This sample Tim O’Brien Essay is published for informational purposes only. Free essays and research papers, are not written by our writers, they are contributed by users, so we are not responsible for the content of this free sample paper. If you want to buy a high quality essay at affordable price please use our custom essay writing service.
Award-winning author Tim O’Brien is perhaps best known for his fictional portrayals of the Vietnam conflict, in work that describes the experiences of American soldiers and veterans, as well as Vietnamese civilians. Based on his own combat exposure, O’Brien delves into the American psyche and the human experience as he writes not only of what actually happened, but also the emotional and psychological impact of the war. In highly praised works such as The Things They Carried (1990), Going after Cacciato (1978), and In the Lake of the Woods (1994), he explores the war and its aftershocks from many vantage points, some intimate and some more distant. ”But to label O’Brien a Vietnam author seems limiting, even simplistic,” Library Journal contributor Mirela Roncevic maintains, ”for his work has incessantly challenged his storytelling skills, demonstrating his ability to write both lucidly and succinctly while exploring the arcane relationship between fact and fiction, reality and imagination.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
From Minnesota to My Lai
O’Brien was born in 1946 in Austin, Minnesota, to William T. O’Brien, an insurance salesman, and Ava Schulz O’Brien, a teacher. O’Brien moved with his family to Worthington, Minnesota when he was ten years old. As a youth, he studied and practiced the techniques of magic; he has often indicated that this early fascination with the mystery of illusion influenced his later writings, which often incorporate dream scenarios and experimental meta-fictional forms.
In the years following World War II, the country of Vietnam—which had for a time been ruled as a colony of France—became an independent nation partitioned into a region under Communist rule (North Vietnam) and a republic (South Vietnam). The two sides were to be united by free election, but instead they began battling in a civil war to determine the political and ideological fate of the country. The United States supported the government of South Vietnam, and sent nearly three million Americans to the region over the course of the war. Many Americans, however, felt that the conflict was not one in which the United States should have been directly involved.
In 1968 O’Brien graduated summa cum laude from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Soon after graduating he was drafted into the U.S. Army during the height of the Vietnam War. Though O’Brien, having studied political science and witnessed the controversy over the war, held reservations about conscription, he reported to the army. He completed basic and advanced-infantry training at Fort Lewis, Washington, and arrived in Vietnam in 1969. He served with the 198th Infantry (Alpha Company) in the Quang Ngai region, near the South China Sea, where he earned a Purple Heart for wounds suffered at My Lai a year after the infamous massacre. This massacre, in which American soldiers tortured, shot, and killed hundreds of unarmed civilians in South Vietnam, caused international outrage and escalated the anti-war protests in the United States. O’Brien would later integrate the legacy of My Lai into his fiction; the protagonist of In the Lake of the Woods, a politician named John Wade, is revealed to have been a participant in the massacre at My Lai.
During his time in Vietnam, O’Brien began writing vignettes about his army experience. Following an honorable discharge as an infantry sergeant in 1970, O’Brien accepted a scholarship to attend Harvard University as a graduate student in government studies. He left Harvard, however, in 1976, without completing
the Ph.D. program. Afterwards, he served as an intern at the Washington Post and later worked there as a national affairs reporter. O’Brien continued writing fiction, and in 1973 published If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me up and Ship Me Home, a book of memoirs that also reveals considerable emphasis on fictional technique. The series of vignettes reflects O’Brien’s experience as a foot soldier and struck a chord with a wide public for both its autobiographical nature and evocative language, becoming both a popular as well as a critical success. With his publishing career firmly established, O’Brien focused solely on writing, publishing Northern Lights in 1975, followed by Going After Cacciato, a novel that gave him a permanent foothold in American literature, and for which he received the 1979 National Book Award in Fiction. O’Brien followed the success of Going after Cacciato with The Things They Carried, a collection of short stories that many critics consider a novel, given the interwoven nature of the individual stories. Depicting the men of Alpha Company and a fictional character named Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried won France’s prestigious Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger, the Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize, and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. In the Lake of the Woods (1994), O’Brien’s next novel, takes place after the Vietnam War. It received the James Fenimore Cooper Prize from the Society of American Historians and was selected as the Best Work of Fiction of 1994 by Time magazine. O’Brien currently holds the Roy F. and Joann Cole Mitte Chair in Creative Writing on alternating years at Texas State University, and he has been a member of the graduate program with the Creative Writing faculty since 1999.
Works in Literary Context
Going after Cacciato, If I Die in a Combat Zone, and The Things They Carried have all been widely praised as canonical works within the genre of American war literature. Almost all of O’Brien’s writings deal with the Vietnam War and his stories commonly blend memories of his own experiences with fictional treatments of such themes as courage, heroism, brutal violence, and emotional upheaval in the face of death and destruction by impersonal, global forces. Commenting on this element of O’Brien’s writing, as evidenced in the short story “Spin,” Robin Blyn wrote: ”[The story] offers the ambiguous, the unfinished, and the wound that will not succumb to the narrative cure. Keeping the wound open, O’Brien’s text prevents the neat closure and false redemption of the traditional war story.”
Throughout his career, O’Brien has been hailed as a postmodern novelist, a natural outgrowth of what some consider a postmodern war. The American postmodern novel, which emerged with writers such as Joseph Heller and Thomas Pynchon after World War II, generally features a sense of disillusionment and irony, and focuses on the absurdity of the modern, mechanized world. In addition, postmodern works often incorporate wordplay and self-referential allusions—for example, using ”Tim O’Brien” as a fictional character in The Things They Carried. O’Brien’s overt references to his stories as both artifact and truth have caused him to be labeled a postmodern, meta-fictional writer; scholars have noted that truth, artifact, illusion, and fantasy are vehicles through which O’Brien explores the troubling nature of reality, knowledge, and the healing power of literature. Critic PicoIyer remarked that ”O’Brien’s clean, incantatory prose always hovers on the edge of dream, and his specialty is that twilight zone of chimeras and fears and fantasies where nobody knows what’s true and what is not.”
Works in Critical Context
Critics have frequently noted that though O’Brien’s work focuses on the Vietnam War, his narratives branch out into broader themes—for example, conflict among family members, betrayal, gender conflict, loss of faith, and social ideology.
Going After Cacciato
O’Brien combined experimental narrative with the Vietnam theme in Going after Cacciato, winner of the National Book Award in 1979. The chapters read like short stories; several were published separately before the book’s compilation, with two tales winning O. Henry awards. Cacciato records the dream journey of Paul Berlin, a U.S. infantryman in Vietnam, and alternates this with the ”dreamlike” actualities of war. ”The fantasy journey is an unworkable idea that nearly sinks the book,” claims a reviewer in Newsweek. And Mary Hope, writing in Spectator, labels Going after Cacciato a ”strained effort.” Other critics issued more positive reviews, praising the writing style and the author’s abilities. ”O’Brien’s writing is crisp, authentic and grimly ironic,” declares Richard Freedman in The New York Times Book Review. Washington Post Book World contributor Robert Wilson also comments on the dream elements, calling them ”out of place, hard to reconcile with the evocative realism of the rest of the narrative,” but closes by writing that ”O’Brien knows the soldier as well as anybody, and is able to make us know him in the unique way that the best fiction can.”
The Things They Carried
O’Brien returns to the subject of Vietnam and the soldier’s viewpoint with The Things They Carried, a fictional memoir filled with interconnected stories about the conflict and the people involved. The volume is narrated by a character named ”Tim O’Brien, ”whom the author states is not himself, although there are many similarities. The title, The Things They Carried, refers to the things a soldier takes into combat with him: not necessarily all physical items, like weapons, but also intangibles such as fear, exhaustion, and memories. Many reviewers praised O’Brien’s work, such as The New York Times Book Review contributor Robert R. Harris, who proclaims it ”a stunning performance. The overall effect of these original tales is devastating.” ”O’Brien convinces us that such incredible stories are faithful to the reality of Vietnam,” declares Julian Loose in Times Literary Supplement. Michiko Kakutani praises O’Brien’s prose, describing it as a style ”that combines the sharp, unsentimental rhythms of Hemingway with gentler, more lyrical descriptions … [giving] the reader a shockingly visceral sense of what it felt like to tramp through a booby-trapped jungle,” and concludes, ”With The Things They Carried, Mr. O’Brien has written a vital, important book—a book that matters not only to the reader interested in Vietnam, but to anyone interested in the craft of writing as well.”
In the Lake of the Woods
In the Lake of the Woods features a character named John Wade who has just seen his political career destroyed by the public revelation of his presence at the My Lai massacre—a fact he worked hard to hide. O’Brien does not provide definitive answers to certain plot questions, an element that prompted discomfort among some reviewers. Many critics, however, pointed out that the ambiguity of the novel is fitting for the unresolved subject of the war and the My Lai massacre. A critic in the New York Times Book Review comments that the book is ”a novel about the effects of suppressing a true war story, about the unforgivable uses of history, about what happens when you try to pretend that history no longer exists.”
- Freedman, Richard. Review of Going After Cacciato. New York Times Book Review (February 12, 1978):1, 22.
- Harris, Robert R. ”Too Embarrassed Not to Kill.” The New York Times Book Review (March 11, 1990): 8.
- Hope, Mary. Review of Going After Cacciato. Spectator (November 25, 1978): 23.
- Kakutani, Michiko. Review of The Things They Carried. The New York Times Book Review (March 11, 1990): 8.
- Loose, Julian. Review of The Things They Carried. Times Literary Supplement (June 29, 1990): 708.
- Review of Going After Cacciato. Newsweek (February 20, 1978).
- Wilson, Robert. Review of Going After Cacciato. Washington Post Book World (February 19, 1978): E4.
Free essays are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to order a custom essay, research paper, or term paper on any topic and get your high quality paper at affordable price. UniversalEssays is the best choice for those who seek help in essay writing or research paper writing in any field of study.