To tell you the truth, O'Brien writes fiction

Novelist: The prize-winning author seeks emotional, if not literal, honesty.

October 19, 2001|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

The audience member's question about novelist Tim O'Brien's daughter seems reasonable enough, except O'Brien doesn't have a daughter. As the writer was just telling the crowd at Towson University, however, her name is Kathleen.

Or at least it was when he told a little about her in The Things They Carried, a Vietnam War novel Tim O'Brien wrote in 1990 from the point of view of a 43-year-old writer and war veteran named Tim O'Brien. And Kathleen is her name when he tells the crowd of a few hundred Wednesday night about how his daughter sometimes nudges her dad to stop already with the war stories.

It's another good war story, by O'Brien's definition: It rings true. At least one member of the audience at Towson Center is convinced enough to raise his hand and ask O'Brien how his war experience affects him in his role as a father.

Well, uh.

"I have no children," says O'Brien, raising a bit of a murmur in the audience. "Kathleen is made up."

To be Tim O'Brien, it seems, is to be forever explaining what you do for a living, as if you're a shaman or options trader or some other mysterious being. As it says right there on the title page: "A work of fiction by Tim O'Brien." In 1990 he was by any definition of Truth a 43-year-old writer and Vietnam veteran named Tim O'Brien.

After that, things get murky.

O'Brien may or may not have killed a young Viet Cong soldier, who lay dead in a shaded trail on his back, his thin eyebrows arched, one eye shut, the other a "star-shaped hole." O'Brien may or may not have seen his fellow platoon member Curt Lemon step from shade into sunlight, and at that moment get blown up into a tree and into several pieces by a hand grenade he and a buddy were tossing around.

That chapter is called "How to Tell a True War Story." It begins with the words "This is true," which should tell you something.

Thirty-one years have passed since O'Brien returned to the United States from a tour of combat duty in Vietnam, where he started doing a little writing. "I haven't stopped since," he says.

He just turned 55, recently married and moved from Cambridge, Mass., to Texas, where he teaches creative writing at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. He has published seven books and is working on his eighth, and has received the National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize nomination and a few other official literary affirmations.

Most of the books revolve in one respect or another around O'Brien's experience in Vietnam, which in some incalculable way contributed to his deep skepticism about certainties. O'Brien didn't invent the tension between emotional and literal reality, but he surely has spent much of his working life mining that seam.

One critic and biographer has referred to O'Brien's "disconcerting habit of mixing personal and historical facts and fictions in his works." One critic dismissed this tendency as "overly disingenuous game playing." Another refers to The Things They Carried as a piece of "metafiction," meaning fiction that comments on fictional conventions. O'Brien's writing frequently critiques its own methods, calling attention to the relationship between the fictional and the actual, questioning the narrator's reliability.

This fits postmodernism's self-referential tendencies, but as O'Brien tells it, he arrived at this way of working not by theory but life experience. In Vietnam, he says, "ambiguity was the rule." He's just trying to tell emotionally honest stories, he says.

O'Brien also has developed a reputation for blending fiction and actuality in his public talks, presenting invented stories as life experience. As in the matter of his daughter, Kathleen, an engaging and adorable child who exists in O'Brien's thought and, by a twist on the Cartesian maxim, therefore exists. He tells the audience an anecdote about his childhood in Worthington, Minn., but doesn't mention that the anecdote appears in his last book, Tomcat in Love, a work of fiction. "I'm paid to make stuff up," he says. "So take what I say with a grain of salt."

On Wednesday afternoon, O'Brien spends a part of his talk at Towson University discussing this slippery business of truth.

"Americans have a way of looking at the world," he says. "They give reality a capital `R,' truth a capital `T.' ... The truth isn't one solid thing. Truth is not only fluid, it can evolve."

He tells how his first book, an account of his Vietnam experience called If I Die in a Combat Zone, is technically nonfiction. Consider that, for a moment:

In the course of reconstructing dialogue and scenes, he had to invent some material to fill gaps of memory, which is notoriously unreliable anyway. Who can accurately report from memory what was said and done yesterday, much less years ago? Who can say where memory bends to emotion and imagination?

"If you're going to play with nonfiction," he asks, "why not go whole hog?" Why not invent characters, follow flights of fancy where they lead? It happens that some flights lift off from a patch of actual turf: a shaded jungle path in Vietnam, say, or a back yard in Worthington, Minn., where O'Brien grew up.

He was by his account an overweight boy who tried and failed at Little League and tried and failed to win the affirmation of his father, who had many fine fatherly qualities but also could be abusive when he drank, and he drank a lot. Young Tim found it possible to escape by reading and writing stories, and by learning to do magic tricks, growing increasingly at ease with illusion.

"When you watch a good magician," O'Brien says, you learn "this is a little like writing. In fact, a lot like it."

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