Tim OBrien, a contemporary American novelist and short story writer of immense, imaginative power, freely admits that the Vietnam War was the dark, jarring experience that made him a writer. OBrien served in Vietnam with the Fifth Battalion, Forty-six infantry from January 1969 to March 1970. He patrolled some of the most active and brutal sites of the war and it definitely showed in the settings of his writing. Before his induction into the army, OBrien felt traumatized on the decision of whether to stay in the United States or to flee to Canada. He finally convinced himself to go for the reason that it was his duty. OBrien returned to America sound of mind and body if not in spirit. He wrote of his war experience in a spare, poetically elusive, and classically toned personal memoir.(Myers 140) Thomas Myers states that, OBrien examines the wrenching transformation of sense and sensibility in fictions that are evocative, challenging meetings of imagination and memory, of the created and the recreated, of the impossible and the possible.(Myers140)
OBrien uses much of Hemmingways style in his work- despair, rhythmic repetition of key words and phrases; the hard, discipline control of idea and emotion in sentences and paragraphs that are models of the stoic understatement; the darkly ironic gestures; and the classical imperatives of courage and cowardliness, transgression and expiation, of Hemmingways best stories and novels. OBrien is a natural storyteller who can spin a tale with the best of them. He is also a figure who would cast off from safe harbors and dive deeply into the primal American soul and psyche.
OBrien explores a few specific subjects and themes: the continual interplay of fact and imagination in fiction and in life; the compulsive, absurd, noble quest for human truth; the difficulty in defining and obtaining the elusive quality of courage; and the ongoing human need for the fragile, made up, explanatory device we call story. OBriens prime theme is not that war maims and destroys but that storytelling explains, connects, and ultimately saves the teller and the listener. The two great themes that are instilled in all of his novels and short fiction: the ongoing quest to acquire or simply to define courage and the desperate need to attain redemption after sin.
In his memoir, If I Die In A Combat Zone, OBrien established his literary voice by creating a striking personal meditation with somber, classical tones and poetic effect, and he offers a version of himself who is both a participant telling one mans story and a symbolic emissary of his culture who exchanges traditional and pop culture myth for the hard-earned knowledge of the personal transgression and historical experience.(Myers 144)
In his book, Northern Lights, OBrien made an early attempt to isolate and explore both the male and the female in every human being, fictional or real. OBrien explained that men and women are different, but not that different. In Northern Lights, he shows the common traits between the opposite genders.
In The Nuclear Age, OBrien treatment of the New Left is satiric, and the characters are often deliberate.What becomes clear in the novel is OBriens own ambivalence to the leftist politics, the civil disobedience, and the cultural upheaval of America in the 1960s and the 1970s. (Myers 150) OBrien combines a subtle blend of imagination and memory to give his readers a taste of the surreal past of his characters.
In his next book, The Things They Carried, the establish subjects and themes were: the search for a workable definition of courage; the need to transmute terrible memory into a livable present; the responsibility of the living to the dead to keep them alive somehow; the wonderful, terrible nature of storytelling itself. The narrator and central character was named Tim OBrien and was modeled after his creator, but both are and are not the real one. In this book, there is not only a pronounced metafictional feel the implicit argument for the utter interchangeability and fluity of life and art but also the perception by the reader that finally any attempt to separate the author from the narrator-hero is a fools errand.
In Going after Cacciato, the very themes of the book are imagination and memory. OBrien makes it clear how the power of our dreams also creates what we call the real world.
In The Lake of the Woods, OBrien offers a depiction of human mystery, secret sin, and the dark, tragic effects of contemporary American history that again rubs away the artificial line between the literary and historical imagination but does so in new, unexpected ways. This book is most truly about men and women: love, marriage, and the terrible, inevitable secrets husbands and wives keep from each other. The portrayal of well-intentioned hearts coming to terms with their own capacities for weakness, for deceit, for failure, and, sometimes, for real evil.
In conclusion, OBrien sums his own style up the best with the words, Truth doesnt reside in the surface of events. Truth resides in those deeper moments of punctuation, when things explode. So you compress the boredom down, hinting at it but always going for drama because the essence of the experience was dramatic. You tell lies to get to the truth. Tim OBrien digs deeply into the American psyche and comes out with an innovative and fascinating style of writing.
1. Myers, Thomas.DLB 152.New York: Saint Norbert College,1995.