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Vietnam and Beyond: Tim O’Brien and the Power of Storytelling by Stefania Ciocia (review)

From: Studies in the Novel
Volume 45, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 705-707 | 10.1353/sdn.2014.0012

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With Vietnam and Beyond: Tim O’Brien and the Power of Storytelling, Stefania Ciocia has published the first scholarly monograph devoted solely to Tim O’Brien to appear in more than a decade. Ciocia attempts to elevate O’Brien to the status of a “world author,” which positions her to argue for the universality of major O’Brien themes. Of particular importance to her effort is his concept of “story-truth,” which she examines from myriad angles in a text that eschews a chronological treatment of O’Brien, favoring a thematic approach instead. Ciocia claims a desire to correct a certain “pigeon-holing” of O’Brien as solely a war author so that his work might be “judged against the parameters of great literature tout court” (2). However, her study falls short of that goal, largely because she fails to engage O’Brien with sufficient rigor. This lack of rigor results in a book whose synthetic capacity outweighs its generative potential.

For Ciocia, there exists an odd contradiction at the heart of O’Brien’s reception. On the one hand, she writes, we engage O’Brien as an author whose concerns have global relevance. On the other hand, we confine O’Brien to the realm of US Vietnam War fiction. She wants us to understand that “Vietnam is for O’Brien a productive starting point for the treatment of wider themes with a deep, universal resonance... and for the development of thought-provoking formal experiments underpinned by a strong sense of one’s moral accountability” (2). Much of Ciocia’s study devotes itself to uncovering O’Brien’s skill in both of these areas; she is particularly interested in O’Brien’s contribution to postmodern literary aesthetics and O’Brien’s competence as a cultural critic. She sees these two aspects of O’Brien’s work as interdependent and reconciled through O’Brien’s devotion to “story-truth.” As those familiar with his canon will recall, O’Brien opposes “story-truth” to “happening-truth,” and privileges the former over the latter in a dichotomy perhaps guilty of laying the groundwork for a paralytic relativism. However, Ciocia does not challenge O’Brien on this issue, writing,

O’Brien firmly rejects the moral authority typically associated with experience, in favour of a fragile, and always provisional, personal connection with the Other, to be sought after in the endless refashioning of stories and in the imaginative identification with the plight of fellow human beings—an imperfect foundation for our ethical commitments, and yet the only foundation available to us at all.

(12)

Ciocia does offer intriguing ideas relevant to O’Brien’s place in literary history. She proves especially interesting when discussing O’Brien’s relationship to Joseph Conrad, whose novella, Heart of Darkness, has served as a major influence for a number of US Vietnam War writers and filmmakers. Ciocia distinguishes between Conrad’s modernism and O’Brien’s postmodernism by foregrounding the concept of performance, writing that O’Brien’s fiction “enacts the belief that truth can be painstakingly summoned and momentarily glimpsed through the performativity of the narrative act” (35). She offers an extensive close-reading of O’Brien’s story, “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” uncovering an intertextual dialogue of sorts between Conrad and O’Brien. Unfortunately, Ciocia pushes this too far. Her argument that protagonist Mary Anne Bell’s fate—Mary Anne’s performance, as it were—represents a kind of gender-bending transcendence is unearned. Rather, a better reading of the end of “Sweetheart” would uncover how the war subsumes Mary Anne, which in turn points to how The Things They Carried shows us the power of war to reinforce traditional gender norms. This is a crucial lesson in a war-themed text that otherwise proves unconventionally inviting to women readers, as Ciocia herself clarifies.

Besides Conrad, Ciocia also traces O’Brien’s literary heritage to Hawthorne, Melville, and Hemingway, among other figures. Her work on the Hemingway-O’Brien link, which she explores via a close reading of O’Brien’s Northern Lights, is useful. Moreover, Ciocia posits a worthy argument that O’Brien’s war-themed literary inheritance is better traced to the...



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