Tim O’Brien

Tim O’Brien (a slightly bizarre website that claims to be his homepage, yet fairly comprehensive) will be visiting the school I teach at next week. I’m really excited to “meet” him. I say “meet” — because it’s really about the kids, not us snotty know-it-all teachers. I usually teach (this being my second year at the school and all) In the Lake of the Woods, which I will still do, but the entire school is reading The Things They Carried. It’s been awhile since I read the book, and it has been an emotional experience rereading it. I love the way when one reads a novel at one point in his or her life, the perspective changes when reading it at another stage in life. Perspective maybe isn’t the best word I’m looking for, and yet it seems the most apt. I think the other layer I mean is one’s understanding changes, which of course goes with perspective. I recall reading the novel when I lived in Minneapolis (this is a picture I could find of my neighborhood — a great little diner). I took a writing class at The Loft called “The Novel in Stories”. We read several novels that were written as a series of short stories, and that was probably my favorite of them.

Reading it the other day, it all came back to me — the anger that I felt, the disbelief at him throwing the word “cooze” around, not that I even necessarily knew its exact meaning, but the context was hateful enough. And I remember questioning what I was reading, then thinking I “got” it, then thinking over its hateful ambiguity. I went through those stages again. One of my students hinted at that he felt the tone was superior: You cannot possibly understand unless you’ve been there. I recall getting that same inpression when I first read it, and I think that’s what got my blood boilonmg the second time around to some degree (no pun intended). And then I think about it. I believe there are things in life one cannot truly comprehend unless one experiences it. I can imagine fighting in the Vietnam War is easily one of those events. Part of my issue with the text (when I first read it, and then as I was rereading it) is its exclusion of women. Now, women were mainly excluded from the war, but I think it’s his use of the word “cooze” — it has such hatred. Then I reread the chapter “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” and it no longer excludes women. And I think I recall softening, being disarmed (wow — I’m just letting them roll!) by it. Perhaps I do not see the novel any differently at all. Perhaps I have no significantly greater understanding, but it is the act of reading that is fleeting, ephemeral. We read something and bits stay with us, but in the moment it is all so vivid, a variety of concepts in the forefront of our minds all at once. Reading good writing is such a sensual experience, and since he provides such a sensual experience, I really like his work. I also love that he plays with truth and subjectivity. I was recently called a “fiction writer” — though I haven’t written any in a really long time, because I’d said that I think that fiction gets much closer to truth than non-fiction does. I do not claim this as an original thought, but I do believe it. I think O’Brien is also a proponent of this school of thought. Black and whites are seriously rare. The world is shades of grey, and it it tough to get at the heart. “How to Tell a True War Story” is so awful to read — the cruelty and violence to the animal — to “learn” that it’s not real — whether it is or not is unimportant — it’s the concept — the extreme cruelty of which we are capable — it is all horrific to read, and then the reader realizes that it’s no matter what the fictional victim is or who it is, it happened somewhere and somehow.

Enough. More after I “meet” him. Did I ever mention I once had lunch with Billy Collins? He sat next to me at a luncheon at the Key West Literary Seminar and we talked shop: teaching. Name dropping is fun, but it gets me into snobby trouble 99% of the time when I do it. Tee-hee. What is it with brushes with fame? Why do we even feel the urge to name drop? Sujal gets excited that he saw Penelope Cruz in a restaurant. I still have no clue who she is. When I was at the The Key West Literary Seminar, I was excited about meeting famous poets, and I would rehearse the brilliant things I’d say when I met them. Of course when I met them, the dumbest things would fall out of my mouth. Okay, I must grade now.

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