I suppose it was only a matter of time before I wrote something about this author; after all, he was the focus on one of my PhD written exams (where we examined the work of one author, as well as criticism and secondary readings on the author).
My first encounter with O’Brien’s work occurred during a undergraduate summer course entitled, “The Short Story.” Our text was John Updike’s (at that point), newly released anthology, The Best American Short Stories of the 20th Century, a book I still own. O’Brien’s story “The Things They Carried” was included, and I remember thinking as I read it that I’d never encountered a story such as that before.
Fast forward three years to a fiction workshop in my MFA program wherein we read his story “On the Rainy River.” For those unfamiliar with his work, this story, and the previous one, are part of his short-story cycle The Things They Carried. Later that semester I read that entire collection, but I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.
I used these two stories in subsequent courses, but I’m not sure what prompted me to include the full cycle/book as the last text in a freshman composition course in which the main text was A World of Ideas, a book filled with classics of western civilization. Nonetheless, I included O’Brien’s book in four successive quarters, and each time, I came to appreciate it more and more. And the students responded in an overwhelmingly positive manner. (I still remember the student who told me that he’d only read a couple books in his life but that he was going to read more work by O’Brien.)
Prior to starting my PhD, I read the rest of O’Brien’s books (there are 8 total), and so for me it wasn’t too difficult to decide to focus on him for the major author portion of my PhD exams. My favorites (besides TTTC) are Going After Cacciato (which won the National Book Award for fiction in 1979), In the Lake of the Woods (1994), and If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973).
So what is it about his writing that I’m captured by? Well, for one, his precision of detail. To use the cliché, I’d state that he can paint a picture in words. And since much of his subject matter touches on the Vietnam War in some capacity (with some scenes of actual fighting), this precision is key. I’ve never been in armed conflict. I have no clue what it’s like to be fired at, what it’s like to know that someone (unseen) is trying to kill you. But having read O’Brien, I have at least a glimpse of that reality.
His writing is also very rhythmic, and by that, I mean that his work reads well aloud, and that there is a masterful control of cadence, of sentence variety, that is pleasing to the ear. I suppose that for me, my appreciation of his skill in this area stems from my own reading and writing of poetry.
His use of fantasy, of metafiction, of blurring lines—these things too draw me to his writing.
The way in which he makes you feel the emotions of his characters is masterfully done. Case in point, I have read and taught “On the Rainy River” probably 3 dozen times. That story, more than anything else of his I’ve read, speaks to me on so many levels. The imagery, the urgency of the narrator, the dramatic stakes, those haunting closing lines: “I was coward. I went to the war.”
I’m excited to be teaching The Things They Carried again this semester, after having not assigned it in any class for several years. I’m curious to see how the text has changed, how I’ve changed, and how my students will respond to this wonderful writer.