Copyright © 1996 Mars Hill Review 4 · Winter/Spring: pgs 117-126.
As the prize for the best work of fiction was about to be handed out at the 1979 National Book Awards, all eyes rested on John Irving, whose breakthrough novel, The World According to Garp, had long been the runaway favorite. Yet, when the envelope was opened and the winner announced, Tim O'Brien strode to the podium. The young author accepted the coveted writing award for his novel about Vietnam, Going After Cacciato.
The award proved to be O'Brien's breakthrough. Since then he has become one of the renowned writers of his generation. His work of fiction, The Things They Carried (1990), a series of harrowing yet reflective stories about the experiences of a platoon of American soldiers in Vietnam, also was a finalist for the National Book Award.
O'Brien's most recent book, In the Lake of the Woods, was chosen by Time magazine as best book of 1994. The novel was six years in the writing, and the author says of it, "I feel like I've gone to the bottom of the well with this book." It tells the story of John Wade, Vietnam veteran and state senator, and his wife, Kathy, who disappears mysteriously from their secluded cabin after John's devastating and possibly career-ending political defeat.
Yet, the mystery of Kathy Wade's disappearance is only the beginning of the larger mysteries O'Brien explores in the novel. As the book unfolds John Wade's complex, troubled, labyrinthine story, it asks the kind of hard questions of the human heart we fear asking ourselves. Slowly, as we consider the dark secrets of Wade's life and their excruciating consequences, we feel the gripping suspense of having our own fate tied to his.
Tim O'Brien's writing comprises a unique combination of direct-vernacular style and compassionate tone. Moreover, his books-most of which center on Vietnam-have the distinction of being read and loved by women as much as by men. When I met him at the Oxford Hotel in downtown Denver, the author was at the end of a grueling, two-month book tour. Nevertheless, he was gracious in the time we had together-taking pains to be reflective and honest in his answers, and extending a personal warmth and generosity of spirit.
Mars Hill Review: Memory is always at the heart of your books. Yet there is always an incredible tension between the question of its reliability-especially under duress-and its necessity to moral behavior.
Tim O'Brien: I think our moral foundations are formed in part by memory and and in part by imagination, with the two forces interlocking. We remember the terrifying things in our lives and the wicked things, and the good things also. They all form a kind of memory base for our moral decision-making, both for the here and now and for the future.
Of course, imagination comes into play too. We have to use our memories to imagine our best selves and the kinds of actions we should take for the future. Those two forces intertwine in all my work.
MHR: You've said that good stories require passion from the writer, and that Vietnam raises those passions for you-courage, rectitude, enlightenment, even holiness.
TO: It's hard to know what to say on that subject, because there's so much to say. Those themes-issues of courage, for example-weave throughout all my writing. They don't have much to do with pure physical courage. They have more to do with moral courage, which in turn hooks into wisdom. We want to be wise in order to make good choices in the world and then act upon them.
MHR: You've often spoken about the lack of substance in contemporary fiction. Do you still feel there's a shortage of good fiction?
TO: I still do. But I don't think it's just a contemporary problem. I don't think there ever has been a lot of good fiction. The bad books in the past have just disappeared, vanished. We don't remember the bad ones because they're not around anymore. And the ones we're left with do have philosophical substance. I think we tend to glorify the past and make it seem a bit better than it really is.
This isn't to say that there aren't some really wonderful books being written right now, because there are. Robert Stone is a wonderful writer whose books have philosophical substance to them. So does Toni Morrison's work. Philip Roth's last book, Sabbath's Theater, is an extremely deep, rich book. Anne Tyler's stories, Kazuo Ishiguro's work-there is a lot of good writing going on. But there is also a lot of bad.
MHR: What defines substance for you?
TO: Philosophical import. I'm talking about stories that transcend the particulars of the story-a story that, say, reaches out beyond Vietnam and into the hearts of all of us. Updike's work, for example, reaches out beyond the suburbs and touches all of us in the center of our thoughts, in those quiet places in our hearts that we visit at night sometimes before we go to sleep.
MHR: Your writing style is very direct-it doesn't seem esoteric. Of course there are always very subtle things going on in your characters and in your narrative. But is your direct style a conscious effort in your pursuit of substance?
TO: In a way, I think, good stories have to be direct. A fairy tale is always direct. There's the wolf sleeping in the bed in "Little Red Riding Hood." Hansel and Gretel get dumped in the forest and have to find their way out. Those are blunt stories. They're very direct and dramatic. Shakespeare's stories are very direct and dramatic. "To be or not to be" is one of those blunt statements of life; it's about whether to live or die.
The stories that don't work often suffer from a kind of overdone cleverness. They're so self-reflexive that they don't open up dramatically for readers. Good stories are very dramatic. The stories in the Bible are a great example. The stories there are very dramatic-very vivid and simple. Those are the kind of stories that stick in our memories. That's not to say they aren't subtle underneath the simplicity. They are. They're full of all kinds of layers.
A good story for me is Huck Finn getting on a raft and going down a river. Or Ahab chasing the whale in Moby Dick. All kinds of interesting, peculiar things happen along the way, but the general storyline is usually fairly blunt and straightforward.
MHR: I don't think a lot of people would think of the Bible in terms of subtlety and complexity. I think most people think of it as being very black and white. What about your familiarity with it leads you to that conclusion?
TO: Anyone who is educated in Western civilization knows a good portion of the stories in the Bible. Even if they aren't religious, they know them because they're good stories. That's why those stories have endured. I think if the stories hadn't been powerful, they wouldn't have endured.
For example, the Exodus story is really a flight story-a running away story, a freedom story. I wrote a story like it, "Going After Cacciato." It's a flight story, a seeking of freedom from the horrors of war. In the case of the Exodus story in the Bible, it's about freedom from the horrors of slavery.
So, yes, there are powerful, compelling, and indelible stories that the ages have passed down to us. And many of them come from biblical sources.
MHR: In an early footnote in In the Lake of the Woods, you intentionally tip your hand as to the solution to the "mystery" aspect of the novel. What is the value in the telling of a tale, as opposed to systematically building up to a particular outcome?
TO: Revealing the mystery kills mystery. But In the Lake of the Woods is a mystery without a solution. And that's why I say early on, "If you want a solution, you'll have to look beyond these pages and read a different book."
The things that endure in our lives-that continue to fascinate us, frustrate us, and keep us wondering-are mysteries. For example: what happens after we die? Religions are founded and churches are built as a way of addressing that mystery.
Love is a mystery. When someone says, "I love you," there's mystery involved in that-how much? and for how long? Love is like a lot of things in life-it's fluid, mutable, and it changes. It reforms itself, it disappears.
Our childhoods are mysteries to us. What formed us? What happened in the dark recesses of childhood to make us the people we are? In the Lake of the Woods is a mystery in a plot sense. The question is, what happened to Kathy Wade? But the deeper mystery is, who was she? Who was her husband, John Wade? And how did they get into this terrible fix in their lives?
MHR: What do you mean when you say that "stories can save our lives"?
TO: In the literal sense, they can't. They can't save our bodies. But a life and a body are two different things. You can think of life only in a biological sense, or you can think of it as a life that's led-something like Einstein's light going out into eternity. It shines on forever and even bends back on itself.
Take Huckleberry Finn, for example. Every time you pick up that book and begin reading it again, Huck's alive. Even though he's never even existed in one sense-that is, in the physical-at some point when you're reading the book you stop saying, "This never happened." Huck is alive, and he's going down the river again.
When I write about Vietnam, many of my characters are invented and some are based on real people. In both cases, I feel that if the book is picked up six thousand years from now and read, there will be Curt Lemon soaring into the tree again. There will be Azar strapping the puppy to an anti-personnel mine. There will be Kiowa teaching a rain dance. There will be Dave Jensen and Rat Kiley.
Books are a little bit like our dreams and memories. They continue to live in our heads long after they've passed away. Like dead puppies from our childhood, or a set of friends from Vietnam, they operate on the ghost principle.
MHR: You've said that imagining was crucial to you as a soldier and as a person. What do you mean by that?
TO: Imagination is important in a couple of ways. One way is as a psychological means of escape. If you can lose yourself in a fantasy, then you're no longer trapped in the horror of, say, Vietnam. You're back home with your girlfriend, eating a nice dinner at the Ritz instead of C-rations. Whenever people testify about their life in the concentration camps, they say much the same thing. The one way to psychologically endure it all is to escape in your head, in your imagination.
Another force of the imagination, though, is that it permits us access to the future. It gives us an inkling of what we might do if. For example, if I were to be drafted again, I don 't think I would go. I can't imagine doing it again. The phrase "I can't imagine it" is an important one. It's important because the things we imagine determine our behavior in the future. If you're in medical school and you can't imagine putting your hands into pus and gore and blood, I'd say you're not going to finish med school. In all kinds of small and large ways, I think our imagination-at least in part-determines the things we'll do in the future, the choices we'll make.
MHR: You've talked about Fichte's philosophy that nothing really exists except what's in our minds. Now, in John Wade's case in In the Lake of the Woods, imagination turned sour and actually harmed someone.
TO: Absolutely. Although, I don't know what happened to Kathy Wade. I don't know if he killed her or not.
MHR: But in terms of the imagination, where do you find concreteness in regard to courage and rectitude? If we take Fichte's dictum, then only what's in our own head matters, not what's in anyone else's.
TO: Fichte was an idealist philosopher, meaning that the world was sensory data to him. He asked, "Who knows if there's a real chair there? The only way I can experience it is through my own practical senses, which I hold in my brain. Therefore I'm relying entirely on my brain to tell me a chair is there. But who knows if there really is or not?"
The realist philosopher would just say, "There's a chair there." It's the concept of lumina-real things in the world-as opposed to phenomena.
As a writer I rely on both. I don't put myself in either the idealist or realist camp. I write about a real world-a world of bombs, bullets, love, fathers, and those things. But I also write about the ways in which our heads, our imaginations, sometimes warp these things in the world and change them. The things of the world can be turned against us, or turned for us, by our imaginations. I don't think things in the world are as important as what we do with them in our heads, how we arrange them morally.
I see my books as a blend of the realist tradition and the idealist tradition-not excluding either, but making room for both. Most philosophers say there's a line between the two things, that there's either this or that. I try to combine the two in my work.
MHR: Magical realism comes to mind.
TO: Yes, that's a great example of the blend. The real can be magical-our dreams, for example. Waking up from a dead sleep with animals talking. Yet our dreams are real. They're not unreal. Who ever had an unreal dream? They're real dreams. They're a part of the world we live in.
The world contains magic. That is to say, dreams make something out of nothing. That's a magician's trick. Your palms empty, then you close it, and when you open it a mouse is in your hand. That's called magic. We do it every day when we fall asleep, or in our fantasies when we're sitting there waiting for a train. And whenever we go back in our childhood somewhere, we're actually back there.
MHR: You've been a part of the Bread Loaf Writers Conference for years. David Haward Bain, who wrote a book on the conference, says that whereas John Gardner called for metaphorical truth in fiction, you call for a kind of "noble lie." He described your idea as being "a sublime and magical lie, a lie that rose above falsehood and into a realm in which the boundaries of fantasy and the actual were forever blurred, but in which a higher, healing truth stood purified and revealed."
TO: That's a pretty good paraphrase of what I've said for many years about writing. Stories are a kind of lying, but a noble lie. There is no Hansel and Gretel. Those stories were made up. There's no Cacciato. Tim O'Brien in The Things They Carried is almost entirely invented. John Wade is a vapor-he doesn't exist. Those are lies I've told about the world.
I never went to the Rainy River to decide whether or not to go to Viet-nam. It's a lie. If I were to tell you the truth about that summer, I would say I played golf and worried about being drafted. But that wouldn't be a story-or, if it were, it would be a lousy story. So I made up the Rainy River story-going to the Canadian border, agonizing over whether to go across it or not-because it's a way of getting at a truth that's in my heart but that isn't in the actual world. It's the truth of a real dilemma: "What should I do? I'm caught up in this terrible bind. I hate the war and I shouldn't go to it. But at the same time I love my country, and I'm terrified of the embarrassment if I don't go. So, what should I do?"
To get at a higher, nobler truth, I tell a big lie. That's what almost all fiction is. Huckleberry Finn is a noble lie. Macbeth is as well. Fiction for me is going beneath the transient surface of events that occur in life and reaching for more personal (and at the same time more eternal) truths. They're the truths of the human heart that don't have expression all the time in the real world. My terror of that summer existed inside of me. And it was very real.
MHR: You've spoken of the "ordering" of experience as an important aspect of psychology. This is clear in your writing, in the narrator's task. We see John Wade's efforts to submerge his conscience and certain memories. What moral implications are you getting at as you're writing about characters who are trying to order their experiences?
TO: That's hard to attack in a few words. When we look back on our lives, particularly the crucial moments of our lives, it's often difficult to recall precise chronology. Did the argument between my mother and father happen before or after the oatmeal was spilled? Or, did that happen before or after my father's taillights blinked in the night as he drove away?
Events, especially those that carry elements of trauma, tend to get scrambled in terms of chronology. And I try to present them that way as much as I can in my writing. I don't clearly sort out for the reader what happened first, second, third, and fourth in a causal chain. I take this approach because I think it's the way our memories often work. We take the beads off the string and put them in a jar and look at them the way we remember them. We pick one up and look at it, then repick one up and look at it again. At least that's the way my memory tends to operate.
Of course, to some extent we can remember what happened first, second, and so on. I do make an effort in my books to rebead the string, but it's always tentative, always tenuous. Maybe that's first, maybe that's second. Maybe I caused her to leave me. Or maybe she caused it by doing this or that first. What did John Wade do first, second, or third to end up in the terrible predicament he was in?
There is an effort on the part of the human spirit to understand itself, to explain itself to itself. And the efforts are never entirely successful, because at the heart of all things there is a lasting mystery. What happened? In what order did it happen? What caused what? What was the consequence of what? These moral blurs, causal blurs, are a part of our condition.
MHR: There's a clear compassion in your books for the characters you're writing about. Yet you never shrink back from the moral issues at hand. Do you think the act of telling a story has a way of bringing compassion-of shining a sympathetic light on a human life however it's lived?
TO: Oh, I do, very much. For me the act of writing a story is an act of compassion. It entails sympathy for human frailties, weaknesses, and strengths-sympathy for a human condition in which we can never be that to which we aspire.
We're creatures who, probably for genetic reasons, are prone to make mistakes. We need certain things-love, food, and so on-and therefore we do bad things to get them. Because we are made frail by our condition-because we're biological beings-we're sometimes going to make big moral blunders. We're pushed partly by biology, and partly by things we don't understand about our personal histories as we evolve out of the distant past.
At the same time I'm not above outrage at moral mistakes and sin, real wickedness. My Lai, for example, is a horrid, outrageous, damning event. So, I can express sympathy for the condition that brought us to the place where that kind of thing happened. Yet, at the same time, I can't justify that behavior. The pardon, if there's going to be one, is in the hands of a higher being. It's not in my hands. As a mortal human being, all I can do is register anger and outrage at acts of murder and betrayal. But at the same time, I have to try to maintain a certain level of sympathy for the condition that got us there.
MHR: Your books not only address themes of evil, sin, and wickedness, but they speak about those subjects explicitly. That isn't done much today.
TO: No, it isn't done these days. And that strikes me as odd, because they seem to be such powerful and resonant words. The word sin is a nice, simple word. One can use it, I think, as a writer, in the sense that it was intended to be used-as an affront against goodness.
Sin is a slap in the face of all that's virtuous in the world. I don't attempt to explain it, exactly. But I do try to describe it in my books. In In the Lake of the Woods I talk about how the sunlight affects people. Conrad uses darkness. We use all kinds of metaphors, because it's such a mystery, this capacity we have to affront things we know to be good. Decency, civility, love, tenderness-these are all things that combine to become that which shines and glows as goodness. And when affronts are done to them, I don't mind calling them sins. They strike me as such.
MHR: You've said that you haven't had the type of readjustment problems many veterans have had.
TO: That's true. I think the reason for it is that I've been able to write about what happened to me. I was blessed with the natural outlet of being able to write stories, books, and essays about those experiences. Other men who served in Vietnam didn't have that outlet at all. They ended up staying silent, as John Wade does-hiding a lot, as he does, and withdrawing from their loved ones. I was among the very fortunate few who did have writing as an outlet.
I'm not sure psychologically what would have happened to me if I hadn't had it. Who knows? It's a hypothetical question, so I'll never know.
MHR: How confident were you in getting into John Wade's head, especially in the more psychopathic scenes?
TO: I'm a human being, and we all have a seed of darkness in us. I've had my moments of rage, of depression, of defeat. I've had those moments where the world seemed to abandon me, where the edifice of selfhood that I'd tried to build came crumbling down before my eyes. We've all had those moments. It happens every time someone important in our life dies. It happens every time we begin to wonder about our mortality.
Although John Wade is not me by any means, there's a bit of me in him, just as there's a bit of me in every single character I've written about.
MHR: I think everybody to some degree can identify with John Wade because of just what you're talking about. Yet, ultimately, what was it that you hoped to accomplish by bringing this character to life?
TO: It's a bit like Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth. She's a very creepy, unlikable character who suffers from a magnified version of the flaws we all have-flaws of avarice, flaws of ambition. We all have them-but hers are magnified and made highly dramatic. I'm sure as Shakespeare was creating her, he was putting a magnifying glass up to his own soul-or, at least to a corner of his soul-and expanding it dramatically.
When you accomplish a character like Lady Macbeth, or Ahab, or Raskolnikov-all creepy people, not wicked, exactly, but suffering deeply from very human flaws-they remind us of those corners in our psyches or our souls that are flawed and imperfect. They remind us that we're human, and that we're to be on guard against those flaws.
For me, John Wade is a reminder to be careful about the things we'll do in the name of love. He does some bad things. He tails his wife everywhere. He hides his past from her. He even goes to war for love, as I did. The consequence is that his life comes crashing down as a result of his secrecy. He loses his wife literally-and, more importantly, figuratively. The great love he had for her is wiped away. I think to dramatize that is an important reminder for us to be on guard against those flaws in our lives. Good fiction exists in part for that purpose-to put out sentries against ourselves.
MHR: That brings to mind a scene in In the Lake of the Woods. John Wade has spied, has been secretive, has done all these things. Then suddenly, the narrator states very simply that as a child, "(John) was trying to get inside his father's head." That's a very poignant image.
TO: He's a human being. I don't think he's a creep, but he does terrible things. One can't help but feel-at least I do-a great sense of sadness and even affection for someone who wanted to know a man who teased him and who drank heavily. John Wade loved his father so dearly that even after his death he imagined his dad coming into his room and talking about the ordinary things that a father and son would talk about-baseball, girls, school.
MHR: In The Things They Carried, the narrator says the choice he made to go to Vietnam was cowardly. Can that also be taken as a reflection on John Wade's choice to run at the end of In the Lake of the Woods? In other words, was Wade's choice to run possibly heroic?
TO: I don't know about his choice. I think Wade's final actions in the book are essentially suicidal. He's such a scrambled person, I don't think he knows whether he should commit suicide or not. His soul is caught in his mind of mirrors. He's so caught up in his own trickery that he's fooled himself. He's like a magician who's done a trick and doesn't know how he did it-or even if he did it. "Did I make her vanish? I'm not even sure if I did. I don't remember it. Maybe, given my history, I did, because I know I'm capable of it. I could have blocked it out, the way I've blocked out the rest of my life and repressed it."
I view Wade's departure at the end of the book as a very tentative act of self-annihilation. He's losing himself even deeper in this futile region of mirrors.
MHR: It's pretty clear that the choices John Wade makes with his imagination did bring that condition of lostness upon himself. And yet the reader is always aware of the fine line between what could be seen as an evil escape and what could be an escape for the sake of psychological well-being.
TO: Absolutely. There are ways and means of escape, some constructive and some very destructive. Let's say you're in a concentration camp. To escape would be an act of physical salvation, but also salvation from evil-from all the evil that's happening around you. In that sense it's an act of purification.
On the Road, the Jack Kerouac novel, is that kind of escape. It's a weird trip to try to escape the bonds of materialism-a searching in that wacky Beat way for some kind of new plane of decency and goodness.
There are other escapes, though, that are escapes of cowardice-such as running from the consequences of one's own misdeeds, refusing to look at them, even erasing them. John Wade tries to escape his own bad acts. We all know what those destructive acts are, because to some degree we've all done them. We're all human.
MHR: That brings up something you once said: "There are consequences in the real world to any kind of escape."
TO: Yes-that's why I say it was an act of destruction for Wade, in a way. If he were escaping to something, knowing someone was waiting there for him, that would be an act of salvation of sorts. It would be a secular act of salvation, but it would nonetheless be an act. But his isn't. He is a lost soul-in a theological sense, perhaps, but more pregnantly in the novel, in the sense that he's lost in his own tricks, his own deception. He's a lost soul, and he's done it to himself.
Yet, as I've said, he does it for this incredibly deep craving for love that's a part of all of us. In that sense, his motives are pure and good. He wanted to be loved by his father, his country, his wife, the electorate. He would do virtually anything in the name of love, as humankind has done for a long time. I think of the Crusades, the wars we've fought for democracy. I also think of the bad things we do to people we love to make sure they keep loving us, the little lies we tell and the things we keep secret. We do bad things for love, and in the name of love. Again, the book is a warning against that kind of behavior, because the consequences are finally apocalyptic.