Tim O'Brien on writing the war
When people ask Tim O’Brien about his new novel, The Things They Carried, they rarely put the question directly. But he gets the message all the same: It’s 1990, O’Brien. You’re 43 years old. You’ve been home from Vietnam for 20 years, but apart from one venture into other territory, The Nuclear Age, you’re still writing about the war. Isn’t it time you moved on to something else? Are you one of those combat crazies? Or can’t you find anything else to say?
To a degree, O’Brien can sympathize with people who feel that way. After the publication of his 1978 National Book Award-winning novel, Going After Cacciato, the author admits, ”I told myself, ‘I’ll never go near that stuff again.’ But that was me thinking about my career as a writer, my standing as a writer. It took Vonnegut forever to write Slaughterhouse Five. The same for Heller with Catch-22. To a great extent, Nam is the material of my life. Not to write about it would be to betray myself.
”Plus, there’s a lot of great stories in a war. You can’t walk away from good stories. I’m sure Conrad got criticized for writing sea stories. ‘Why don’t you quit writing about boats?’ Or Shakespeare. ‘Can’t you write about anything but kings?’ The issue is, do you want to go to the bottom? Sound your depths as a writer?”
As for being a psychological basket case, O’Brien never felt any of that. A native of Worthington, Minn., drafted into the Army infantry directly after graduating from Macalester College in St. Paul, he returned from the war quite intact. ”I came home happy to be alive. No dreams, no midnight sweats, none of that stuff. For a while I was smug about it — that I didn’t suffer. I looked down on those who did as whiners. I remember being so happy not to come home to all the things we were supposed to want — parades, bands. Who wants to come home from the Army and march in a parade?”
In middle age, O’Brien is inclined to be more charitable toward the war’s emotional victims. He understood how to save himself from the start. He was already beginning to write things down in the jungles of Southeast Asia. If he survived, he knew he would turn the experience into art. And as for lacking imagination, nobody who has read Going After Cacciato could possibly think that. The truth is that O’Brien’s stories are like nobody else’s. His blend of poetic realism and comic fantasy remains unique. Critics seeking to account for the moving, almost hypnotic quality of that novel compared him to writers as different as Hemingway and Jorge Luis Borges, to Joseph Heller and Gunter Grass.
In short, critics really can’t account for O’Brien at all. At least in part that’s because his Vietnam stories are really about the yearning for peace — aimed at human understanding rather than at some ”definitive” understanding of the war. In Cacciato, O’Brien juggled two overlapping stories: a gritty, at times horrifying combat tale similar to his own nonfiction memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, and a dreamlike fable of escape. In pursuing an AWOL rifleman all the way from Quang Ngai Province to Paris — 8,600 miles — O’Brien’s imaginary rifle platoon enacted the fantasy of every frightened foot soldier since the time of Homer’s Iliad: ”What if I just up and walked away?” If any of the novels written about Vietnam are still being checked out of libraries a hundred years from now, one feels confident saying Going After Cacciato will be among them.
Which turns out to be exactly what Tim O’Brien has in mind. Asked what audience he seeks for his new novel, The Things They Carried, he answers in very old-fashioned terms. ”I write for everybody,” he says. ”For the librarian in Sioux City, Iowa, for the cabdriver in Brooklyn, and for the professor at Brooklyn College, too. But more than anything, I’m aiming at the centuries. The ultimate goal of any writer is to be read the way Melville is read and Conrad is read. Or maybe Robinson Crusoe. That’s a better example. People haven’t quit reading Defoe just because nobody goes out in sailing ships and gets marooned anymore.”
There is this too: ”War stories,” the novelist points out, ”take a direct route to the human heart. I don’t have to invent an elaborate plot to put my characters in peril and make the reader feel it. It’s there from the start. So for artistic reasons — and I don’t mean that in a hotsy-totsy way — writing about Vietnam lets me get straight to the reader’s emotions.”
Even so, O’Brien insists, ”I don’t think of myself as a war writer. I don’t give a s— about strategy and tactics, the mechanics of combat — none of that. A lot of war novels are about melodrama: hiding, dodging, fighting, good guys and bad guys. Or about war as a social phenomenon. Geopolitics and history. My book is about none of that. My book is really about peace.”
Even more than Cacciato, The Things They Carried is virtually impossible to summarize in conventional terms. If anything it is a better book.
Yet there is nothing difficult or inaccessible about it. At one level, the novel tells the story of a rifle platoon humping the boonies of Quang Ngai Province. How they lived and died, who they killed, the lies they told, the truths they learned, the stories they believed-and some they didn’t know whether to believe or not. Made up of 22 self-contained but interlocking short stories, essays, anecdotes, narrative fragments, jokes, fables, biographical and autobiographical sketches, and philosophical asides, the novel is held together by two things: the haunting clarity of O’Brien’s prose and the intensity of his focus.
The Things They Carried is all true, every syllable — and it is all a lie, a gross and palpable imposition of the writer’s ego and the mere sounds of words on the lives and deaths of others — others who can’t tell their own stories, some because they haven’t the gift, some because they got blown to pieces in 1969. Take the engrossing tale that Rat Kiley tells his fellow grunts in the chapter called ”Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.” Nobody really believes, see, that a high school girl from Cleveland dressed in a pink sweater and white culottes flew to Saigon and hooked a ride to a remote fire base to see her boyfriend. But everybody wants to. And what could have happened if one had?
Oddly enough, however, the novelist still can close his eyes and see the battlefield medic who told him much of the tale almost 20 years ago. ” ‘You won’t believe this,’ he kept saying,” O’Brien recalls. ”But I could tell by the way he leaned forward and the intensity in his voice that he was desperate to make me believe him. He even had her scarf, the bandana she wore. To me, that says so much about what storytelling is about. Doing all you can to make people feel the truth.”
Indeed, while reluctant to trace the origins of The Things They Carried to any particular incident, O’Brien recalls his company commander paying him a visit several years back — the only friend from Vietnam he has seen since mustering out in 1970. ”He was an incredibly brave guy,” O’Brien says. ”Charging bunkers, doing things I couldn’t dream of doing.” What amazed him, however, was that the man remembered hardly any of the incidents that had engraved themselves indelibly on the novelist’s mind. Nor did O’Brien have any recollection of any number of things he himself had apparently said and done.
”So you see,” he concluded, ”you have to invent things if you want readers to believe what actually did happen. To make them feel anything like what you felt, you have to make yourself feel again.” What surprised him when he first read reviews of Cacciato was the ”magical realism” tag critics gave him. ” ‘What a beautiful phrase,’ ” he recalls thinking. ” ‘I wonder what it’s about?’ I hadn’t read Borges, never heard of García Marquez. Here I’m thinking my source was Alice in Wonderland.” While Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece about a little girl lost in a bewildering fantasyland is not quite the artlessly innocent tale his anecdote implies, O’Brien can’t resist pushing the point just a bit. ”All the real influences on me as a writer,” he insists with a perfectly straight face, ”are the books I read as a kid. The Hardy Boys, and Larry of the Little League, even comic books.”
As for naming his grieving middle-aged narrator ”Tim” and giving him a biography much like O’Brien’s own, that too is part of the game. ”You pretend like a kid,” he says. ”You play with words. When you were a kid making a model ship, you’d go, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if you could float this in the bathtub and take a picture and make it look like a real boat?’ Wouldn’t it be neat if I called him ‘Tim,’ instead of ‘Fred’ or ‘Jim’?”
While much of The Things They Carried answers ”Tim’s” 10-year-old daughter Kathleen’s wide-eyed questions about what her daddy did in the war, the novelist and Ann O’Brien, his wife of 17 years, have no children. For that matter, unlike his protagonist, O’Brien has never returned to Vietnam — although he’s planning to make a trip sometime next year. No matter. Sitting alone in his almost clinically neat study looking out into the quiet woodlands north of Boston, O’Brien has created for himself exactly the life of order and tranquility he dreamed of as a grunt humping the boonies of Quang Ngai Province when he was little more than a boy.
And just by imagining stories that never happened, and embroidering upon some that did, O’Brien can bring it all back. He can feel the terror and the sorrow and the crazy, jagged laughter. He can bring the dead back to life. And bring back the dreaming too.