A Trauma Artist: Tim O'Brien and the Fiction of Vietnam [NOOK Book]


A Trauma Artist examines how O'Brien's works variously rewrite his own traumatization during the war in Vietnam as a never-ending fiction that paradoxically "recovers" personal experience by both recapturing and (re)disguising it. Mark Heberle considers O'Brien's career as a writer through the prisms of post-traumatic stress disorder, postmodernist metafiction, and post-World War II American political uncertainties and public violence.

Based on recent conversations with O'Brien,...

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A Trauma Artist: Tim O'Brien and the Fiction of Vietnam

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A Trauma Artist examines how O'Brien's works variously rewrite his own traumatization during the war in Vietnam as a never-ending fiction that paradoxically "recovers" personal experience by both recapturing and (re)disguising it. Mark Heberle considers O'Brien's career as a writer through the prisms of post-traumatic stress disorder, postmodernist metafiction, and post-World War II American political uncertainties and public violence.

Based on recent conversations with O'Brien, previously published interviews, and new readings of all his works through 1999, this book is the first study to concentrate on the role and representation of trauma as the central focus of all O'Brien's works, whether situated in Vietnam, in post-Vietnam America, or in the imagination of protagonists suspended between the two. By doing so, Heberle redefines O'Brien as a major U.S. writer of the late twentieth century whose representations of self-damaging experiences and narratives of recovery characterize not only the war in Vietnam but also relationships between fathers and sons and men and women in the post-traumatic culture of the contemporary United States.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“No one after Heberle will probably ever read O'Brien's texts as thoroughly or meticulously as he has from start to finish, and no one will probably need to…It will become, I suspect, the standard exegetical text as well.”—Philip Beidler, author of American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam and Re-Writing America: Vietnam Authors in Their Generation

“A truly praiseworthy work—Heberle manages to combine biographical, psychological, and historical criticism and analysis in convincing analytical and synthetic ways…An enlightening journey through the life and works of a key voice in contemporary American literature.”—Thomas Myers, author of

Walking Point: American Narratives of Vietnam

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781587293283
  • Publisher: University of Iowa Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2001
  • Series: NONE Series
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 374
  • Sales rank: 1,097,494
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Mark Hebele is associate professor of English at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. He is the coeditor of Infant Tongues: The Voice of the Child in Literature. His own year in Vietnam, he says, “remains the most unforgettable experience in my life.”
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Read an Excerpt

By Mark A. Heberle
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2001 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87745-761-9

Chapter One FABRICATING TRAUMA "The Vietnam in Me" Just after publication of his fifth novel, In the Lake of the Woods, the cover story of the October 2, 1994, New York Times Magazine presented an autobiographical piece by Tim O'Brien that attested to his cultural status as America's leading Vietnam War writer. "The Vietnam in Me" alternates an account of O'Brien's return to Viet Nam in February 1994, accompanied by his companion Kate Phillips, with his reflections later that summer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, concerning the subsequent breakup of their relationship. The magazine's cover reproduces a 1969 photograph of a shirtless and helmetless O'Brien in Quang Ngai Province, Viet Nam, where he was serving as a combat soldier in a battalion of the Americal Division. Filling the entire page, the image fashions O'Brien as the archetypal grunt, the American soldier in Viet Nam, but it also authenticates the writer as an experienced combatant: This is not simply any Vietnam veteran but, for the magazine's readers, the most well-known and admired novelist of the war. The photo is reproduced in miniature throughout the article, alternating with photos of Vietnamese whom O'Brien met during his 1994 return. This iconic juxtaposition reflects the written account, in which the author describes meeting residents of Quang Ngai at peace while remembering how he and his comrades died and killed on the same ground during his year in the war. "Dear God. We should've bombed these people with love," he writes after being told that he is the first American soldier to visit here in the 24 years since his former firebase was abandoned to the weeds (50). But O'Brien's return to Viet Nam is not just an atonement; it is also a return to the site of his constitution as a writer, a career that the publication of this piece extends.

"The Vietnam in Me" appeared again in the Sunday Observer magazine for April 2, 1995, as part of a special issue devoted to the twentieth anniversary of the end of the American war in Viet Nam. This cover page reproduces a shot by the legendary British Vietnam War photojournalist Tim Page of an otherwise anonymous GI smoking a hash pipe in the field. O'Brien's is the first piece of writing in the issue and is preceded by a series of famous combat photos and followed by three articles that discuss in turn the continuing effect of the war on the United States and on Viet Nam, the British antiwar movement, and the role of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (The series concludes more pragmatically with a review of Vietnamese restaurants in London.) Even more tellingly than in its original appearance, this reprinting of O'Brien's double narrative reflects his status as America's canonical Vietnam War writer. A note at the end, referring to O'Brien's previous works and announcing the imminent publication of In the Lake of the Woods in Britain on April 24, identifies the author of the preceding personal narrative as America's most celebrated writer of Vietnam War fiction. Published barely a month before media celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II, the issue commemorates America's failure in Viet Nam, largely ignored officially by the U.S. political establishment that spring, as a resonant political and cultural event of the post-1945 world. While the Victory in Europe observances of May provided nostalgic last rites for an increasingly distant "good" war, the Vietnam conflict is, according to the magazine cover blurb, "the war that goes on forever seen through the eyes of soldiers, civilians, and photographers." Except for a black GI whose traumatic response to a white buddy's death is captured in a haunting photograph by Larry Burrows, O'Brien is the only American soldier, and only American writer, whose name appears in the issue. His voice thus carries a doubled authority, and it is in his personal account that the war's lack of closure for Americans is most decisively dramatized. Conversely, for the Vietnamese presented both in O'Brien's piece and in the others, the war seems an event of history.

Although both magazines acknowledge O'Brien's special status as a Vietnam writer, "The Vietnam in Me" represents the celebrated author as a traumatized survivor of a war that will not end. O'Brien's return to Viet Nam is deeply unsettling, reawakening terrible memories as he revisits former battlefields in Quang Ngai Province, where he served as an infantryman in 1969: the terror of combat, the deaths of former comrades, homicidal fear and dread directed at the Vietnamese themselves, the destruction of their villages, small brutalities and large atrocities perpetrated by American soldiers. The scenes in Cambridge present an abandoned writer who is taking medication against a suicidal despondency that threatens his life. His companion goes to Viet Nam in the spirit of "adventure" but is horrified by what she discovers when they visit the site of the My Lai Massacre at the subhamlet of Thuan Yen; by the time of the scenes in Cambridge, she has left him for someone else. O'Brien's self-revelation shocked many of his readers because, unlike many combat veterans, he had seemed to be relatively unaffected psychologically by his experiences in Viet Nam. In a 1990 interview, he confessed that "for the rest of my life I'll probably be writing war stories" but "not out of any obsession with war," and claimed that he had experienced no postwar adjustment problems (Coffey). But here O'Brien was presenting himself as a deeply troubled figure who had suffered for more than two decades from bad dreams that had been reawakened to the point of self-destruction by the return to Viet Nam. Nor is the near-breakdown simply a result of the war. The loss of the woman he loves also seems to be a life-threatening experience: It is unclear whether he is tempted to kill himself because he can't leave Vietnam behind or because the woman he loves has left him. And O'Brien's double trauma is darkened further by guilt: "I have done bad things for love, bad things to stay loved. Kate is one case. Vietnam is another" (52).

Although O'Brien has been criticized for exploiting intimate secrets in publishing this piece, he has pronounced himself more than satisfied with his apparent self-revelation: "I reread it maybe once every two months, ... just to remind myself what writing's for," he told Don Lee (196). In finding his confession a piece of good writing, whatever its value as personal therapy, O'Brien joins two categories that we normally regard as distinct. To facilitate recovery, trauma survivors are normally encouraged to tell their story to fellow survivors, therapists, or other sympathetic audiences. Such narratives have as their goal the cathartic re-creation of the original scene or scenes of horror, not literary achievement. O'Brien's piece is certainly not therapy in the normal sense because the community to whom he reveals himself is a dispersed audience of readers. Nor does his memoir or personal testimony simply recall events that occurred in the past in a particular place. "The Vietnam in Me" reduces but also intensifies the American war as a psychic reality within O'Brien's memory and imagination. Thus, "Vietnam" is a continuing trauma but also a literary representation of that trauma created by a particular American author.

That this personal testimony is carefully contrived is most evident in its structure. The piece is organized into eighteen separately titled sections, fourteen headed by the location and date of the scene that is re-created within each (e.g., "LZ Gator, Vietnam, February 1994"; "Cambridge, Mass., June 1994"). Nine of these occur in Viet Nam, five back in Cambridge four months after the return to Viet Nam. The juxtaposition of these two different locations and times deliberately links yet separates past and present, Viet Nam and America, the writer as victimizer and the writer as victim, other American and Vietnamese casualties of the war and O'Brien himself, the trauma of war and the trauma of love, being with his companion and being separated from her. The turning point from Vietnam to domestic trauma is the couple's visit to the site of the My Lai Massacre. Not only is this the longest single series of scenes (three) in a single place ("My Lai, Quang Ngai Province, February 1994," 52-53), but the first My Lai scene is the seventh of the fourteen sited and dated sections, while the final one is the ninth of the eighteen sections as a whole. My Lai is thus literally situated at the center of O'Brien's revelation of double trauma. Formal patterning is also metaphorically significant elsewhere: The final scene of personal desolation in Cambridge takes place on the Fourth of July, and the final scene in Viet Nam is Ho Chi Minh City, which the lovers find hatefully Americanized and which O'Brien invests with a split personality that verbally reflects his own breakdown and reinvokes the war, not the present peace: "Even the names-Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City. A massive identity crisis. Too loud, too quiet. Too alive, too dead.... An hour in the Chinese market district ... is like an hour in combat" (57). The alternation of the two interwoven chronologies of Viet Nam and Cambridge is itself carefully fabricated to reflect traumatization. The resulting fragments parody the linear narrative suggested by the chronological headings; they formally enact a series of flashbacks from a present state of grief over the loss of Kate to the devastating visit to Vietnam when they were still together.

Besides its dual chronology, O'Brien's piece reorganizes his direct experiences in less obvious ways. As noted above, the hinge of the transition from one trauma to the other is the couple's visit to Thuan Yen, a series of scenes that ends with a cold rain coming down over the ditch where American soldiers murdered "maybe 50, maybe 80, maybe 100 innocent human beings."

The guilt has turned to a gray, heavy sadness. I have to take my leave but don't know how. After a time, Kate walks up, hooks my arm, doesn't say anything, doesn't have to, leads me into a future that I know will hold misery for both of us. Different hemispheres, different scales of atrocity. I don't want it to happen. I want to tell her things and be understood and live happily ever after. I want a miracle. That's the final emotion. The terror at this ditch, the certain doom, the need for God's intervention. (53)

In this account, My Lai has been translated (and diminished?) from an unspeakable war crime into an unspoken anxiety between two lovers that will lead to their separation four months later. The narrator finds it difficult to "take leave" not only of Thuan Yen but of the woman he loves. The grave site of the My Lai Massacre and of America's own righteous pretensions becomes a tomb for their relationship as well, poisoning love with its terrible influence. Yet O'Brien's emotions at the grave have been written into the moment from a later perspective, after Kate has left him. O'Brien has revised his earlier self, investing the visitor to Viet Nam with the awareness of the suicidal survivor of the Fourth of July: "The future will hold misery for both of us." On the other hand, this scene may be regarded as an intrusive memory that reemerges as O'Brien grieves over losing his beloved in July 1994. "The Vietnam in Me" is thus not direct self-revelation but a refashioning of actual experiences in which O'Brien represents himself as a double trauma survivor. That "The Vietnam in Me" straddles the border between confession and contrivance, nonfiction and fiction, has been recognized by the New York Times Magazine editors themselves, who characterize it as a "fractured love story."

O'Brien's Endless War "The Vietnam in Me" is O'Brien's only explicitly autobiographical work since If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, his first published book. It belies his previous complacency about recovering from the war psychologically, and its publication precisely twenty-five years after his year in Viet Nam intimately testifies to his own traumatization. Despite its direct personal details, however, it is of a piece with all his previous work in its self-conscious fabrication of traumatic phenomena. Ultimately, "The Vietnam in Me" and traumatic recovery have been the dominant subjects of O'Brien's entire life as a writer. To date, the shape of his career is a series of reimaginings of the war in Viet Nam alternating with works in which it resides as an experience that is variously evaded. As in the traumatic memoir, the physical sites of the books have alternated between Viet Nam and the United States, but the ultimate settings are psychic, and Viet Nam and America have come to merge within the minds of O'Brien's later protagonists. Thus, the antihero of Tomcat in Love, O'Brien's most recent novel, is a professor of linguistics at the University of Minnesota who remains haunted by traumatic experiences in Viet Nam, retells them to others, and eventually puts on his old uniform as he prepares to avenge himself upon his ex-wife. The three "war" books include his first work and the odd-numbered novels that followed it: Combat Zone (1973), Going After Cacciato (1978), and The Things They Carried (1990). The first is a war memoir, the second a novel, the third a collection of short fictional narratives-three different genres, yet in a sense they all retell the same stories. The works set outside Viet Nam-Northern Lights (1975), The Nuclear Age (1985), and In the Lake of the Woods (1994)-are equally varied in literary type: a circumstantially realist adventure tale; a cartoonlike black satire; and a bleakly inconclusive detective story that mixes psychobiography, history, and war story. Like Tomcat, however, each focuses on a figure damaged by the war in Viet Nam: a returning wounded veteran, a draft dodger, and a participant in war crimes.

Taken as a whole, the seven major works not only re-create America's involvement in Viet Nam but represent it within the larger context of what Alan Sinfield has called "the hegemony of U.S. Man" (267). Like the author himself in Combat Zone and "The Vietnam in Me," O'Brien's protagonists are embarrassed witnesses to the last half of the "American Century," traumatized by what they have gone through as observers of its violence or as willing or unwilling participants. Even as the war has receded into history from 1973 to the millennium and has increasingly become part of his characters' past lives, the extent of traumatization has increased from book to book, as if both remembrance and amnesia were psychically dangerous. Ironically, the character who seems to be least affected by Vietnam is O'Brien himself in his initial combat memoir. "The Vietnam in Me" thus appears to confirm Kali Tal's observation that "survival literature tends to appear at least a decade after the traumatic experience in question" (1996: 125). The progressively greater emphasis on such experiences in O'Brien's works suggests a personal working out of trauma through refabrication. Indeed, each of O'Brien's protagonists is a version of the author, and in two of the later works, the author's fictional personae are nearly indistinguishable from himself: The narrator and chief protagonist of The Things They Carried is even named "Tim O'Brien," and the unnamed narrator of In the Lake of the Woods is a former combat soldier in Viet Nam who has just revisited Thuan Yen as part of his research for writing the book that we are reading. Furthermore, just as Tim O'Brien lost Kate Phillips after she had seen the site of the My Lai Massacre, the novel's traumatized protagonist, John Wade, loses his wife-whose name is Kathy-after she discovers that her husband had participated in the crime. Besides this merging of O'Brien with his own characters, many distinctive episodes and even details in later books are revisions of earlier ones (a full list of parallel passages would run into the hundreds); such recursive scenes mimic the intrusion of past experiences that is one of the symptoms of continued traumatization. More pointedly, several repeated motifs in the books are symptomatic of trauma survivors' behavior. Like the author himself in "The Vietnam in Me," for example, one or more characters in each of the novels except Going After Cacciato becomes suicidal after falling into despair and grief. Norman Bowker in "Speaking of Courage" (The Things They Carried) finally does kill himself, and John Wade self-destructively vanishes.


Excerpted from A TRAUMA ARTIST by Mark A. Heberle Copyright © 2001 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Vietnam as Figure and Symptom: "We've All Been There"
A Trauma Artist
The Fiction of Vietnam
1 Fabricating Trauma 1
The Vietnam in Me 1
O'Brien's Endless War 5
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Vietnam 9
PTSD and Writing 16
O'Brien's Art of Trauma 23
Writing Beyond Vietnam 33
2 A Bad War 40
Origins of If I Die in a Combat Zone 40
Fictionalized Testimony 43
O'Brien's Self-Representation: Soldier Versus Writer 47
Moral Combat 57
Combat Zone as Source for a Career 65
3 The Old Man and the Pond 69
Self-Displacement in Northern Lights 69
Literary Mimicry: Realism, Symbolism, Allegory 75
Harvey's Story: Vietnam as Tragicomedy 83
Paul's Story: The Feminization of Virtue 92
Novel Revisions 105
4 A Soldier's Dream 108
The Re-covering of Trauma: Paul Berlin as Tim O'Brien 108
Cacciato: From Short Stories to Trauma Narrative 109
"Going After Cacciato": From Catalog to Breakdown 114
Paul Berlin: From Breakdown to Trauma Writing 122
The Quest for Cacciato: Fantasy and the Burial of the Dead 131
The Observation Post: Retraumatization and Endless Fantasy 141
5 The Bombs Are Real 144
An Ambitious Failure? 144
The Traumatization of William Cowling 146
Parabolic Fiction: Mutual Assured Destruction and Civil Defense 154
The Nuclear Age and Vietnam 163
The Failure of William Cowling 170
6 True War Stories 177
Recirculated Trauma, Endless Fiction 177
The Things They Carried as Self-Revision 178
"How to Tell a True War Story": Misreading Tim O'Brien 187
Other Refabrications of Trauma 196
"The Lives of the Dead": Bringing Them Back Alive 211
7 The People We Kill 216
Trauma, Tragedy, National Disgrace 216
Metafictional Investigations 219
The Breakdown of John Wade 224
Tragic Revisions 238
John Wade as Paradigm and Persona: Tim O'Brien's Trauma 246
Psychobiography, History, and Fiction 252
8 Guys Just Want to Have Fun 259
Vietnam and the Age of Clinton 259
A Dictionary of Love 264
In Defense of Thomas Chippering 272
PTSD as Comedy/Vietnam as Parody 279
Saving Tim O'Brien: Tomcat in Love as Countertherapy 287
Conclusion: A Trauma Artist 295
Posttraumatic Nation 295
Academic Polemics 299
Responsible Dreams 305
App Diagnostic Criteria for Posttraumatic Stress Disorders, DSM-IV 313
Notes 315
References 325
Index 337
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