In a 1994 interview O'Brien said, "Fiction in general, and war stories in particular, serve a moral function, but not to give you lessons, not to tell you how to act. Rather, they present you with philosophical problems, then ask you to try to adjudicate them in some way or another." In the same interview, O'Brien said, "All stories have at their heart an essential moral function, which isn't only to put yourself in someone else's shoes, but to go beyond that and put yourself into someone else's moral framework."
O'Brien even goes so far to as to say that style is secondary, teachable, and (almost) an overrated gimmick. O'Brien's style at moments owes an obvious debt to Ernest Hemingway--to the point of intentional parody in Northern Lights (1975)--but O'Brien's devices and moral settings come from William Faulkner, Vladimir Nabokov, and Kurt Vonnegut. His diction is simple, his sentences are rhythmic, and his characters have distinct speaking voices, but they also represent values. According to O'Brien, "Stylistic problems can be solved: by writing better, by recognizing your own faults and getting rid of them. What can't be learned, however, is passion for ideas--substance."
Storytelling is another passion, and one interviewer for the Boston Globe described O'Brien (who is childless) as discussing his craft "with the same open-eyed delight that other people use to talk about their kids." O'Brien told a New York Times reporter that "Storytelling is the essential human activity. The harder the situation, the more essential it is." This storytelling never ends. There is always more to be said about any event. When someone speaks they are often "mostly right. Not entirely." In seeking truth, O'Brien never stops seeking. He revolves ideas and perspectives around and around and around. He revises; he even revised Going After Cacciato (1978) after it won the National Book Award. In a 1990 New York Times interview O'Brien explained that "As you play with stories you find that whatever is said is not sufficient to the task." Unlike a character in the short story "Loon Point" (in Esquire, January 1993), who is silent because "there was nothing she could say that was entirely true," O'Brien keeps writing fiction in an attempt to reach truth or truths. He is an old-fashioned postmodernist.
O'Brien's writing organizes itself around a familiar set of oppositions: war versus peace, love versus hate, men versus women, reality versus imagination, sanity versus insanity, cowardice versus courage, safety versus danger, and change versus stasis. But in each of these cases, O'Brien is finally more interested in the way oppositions break down. For example, although he was against the war and claims he was a terrible soldier who felt only fear, he writes, "Vietnam was more than terror. For me, at least, Vietnam was partly love." One of his more famous lines is from The Things They Carried (1990): "I was a coward. I went to the war."
When exploring issues such as courage, love, and the fear of nuclear war, O'Brien holds up the real and symbolic representatives of these issues in different positions and in different lights. He rotates them, places them in varying relationships with each other, and describes them in the speech of different characters. A Vietnamese man in Going After Cacciato says, "things may be viewed from many angles. From down below, or from inside out, you often discover entirely new understandings." O'Brien's commitment to understanding every idea and its multiple alternatives means that his novels villainize nobody, but they also sanctify nobody. Steven Kaplan wrote that O'Brien "constantly circles around and around a given theme or idea, but he never conclusively zeroes in on it to offer a final statement." O'Brien develops all the positions he can and leaves his readers to make their own judgments.
O'Brien returns again and again to the complex relationship among reality, the imagination, and language. He examines most extensively the roles of fiction and memory in building the future as well as narrating and making meaning of the past. Separating himself from the word games of William Gass and Jorge Luis Borges, O'Brien maintains a primary interest in how humans make their moral choices and a compelling curiosity about truth--not "actual literal truth" but the "emotional qualities" of truth. And perhaps surprisingly, O'Brien believes that "exercising the imagination is the main way of finding truth" and meaning.
Certainly experience and language shape our imaginative lives, but O'Brien also contends that our imagination shapes our realities. In his first book, If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973), O'Brien suggests that our decisions are largely guided by the language we use to ask ourselves the questions. In The Nuclear Age (1978), O'Brien writes, "Our lives are shaped in some small measure by the scope of our daydreams. If we can imagine happiness, we might find it." In Tomcat in Love (1998), his main character (and narrator) is a pathological liar who is always telling at least part of the truth. Tom's imaginative shapings of his experience heavily influence his current and future relationships. In an interview with Larry McCaffery, O'Brien explained, "All of our decision-making--opposing a war, marrying certain people, the jobs we accept or refuse--is at least partly determined by the imaginative faculty." He observed that "Those soldiers who actually did desert were able to imagine a happy ending to it." O'Brien elaborated on this point in a 1994 Modern Fiction Studies interview with Eric James Schroeder: "The imagination is a heuristic tool that we can use to help ourselves set goals. We use the outcomes of our imaginings." O'Brien's main interests meet in the matrix of the war: in "The Violent Vet" (Esquire, December 1979), he writes, "In memory, in imagination, and in concrete reality, a war goes on and on in its consequences."
Although O'Brien's imagination and his diligence as a writer and reviser are the primary forces behind his success, he says himself that his life experiences, particularly the Vietnam War, influenced--and even brought about--his writing career. Although he takes issue with the limiting designation "war writer," he concedes, "I came to writing because of the war. When I returned from Vietnam, I had something to say." O'Brien expresses his goals in his memoir If I Die: "I would write about the army. Expose the brutality and injustice and stupidity and arrogance of wars and men who fight in them." Extending this goal farther, O'Brien celebrates the individual conscience--the side of himself he didn't dare listen to when he succumbed to the draft--while recognizing and not devaluing other, often contrary, responsibilities.
Tobey C. Herzog, whose critical study Tim O'Brien (1997) provides the most complete biographical sketch on O'Brien, discussed O'Brien's life in terms of the roles he has fulfilled: as son, soldier, and author. O'Brien has also been a brother, patriot, thinker, reader, friend, teacher, leader, and husband. In his writing, he has explored many of these roles and the way the responsibilities to others and to ourselves have to be negotiated with our individual search for contentedness and meaning. In Going After Cacciato O'Brien states, "The real issue is how to find felicity within limits. Within the context of our obligations to other people." In addition to his Vietnam experience, O'Brien's writing has been influenced by his familiarity with the lakes and woods of Minnesota, his childhood love of magic, and his probing of relationships such as the one with his thoughtful, literary-minded, alcoholic father. O'Brien's imagination, though, is the core of his work. His imagination asks questions, wonders what would happen if, probes why things are the way they are. These questions lead to scenarios and stories; they open up compelling mysteries and develop into plots that never completely lose their enigmatic qualities.
Some unenigmatic facts. The son of William Timothy O'Brien and Ava Eleanor Schultz O'Brien, William Timothy O'Brien Jr. was born in Austin, Minnesota, on October 1, 1946. Raised in Minnesota, Tim O'Brien graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from St. Paul's Macalaster College with a Bachelor of Arts in political science and a scholarship to start graduate school at Harvard University. At Macalaster, O'Brien was president of the student body his senior year and was mildly involved in Macalaster's already mild version of the antiwar movement. Immediately after graduating he received his draft notice, and he entered the army in August 1968. He was assigned to the 46th Infantry, 198th Infantry Brigade, 5th Battalion, Alpha Company, 3rd squad (as is Paul Berlin in Going After Cacciato). O'Brien spent seven months in combat and received the Combat Infantry Badge, a Purple Heart, and the Bronze Star. Sergeant O'Brien finished his 365-day (plus one month) tour of duty in Vietnam as a clerk.
During several years as a graduate student studying government at Harvard University (1970-1976), O'Brien took a year off to work as a general-assignment reporter on the national desk for the Washington Post (1973-1974), wrote and published If I Die in a Combat Zone and Northern Lights, and married Ann Wellard (they were divorced in 1995). He revisited Vietnam, including the My Lai area, in 1994. In addition to teaching at places such as Middlebury College's Breadloaf Writer's Conference, O'Brien has won awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Arts and Humanities Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Vietnam Veterans of America.
O'Brien's work has won many literary awards: two short stories from Going After Cacciato won the prestigious O. Henry Memorial Awards (1976 and 1978), and Going After Cacciato won the even more prestigious National Book Award in 1979. The story "The Things They Carried" won the National Magazine Award in Fiction (1989), and the novel of that title received the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Prize (1990), the Melcher Award (1991), and the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger (1992). The Things They Carried was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (1990) and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The New York Times recommended it as one of the ten best works of fiction in 1990. Time magazine labeled In the Lake of the Woods (1994) the best work of fiction in 1994, and this same best-selling novel received the 1995 James Fenimore Cooper Prize for the best historical novel. In the Lake of the Woods has been adapted into a made-for-television movie and was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection.
If I Die in a Combat Zone
O'Brien's first book, If I Die in a Combat Zone, is his memoir of his experiences leading up to and in Vietnam and his ruminations about those experiences. Only briefly alluding to the way his ideas of war and manhood were spawned by national self-congratulatory and selective hindsight about World War II, O'Brien relates his physical and mental experiences between August 1968 and March 1970: induction, basic training, advanced infantry training, duties with Alpha Company and at battalion headquarters, and the trip home after being stationed in Vietnam for his 365 days. O'Brien wonders how other war writers such as Ernest Hemingway and World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle managed to write so much about war without answering two compelling questions: (1) When is war right? and (2) What do soldiers think to themselves? These are O'Brien's big issues: moral decisions and the interior life of the individual.
To once-unresolvable arguments about the Vietnam War, O'Brien offers thoughtfulness. One voice says, "No war is worth losing your life for" and another argues that "no war is worth losing your country for." Even after military service, O'Brien does not claim to be an authority; he does not offer answers. He longingly imagines being able to "integrate it all to persuade my younger brother and perhaps some others to say no to wrong wars." He writes that it would also "be fine to confirm the old beliefs about war: It's horrible, but it's a crucible of men and events and, in the end, it makes more of a man out of you." But he cannot do either one; "none of this seems right." Instead he writes, "Now, war ended, all I am left with are simple, unprofound scraps of truth ... some men think war is sometimes necessary and others don't and most don't care." He asks, "Is that the stuff for a morality lesson, even for a theme?"
As he discusses the war, he wonders what the issue is, what the deciding priority should be. He suggests that a decision rests on the words in which we couch the question--for example, is the Vietnam War an issue of U.S. imperialism, communist expansion, loyal patriotism, or personal survival? This theme reappears in later works, including his 1998 novel, Tomcat in Love. All the words are almost right and also just miss the truth of the situation. Most true statements are "half-truths" that can only be offset with other "half-truths." Thus, he concludes that facts can be accurate but unprofound: the truth of every matter may be that no meaning, no answers, no words, are ever quite final. There is always more to be seen and said.
O'Brien takes his conscience and his thoughts seriously. In this first book, ideas, traditions, and people all pull at him. Unlike one character who "just grinned and gave flippant, smiling, say-nothing answers" such as "it was best not to worry," O'Brien is not flippant. Instead, he is deeply thoughtful. This seriousness about the self--the soul, interiority, and personal responsibility--is not only inspiring but surprisingly pleasant. Our world tends to broadcast flippancy and thoughtlessness; sound bites are necessarily only very partial truths, if that. In a world in which people tend to revere the CEO precept, "do something, even if it's wrong," O'Brien's tendency is to do nothing until he knows what's right. Here is a good man, his reviewers have asserted, a man who struggles with the concepts "right" and "wrong" as well as "heroism" and "cowardice." His honest meditations, the attention and respect he gives his own thoughts, represent the human mind in all its stubbornness and vulnerability. Even in a "good war" such as World War II, according to Paul Fussell in Wartime, "things are conventionally asserted to be true which smart people know are false." In Vietnam, O'Brien is profoundly confused: trying to trust in the good will and good intentions of his family, neighbors, and even superior officers, his mind and heart are in ceaseless, dogged turmoil.
In resistance to the mindlessness and anonymity of basic training, O'Brien thinks and talks and tries to "see through ideology" with another thinker, Erik Hansen. While nodding respectfully toward friends who found "easy paths" out of military duty, and wishing he had had the courage to go AWOL before being sent overseas, O'Brien describes his quiet verbal protest. He writes, "Our private conversations were the cornerstone of the resistance, perhaps because talking about basic training in careful, honest words was by itself an insult to army education. Simply to think and talk and try to understand was evidence that we were not cattle or machines." He and Erik are accused of "making some love" when they chat, which goes against one of the implicit lessons of basic training: "There is no thing named love in the world." One of the first things he learns at Alpha Company is that language can be made to control and limit the scope of human emotion and evil-doing (men get "wasted" or "fucked up," not murdered or mangled). O'Brien's thoughtful and humanizing language is an antidote to the vivid but finally euphemistic language of the military.
O'Brien's first work was largely praised by the critics, who appreciated the value he places on communication and accepted the work as a "fictionalized memoir" more often than an "autobiography." In his book Understanding Tim O'Brien, however, Steve Kaplan refers to the work as a novel, a collection of short stories, a war memoir, a confession, and even an example of New Journalism. O'Brien himself calls it a "non-fiction personal narrative," which would clearly define the book's relation to fiction if "personal" didn't also imply a singular, internal, and imaginative eye, and if "narrative" were not also a term for the purposeful construction of stories.
Several reviewers described the pleasure of reading a book by "someone exceptional," someone "educated, intelligent, reflective, and thoroughly nice." One surprising characteristic of this "nice" author/narrator is that he confesses but does not excuse his own self-betrayal, and he does not conceal his own awful hatreds and evil brutalities. In the New York Times Magazine autobiographical article entitled "The Vietnam in Me," O'Brien writes, "After fire fights, after friends died, there was ... a great deal of anger--black, fierce, hurting anger--the kind you want to take out on whatever presents itself. ... I know the boil that precedes butchery." Having "met" such an exceptionally nice author, we hear his antiwar message even more clearly: even reasonable men can feel enough hatred to do these things. O'Brien explores the origins of evil and finds it in himself and others, but he blames the system of war, which creates the necessary conditions: loneliness, attachment to buddies, misunderstanding of the enemy, fear, the Vietnam institution of the "body count" as an index of success, and so on. Concerned that "Evil has no place, it seems, in our national mythology," O'Brien forces his readers to scrutinize evil, to fill in the "ellipses" with which we usually screen it from our attention.
O'Brien's first novel, Northern Lights, is the story of Paul Milton Perry--married, thirty, a minor official for the Department of Agriculture--and his brother "Harvey the Bull"--ten years younger and a Vietnam veteran with one glass eye. From the older brother's only slightly more binocular perspective, Harvey is the war hero, the outdoorsman, the favorite of their now-deceased but still overbearing father.
The most flawed of O'Brien's novels, Northern Lights is gratingly repetitive and yet gains a valuable and expressive texture and depth that would be lost without that forceful, dogged rhythm. After reading pages about cross country skiing through a wilderness area that does not correspond to the old, laminated map the brothers carefully study, one begins to appreciate both the symbolic and physical aspects of their wilderness adventure. While readers can tell what's right and wrong in a conceptual and theoretical sense, perhaps according to precepts that have been passed down to them through the ages, they may not be able to figure out how actual situations correspond to those precepts. Geographically speaking, a map can show someone how to get from the lake to the road, but what does he do if it is not clear how the frozen lake by which he is standing corresponds to any of the lakes on the map? Devoting half a novel to a month of confused skiing tests O'Brien's powers of description, but not beyond endurance. There are surprisingly many kinds of weather and snow, feelings of invigoration and fear and exhaustion and hunger, sounds, thoughts of home, desires and dreams, and phases of coping. Each brother experiences a different parabola of emotion and determination, and somewhere in the middle of the wilderness they exchange roles.
In this first novel, as in his memoir, O'Brien continues to explore the meaning of "heroism." Harvey (the war hero) gives up in the blizzard and Perry (the stick-in-the-mud) is stubborn--and thus heroic. (Harvey's definition of "heroic" is that they are still alive when they might not have been.) Not only do their roles reverse on this trip, but they are also reversed retroactively. In a rare bit of openness, Harvey describes the past as he remembers it. Instead of being the tough son, the "bull," he sees himself as the child who fearfully did what his father told him to do: when he got a rifle for Christmas he was scared of it, but he used it anyway. Instead of seeing Perry as the son who couldn't swim and was too scared to go on wilderness treks, Harvey remembers Perry as the one who could stand up to their dad: "You said you weren't going to listen to him preach anymore. You just told him. ... He asked if you were sick, and ... you said nope, you weren't sick, and you just said you decided not to go listen to him preach anymore. And that was that. I remember. You looked down to eat, calm as could be."
While each man may be heroic at one time or another, neither is a hero. After the wilderness trek, Perry makes a couple of big decisions, but he does not appear in any way to have become a more permanently impressive man. Harvey seems just as flippant as ever, always making plans to do something difficult and heroic or escapist and pleasure-seeking. He never buckles down to any one task. Things are different, but not very. Perceptions may change everything, but their daily lives change only gradually.
Two of the secondary characters in this novel are women, and for the first time O'Brien represents female characters and relationships across gender. Perry's narration depicts his wife, Grace, and his obsession, Addie (who becomes brother Harvey's girlfriend), in limited ways. Grace is pretty, interested in having a child, supportive, talkative, and too nice. Perry finds her easygoing and comfortable, but he does not quite appreciate her. While O'Brien notifies the reader of Perry's fallibility, he includes a long passage in which Grace talks nonstop--a passage too irregular in the text to be much besides parodic and negative. (They are in bed together; O'Brien says he's better at writing dialogue that takes place outside, so maybe that's the problem.) The irresponsible, flighty, thoughtless Addie is more interesting, which brings up the question of why good women such as Grace are so often characterized as more ridiculous than younger and more obviously exciting women.
On the other hand, one potential locus of sanctification in his work is women--not all women, but women such as Grace in Northern Lights or Donna (who Tom always calls "Mrs. Robert Kooshof") in Tomcat in Love. O'Brien almost reiterates the cultural cliché that associates women with the body or nature and men with the mind or culture. Accepting this commonplace, O'Brien revises it such that these bodily, natural female characters are the ones who truly live because they can accept that life is change. In a very old-fashioned way, these women represent messy, vital life.
While they are compared to the landscape, however, they are not passive and imperialized like that landscape. They are an active form of wilderness, and one that O'Brien's men learn to respect and even emulate. Grace and Donna are heroic, patient, confused about their life paths but ready for movement forward, and enthusiastic about change and experimentation. O'Brien's male characters, such as Perry in Northern Lights, have to travel into the wilderness or walk into a gooey life-filled pond to begin to envision and accept their largely unknown futures.
O'Brien's women sometimes represent the unknown that men are attempting to control. In the Lake of the Woods depicts John Wade imagining his future and intending to manipulate it into being. His wife, Kathy's, pregnancy is an unwelcome surprise. Although she wants babies more than anything else, she agrees to an abortion. John's spying on Kathy is another way that he tries to feel in control of the relationship (as if knowledge of her possible infidelity might enable him to prevent it). In The Nuclear Age, William seems to be able to imagine a future with Bobbi much more vividly than he can with the strong, radical Sarah, in spite of Sarah's constant reference to their future in Brazil with lots of babies. Bobbi, the blonde stewardess and all-purpose man-trap, can be imagined in a much more conventional setting; if she can be won, happiness can be gained according to a set order of life events. Brazil is an unknown and perhaps therefore unimaginable, and multiple babies would add even more unknowns to William's future. Finally, Mary Anne, the "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" (in The Things They Carried) is a girl like Bobbi (sweetly, reassuringly typical) who turns out not only to relish the unfamiliar but becomes alien herself. Bobbi is likely to leave William by the end of The Nuclear Age, which shows that her promise as a type is misplaced, but Mary Anne's reversal is even more abrupt and disturbing to the men who witness it.
O'Brien's female characters become more fully imagined in his late novels. While Grace and Addie are less than enigmatic, these later characters have as much personal mystery as his male characters. In Tomcat in Love, Mrs. Robert Kooshof is outspoken, desirous, and active, and makes difficult choices with the fullest inklings of the alternative possibilities.
In these ways, O'Brien breaks down the categories of male and female. A soldier and his girlfriend's behaviors are more a difference of geography than gender. He explains that he wrote "The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" in response to the many women who had told him they didn't like war stories. In a 1990 interview with Michael Coffey the author states that "what happened to me as a man in Vietnam could happen to a woman as well." In a later interview with Steven Kaplan he expands on this idea: "Under situations of stress and in situations of incredible danger and trauma, women are capable, as men are, of great evil, of great good, and of all shades in between." As George Bernard Shaw said when asked how he wrote his female characters, "I always assumed that a woman was a person exactly like myself, and that is how the trick is done."
Going After Cacciato
While Northern Lights reminded reviewers such as Richard Freedman, Roger Sale, and Alasdair Maclean of Hemingway, Going After Cacciato may remind readers of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Joseph Heller's Catch-22. O'Brien's Paul Berlin lives in the details of future possibilities as much as Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim lives in the morbid details of his past experiences. While Billy Pilgrim goes to the past, or to an extraterrestrial world, when he becomes "unstuck in time," Paul Berlin's imagination takes him on the 8,600-mile march between Vietnam and Paris when on night watch his "eye came unstuck from the starlight scope." Heller (via Yossarian) repeats the refrain of Snowden's death and only gradually and late in the book reveals the circumstances of this death; O'Brien's Paul Berlin repeatedly remembers that "Billy Boy Watkins had died of fright," and he marks time with the deaths of other squad members such as Pederson, Buff, Frenchy Tucker, and Bernie Lynn. Because of the narrator's position inside the head of a highly imaginative character, and one who is not particularly group-oriented, only gradually can the reader map the chronology of events in both books. A similarity among all three novels is their resolutely truthful depiction of war amid their wild "flights of imagination." Yossarian's tent mate, the dumb but clever Orr, escapes to Sweden; Catch-22 ends with Yossarian's own attempt to follow Orr. In Going After Cacciato, Paul Berlin imagines that his squad follows Cacciato when he walks away from the war: "Each step was an event of imagination."
Berlin's internal life--how his experience limits his imagination and how his imagination determines the future--is the most important theme in Going After Cacciato. O'Brien asserts that this internal life is as real a part of the soldier's experience as marching and eating: "In war, the rational faculty begins to diminish ... and what takes over is surrealism, the life of the imagination. The mind of the soldier becomes part of the experience--the brain seems to flow out of your head, joining the elements around you on the battlefield." He observes, "The life of the imagination is half of war, half of any kind of experience."
Yet O'Brien explicitly rejects magical realism as practiced by writers such as Gabriel García Márquez. His surrealism remains true to his experience. When Paul Berlin is imagining an unlikely but potentially appealing alternative journey for himself, he is building it out of past experiences and shaping it via his psychic necessity to create order and make meaning from his overwhelming and awful war experiences--things he has seen as well as things he has done. One critical point of contention about this novel regards the efficacy of the imaginative process. Does anything come of Berlin's imaginative construct? Or, is he left as powerless and confused as the day he stepped off the transport plane and saw--but could make no meaning from--Billy Boy Watkins' death from fright? Interpretation depends largely on how much of the novel one considers real and how much one understands as Berlin's interior construct. In both this and O'Brien's next novel, The Nuclear Age, the main characters envision their survival instead of indulging their fears. In a 1994 interview with Eric James Schroeder, O'Brien explains, "The central theme of the novel [Going After Cacciato] has to do with how we use our imaginations to deal with situations around us, not just cope with them psychologically but, more importantly, to deal with them philosophically and morally."
O'Brien also continues to explore other themes that he addressed in his earlier work: the nature of courage, the similarities and differences between World War II and the Vietnam War, personal responsibility and volition, language, and the interpretation of the world's details. "True courage" is defined as "how to behave" or "how to act wisely in spite of fear." Paul Berlin deduces a reassuring "corollary: the greater a man's fear, the greater his potential courage." Finding courage in oneself, then, requires "the power of will to defeat fear," but willpower is another inner resource that is difficult to find. He hopes that his body has a "chemical," or a "lone chromosome," or a "piece of tissue that might be touched and sparked," which would "produce a blaze of valor." Instead, he finds himself to be a mass that responds to the mechanisms of momentum: he marches "with no exercise of will, no desire and no determination, no pride, just legs and lungs, climbing without thought and without will and without purpose." If Berlin is counting on his chromosomes to kick in, then he hasn't much active will left. But Lieutenant Sidney Martin, the commanding officer who does things by Standard Operating Procedures, sees Paul Berlin's march and responds to it with joy: "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." Even the difference between free will and movement without volition depends on who's looking, where they are standing, and their frameworks of judgment.
O'Brien compares and contrasts the Vietnam War with other wars, particularly the Second World War. He believes that World War II was a necessary war on a political and humanitarian level but that Vietnam was not. From the perspective of the individual soldier, however, all wars are about the same. Doc, one of the more perceptive members of Paul Berlin's errant squad, claims that war "has an identity separate from perception" and that every war, "any war," feels the same from the perspective of the single necessarily "confused and muddleheaded" soldier. He lectures,
the common grunt doesn't give a damn about purposes and justice. He doesn't even think about that shit. Not when he's out humping, getting his tail shot off. Purposes--bullshit! He's thinking about how to keep breathing. Or he wonders what it'll feel like when he hits that booby trap. Will he go nuts? Will he puke all over himself, or will he cry, or pass out, or scream? What'll it look like--all bone and meat and pus? That's the stuff he thinks about, not purposes.
In other ways, however, the wars are very different. O'Brien writes that the men in Vietnam "did not know even the simple things" that most World War II soldiers did. Soldiers in Vietnam did not know what it was like to win, or to have a specified target, or to capture an area and keep it, or what the rules of engagement were, or what to do with or say to prisoners, or even what to think and feel about their own actions and experiences.
In his memoir, If I Die, O'Brien voices some frustration with the irrelevant advice of World War II veterans. In Going After Cacciato, Paul Berlin's father's solemn advice consists of, "It'll be all right. You'll see some terrible stuff, sure, but try to look for the good things. Try to learn." And Paul Berlin has as much difficulty gleaning lessons from his war experience as O'Brien does. These lessons tend to be conventional wisdom ("Don't seek trouble, it'll find you soon enough."), painful facts ("It hurts to get shot.") and vague wishes ("Life after death."). What's left are "war stories," stories that try to outdo one another in weirdness and gruesomeness, stories to which Paul Berlin refuses to listen.
War stories trivialize pain, death, fear, the individual, and history--and probably much else--in a way that O'Brien's writing avoids. When Paul Berlin arrives in Vietnam, his first lecture on survival consists of one hour of silence. Not only do these young soldiers need to learn how to overcome the particular nothingness of this war--its "vacuum"--they also seem to need thoughtful silence to maintain their humanness. The words that these men have at their disposal--the incomplete names and nicknames of their fellow soldiers, their understated "weird"s and "sad"s, their acronyms and expletives--combined with their complete ignorance of Vietnamese culture and their inability to understand the facial expressions of the Vietnamese or to verbally communicate with them--makes their war stories inadequate, simplistic, commonplace, unprofound, and disturbingly humorous.
O'Brien's passion for tale telling and his careful shaping of sentences allow him to avoid these pitfalls while telling his war stories. He is interested in the truth, but not the facts as they happened. Describing the incessant terror and numbers of dead in Pinkville may be factual, but it doesn't help readers reach the "emotional truth" that O'Brien can achieve by depicting Cacciato calmly washing Buff's face out of his helmet. Doc says, "Facts are one thing" and "interpretation is something else." O'Brien invents details that get readers closer to interpreting the war's meanings than the plain facts could.
The Nuclear Age
Going After Cacciato's Paul Berlin digs the deepest foxholes in Vietnam, and the Vietcong tunnels in that novel are both friend and enemy, a trap and a safe house--and this distinction does not depend on which side of the war you are on. In The Nuclear Age the land is also one's closest friend and a potential enemy. Unlike Paul Perry's father in Northern Lights, who had insisted on his building a shelter, William Cowling is gently mocked by his father when he builds a bomb shelter under the Ping-Pong table in the basement. (In "Darkness on the Edge of Town" [in Feature, January 1979] Tim O'Brien reports that he did the same in his own basement as a child.) As The Nuclear Age begins, William Cowling looks back on the life that has led him toward digging and dynamiting a 12 x 12 x 19-foot bomb shelter in his backyard.
William was a draft dodger and the sad but otherwise convictionless member of a militant antiwar group. After a childhood of nuclear terror and several years of radicalism, he becomes a multimillionaire by selling a mountain of uranium to Texaco. His bomb shelter is meant to save his life and his family's, but he has the urge to use it to kill them all and thus seal their love and lives in a literally rock solid state of permanence. Through these paradoxes, O'Brien symbolically represents the clash between the human desire for permanence, perfect fidelity, "wholeness," and complete knowledge of "now and forever," and the fact that life necessarily involves change, risk, fear, and unknowns. O'Brien seems to conclude that in order to live our lives fully and happily, we must purposely place our faith in things--people and ideas--that are undoubtedly feckless and even false.
The Nuclear Age is written about and was written during the Cold War. William focuses his attention on the facts: "The world is in danger" and "Bad things can happen." His mind pictures the realities of "the wall shadows at Hiroshima," "the ping-ping-ping of submarine sonar," and "the rattlesnakes and butterflies on that dusty plateau at Los Alamos." His first political action is to stand outside a college cafeteria with a sign that reads, "THE BOMBS ARE REAL." When writing this sign, he says, "The language came easily," but it is language that he contends with throughout the book, and language--not a hole in the ground--is where he finds his final, living refuge.
O'Brien suggests--and even laments--that humans maintain their humanity, their zest for life, their hope, by way of metaphors. Scientific realities are too much to confront, but if we read realities as metaphors, we can interpret them without feeling overwhelmed by them. If we can trick ourselves into using our complicated mental mechanisms, then our basic survival instincts--our understandable fear of dying--can be pushed far enough aside to allow us to live. William's wife Bobbi is a poet, and she frustrates him with her willingness to use nuclear terminology to describe their relationship. He asks, "Why this preference for metaphor over the real thing?" William destroys a copy of a poem (he eats it) with the intent to erase the poem's implications, while Bobbi treats physical objects as if they signify meaning in a poetic way (she gives him some blades of grass and says they express "her deepest feelings" for him). Bobbi treats poems as if they are artifacts; she says they don't mean, they are. Bobbi uses radioactive materials as metaphors, but William says to himself, "Uranium is no figure of speech." Real things have meaning in that they bring about real consequences. But by the end of the book, William recognizes his need for metaphor. He will believe "what cannot be believed" and hold to the idea that "E will somehow not quite equal mc2, that it's a cunning metaphor, that the terminal equation will somehow not quite balance."
O'Brien does more than address the semireflexive issues of poetry and metaphor--the way language changes our reality such that we can live in it without prematurely self-destructing. He is also a thoughtful political writer, and his parsing of the antiwar movement reveals the complexities, paradoxes, and contradictions inherent within this--and perhaps any--political action. In Cuba, William and four friends find themselves enlisted in an army as arbitrary and full of chickenshit as the one they dodged stateside. William's lover Sarah--although she's the most dedicated and thoughtful revolutionary of the group--wants a world of love; she dreams of being a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader who upstages the football game. Her desire for love is so great that she says, "If necessary, I'll wipe out the world." The infighting among coalitions of the antiwar movement, and even among these five friends in Key West, Florida, highlights the difficulty of resistance. Peacemakers need to make a big bang to get anyone's attention; real bombs require real resistance, and vice versa. They steal weapons for peace but can barely resist using them. They walk a tightrope, contending with a fragile "balance of power" between fighting war and waging war.
They lose. Although William manages to dump crates of rifles and ammo in the ocean, avoiding the direct use of force, the friends lose by becoming participants in the creation of weaponry. They find uranium and sell it for a fortune. They feel guiltless because they "hadn't done much to change the world" but "the world had changed them." They "prospered in a prosperous world." They claim the heroes and the villains all seem to have disappeared, but maybe they have only lost their vision for the moral spectrum. O'Brien suggests that materialism has overtaken the will of people who once were sure of what was right and would act on it--a familiar complaint about the differences between 1969 and 1979 in America. In his short article "We've Adjusted Too Well," O'Brien laments this change. He writes, "We used to care about these things. We paid attention, we debated, passion was high." For his characters in The Nuclear Age, the world has not become more complicated--they used to spend all night on "convoluted arguments" about "complexities and ambiguities." Ad ditties and investments have simply become more interesting than passion: "The world has been sanitized. Passion is a metaphor." Here O'Brien explores a compelling question of the sixties counterculture: How did a whole passionate generation lose its political edge? How did William become "Mr. Normal"?
William survives his friends. They are somewhat tainted martyrs to their dreams, but William has always been able to envision death much better than he could envision a perfect world. Obsessed with his own mortality since childhood, William avoided the draft primarily out of fear and passivity. He is scared and sad and less politically committed than his friends are. On the other hand, his fear makes him stay in closer touch with the ideal of peace than his friends, who want to use bombs to fight bombs. He can imagine death more vividly than other people, who believe they are "immortal until the very instant of mortality."
O'Brien thus returns to the issues of reality and the imagination in The Nuclear Age. William's morbid imagination shapes his life. When young, he imagines the "world-as-it-should-be" but when he's older he commits himself--almost resigns himself--to the job of just imagining his own happiness. In Going After Cacciato, Paul Berlin escapes the war by imagining another version of his war story. But Berlin's narrative is not just escape. He is also making sense of his experiences, and this mental achievement gives him the sense of control that he needs. In The Nuclear Age William learns to use his imagination to envision survival instead of death; he tells himself (and forces himself to believe) the stories "sane" people live by. But in The Nuclear Age, the two worlds are complicated and confusable. No clear division exists between reality and the imagination; the blurring can be disconcerting, but it also makes the imagination more efficacious.
When reality and fantasy are so intertwined so are sanity and insanity. O'Brien sums up the paradox of many post-World War II novels, most obviously Catch-22: "If you're sane, you see madness. If you see madness, you freak. If you freak, you're mad." And he asks, "What does one do?" William's friends accept paradoxes and die rich but rebelliously. William's nuclear freeze turns into a meltdown and finally a conviction that in this nuclear age we can survive only via inspired, purposeful self-deception. O'Brien writes, "Among the sane ... there is no full knowing. If you're sane, you ride without risk, for the risks are not real. And when it comes to pass, some sane asshole will shrug and say, 'Oh well.'" O'Brien's protagonist is insane with self-defeating fears, but what if he is right?
The Things They Carried
The Things They Carried is O'Brien's most impressively honest work, one in which he reiterates the falseness of war stories and even of truly held memories. This work is a deceptive confession, one couched in such a mixture of fictionalization and factuality that the reader cannot know exactly what O'Brien has seen or done--neither can he, and that is one of his points. In this book O'Brien progresses further in his expression of the radical, mutual dependence of truth and fiction. If in Going After Cacciato Paul Berlin gains a sense of control over his real situation via his imagination, and if in The Nuclear Age, William Cowling comes to recognize the real power that the human imagination exercises over our collective and individual futures, in The Things They Carried O'Brien makes the relationship between truth and fiction even more intimate. Kaplan wrote that O'Brien "destroys the 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 than fact." O'Brien spent five years with the characters in this novel, longer than he did with any of his real war buddies; he dedicated the book to these fictional characters.
Whether we come to understand and control events, we know how we feel about them. The Things They Carried seems to reveal how O'Brien has felt: he reaches for the "emotional truth." People really die in Vietnam, but whose fault is that really? If a man physically lets go of the leg of his friend who is really drowning in mud and shit, is he more to blame than the man who watches this happen, or the people who turn their eyes away so they don't have to watch? Or does the blame fall on the lieutenant who followed other people's orders and set up camp in that muddy village toilet? Or on the man who broke the rules and turned on his flashlight for a second to look at his old girlfriend's picture? Or on the order-givers themselves? Or on the terrain? Or on the weather? And does it matter if any of this really happened or not? O'Brien tells us about Kiowa's dreadful, messy drowning as if it's Norman Bowker's story, and he claims that "Norman Bowker" is Norman Bowker's real name. But then O'Brien writes, "That part of the story is my own," leaving it up to his readers to decide if letting go of Kiowa is O'Brien's story--his experience--or just O'Brien's story--the one he makes up. According to Kaplan, O'Brien's novel is full of stories that happened, did not happen, and might have happened. The future is a contingency, but so is the past.
O'Brien writes that a "true war story" is one to which the reader responds by asking, "Is it true?" He concludes, "If the answer matters, you've got your answer." If "you'd feel cheated if it never happened" then it's probably "pure Hollywood" and "untrue." In Kiowa's case the answer doesn't matter. The truth of this war, and all wars, is found in the ambiguities, not the Silver Star heroics. (This is one reason that the 1998 film The Thin Red Line reveals more about real war than Saving Private Ryan of the same year.) O'Brien observes, "It's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen," but when someone dies the others cannot rid themselves of the blame. When fictional character Tim O'Brien's fictional daughter asks, "Daddy, tell the truth, did you ever kill anybody?," he writes, "I can say, honestly, 'Of course not,'" but in the next paragraph he adds, "Or I can say, honestly, 'Yes.'" The reader's uncertainty mimics the confusion of the characters themselves.
As in his other books, O'Brien's discussions of one issue usually lead to a discussion of seemingly opposite issues. In The Nuclear Age, the discussion of peace involves a discussion of war: Must the resistance be resistant? In that same novel, O'Brien explicates the ways safety involves danger and how always keeping things the same can be attained only by irrevocably destroying them. In Going After Cacciato the experience of the war is largely expressed through the fantasies of Paul Berlin: Can a person best understand a feeling of entrapment via flights of fancy? In The Things They Carried, O'Brien's war stories seem necessarily to be mixed up with love stories, and his confrontation with death leads to his coming to terms with life. Is the story of the man who offers a baby water buffalo C rations and then mercilessly kills it a war story or a love story? O'Brien says it's a love story; perhaps anyone who has offered a gift to someone and had it refused can partially understand the way love can turn to spite. Maybe only an armed soldier can understand how spite turns to murderous violence.
Regarding the complex relationship between life and death, O'Brien seems to be repeating the wartime banality "you're never more alive than when you're almost dead." But he tempers this Hemingwayesque tough-guy credo. First, the likelihood of imminent death does not make men into Men as much as it means "jokes are funnier" and "green is greener." Second, war does not affect men only. In "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," a fantastical story about a young man flying his American girlfriend into the jungles to keep him company, a woman is the one who reaches the depths of Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. And third, O'Brien shows that war is not the only place to learn about life and death: "You don't have to be in Nam to be in Nam." His final epiphany about life and death is spoken (in his dreams) by a nine-year-old schoolgirl. Linda says, "Once you're alive, you can't ever be dead," and that death is "like being inside a book that nobody's reading."
By likening death to the closing of a book, O'Brien solidifies the relationship between war and stories. In his memoir With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, Eugene Sledge, a U.S. Marine in World War II, writes that the replacements who got "hit before we even knew their names" were "like unread books on a shelf." O'Brien's stories bring his dead friends back to life. In Vietnam, he writes, "We kept the dead alive with stories," and he continues to do that in his written stories. He concludes that "in the spell of memory and imagination" he can "still see" his friends. Nor are they the only ones he is keeping alive: he is "Tim trying to save Timmy's life with a story."
Except for Northern Lights, all of O'Brien's novels include separately published short stories, but this structure is most obvious in The Things They Carried. O'Brien complicates this popular American genre (think of Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Maxine Hong Kingston, and countless creative writing Master of Fine Arts grads) by making his stories a complex mixture of fact and fiction. O'Brien's "integrated novel," then, not only integrates parts that have their own "internal integrity" but integrates external facts and mental imaginings. "On The Rainy River" appears to be a first-person confession; it begins, "This is one story I've never told before. Not to anyone," and the narrator refers to himself as "Tim O'Brien." Other stories begin with statements such as "This is true" but are told in a self-reflexive form and include statements such as "That's a true story that never happened." The author explains, "A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth." True war stories have no moral, no clear ending or beginning, and they admit the difficulty of distinguishing between "what happened" and "what seemed to happen." Minneapolis Star and Tribune reviewer Dan Carpenter writes,
O'Brien is inventing a form here. His book evokes the hyperintense personal journalism of Michael Herr and the journalism-as-novel of Norman Mailer, but it is a different animal. It is fiction, even though its main character has the same name as the author ... If I had to label it, I'd call it an epic prose poem of our time, deromanticizing and demystifying and yet singing the beauty and mystery of human life over its screams and explosions, curses and lies.
If O'Brien is inventing a form, it has precedents far earlier than postmodernism and New Journalism. Perhaps in O'Brien's work, George Orwell meets Sir Philip Sidney. O'Brien takes Orwell's interest in "the politics of the English language" as crucial to the struggle between totalitarianism and freedom, and acts on Sidney's assertion in "The Defence of Poesy" that poetry (or fiction) can express the truth better than fact. Sidney writes that nature's "world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden." O'Brien puts it differently: most moments are boring, and imagination can distill all the boredom into something meaningful. "You tell lies," he says, "to get at the truth."
In the Lake of the Woods
In his 1994 novel In the Lake of the Woods, O'Brien treats the same themes in a different genre: the mystery--a natural genre for a writer so interested in the problems of discovering truth. John Wade has just lost a primary election for the United States Senate. As he attempts to recuperate in the wilderness with his wife, she disappears, and soon the ex-candidate for senator is a murder suspect. While the local police, the neighbors, John Wade himself, and even the book's narrator seem unsure of what has happened, almost all of them make sinister extrapolations from the revelation that cost him the election--his elaborate cover-up of his involvement in the My Lai (or Thuan Yen) massacre, the most notorious U.S. atrocity in Vietnam. O'Brien's chapters alternate between "Hypothesis" (detailed but unconfirmable guesses about what might have been going on in other people's minds) and "Evidence" (short quotations from involved fictional characters and excerpts from a wide variety of existing books and court transcripts). Other chapters stop several places on the spectrum between hypothesis and evidence, but no certainty is offered. And in all these chapters there are footnotes, written by a philosophizing, clue-full but conclusionless investigator (with a tone akin to Nabokov's scholar in Pale Fire) who calls himself "a theory man" and is also a "biographer, historian, medium." Kaplan compares this narrator "detective" to "Marlowe in Conrad's Lord Jim and the reporter figure in Orson Welles's Citizen Kane."
In one footnote, this narrator writes "evidence is not truth. It is only evident." While the nonfictional elements of In the Lake of the Woods help us imagine what John Wade might have been capable of, the narrator offers hypothetical reconstructions of what might have happened and challenges readers to notice their own imaginative preferences. As part of the "evidence," John Dominic Crossan, the author of The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant is cited as saying, "If you cannot believe in something produced by reconstruction, you may have nothing left to believe in." Sigmund Freud is represented by his statement that "Whoever undertakes to write a biography binds himself to lying, to concealment, to flummery....Truth is not accessible."
Here as in other works, O'Brien investigates the indivisibility of truth and fiction from several different angles. First, he highlights the struggle between our desire for conclusive knowledge and our fascination with the enigmatic. O'Brien's narrator writes that "solutions only demean the grandeur of human ignorance," "absolute knowledge is absolute closure," and "death itself dissolves into uncertainty, and that out of such uncertainty arise great temples and tales of salvation." Forensic anxiety disperses into epistemological anxiety, plot into philosophy. The conclusion that John Wade--the one man who should know the truth of this story--is able to reach about the mystery of life is that "The only explicable thing ... was how thoroughly inexplicable it all was." The characters in this novel are "looking for answers to things that cannot be answered, for answers to the unknowable."
O'Brien's novel also discusses the difference between the truth and what we want or need to believe. Our minds seem unable to comprehend the real truths of the world, such as the factuality of sin and evil, so our "quality of abstraction makes reality unreal." As O'Brien writes in The Nuclear Age, "Nothing real had ever happened" at Los Alamos. We have to believe things that we are able to live with; we have a "forgetting trick" that erases or "smudge[s]" certain experiences in the mind's eye, changing our potential memories. Kathy and John Wade need to believe certain things about one another, but John doesn't know that Kathy knows he spies on her, John doesn't know the many sides of Kathy's self, and Kathy doesn't know that John mainly lives "in the mirror," where he can purposefully manipulate other people's impressions of him. The narrator asks, "Our own children, our fathers, our wives and husbands: Do we truly know them? How much is camouflage? How much is guessed at?" But in order to have an interpersonal relationship, we need to have some faith in the objects of our affection, so we--like F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby--agree to understand people "just so far" as they want to be understood, believe in them as they would like to believe in themselves, and accept "precisely the impression" of people that they, at their best, would hope to convey.
We not only believe what we need to, but we perform in such a way as to confirm the beliefs and expectations of others. Kathy has never enjoyed being the wife of a politician, but she looks the part and smiles cheerfully when it's expected of her. While she is loyal and a good actress, she also has a multiplicity of identities. She is flexible and adaptive, and as John Wade's cynical campaign manager says, she has "you's galore." The narrator hypothesizes that when (if) her adoring husband killed her, she opened her eyes and saw "twenty years of love dissolving into the certainty that nothing at all was certain." The two characters have lived out John Wade's dream that 1 + 1 = 0 in one way or another. Their union has killed them, or they have disappeared together and are finding happiness in Verona (an ominous address for a happy ending, since it is the setting for Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet). In either case, they were in a fog of performances and appearances, a box of mirrors, surrounded by people trying to discern the truth as much as the Wades were trying to discover it themselves. The wilderness they pass through (or die in) was a "region that bore resemblance to the contours of [John Wade's] own little repository of a soul, the tangle, the overall disarray, qualities icy and wild." If he's a monster, even he doesn't know it.
O'Brien also continues his explication of the ways that safety and danger, change and stasis, and love and war are intrinsically tangled in the human heart. John was obsessed with magic tricks when he was a child, and he continues to be a manipulator in his adulthood, both in his public and his private life. His machinations to keep his wife, however, may directly or indirectly cause her to disappear. The son of an alcoholic father who committed suicide, John goes to war because he wants to be loved, and he even imagines it might help him love himself. Love, or his desire to be loved, also leads him to lie to himself and others, to keep secrets, to spy on his wife, and possibly even to kill her; "Amazing, he thought, what love could do."
Perhaps the most disturbing of O'Brien's novels, In the Lake of the Woods seems to have been written during a difficult time in the author's life. The breakups of his marriage and a subsequent love relationship led O'Brien to write some of his most personally revealing journalism. In the article "The Vietnam in Me" O'Brien describes his self-probing: "I had come to acknowledge, more or less, the dominant principle of love in my life, how far I would go to get it, how terrified I was of losing it. ... I would risk conscience and rectitude before risking the loss of love." That self-analysis and self-accusation permeate this haunting book.
Tomcat in Love
After In the Lake of the Woods, O'Brien seemed to have signed off as a writer of novels, but in 1998 he published Tomcat in Love. Here the main character and narrator's attention to female taxonomy and his defensive confessions are reminiscent of Nabokov's notorious narrator in Lolita, Humbert Humbert. Thomas H. Chippering's three main interests are women, words, and himself. Ostensibly the story of his attempt to avenge himself on his ex-wife, Lorna Sue, and her family, Tom reveals his own blind search for love, Lorna Sue's martyr complex, and the absolute and consistent misreading that occurs when men and women attempt to communicate with each other.
Tom's "meticulous" "love ledger" of encounters with women includes categories such as "Hand-holdings: 421. Nuzzlings: 233. Valentines: 98. Marriages: 1. Meaningful gazes: 1,788. Home runs: 4. Near misses: 128." His seductive female students milk him for his writing skills and then self-righteously reject his advances. His insatiable desire for loving attention and his willingness to accept what only looks like adoration allow these young women to strut rings around him, and it probably explains why a man who has written seventeen senior theses in his twenty-four-year teaching career doesn't have higher tallies in that ledger. His self-absorption and needy narcissism lead him to overestimate women's estimations of him. These interpersonal misreadings leave him confused and, at one point, undressed and tied up on a barroom floor.
Like another of Nabokov's characters, John Shade in Pale Fire, Thomas Chippering is a linguistics professor, "the Rolvaang Chair in Modern American Lexicology at the University of Minnesota." For Tom, words become laden with all the memories of the situations in which they were used, and his narrative flows according to these verbal associations. He fought in Vietnam, and so "goof," "spider," "wildfire," and "death chant" are heavily loaded words, the nicknames of the Green Berets who claim to have given his life meaning by stalking and threatening him with vengeance. Eventually obliged to resign his tenure, Tom's stint as a day care provider results in three- and four-year-olds quoting Shakespeare and a deep discussion of the "wondrously polytypic word spot."
In Tomcat in Love, O'Brien suggests that those who barely fit into the military organization running the Vietnam War are the ones who have been most influenced by it. Mainly assigned to a desk job, Tom was sent on one mission in Vietnam as the companion of six silent and disagreeable Green Berets. After being abandoned by them and then later catching up with them at a beautiful and serene-seeming villa in the jungle, Tom feels betrayed by them for several reasons and in turn betrays them. Hunted down, he responds with uncharacteristic courage to their threats and is told to watch his back "forever." He writes, "Over all these decades ... I have had to live with the consequences of a single, senseless act of valor." His former companions think of the pursuit as more of a game; they have joined "mainstream America. ... Death Chant runs this nifty boutique. ... War's over." Spider says, "For the rest of us, Tommy, the war's history--gonzo--but in this really nifty way you've kept it going. That life-and-death edge, man, it gives meaning to everything. Keeps you in contact with your own sinnin' self."
Thus, O'Brien "even pokes fun at the Vietnam War," and reviewers tended to like the way O'Brien "lightened up" in "his first comic novel." But the shift to comedy is not as drastic as it might appear. O'Brien's narrative voice has often been limited to the unreliable delusions of a character who gradually comes to be more defined for readers. This time the narrator is less appealing than usual, and in fact "almost too unsufferable to bear," but he's also less imaginative and more like the ordinary reader. O'Brien works hard to build the uneasy sense of identification between the reader and this unpleasantly self-absorbed and selfish main character. Not only does O'Brien create life stories for his novel's characters, but also he has imagined a past for his reader, and he keeps reminding her of it. She too has a "tangled history," her "husband flew off to Fiji in the company of a redhead barely half his age," and she wants revenge, too. O'Brien even writes, "I spotted your ex-husband at one point. Or was he I? In which case, then, who would you be?"
O'Brien's narrator asks parenthetically "If a love dies, how can such love be love? By what linguistic contrivance?" and he thus heralds the entry of O'Brien's big questions about language, love, and war. These things are important to identify but can easily be confused with their opposites. If love is love, then it shouldn't end. If peace is peace, then it cannot lead to war. But it does. Cacciato and his pursuers, for example, witness many hateful atrocities when they leave the war for the supposedly peaceful walk to Paris. Tomcat in Love reviewer Jonathan Fasman asserts that O'Brien's narrator expounds "on how words carry extra-definitional penumbras of meaning that vary from person to person." In this novel, "Fiji" reminds readers of their potential identity with a selfish, lovelorn man who loses what he wants and gets something else. For Tim O'Brien, "Vietnam" may remind him of the power of words to control others and maintain individuality, the buddy love and evil vengeance that American soldiers felt there, and the nightmarish catalyst for his creative gift.
From: Watson, Dana Cairns. "Tim O'Brien." American Writers, Supplement 5, edited by Jay Parini, Charles Scribner's Sons, 2000.