from depicting My Lai.
After the carnage is revisited, O'Brien invents a most cruel and grotesque death for Kathy—he does seem compelled to top the violence already described. "Finally it's a matter of taste, or aesthetics," the "biographer" informs us. In chapters labeled "Hypothesis" we get different versions of what may have occurred. It is clear that O'Brien wants to understand violence, not exploit it.
As hideous as the possibilities are, history provides Wade (and O'Brien and the reader) with contemporary counterparts. The convicted Green Beret slayer of his wife and two children, Jeffrey MacDonald, floats unnamed (along with others) in the ether of Wade's darkest impulses.
Yet, O'Brien, in the eleventh hour, seems to have pulled back from the logic of his character's character. Reviewers were supplied with a rewritten ending for the book long after the bound galleys were distributed, a rare occurrence. The difference was small, a matter of a few lines, but the lines lead the reader to favor a verdict of not guilty for John Wade.
O'Brien himself might still be unsettled about the matter. What is clear, however, is that he has written a risky, ambitious, perceptive, engaging and troubling novel, full of unresolved and unresolvable energies and powerful prose, a major attempt to come to grips with the causes and consequences of the late 20th Century's unquenchable appetite for violence, both domestic and foreign.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 858
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 O'Brien, who deferred his admission as a graduate student at Harvard in order to serve in Vietnam, the elemental theme is his experience there as a shy and questioning infantryman. O'Brien's Going After Cacciato (winner of the National Book Award in 1979) is perhaps the finest imaginative reconstruction of that war; and his story "Speaking of Courage" (from The Things They Carried, 1990), the most poignant evocation of a Vietnam veteran's displacement upon returning home. In his latest novel, In the Lake of the Woods, O'Brien turns once again to the time-released traumas of Vietnam, writing about them bravely and often brilliantly.
Lake is mostly the story of John Wade, a boyish, idealistic politician who retreats to a cottage in the Minnesota woods to recover after a humiliating election defeat. There, with Kathy, his longtime wife and college sweetheart, he looks into the mist over the lake and plays hide-and-seek with his unwanted memories. For Wade is not only an earnest man of principles, he is also a spooked vet who wakes up yelling in his sleep recalling the horrors he was part of—and party to—in Vietnam. Kathy is guilty of her own betrayals, and the wary husband and wife tiptoe around each other until eventually Wade is left by himself to dwell on her secrets and his own. Both of them slip through the trapdoors of their minds, down into the subterranean passageways where we all escape when we're missing not in action but in contemplation.
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. In Vietnam, of course, he locates the ultimate "spirit world," an eerie land of shadows where kids shot at phantoms, unable to tell friend from enemy, uncertain what they were fighting for. "The jungles stood dark and unyielding. The corpses gaped. The war itself was a mystery. Nobody knew what it was about, or why they were there, or who started it, or who was winning, or how it might end." Wade is an amateur magician nicknamed "Sorcerer" by his unit, and Vietnam becomes a place where he tries to make reality go away; it is a perfect training ground for the subterfuge and surveillance tricks people also use in love.
Expertly crosscut with Wade's life is a series of chapters called "Evidence" into which O'Brien throws psychological theories, passages of presidential biography, even accounts of battlefront atrocities in 1776. Here are quotations from Dostoyevsky and George Sand; selections from The Magician's Handbook and the Nuremberg Principles; an item about the 30,000 people who go missing every year. Thus, for example, as we travel deeper into Wade's battlefront memories, we are also given hard-and-fast, nonfiction testimony from the men who perpetrated the My Lai massacre. The "Evidence" chapters broaden the book's focus and prevent us from dismissing the horrors described in the novel as pure make-believe or peculiar only to the war in Vietnam.
With Lake, O'Brien manages what he does best, which is to find the boy scout in the foot soldier, and the foot soldier in every reader. No one writes better about the fear and homesickness of a boy adrift amid what he cannot understand, be it combat or love. O'Brien shows us Wade as a lonely, pudgy 10-year-old, practicing magic tricks before the mirror, hoping to conjure a callous father's love out of thin air. "The mirror made his father smile all the time. The mirror made the vodka bottles vanish from their hiding place in the garage, and it helped with the hard, angry silence at the dinner table." At his father's funeral the 14-year-old boy "wanted to kill everybody who was crying and everybody who wasn't."
O'Brien's suggestion that people enter politics in search of the love they've never had seems reductive. And he remains much better at exploring mystery than at explaining it ("There is no end, happy or otherwise; nothing is fixed, nothing is solved"). Yet if he is no psychologist, he is a masterly evoker of shadowy psychological states. And what remains in the mind from this book is an unsparing depiction of the moral and emotional nightmares of Vietnam, made more unsparing by O'Brien's rigorous refusal to write them off as the craziness of the moment. "This was not madness, Sorcerer understood. This was sin." Lake looks head-on at those unfashionable old friends, morality and evil.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6769
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 prize-winning author has spent two decades in skirmishes with the question of just what kind of stories might be able to effect this rescue. O'Brien's Vietnam War works persistently examine the function of stories. Throughout a memoir and two novels he has investigated the polarity of fact and fiction, lived experience and texts, documentation and art, memory and imagination. In the creative space between these poles he locates "story" and "truth" as agents of reconciliation and education.
At times, O'Brien has expressed concern that the literature of the Vietnam War, a literature dominated by author-veterans, might be "held prisoner by the fact of [the authors'own] Vietnam experiences. The result is a closure of the imagination, predictability and melodrama, a narrowness of theme and an unwillingness to stretch the fictive possibilities." He argues that writers must be less concerned with the facts than with the truth and that "lying is a way one can get to a kind of truth … [not] a definitive truth, but at a kind of circling … hoping that a kind of clarity emerges, not a truth … issues can be clarified sometimes by telling lies." In his pursuit of artistic lying to clarify the truth O'Brien has written the two Vietnam War novels Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried. Going After Cacciato with its careful blend of picaresque fantasy, magic realism, and combat realism and The Things They Carried, a mix of war parables and highly self-conscious metafiction, are novels that could never be accused of failing to explore fictive possibilities.
But O'Brien's espoused belief that fiction has greater potential for conveying essential truth than does nonfiction is one he has arrived at by working through his own personal experience. His first book was the autobiographical narrative If I Die in a Combat Zone … Box Me up and Send Me Home, in which he questions the efficacy of literature and the relationship between experience and understanding in a different light than he will later in open discussion and in his novels.
O'Brien is self-effacing and ambivalent about setting forth his project in If I Die. Early in the book he tells us:
I would wish this book could take the form of plea for everlasting peace, a plea from one who knows, from one who's been there and come back, an old soldier looking back at a dying war.
That would be good. It would be fine to integrate it all to persuade my younger brother and perhaps some others to say no to wrong wars.
Or it would be fine to confirm the old beliefs about war: it is horrible, but it's a crucible of men and events and, in the end, it makes more of a man out of you.
But, still, none of that seems right….
Do dreams offer lessons? Do nightmares have themes, do we awaken, and analyze them and live out our lives and advise others as a result? Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely from having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories.
O'Brien is very conscious of his position as an intermediary between those with personal knowledge of the war and those without. He is the one who has been there and back; he has lived to tell the tale. Yet at the end of this statement he denies the educational potential of such a position. He cannot advise or teach. All he can do is tell his war stories.
But he is not always reductive about war stories. In an Asia Society forum on the literature of the Vietnam War, he asserts "I'm a believer in the power of stories, whether they're true, or embellished, and exaggerated, or utterly made up. A good story has a power … that transcends the question of factuality or actuality." It is not clear whether O'Brien has changed his mind about the power of war stories or whether this apparent contradiction is a rhetorical stance, but the disparity between these two statements reflects a divided attitude about the adequacy of art for revealing and teaching.
This division is suggested throughout the pages of If I Die and becomes one of its driving tensions. Throughout the memoir O'Brien repeatedly privileges the written text and the story; but throughout the memoir O'Brien also undermines that privilege, until it is ultimately unclear whether he embraces or rejects the power of the story and the storyteller.
If I Die is an educated and literate man's response to war. As O'Brien attempts to make sense of his circumstances, he is continually interpreting them through a structure of texts ranging from Plato to A Farewell to Arms. His attitude toward the written text initially seems uncomplicated. The good guys read books and the bad guys don't. We see this at work early in If I Die as O'Brien forms his first real friendship in the army—with another recruit, Erik Hansen (to whom he will later dedicate Going After Cacciato). Their bonding begins when O'Brien sees Erik reading; the book is T. E. Lawrence's The Mint, which Erik is reading because "'He [Lawrence] went through crap like this. Basic training. It's a sort of how-to-do-it book.'" Erik shares the book with O'Brien and, with Lawrence as their guide, the two recruits struggle to maintain their humanity in the face of basic training. We see another attitude altogether toward books when O'Brien discusses his serious reservations about going into combat with the battalion chaplain. The chaplain, incensed at what he sees as O'Brien's lack of courage and patriotism, blames O'Brien's hesitations on reading: "'I think you're very disturbed, very disturbed. Not mental you understand—I don't mean that. See … you've read too many books, the wrong ones, I think there's no doubt, the wrong ones. But goddamn it—pardon me—but goddamn it, you're a soldier now, and you'll sure as hell act like one!'" The battalion commander, whom O'Brien goes to see next, similarly blames O'Brien's difficulties with the military system on an over-reliance on books. He complains: "'But you're hearing this from an old soldier … I suppose that you've got to read it to believe it, that's the new way.'" Our protagonists know how to make use of literature as interpretive schema; their enemies deny the ability of literature to cast any relevant light on real experience.
There are numerous examples in If I Die of O'Brien's reliance upon literary and philosophical texts to provide a structure for his time in Vietnam. He describes his platoon leader, Mad Mark, as working by an Aristotelian ethic; his company commander, Captain Johansen, becomes his hero, a hero he examines in the light of Plato, Hemingway, and Melville (as well as Alan Ladd as Shane and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca); a night ambush reminds him of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, "of imminent violence and guileless, gentle Ichabod Crane." While O'Brien is in the field, Erik writes him a letter that quotes The Wasteland: "'April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain'" and asserts explicitly that there is a practical lesson to be learned from the poetry: "'Take care. For it is not a fantasy.'"
Even as he contemplates escaping the army, O'Brien relies upon the written text. To make a decision about deserting he goes to the library and researches the question. When he eventually commits himself to going AWOL, he also commits all his plans to paper—so he can check and recheck his vision of escape against the documented plan he carries with him. When at the last moment he backs out of desertion, his first act is to burn the plans—as if destroying the text will destroy the idea.
The central question that O'Brien explores through texts, especially through Plato and Hemingway, is about the nature of courage. If I Die revolves around this question and its relationship to O'Brien's decision not to desert the military. Throughout the memoir—and indeed throughout his novels that will follow it—O'Brien relentlessly works over the problem of which choice represents true courage: to desert to keep faith with his moral and political principles or to fight out of obligation to his duties as a citizen and a son of an American family. This choice is embodied in the actions of O'Brien's greatest heroes—Socrates and Hemingway's Frederic Henry.
Very early in If I Die O'Brien considers his position in terms of his reading of Plato: "I remembered Plato's Crito, when Socrates, facing certain death—execution, not war—had the chance to escape. But he reminded himself that he had seventy years in which he could have left the country, if he were not satisfied or felt the agreements he made were unfair. He had not chosen Sparta or Crete. And, I reminded myself, I hadn't thought much about Canada until that summer." Much later in the book he lists his heroes, "especially Frederic Henry. Henry was able to leave war being good and brave enough at it, for real love, and although he missed the men of war, he did not miss the fear and killing." O'Brien tries to reconcile these two mentors by positing that "courage, according to Plato, is [only] one of the four parts of virtue," and that "Henry, like all my heroes, was not obsessed with courage; he knew it was only one part of virtue, that love and justice were other parts," but the fundamental choice between departing and enduring remains unresolved.
Because O'Brien elected to remain with the army, we assume that, at least in part, he chose to follow the model of Socrates rather than Frederic Henry, and thus opted for a Platonic ethic. This ethic appears to be affirmed late in the book, when O'Brien returns to the question of courage, in the chapter entitled "Courage Is a Certain Kind of Preserving." The chapter opens with a long quotation from The Republic (Book IV):
"So a city is also courageous by a part of itself, thanks to that part's having in it a power that through everything will preserve the opinion about which things are terrible—that they are the same ones and of that same sort as those the lawgiver transmitted in the education. Or don't you call that courage?"
"I didn't quite understand what you said," he said. "Say it again."
"I mean," I said, "that courage is a certain kind of preserving."
"Just what sort of preserving?"
"The preserving of the opinion produced by the law through education about what—and what sort of thing—is terrible…."
If O'Brien embraces these reflections on the nature of courage, then his purpose in telling his war stories is simultaneously affirmed and complicated. If we are to come to understand courage through education, then it is essential that we have educational texts. This is how O'Brien arrives at his definition of courage—through his reading. Thus his book, rather than merely telling war stories, can begin to serve some of the moral function that he earlier abnegated.
But the Platonic model also has adverse ramifications for O'Brien as a writer, because there is no place for O'Brien as a writer in the Platonic state. At the end of Book II and the beginning of Book III of The Republic Plato makes it clear that the place of the poet and the teller of tales should be a very limited and controlled one. Poets should be subject to censorship and not be permitted the egregious fault of telling lies; they must only represent truth—truth that is advantageous to the state. A little later on in Book III we read "if any one at all is to have the privilege of lying, the rulers of the State should be the persons; and they, in their dealings either with their enemies or with their own citizens, may be allowed to lie for the public good." As a writer, particularly as a writer of Vietnam War literature, a literature that has been so concerned with creating fictions that counter all the officially sanctioned public lies of that war, O'Brien must have difficulty with Plato's sentiments here. O'Brien believes in lying as a way to get to a kind of truth. And true courage may not come through education.
In his first book O'Brien was writing literature that would be acceptable in the Platonic model, by creating a straight historical text rather that a fictional one. In an interview with Eric James Schroeder O'Brien says of If I Die, "'it's just there as a document. It's not art.'" Yet, as Schroeder points out in a later article, in that same interview he tells about how he had written many of the episodes in If I Die when he was in Vietnam, and that upon returning to the United States he "'stitched it together into a book and sent it off.'" O'Brien also admits to fictionalizing dialogue: "'Often I couldn't remember the exact words that people said, and yet to give it a dramatic intensity and immediacy I'd make up dialogue that seemed true to the spirit of what was said.'" In addition to creating dialogue O'Brien tampered with chronology. "'I didn't follow the chronology of events; I switched events around for the purposes of drama.'" This "stitching" combined with the fictive dialogue and rearranged time scheme, as well as a formal structure that begins the story in medias res and then moves back to O'Brien's childhood, education, and basic training, suggest considerably more artistry than O'Brien is perhaps willing to admit.
The contradictions between O'Brien's creation of a text fitting for education in the Platonic model and his ideas about the role of fiction suggest a contradiction that is pointed to throughout the memoir. For most of the book, reading is portrayed as a worthwhile activity; books are friends and guides. But there is a thread throughout If I Die that contravenes this theme. After O'Brien has quoted the letter from his friend Erik that contains excerpts from The Wasteland and stresses that it "is not a fantasy," O'Brien immediately follows the letter by reporting "April went on without lilacs. Without rain" suggesting that perhaps the poem is not so pertinent after all. In describing guard duty at night, O'Brien once more uses texts to structure his present experience: "Then the guard started, the ritual come alive from our pagan past—Thucydides and Polybius and Julius Caesar, tales of encampment, tales of night terror." But the paragraph ends: "all the rules passed down from ancient warfare, the lessons of dead men." If the rules did not succeed in keeping their creators alive, perhaps they are not useful for the Vietnam soldier either. Similarly, O'Brien dismisses the relevance of "Horace's old do-or-die aphorism—'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori'" as "just an epitaph for the insane."
The suggestion that texts may complicate as much as they clarify is present as early as the basic training section of the book. At the exact same time as he is gaining understanding from T. E. Lawrence, other texts are perpetuating a lack of understanding between O'Brien and his absent girlfriend. His thoughts dwell on his girlfriend as a way of escaping basic training, and he tells us:
I memorized a poem she sent me. It was a poem by Auden, and marching for shots, and haircuts, and clothing issues, I recited the poem, forging Auden's words with thoughts I pretended to be hers. I lied about her, pretending that she wrote the poem herself, for me. I compared her to characters out of books by Hemingway and Maugham. In her letters she claimed I created her out of the mind. The mind, she said, can make wonderful changes in the real stuff.
Here the texts obfuscate instead of enlightening. Literature may give O'Brien a clearer understanding of the experience of boot camp, but it is also becoming a replacement for the real experience of another human being.
O'Brien also begins to doubt the applicability of works written about other wars to his positions in Vietnam. He wonders "how writers such as Hemingway and Pyle could write so accurately and movingly about war without also writing about the rightness of their wars." To O'Brien it seems that soldiers in war stories are all convinced of the rightness of their causes, or, at the least, "resigned to bullets and brawn." But for O'Brien, who likens his own position as similar to that of a "conscripted Nazi," the stance taken by legendary warriors may be impossible for him to assume.
O'Brien finds his reliance upon texts inadequate to create an ethical system suitable for Vietnam. His old, fictionally inspired notions about courage and battlefield behavior simply do not withstand the experiential assault of the war. He reports "it is … difficult, however, to think of yourself in those ways. As the eternal Hector, dying gallantly. It is impossible. That's the problem. Knowing yourself, you can't make it real for yourself. It's sad when you learn you're not much of a hero." As he arrives at this knowledge, O'Brien also begins to dismiss the fictions that he has used to direct his life:
Grace under pressure, Hemingway would say. That is how you recognize the brave man. But somehow grace under pressure is insufficient. It's too easy to affect grace, and it's too hard to see through it…. Or the other cliché: a coward dies a thousand deaths, but a brave man only one. That seems wrong too. Is a man once and for always a coward? Is a man once and for always a hero?
As he rejects these too-easy ways of understanding courage, O'Brien replaces these written texts with a text of physical, lived experience. For him this new definition of courage comes when "you look at the other men, reading your own caved-in belly deep in their eyes. The fright dies in the same way the novocain wears off in the dentist's chair. You promise, almost moving your lips, to do better next time; that by itself is a kind of courage."
By opting for the text of a fellow-soldier's eyes over a Hemingway novel, for the flesh rather than for the word, O'Brien appears to have arrived at the point from which he begins the book. War stories are only stories; they do not have any practical ramifications. But we know that the issue cannot be allowed to rest there. O'Brien does write the book, a book that is an actively created and ordered thing, a book presumably written to comprehend his own experience. He returns to the written text for structure. The question that If I Die poses it leaves largely unanswered.
Going After Cacciato is a return to those questions and a reopening of the issues. Schroeder posits that the book is a long answer to the question O'Brien posed for himself in If I Die: "Do dreams offer lessons?" Certainly Cacciato returns to the question of courage. But even more than that it is a return to a consideration of war stories. O'Brien again takes up the question of the relationship between fiction and experience, this time in a more explicit and self-conscious manner; and he attempts to discover the kind of stories that we must tell for them to have a real efficacy in our lives.
The structure of Cacciato emphasizes the disparities between experiential realism and fantastic imagination as a way of understanding lived experience. Cacciato is written using a tripartite structure. The narrative present is contained in a series of chapters entitled "The Observation Post," where the novel's protagonist, Paul Berlin, spends a quiet night of guard duty remembering and imagining—a remembering and imagining that are the substance of the rest of the novel. A series of flashback chapters detail many of the events that he remembers from the first part of his tour in Vietnam—a tour that is now about halfway over. Finally, "The Road to Paris" chapters make up Paul Berlin's elaborate imaginative voyage overland from Vietnam to Paris. The scheme of the novel is such that not until about a third of the way through the book is the reader able to sort out this structure and be certain about what is present, past, and dreamed, what is the book's fiction, and what is its reality.
The "Road to Paris" is Paul Berlin's fiction, a fiction that he creates as an alternative to the untenable life of war that is recorded in several flashback sections. These flashbacks are Paul Berlin's war stories. But for this young soldier these stories do not offer adequate lessons. Memory alone proves inadequate for Paul Berlin. As he concludes the flashback sections near the end of the book he muses:
Out of all that time, time aching itself away, his memory sputtered around those scant hours of horror…. Odd, because what he remembered was so trivial, so obvious and corny, that to speak of it was embarrassing. War stories. That was what remained: a few stupid war stories, hackneyed and unprofound. Even the lessons were commonplace. It hurts to be shot. Dead men are heavy. Don't seek trouble, it'll find you soon enough.
In language almost identical to that which he uses in If I Die O'Brien once again denies war stories any heuristic function. But Paul Berlin pursues another alternative. Instead of relying upon memory alone to arrive at truth, he transforms memory through his imagination. He alchemizes his experience in Vietnam into a picaresque voyage in search of Cacciato, Paris, and understanding.
If the narrative past in Cacciato is the realm of "fact" and reality, and the trip to Paris is the territory of fiction and imagination, then "The Observation Post" chapters are best described as metafiction. In these chapters Paul Berlin deliberates both on the nature of his memories and on the course that his fiction is taking, and the complex interplay between the two. It is through these chapters that we come to understand Paul Berlin's purpose in creating his elaborate journey and that although the imaginative escape to Paris is a way of mentally escaping the facts of war that he cannot confront, the journey is also a way of arriving back at the war, but this time with a greater degree of moral comprehension and a clear definition of courage.
For Paul Berlin, Vietnam is an unreadable and unknowable text. He arrives in Vietnam without the historical or political sense that would enable him to understand the United States position in Vietnam and his part in that position. O'Brien explicates Paul Berlin's sense of lostness upon the protagonist's arrival in country: "He was lost. He had never heard of I Corps, or the Americal, or Chu Lai. He did not know what a Combat Center was." To try to rectify his ignorance, Paul Berlin writes home to ask his father to look up Chu Lai in the world atlas, confessing "'Right now … I'm a little lost.'"
This geographic dislocation is symptomatic of the American soldiers' lack of any sort of historical or moral bearing while fighting the Vietnam War, a moral dislocation that is elaborated upon in the chapter "The Things They Did Not Know." Here O'Brien enumerates the many kinds of ignorance that compound the predicament of Paul Berlin and his fellows. They do not know the language, and therefore they cannot know the people of Vietnam. They do not know the political circumstances that have brought them to Vietnam. They do not know "even the simple things: a sense of victory, or satisfaction, or necessary sacrifice." Perhaps most significant "they did not know what stories to believe. Magic, mystery, ghosts and incense, whispers in the dark, strange tongues and strange smells, uncertainties never articulated in war stories, emotions squandered in ignorance. They did not know good from evil." O'Brien's soldiers are mired in their lack of knowledge; they have no geographical context within which to locate themselves and no textual guides to lead them to greater moral understanding.
What knowledge Paul Berlin does have is only superficial because he is unable to relate it to the reality of Vietnam. His expectations that have been formed by the texts that he has read before coming to Vietnam obscure any ability to theorize about his experience of the war. O'Brien tells us:
He had seen it in movies. He had read about poverty in magazines and newspapers, seen pictures of it on television. So when he saw the villages of Quang Ngai, he had seen it all before. He had seen before seeing, hideous skin diseases, hunger, rotting animals, huts without furniture or plumbing or light. He had seen the shit-fields where villagers squatted. He had seen chickens roosting on babies. Misery and want, bloated bellies, scabs and pus-wounds, even death. All of it he'd seen before. So when he saw it—when he first entered a village south of Chu Lai—he felt a kind of mild surprise, a fleeting compassion, but not amazement. He knew what he would see and he saw it. He was not stricken by it; he was not outraged or made to grieve. He felt no great horror. He felt some guilt, but that passed quickly because he had seen it all before seeing it.
Paul Berlin's reliance upon texts to confront the violence he is complicit in here takes him into some dangerous moral waters. He replaces the experience he is undergoing with the vicarious experience of books and magazines, a substitution that inures him to the very real and painful suffering of Vietnam and its people. The violence is familiar, even though now it is unmediated. At the same time Paul Berlin is unable to see past the suffering and poverty that he expected to any other aspect of Vietnamese life. He can only make his experience conform to categories that he had established well before arriving in Vietnam. Because he is over-reliant upon textual surrogates, he is unable to alter his epistemology in response to new experience.
Paul Berlin does not resolve his relationship to texts nor the uneasiness about his courage that prompts his imaginative odyssey until the climactic section on "The End of the Road to Paris" wherein Paul Berlin and Sarkin Aung Wang, the Vietnamese refugee he has fallen in love with, debate the location of Paul Berlin's deepest commitment. This scene consolidates the issues of courage and fiction that have driven O'Brien through both If I Die and Cacciato. Sarkin Aung Wang demands that Paul Berlin step out of his imagination and make his fiction real. For Paul Berlin this is tantamount to desertion, and thus he must resolve the question that O'Brien has been pondering since his own incomplete desertion: might desertion be the real act of courage? For Sarkin Aung Wang it is clearly embracing peace. She urges: "Having dreamed a marvelous dream, I urge you to step boldly into it, to join your own dream and live it. Do not be deceived by false obligation." For Paul Berlin it is not so simple, and he must ultimately reject Sarkin Aung Wang's offer. He declares "by my prior acts—acts of consent—I have bound myself to performing subsequent acts…. These were explicit consents. But beyond them were many tacit promises: to my family, my friends, my town, my country, my fellow soldiers."
Paul Berlin's resolution is also the resolution of his fiction, and of the moral questions that perpetrated that fiction. Some readers argue that Paul Berlin's inability to embrace his dream is the true failure of the imagination in the novel. A failure of the imagination has been presaged earlier in the fiction when the reality of the war threatened to bleed through into the trip to Paris: the disappearance of Harold Murphy and Stink Harris along the road to Paris, and the squad's near execution in Tehran are more a part of the wartime world than Paul Berlin's fantastic journey. But Paul Berlin's decision does not really seem like failure of the imagination—the fiction brings him to the point where he wished to arrive. He has discovered the values he wishes to live for. If the resolution he finds in Paris is not a triumph of the imagination either, this may well be a commentary on the American failure to imagine a happy ending out of Vietnam.
Paul Berlin's dream has finally offered him a lesson; but it may not be the lesson that we, as readers, want him to learn. O'Brien in part affirms a sensibility that he said in If I Die did not seem right. War "is horrible, but it is a crucible of men and events, and in the end it makes more of a man out of you." By refusing to step into his dream, Paul Berlin acquiesces to his position in Vietnam. He rejects the fiction that he has created and embraces the reality of his tour of duty—but this time it is a reality informed by fiction. Memory informed by imagination.
If Paul Berlin ultimately refuses to let the fiction be reality, is this the resolution of O'Brien's uneasy relationship to texts that we have seen at play throughout If I Die and Cacciato? If so, how do we balance that against the indications earlier in Cacciato that war stories are simply not adequate to teach us what we need to know about war? On which does O'Brien finally place a higher premium, experience or fiction, memory or imagination? On the one hand Paul Berlin's resolution and Tim O'Brien's own writing come out of autobiographical experience. But on the other it is clear that one cannot learn from experience unless one sets imagination to work upon it. Although the ending of Going After Cacciato is more conclusive than that of If I Die—through Paul Berlin O'Brien seems to affirm his own decision not to desert—the novel still leaves many open questions. If we cannot learn about courage from Hemingway or Captain Vere, if we cannot learn about Vietnam from television and magazines, if Paul Berlin cannot create an acceptable alternative to his reality, then why write at all? Despite this pending question, Paul Berlin does seem to have achieved moral understanding from fiction. And O'Brien seems to have made a truce—albeit an uneasy one—between memory and imagination.
It is the terms of this truce that he re-examines twelve years later in The Things They Carried. O'Brien returns to the material of his experience as a foot soldier in Vietnam. In this novel, the relationship between truth and fiction and the consideration of the effective potential of stories has moved to center stage. In person and in interviews O'Brien presents himself as a bluff ordinary guy, who claims his literary influences are "'the books I read as a kid. The Hardy Boys and Larry of the Little League'" and who has little interest in aesthetic theory. But his work belies this stance. When asked if The Things They Carried is nonfiction O'Brien appears startled by the question and says off-handedly that every bit of it is fiction. Yet the narrator of The Things They Carried is a forty-three-year-old Vietnam veteran named Tim O'Brien who has previously written a memoir called If I Die in a Combat Zone and the novel entitled Going After Cacciato.
An examination of even the prefatory material to The Things They Carried reveals that O'Brien is far more of a literary trickster than he acknowledges. The title page asserts the novel is "a work of fiction by Tim O'Brien." It is followed by a disclaimer that "this is a work of fiction. Except for a few details regarding the author's own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary." So far this is clear enough. But by the dedication page O'Brien is already beginning to muddy the textual waters. The book is dedicated to "the men of Alpha Company"; the dedication goes on to list their names. They are the names of the characters of The Things They Carried.
In and of itself this dedication to fictional characters might be passed over as whimsy on O'Brien's part, but it is soon revealed as part of the novel's elaborate interlocking pattern of truth and fiction. For example, in "Notes" O'Brien tells us that the story "Speaking of Courage" was written at the suggestion of Norman Bowker, one of those fictional men of Alpha Company, who wrote to O'Brien after reading If I Die in a Combat Zone. "The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," one of the most apparently fictive of the twenty-one pieces that make up The Things They Carried, is based, according to O'Brien, on a story told to him by a battle-field medic in Vietnam, who was "'desperate to make me believe him.'" The instructive piece "How to Tell a True War Story"—which begins by helpfully reporting "this is true"—explicates: "a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical." Clearly O'Brien is nudging his readers to question some of their assumptions about fiction and truth.
The three consecutive pieces "Speaking of Courage," "Notes," and "In the Field," exemplify O'Brien's relentless investigation of how to tell a true war story. The first story relates how the character Norman Bowker is unable to save Kiowa, a comrade who suffocates in the muck of excrement when Alpha Company is pinned down in a field full of night soil. In "Notes" the author-character Tim O'Brien tells us that the story was originally written at the suggestion of Norman Bowker who was dissatisfied with If I Die In a Combat Zone. As originally published the story featured Paul Berlin of Going After Cacciato and was only about the after-effects of the night in the night-soil field and did not discuss the incident itself. The intertextuality thickens. The fictional Norman Bowker expresses further dissatisfaction; he later kills himself. Prompted by the suicide, the author-character O'Brien rewrites the story for inclusion in The Things They Carried. The record is set straight—until the conclusion of "Notes" where O'Brien reports: "in the interests of truth, however, I want to make it clear that Norman Bowker was in no way responsible for what happened to Kiowa … that part of the story is my own." "In the Field" then is the final elucidation, the story in which O'Brien explains that he, not Norman Bowker, was the friend unable to save Kiowa that night.
Lest his readers should be tempted to believe that with "In the Field" they have at last been granted a definitive or foundational story, O'Brien follows that story with "Good Form," another authorial commentary by the character Tim O'Brien. It opens with the statement "it's time to be blunt"—surely an alarming declaration to readers that have been struggling through the book's labyrinth of truth. He then goes on:
I'm forty-three years old, true, and I'm a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through the Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier.
Almost everything else is invented.
But it's not a game. It's a form. Right here, right now, as I invent myself, I'm thinking of all I want to tell you about why this book is written as it is. For instance, I want to tell you this: twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe. I did not kill him. But I was present you see, and my presence was guilt enough…. I blamed myself. And rightly so, because I was present.
But listen. Even that story is made up.
So much for being blunt. But the dizzying interplay of truth and fiction in this novel is not solely aesthetic postmodern gamesmanship but a form that is a thematic continuation of the author's concern throughout his career with the power and capability of story.
The Things They Carried is more polished and manipulative even than the sophisticated triple play of Going After Cacciato. But for all its interrogation of the liminal space between lived experience and imagination and for all its insistence on abjuring any notion of static truth it is still finally more definitive about the potential of the story than either of O'Brien's earlier Vietnam War works. At the end of Going After Cacciato Paul Berlin has found a way of making use of war stories to define his moral position, but The Things They Carried makes a renewed attack on war stories: "A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper behavior … as a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil."
Yet at the same time that O'Brien strongly rejects any didactic moral function for war stories he clarifies his position on just what stories can do. Early on he declares that "sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future," and he later muses "what stories can do, I guess, is make things present." Story's ability to "make things present" is O'Brien's apparent resolution of the ambivalence toward fiction that has driven him through his Vietnam War books. He has been troubled by the question of whether dreams offer lessons. In The Things They Carried he sees his dreams and stories not as lessons but as elegies; they do not teach, but they do preserve.
In Vietnam, O'Brien tells us, "we kept the dead alive with stories." "The Lives of the Dead," the novel's final story, contains O'Brien's most definitive articulation of the relationship between memory and story. O'Brien recalls the death of his childhood sweetheart and how night after night he would invent dreams to bring her back. He recalls a conversation in one such dream:
"Right now," she said, "I'm not dead. But when I am, it's like … I don't know, I guess it's like being inside a book that nobody's reading."
"A book?" I said.
"An old one. It's up on the library shelf, so you're safe and everything, but the book hasn't been checked out for a long, long time. All you can do is wait. Just hope somebody'll pick it up and start reading."
So stories can save us, but through preservation rather than through salvation. In If I Die in a Combat Zone O'Brien rejected "the lessons of dead men," and in The Things They Carried reading becomes a way of dreaming those dead men back to life. The flesh is made back into word.
O'Brien's Vietnam War works persistently deconstruct the distinctions between memory and imagination, lessons and dreams, truth and fiction, and reality and the text. But the final movement in The Things They Carried is toward reconstruction—not of distinctions but rather of a creative connection that draws together experience and art. For O'Brien, stories are that privileged connection that can lift us out of the quagmire of a dualized reality and fantasy and place us on the solid ground of truth. But even this apparent resolution is finally suspended. Because the novel offers us a double lesson: Stories can save us. But if O'Brien's readers have truly accepted his wiley postmodern perceptions of the reader's relationship to the text then they know that they must reject any lessons. O'Brien warns "if at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been the victim of a very old and terrible lie." So any sense of conclusion or epiphany must be its own undoing. And as O'Brien might say, "this is true."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1193
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 know. I never thought of that", replies his comrade: "Nobody thinks of the names for these places." The military institution, non-combatant readers know from Catch-22, is absurd enough without having to function in the context of a war whose fundamental "mistakenness" has now, thanks to Robert McNamara, been given all but official confirmation. If the grand geopolitical point of the war was obscure, the "search and destroy" tactics appointed for US troops on the ground amounted to a sort of systematic purposelessness. As the narrator of Going After Cacciato, O'Brien's novel of 1978, remarks:
They did not know even the simple things: a sense of victory, or satisfaction, or necessary sacrifice. They did not know the feeling of taking a place and keeping it, securing a village and then raising the flag and calling it a victory. No sense of order or momentum. No front, no rear, no trenches laid out in neat parallels. No Patton rushing for the Rhine, no beachheads to storm and win and hold for the duration.
Nor was there an identifiable enemy: indistinguishable from the general populace, the Vietcong seemed at once pervasive and maddeningly elusive.
And maddened, notoriously, they were—though as John Wade, the protagonist of In the Lake of the Woods, realizes as he watches, appalled but uncondemning, the massacre at My Lai, "this was not madness…. This was sin." The main action of O'Brien's new novel opens many years after these events and unfolds in backwoods Minnesota, yet it is all the more a Vietnam novel for that. Time has only made John Wade more completely a creature of his combat experience, though it has been internalized, suppressed until now through a successful political career and an outwardly successful marriage. War was a nightmare—horrific but unreal. Only when the veteran is back in "the world", does Vietnam begin to assume its grim if unacknowledged reality. As the novel begins, Wade is with his wife Kathy in a woodland retreat, trying a pick up the pieces after a crushing defeat in the polls. It is clear that Kathy is about to leave her husband: what we don't know is exactly how or given that she has stayed with him through what is gradually revealed as having been a purgatorial couple of decades, why. Though "Hypothesis" chapters flash forward to explore the possibility that Kathy may indeed be leaving her husband, and back to consider some of her possible motives for doing so, there remains the inescapable suspicion that something more sinister may have befallen her. Will Kathy be alive at all? The soldier kills innocent civilians: why should he not have killed his wife? The attempt to piece together the answers to this question involves the quasi-legalistic assembly, in "Evidence" interchapters, of snatches of testimony, not only from Wade's friends and relations but from non-fictional sources including the transcripts of the Calley trial and the veteran's self-help literature. But it is an attempt to piece something together. Some novels may revel in postmodern fragmentation and centrifugality: In the Lake of the Woods would dearly love to recover its lost centre. "For me, after a quarter of a century, nothing much remains of that ugly war", O'Brien reports in an authorial footnote towards the end of the novel. "My own war does not belong to me." Vietnam remains in the memory incoherent but ineradicable, a set of "splotchy images" which must be brought into focus if the experience is to be apprehended. Aesthetics here are no more than a means to an ending. Combat offers multiple encounters with death but leaves the surviving soldier with a need for closure life cannot meet. So it is that the world becomes Vietnam, and the beautiful woods and lakes of Minnesota come to stand in for the jungles and paddies of South-east Asia.
Yet perhaps the North American wilderness has always contained its Vietnam, at least for as long as the United States has existed. "It had been Indian land", recalls O'Brien of his Minnesotan birthplace in If I Die in a Combat Zone. "Ninety miles from Sioux City, sixty miles from Sioux Falls, eighty miles from Cherokee, forty miles from Spirit Lake and the site of a celebrated massacre…. The settlers must have seen endless plains and eased their bones and said, 'here as well as anywhere, it's all the same.'" Vietnam. O'Brien implies, is just one more stop along the trail for a nation which has indeed "celebrated" massacre in its western tradition but has never come to know the soil it has so ruthlessly conquered. It is significant that O'Brien includes the testimony of a Native American witness at My Lai, a witness who looks on with something like resignation but nothing like involvement. It is significant too that Wade's problems pre-date Vietnam. The humiliated son of an alcoholic and thus largely absent father, he had a boyhood passion for conjuring tricks, and while the tips from conjuring manuals offered in evidence here may suggest the manufacture of consent for an indefensible war by government and media, they provide more immediate insight into the mind of an individual with a mania for control: a boy who will grow up incapable of trust in himself or others and who will find no adequate confessor for the sins of adulthood. Themselves the products of war, born into the baby boom that followed victory in 1945, the Vietnam generation is in some sense sterile: in some sense arrested in childhood. More disturbing than John and Kathy Wade's marital difficulties is the barren infantilism of their marital happiness; more alarming than their conscious decision to abort their baby to further John's political career is the clear subconscious motive that they themselves should remain the children. Foreigners tend to be impatient of the notion that Vietnam was "an American tragedy", pointing out that the war was a sight more tragic for the Vietnamese. Yet it remains interesting that in this, for all its haunting beauty perhaps O'Brien's bleakest novel yet, the most chilling passages are not those which deal with guns and gore in Vietnam but those set in Minnesota many years later, revealing a people at ease but never at peace. Just what is it that American fathers do to their sons that gives them this need to kill and conquer in nameless places abroad? Whatever it is, it robs them of any sense of belonging at home and makes of America itself an indeterminate, disorientating wilderness.
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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 and O'Brien's The Nuclear Age." In The Nightmare Considered: Critical Essays on Nuclear War Literature, edited by Nancy Anisfield, pp. 177-85. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1991.
Proposes "to define a ecofeminist ethics as it relates to nuclearism in general and literature about nuclearism in particular," illustrating "a practical application of these speculations by applying this heuristics to O'Brien's novel."
Smith, Lorrie N. "The Things Men Do: The Gendered Subtext in Tim O'Brien's Esquire Stories." Critique XXXVI, No. 1 (Fall 1994): 16-40.
Argues that five stories, which first appeared during the 1980s in Esquire and later formed the core of The Things They Carried, offer "no challenge to a discourse of war in which apparently innocent American men are tragically wounded and women are objectified, excluded, and silenced." Smith uses this subtext "to position The Things They Carried within a larger cultural project to rewrite the Vietnam War from a masculinist and strictly American perspective."