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A Trauma Artist:
Tim O'Brien and the Fiction of Vietnam
Mark A. Heberle. A Trauma Artist: Tim O'Brien and the Fiction of Vietnam. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2001. xxvii + 344 pp.
There is perhaps no category of contemporary American literature more suitable to biographical criticism and to the theoretical construct of trauma than that which attempts to represent the Vietnam War. Many of the Vietnam War novelists were also soldiers, and soldier/writer Tim O'Brien became preeminent among them in 1978, with Going After Cacciato. In 1990 his position was confirmed with The Things They Carried. Although these two books have received the largest part of the critical attention given O'Brien, in recent years several book-length works, including Steven [End Page 761] Kaplan's Understanding Tim O'Brien (1995) and Toby Herzog's Tim O'Brien (1997), have considered all or most of O'Brien's novels, explicating his works within a largely biographical critical framework. Mark Heberle's A Trauma Artist: Tim O'Brien and the Fiction of Vietnam both perpetuates and elaborates upon this critical trend in exceptional fashion. Basing his biographical and literary accounts of O'Brien and his works on the theory and criteria of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Heberle moves beyond his predecessors in presenting O'Brien's works as having their origins in O'Brien's own traumatizations, while at the same time transcending those origins "to include love as well as war, childhood and marriage and the death of parents, individual moments of crisis and the violence of American history and culture, personal and national nightmares."
In an interview with Herzog in 1995, O'Brien warned that biographical information should not "be used to support a pop-psychology analysis of his life or a facile reading of his works as products of his own psychic therapy." While this study does indeed use the psychological paradigm of trauma and post-traumatization to analyze O'Brien's life, works, and the connections between the two, Heberle's readings are neither simplistic nor do they support confessional or therapeutic interpretations. After an informative discussion of PTSD in his first chapter, Heberle moves systematically through all of O'Brien's books, and as Philip Beidler, an early reviewer, remarked, his readings are thorough and meticulous. As he moves from If I Die in a Combat Zone through Tomcat in Love, Heberle develops the theory that in all of O'Brien's works "[t]rauma is not so much the subject [. . .] as it is the medium within which and out of which his protagonists are impelled to revisit and rewrite their life experiences." O'Brien's main characters are indeed revisions of himself, imaginative fabrications of his own experiences, but "we cannot simply identify their traumatization with O'Brien's own." Rather, according to Heberle, O'Brien's writing "refabricates personal experience in order to transcend it through or re-create it as fiction, an art of trauma of which O'Brien is a supreme practitioner" (emphasis added).
Similarly, Heberle's readings both confirm and deny O'Brien's status as a "Vietnam writer," a designation that O'Brien has also consistently sought to discourage. While Heberle demonstrates that an understanding of O'Brien's fictions must be accompanied by the consideration [End Page 762] of O'Brien's wartime experience, he paradoxically supports the author's appeals by concluding that "Vietnam is a traumatic resource, not the subject of his writing," that "O'Brien's work exposes what the writer first discovered for himself through Vietnam: the fragility of selfhood, inevitably subject to physical, psychic, and moral ruin and the cultural paradigms that form and deform our lives as Americans," and as human beings.
Interestingly, while it is the paradigm of trauma that makes possible many of Heberle's most valuable insights into O'Brien's works, it is perhaps, at the same time, the main inadequacy of A Trauma Artist. Heberle does attempt...