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Thursday, October 30, 2014

What is Tim O’Brien's Best Vietnam War Novel/ Book?

My interest in Tim O’Brien’s work originates from my study of Cold War texts over the last six years in After the Bomb. O’Brien (b. 1946-) was drafted into the US infantry during the Vietnam War and served in the country during 1969-1970 and later published a memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973) and a series of novels about his experiences and perceptions of the war.

The range and complexity of O’Brien’s artistry and shrewd insights into the Vietnam War certainly establish him as one of the best American writers of the war of his time. As brilliant journalism, it’s still hard surpass Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1972) or David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest(1976).

An evaluation of any book is always going to be subjective.  What I’m essentially looking for in a good read is clarity, sophistication & unity. I also want to understand and be emotionally engaged in the conflict in a deeper way through the representation of the various characters and their experiences. I also want to be entertained, to keep me guessing what is to happen next. And most of all, I want to vicariously understand the complexities of war by someone who has been there.

#5 The Nuclear Age (1995)

This novel is broad in scope but disappointingly uneven. It is set in 1995 and tells the story of William Cowling who begins to dig a large hole in his backyard with the intent of building a bomb shelter for his family. The novel consists of a series of extended flashbacks, including his life on the margins in the late 1960s and 1970s as a draft dodger and war protestor. The perspectives on the Vietnam War are limited because of O’Brien’s grander vision to capture the vicissitudes of the Cold War between 1950-1985 as seen by an ordinary American.

See my full review:

#4 If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973)

This is an excellent memoir about Tim O’Brien’s experiences as a grunt during the Vietnam War. He was drafted into the US Army in 1968 and served for one year. The writing is intensely personal and is acutely observational with an overarching philosophical bent. O’Brien explores the nature of goodness, what constitutes a just war and the nature of courage & war. Comparatively, If I Die in Combat Zone is not as sophisticated as some of O’Brien’s later, more mature novels, but is a highly recommended starting point in any close study of the author’s body of work.

#3 Going After Cacciato (1978)

This is a sprawling, third person narrative, largely told through the lense of a young US infantryman, Paul Berlin. After a fellow soldier, Cacciato, leaves the platoon for a crazy dash for Paris, seven soldiers decide to pursue him through the mountains and beyond.

The structure of the novel alternates between the pursuit of Cacciato’s through several countries and flashbacks to Berlin’s initial recruitment and his various exploits in Nam.

The writing is highly experimental and often skids the boundary of credibility. The language is an odd mixture of graphic realism and surreal, often self reflexive post-modernistic bullshit. What makes this novel enduring is O’Brien’s skill in making profound statements about the nature & morality of war.

#2 In the Lake of the Woods (1994)

This is Tim O’Brien’s best crafted novel and is loosely shrouded in the form of a detective novel. The storyline is focussed around the disappearance of Kathy Wade, the wife of an aspiring  politician, John Wade, who has recently lost a senatorial race because of the last minute muck-raking into his dark past as a infantryman in Vietnam.

O’Brien’s investigations into what represents the truth echo his search for meaning in some of his earlier work. In this novel he brilliantly layers a swirl of evidence, fictional conjecture and ambiguity to call into question the nature of reality itself.

I think this is O’Brien’s best novel but its focus on the Vietnam War is limited. There are many flashbacks to John Wade’s dark past & these are graphic and memorable. O'Brien takes literary licence in  appropriating the massacre of civilians at My Lai in 1968 by C-Company: .
Unsurprizingly, Lt William Calley was the only soldier charged in relation to the incident,  and only served three & a half years out of ten for his war crimes.

It is important to note that O'Brien served in the division that was implicated in the My Lai Massacre. He was not directly involved in the incident but obviously would have come across the gruesome details through word of mouth. 

#1 The Things They Carried (1990)

This novel gets the nods as O’Brien’s best Vietnam book because of its explicit and extraordinary insights into the war.  

This is an outstanding collection of short stories, partly-biographical accounts & notes which capture O’Brien’s process of writing about the Vietnam War twenty years after his tour of duty ended in 1970. The ‘novel’ blurs the distinction between fiction and memoir & between experience and the transitory, slippery nature of the truth. It graphically illustrates an American foot soldier’s experiences ‘in the boonies’ but it is also about the complex process of writing.

Find this webpage devoted to Tim O’Brien’s books:

Friday, October 24, 2014

Janne Karlsson (Editor) LOVE’S AN INFECTION (2014) 24 pages

Janne Karlsson’s A5 fanzine-style chap LOVE’S AN INFECTION is a short collection of illustrated poems on the theme of Love & Hurt and features seventeen poems & eight poets from around the world. Over the last couple of years, the Swedish artist & editor has collaborated with several, mainly North American poets, who he has developed a huge respect and admiration for. When Karlsson gained access to a cheap printer earlier this year, he decided to take a shot at creating his own print poetry anthology and invited his network of poets to contribute. LOVE’S AN INFECTION is the result of this collaboration.

The poems are minimalistic & view love from a wide variety of perspectives. The poetry is experimental and remarkably fresh. There is nothing predictable or mundane here: Blood spouts in raw spasms across the page. Bruised wailing mouths pulse like a “heartbeat of fists.”

As implied by the title LOVE’S AN INFECTION, love is seen as a disease which makes people do & say crazy things. As shown in the poems, love can induce vomiting, self-loathing, evoke intense hatred and acerbate irreconcilable differences & misunderstandings between people.

(Reprinted with the publisher's permission) 

I recently asked Karlsson for BM (23 October 2014) the thoughts he had when he sat down to create an illustration for a poem. He candidly commented: “I don’t really think or prepare in any way. I read the poem and pretty much draw intuitively, trying to kind of turn the poem’s feelings into ink. There’s hardly ever anything going through my mind. If I began using my brain in my drawings, the result would surely suck. Suck hard…ha ha.”

(Reprinted with the publisher's permission)

Karlsson’s illustrations are character driven and express a raw, surreal existential anxiety which adeptly reflects the sick, fucked-up agony of modern living. His graphics? Think mad shit. Think raining blood, Zombie nudity, eyeless vomiting figures drenched in blood. Think even of cannibalistic metre-square blocks of ready-to-be-eaten breasts & vulvas. Weird but thought-provoking stuff!

Order the book for $3 US plus shipping from Sweden here:

Visit Janne Karlssons web page: