Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

What is a “true” war story for Tim O’Brien? How does he explore this in his books that concern Vietnam?

O’Brien spent a year in Vietnam in the general area where the My Lai massacre occurred the year before he arrived in Vietnam. How does My Lai surface in each of his books, particularly in The Things They Carried and In the Lake of the Woods?

Many critics have suggested that O’Brien’s books are at least as much about the way memory works as they are about the Vietnam War. How does memory become a theme as well as an organizing device in O’Brien’s work?

Fathers and sons figure prominently in several of O’Brien’s stories and novels. How does the relationship between the father and son affect the outcomes of these stories?

“How to Tell a True War Story” and “Lives of the Dead” from The Things They Carried are stories about the writing of stories. What does O’Brien reveal about the purposes of stories?

In the Lake of the Woods can be called a detective story in that it is an investigation of a disappearance. What detective story conventions does O’Brien use in the novel and how does his use of them both fulfill and undermine the reader’s expectation?

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Tim O’Brien often blurs the boundaries between genres. He began his career as a journalist, and sections of reporting are often mixed with his fiction. He develops novels, such as Going After Cacciato (1978), around successful short stories. He interlocks short fictions so closely that collections can be read as novels, although their components are published individually as short stories, as with The Things They Carried. He also often walks with one foot in fiction and one foot in autobiography, as in his early work If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973; revised 1979), to which he refers as a war memoir rather than a novel. His essay “The Vietnam in Me,” was the cover story for The New York Times Magazine of October 2, 1994. He has also written the novels In the Lake of the Woods (1994) and Tomcat in Love (1998).


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Tim O’Brien’s short stories have been honored by the National Magazine Award and included in The Pushcart Prize, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, and The Best American Short Stories collections. He was awarded the National Book Award in 1979 for Going After Cacciato. His collection of interrelated stories The Things They Carried won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, the Melcher Book Award, and France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger. His novel In the Lake of the Woods (1994) holds the Society of American Historians’ James Fenimore Cooper Prize for best historical novel. He has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Vietnam Veterans of America.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

ph_0111226281-Obrien_T.jpg Tim O’Brien. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Tim O’Brien wrote magazine and newspaper articles about the Vietnam War while he was a soldier. He published articles on American politics as a reporter for The Washington Post in the mid-1970’s, and he has also published short stories and essays in popular magazines and literary quarterlies. If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973, revised 1979) contains partially fictionalized memoirs, and The Things They Carried (1990) collects O’Brien’s short stories that are also closely based on his tour of duty in Vietnam. Some critics consider these books loosely organized, episodic novels.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Tim O’Brien has won accolades from war veterans and literary critics for his fiction and memoirs concerning the Vietnam War. In 1976 and 1978, he received the O. Henry Memorial Award for chapters of Going After Cacciato, which also earned for him the National Book Award in 1979. He won the Vietnam Veterans of America Award in 1987 and, the same year, the National Magazine Award in Fiction for the short story “The Things They Carried”; the story was later included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike. In 1990, O’Brien was awarded the Heartland Prize from the Chicago Tribune, and in 1991 he was nominated for both the National Book Critics Circle’s Melcher Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for The Things They Carried. He also received France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger for that book and the James Fenimore Cooper Prize of the Society of American Historians for In the Lake of the Woods, which was named the best book of the year by Time magazine. O’Brien has held fellowships from the National Academy of Arts, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Guggenheim Foundation.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Herzog, Tobey C. Tim O’Brien. Boston: Twayne, 1997. Critical biography addressed to informed readers from advanced high school students to university professors. Covers O’Brien’s work from If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home through In the Lake of the Woods. Includes bibliography.

Kaplan, Steven. Understanding Tim O’Brien. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994. Kaplan stresses the importance of storytelling, memory, and imagination in O’Brien’s life and fiction. Explicates O’Brien’s first five books, particularly their theme of courage. Includes a generous bibliography. A concise, lucid introduction to O’Brien’s work.

Lee, Don. “About Tim O’Brien.” Ploughshares 21 (Winter, 1995/1996): 196-201. A concise and sensitive sketch of O’Brien’s life and work through 1994, written on the occasion of O’Brien’s guest editorship (with Mark Strand) of a volume of the literary review Ploughshares.

Tegmark, Mats. In the Shoes of a Soldier: Communication in Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam Narratives. Uppsala: Ubsaliensis, 1998. A good study of problematic communication in O’Brien’s writings on Vietnam. Includes a bibliography and index.