Tim O’Brien: The things he carries

For Tim O’Brien, the Vietnam War has remained a crucible in his fiction, but the power of imagination and memory, and ‘our elusive interior worlds,’ loom large too.
By Jack Smith | Published: November 10, 2015


tim o'brienEarly in his career, with a published memoir and one novel already behind him, Tim O’Brien won the National Book Award for Going After Cacciato, a novel dealing with the Vietnam War, in which he served. The Vietnam backdrop was fitting, of course: All of O’Brien’s work deals with the war, either as a setting used directly or as a force that later shapes the lives of its participants. And yet, while Vietnam is always present, he is writing about much more. As he points out in “How to Tell a True War Story,” in The Things They Carried, war isn’t just hell; it’s about many other things, too, including “longing and love.” For O’Brien the war is a starting point for any number of complex character possibilities. His work is a profound rendering of humans in their many dimensions-mixing the tragic, the comic and the poignant.

His memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973) laid the groundwork for issues he later explored in fiction, including the mind-numbing rituals of battle and the nagging question of courage and cowardice. Like the memoir, his two novels that deal directly with the Vietnam War are penetrating studies of war’s effects on the human psyche. Going After Cacciato (1978) toys with the premise of escaping the war, with the entire novel projecting this escape dramatically for the reader. What would it be like to leave the war and find one’s way all the way to Paris, a place of freedom and gaiety? The imaginative possibilities become compellingly real – not only for the protagonist, Paul Berlin, but also for the reader.

O’Brien’s second war novel, The Things They Carried (1990), was a Pulitzer Prize finalist-and Houghton Mifflin marked its 20th year in print with a new jacket (as well as O’Brien’s revisions and corrections.) Here, his protagonist, struggling with his moral dilemma over the war, comes close to fleeing to Canada and decides he’s a self-betraying coward for not doing so: Unwilling to risk disgrace and mockery, he sets aside his doubts about the war’s moral legitimacy. The novel grimly recounts war and its effects. The language is vibrant, the characters colorful and haunting, the work experimental in its use of both fiction and nonfiction techniques.

Several of O’Brien’s novels deal much less directly with Vietnam, yet the war experience continues to arise in various ways, and with one persistent theme: how the human imagination, capable of manifold transformations, deals with it, spins it, or provides emotional release from it. In his debut novel, Northern Lights (1975), a key character returns home maimed by the war. Is he a war hero? His experience in Vietnam matches up poorly with the conventional views of town leaders. The war may have been an “adventure,” but it’s not one he’ll talk about. Seeking his own self-styled adventure, something to fuel his imagination, he recruits his brother (the protagonist) for an arduous winter’s journey through the deep Minnesota wilderness, which nearly costs both of them their lives.

One of O’Brien’s darkest works is In the Lake of the Woods (1994). At the height of the protagonist’s campaign for the U.S. Senate, his hidden Vietnam past emerges: He played a part in the My Lai massacre. His career in politics is suddenly over. Since childhood, his tricks as a self-trained magician have enabled him to recast the world in his own terms-to make a new reality by pretending. But no tricks can dispel this ugly truth.

O’Brien switches to bizarre comedy in Tomcat in Love (1998). The protagonist, a macho male who continually seeks dominance over women, pretends he’s an alpha war hero, having outwitted six Green Berets back in Vietnam. In this quirky first-person narrative, O’Brien challenges the reader with a compelling, richly comic and often unreliable narrator.

Two characters in July, July (2002), a tragicomic novel set at a 30-year college reunion, are greatly affected by the war. One has left for Canada and escaped the draft but suffers a great romantic love loss, which his memory works and reworks for years. The other, a college baseball player, goes to war and loses a leg, and finds that he has only his fond fantasies to rely on – namely a hoped-for future with his college sweetheart, however doomed to failure that prospect was.

On the whole, O’Brien’s characters struggle to find hope in worlds made dark by both personal and societal forces. Their imaginations often inspire them to seize life for what it might possibly offer – an escape to Paris, an exotic trip to Africa or Rio or a sudden romantic tryst. His canvas is broad, covering the personal, the philosophical, the social and the political.

How did winning the National Book Award early in your career affect you as a writer?
Not much. Naturally I was delighted. But still, when you sit down to begin a new book, you don’t think, “I won the National Book Award.” The mind doesn’t work that way. It focuses on a story that needs telling, on the exploration of character, on the difficulties of composing decent sentences. The award certainly gave a boost to my career, and it validated many years of hard labor, but in terms of the writing itself, I can’t say it was either helpful or an obstacle. The only thing that can really help a writer is to keep summoning the nerve to confront the blank page every day.

All of your novels deal in some way with the war. Do you start out with that intention, or does it just happen?
A mixture of the two. Sometimes I start out with the intention of writing about Vietnam pretty directly. At other times I start somewhere else, with no thoughts at all about Vietnam, and then end up going there anyway. The story seems to guide me there. I’m sure that has to do with the life I led and how important Vietnam was to me as a kid. It was traumatic, and I still carry the memories and the ghosts and the horrors along with me, and I suppose my subconscious has pushed my stories in that direction. A good example of the latter is July, July. As I began that book, I didn’t think I’d be dealing with the war, but I ended up writing about it anyway.

Your characters do a lot of fantasizing, and in several of your works you emphasize the role of the imagination and pretending. This theme seems significant to you.
That’s an important part of my work. I’m a believer in the power of the imagination in ordinary human lives, and it’s much more important that we often credit. If you’re thinking about becoming a doctor, you don’t just make a wholly rational, pro-and-con decision. You’re going to imagine doctoring, helping people, the long hours of residency, the great pressures and rewards that play out in your daydreams. You’re going to make some kind of determination based at least in part on what you imagine. Do I want to put my hands in gore all day? If the answer’s no, you’re probably not going to be a surgeon. In our daily lives, we make concrete choices in response to our daydreams and imaginings and flights of fancy. And that is, I think, key to why I’m a fiction writer. If that element were not present, I’d be doing nonfiction. Or I wouldn’t be a writer at all.

The imagination can be a beneficial or destructive force. The epigraph in July, July suggests the latter.
“We had fed the heart on fantasies…”? Yes, the human imagination can certainly have a destructive aspect. For instance, if someone obsessively imagines making a big score in Vegas, and if that person finally empties out his savings account and gambles away every last nickel, that seems to me pretty destructive. In general, I think the human imagination has a compulsive or obsessive aspect to it, and the consequences of obsession can be negative in the extreme. Some of my writing, such as In the Lake of the Woods, tries to dramatize that negative aspect. But of course I also believe that imagination is what in large part separates us from the chipmunks. We can envision a future for ourselves. We can envision a better and more decent world. We can envision ourselves as better and more decent human beings. And now and then we can take a bold, glorious stride into that which we’ve imagined.

The vast Minnesota wilderness appears in two of your novels. Is it a shaping force for your fiction?
It’s an emblem more than anything-an emblem of a spiritual “lostness” and of a spiritual “searchingness,” combined. As a kid, I once got lost in the Minnesota wilderness. I spent a couple of miserable hours blundering around in the forest, an 8-year-old , totally turned upside down. The experience hit me hard and stayed with me into adulthood. And throughout my fiction, I’ve called upon that experience as a way of addressing, or dramatizing, a certain spiritual disorientation and confusion people sometimes encounter. I certainly felt lost in Vietnam, and not just in a physical sense. Others might feel lost in a career that is going nowhere, or in a bad marriage, or in the loss of a beloved child. In my books, the whole notion of “lostness” ultimately takes on a psychological and spiritual dimension.

Much of your work combines a gritty realism with bizarre, quirky characters – falling in the genre of dark humor. What does this suggest about your overall vision or world view, or does it?
It does, I suppose. There’s a real world out there that influences all of us, and I try to be realistic about that. But moving through that real world are human beings who have their eccentricities, fantasies, warped viewpoints and bizarre internal lives. So I suppose my fiction reflects that mixture of realism, on the one hand, and bizarre eccentricity, on the other.

For me, a good story embraces both the ordinary and the extraordinary. I’m not interested in simply holding up a mirror to the world. I’m not interested in reporting on actualities and calling the result fiction. To my taste, a good story is a mix of the so-called real world and a much more mysterious and elusive interior world we all live in.

What are the challenges in using this dark comic mode?
The main challenge, I suppose, is to sustain a balance between darkness and comedy. Comedy, of course, is at least partly in the eyes and ears and heads of the beholder, and there’s always the risk that readers won’t find certain material funny in the least. In two of my own books, Tomcat and July, July, a number of readers didn’t find much to laugh at – or so I’ve been told – even if I, as the writer, thought a good many scenes were side-splittingly hilarious. Other readers did not find the books funny.

My guess is that I’ll be remembered, if I’m remembered at all, for my so-called tragedies: The Things They Carried, Going After Cacciato, If I Die in a Combat Zone and In the Lake of the Woods. Personally, I consider Tomcat in Love, if not my best book, certainly up there among the best. Yet I realize the most “literary” folks will disagree. In the end, it’s a matter of taste, I suppose. My sense of humor, which tends toward the outrageous, is plainly not for everyone.

In The Things They Carried, a work of fiction, you blur the line between fiction and nonfiction. The protagonist is named Tim O’Brien, and the characters have the same names as people you dedicated the book to. Can you say why you did that?
Two reasons. The first is I set out to write a book with the feel of utter and absolute reality, a work of fiction that would read like nonfiction and adhere to the conventions of a memoir: dedicating the book to the characters, using my name, drawing on my own life. This was a technical challenge. My goal was to compose a fiction with the texture, sound and authentic-seeming weight of nonfiction.

A certain playfulness was involved. It was as if I were a bored tennis player who one day invented a new set of rules and put up a new kind of net. …These are the rules I’m going to follow. As a writer, that technical aspect is important – at least to this writer it’s important. My hope was that by imposing certain technical requirements on myself, I would end up as a consequence with an interesting, compelling and fresh way of telling a story.

Secondly, I can say that the book’s form is intimately connected to how I, as a human being, tend to view the world unfolding itself around me. It’s sometimes difficult to separate external “reality” from the internal processing of that reality. As an example, let’s say you fall in love with somebody. Real things occur: courtship, a first kiss, marriage, a honeymoon and so on. But your interpretation of these real events is a dynamic of the mind. “Boy,” you think, “that woman really loves me.” And you find out six months, two years, 20 years later, that ah, she didn’t. And yet the world you’ve lived in for those intervening months or years was an invented or imagined world.

I wanted to capture that feeling in The Things They Carried. I wanted to explore multiple planes of “reality” and multiple planes of “truth.” Yes, there is a real war going, with real casualties and real horror, but at the same time those realities are being processed in a mix of memory and imagination. Which is how we shape experience.

The war might take on a heroic shape. Or it might be shaped with bitterness and irony and guilt. This shaping process ultimately subsumes “reality.” Reality – or what we call reality – has traveled through the human mind and come out the other end as a blur. Which is why, late in the night, I’ll sometimes find myself thinking back on Vietnam, asking questions such as, God, did I really do that?

What about the use of footnotes, as in Tomcat in Love and In the Lake of the Woods? Why that technique?
What I was just talking about. You live a life, and you footnote it. “I went to war” – footnote. “Reluctantly” – footnote. “I was drafted” – footnote. “I felt terrible about it, shouldn’t have done it” – footnote. “But I’m not even sure about that. How do I know…what if I hadn’t done it, it could be worse” – footnote. If I lived in a world of absolute certainty…wouldn’t…?” – footnote. Yet the world is complicated and ambiguous, and we footnote it.

You’re lying in bed, and you recollect something out of the main text of your life – a blunder of etiquette, perhaps. And so you toss and turn, mulling it over, stewing in memory, full of embarrassment, and after a while you begin to footnote the blunder in various ways – a wee-hour running commentary on your own misdeed. I think all of us construct a story line for our own lives that consists in good part of such footnotes – qualifications, justifications, erasures, embellishments, adjudications.

Do you have a standard writing routine?
I get the kids off to school, and then I sit down at about 8:30 or so and write until they come home, which is around 4. I work on weekends, too, and on vacations – whenever and wherever I can find the time.

How do you usually get started on a novel?
It varies. Some novels begin with a scrap of language – for instance, “This is true,” the first sentence of “How to Tell a True War Story.” When I wrote that, I knew nothing at all about what would become the content of the story, or plot or character or theme, not a glimmer of a story line. I simply found myself tantalized by language itself, that flat declaration: “This is true.” Instantly, I wondered what is true?

And, a few seconds later, I realized that the statement “This is true” had been made in the context of what I believed to be a work of fiction, which, of course, carries a bit of irony, since most of us don’t conceive of fiction as “true.” The very content of the story began to take shape as if by magic – how firm is so-called “truth,” can truths evolve or reverse themselves over time, is truth a product of the mind, can one person’s “truth” be another person’s outrageous falsehood, can two “truths” be utterly contradictory and yet remain true?

Most importantly the question occurred to me: In what sense – if any – can fiction be regarded as “true”? Anyway, I then wrote another couple of lines: “I had a buddy in Vietnam. His name was Bob Kiley, but everybody called him Rat.” Well, right away I was making stuff up; I had no buddy in Vietnam named Bob Kiley. The thematic focus and tensions of the story had crystallized without any conscious choice on my own part. Those three words – “This is true” – delivered a story to me.

What else might generate an idea?
Oftentimes, maybe half the time, a scrap of language will tempt me into a kind of playfulness, and that very playfulness will eventually lead me toward a kind of meaning, or toward a set of meaning I hadn’t intended to explore, there by opening up a whole new world of story.

Other times it’s an image, a picture in my head, that won’t go away, and eventually I’ll try to translate the image into words. That’s essentially how In the Lake of the Woods began, with a picture in my head of two people lying on a porch, a dense fog all around them, both people desperately unhappy. I had no idea who there people were, or why they were so incredibly sad, or what had brought them to that fogged-in porch. I knew nothing except that the image had been haunting me for a long while, maybe a year or two. It would occasionally pip to mind while I was washing dishes, or watching TV or reading a book. There was a certain mystery about it. Who were those two unhappy people? What was the source of their unhappiness? Would they find a path out of their troubles? So quite naturally, without any volition on my part, In the Lake of the Woods became a mystery of sorts.

Those two principles seem to lead me into a story: Either a piece of language trickles my storyteller’s fancy or I’m seduced by a strong image that seems to cry out for dramatic exploration.

How much revising is there in your writing process?
Endless. I revise as I write. I might rework a sentence 10 times, 15 times or even, in occasional cases, a hundred times. And then, having finally locked the sentence down, I’ll move on to the next sentence, and the same wrestling match will begin anew. Once a paragraph is completed, I may then go back and think, oh, my God, I don’t even need that first sentence. So I delete it. But now I’ve got to revise the second sentence because it’s become the first sentence, which requires a different tone or sound.

What I’m saying, I suppose, is that the sound of prose matters to me. I aim for a certain chime to the prose, a certain music or melody. I’ll often sacrifice the intended “meaning” of a sentence in order to achieve a more interesting sound. And therefore, in a very important sense, the sound of language is instrumental in the very content of a story or novel. Plot, characters, settings, physical descriptions – all these are at least as much the product of sound as they are conscious intent on my own part.

Have you ever gotten really hung up on a novel? Any works you abandoned?
Oh, God, I’ve abandoned lots of them. The magic of the unexpected didn’t happen. I didn’t surprise myself. The prose had a stale, moldy quality that couldn’t be written away…For me a book or a story can only succeed if it is driven by the unplanned and unexpected serendipities of storytelling.

What do you tell beginning writers?
Be stubborn. Be tenacious. Commit yourself to the inevitability of failure. Sentences are going to fail, chapters…whole books…

Secondly, I might also suggest that a writer pay close attention to his or her own life. Don’t avoid your own passions and fears. There’s a tendency, I think, to sublimate it all, or to become so oblique as to avoid entirely that which has hurt you or that which has jerked you awake at night. I know of no rule that commands a writer to be subtle at all costs. At times, I believe, it doesn’t hurt to be blunt.

Jack Smith has published short stories, articles, reviews and interviews in numerous magazines. His 2008 novel Hog to Hog won the George Garrett Fiction Prize.

*This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue of The Writer.

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