- Vietnam and Beyond: Tim O’Brien and the Power of Storytelling by Stefania Ciocia
As the title and subtitle suggest, Stefania Ciocia’s book aims to un-shackle Tim O’Brien from a limiting reputation as a Vietnam War writer and to recognize the value of his brand of postmodern narrative. The only academic monograph on O’Brien in over a decade—excepting Patrick A. Smith’s Critical Companion (2005) for the student audience—her book also covers four decades of O’Brien’s work, from his first book in 1973 (If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home) to his most recent publication in 2002 (July, July). Ciocia proceeds thematically rather than chronologically and eschews the focused study of a book like Mark Heberle’s excellent A Trauma Artist (2001) in favor of a more general study.
For newcomer scholars to O’Brien and to American literature of the war in Vietnam, Vietnam and Beyond effectively reviews and wrestles with the established critical issues: morality and courage, epistemology and imagination, storytelling, gender, trauma, and the American frontier myth. The usual cast is all here (Tobey Herzog, Steven Kaplan, Milton Bates, Kali Tal, Lorrie Smith, Richard Slotkin, Lloyd Lewis, Mark Taylor, John Hellman, Judith Herman, Linda Hutcheon, Philip Melling), along with a handful of O’Brien’s writerly peers (chiefly Michael Herr). I’m thankful that Ciocia sidesteps the distracting and dated debate about magical realism in Going After Cacciato by instead linking O’Brien’s exaggerated storytelling to Nathanael Hawthorne’s aesthetics. She similarly does not let herself get mired in the autobiographical happened-truth of The Things They Carried. I also appreciate her regard for The Nuclear Age, in my estimation O’Brien’s most undervalued novel (even by himself!). [End Page 195]
For those of us already familiar with the scholarship on these two bodies of work, however, I must respectfully disagree with Philip Beidler, who blurbed Vietnam and Beyond as an “original . . . book that really does take discussion about Tim O’Brien as a world writer to the next level.” It is a timely and necessary book that sustains the conversation, but it also delivers on its title and subtitle in analyzing the tried and true. The book offers some lovely insights about individual texts and juxtaposes texts in promising ways, but these moments do not advance scholarship as significantly as I had hoped. Its most provocative section, one I intend to revisit when I next teach or write about the novel, reads In the Lake of the Woods against the American frontier myth. The novel explores the upper Midwest instead of the Wild West, and the GI-frontiersmen partake of the superstition and savagery usually attributed to the backwoods natives they are intent on exterminating. Herr’s Dispatches explicitly invokes Slotkin (and Conrad) in its framing of the war through the frontier myth, and Ciocia smartly demonstrates O’Brien’s refusal to entertain the regeneration-through-violence narrative and Herr’s sexualization of combat.
Vietnam and Beyond’s examination of gender, especially regarding the story “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” also deserves some further study to appreciate fully. Throughout the book, Ciocia supports O’Brien’s gender dynamics against accusations of misogynistic portrayals. For one thing, “‘Sweetheart’ . . . functions as a reminder of the insurmountable challenges in trying to represent the alterity of the conflict, rather than as the example of an unbridgeable gender divide. . . . O’Brien exploits the uniformity and exclusiveness of the ‘bond of war’ so as to raise metanarrative rather than gender issues” (205–06). Thus this discussion occurs in the book’s final chapter on storytelling, not its penultimate chapter on “Trauma, Gender, and the Poetics of Uncertainty.” Yet she also reads the story in very gendered ways, for example by bringing to bear Helene Cixous’s écriture féminine. A story that attempts to defy strict gender dichotomies is still a story about gender.
I’m a bit put off by the book’s own claims of comprehensiveness. Yes, it discusses the...