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Retelling the Story:

O'Brien's Use of
Repetition for Effect

Conference Paper
Popular Culture Association
Las Vegas, NV
March 1996

Hello, my name is Marilyn Litt. A few words about myself, I am a career civil servant and I do the web page for my federal agency. My interests include literature and military history. These interests have led me to the works of Tim O'Brien. His economical reuse of stories, phrases, and even characters give his work a resonance and I hope to show that here today.

Here's what Tim O'Brien has to say about repetition:

''I was writing 'How To Tell a True War Story,' which is the heart of the book -- about telling stories, about repetition, and that blur between memory and imagination, how it doesn't matter" (Caldwell).

There are many parallels among passages in his books. O'Brien's first book , "If I Die in a Combat Zone" was a memoir of his Vietnam tour. Although he protests that he is not a war writer, he does say "the war made me a writer" (Caldwell). The material that was a source for his first book is reworked and appears in his novels, including his latest novel, "In the Lake of the Woods, written over twenty years later.

For example, O'Brien describes in "If I Die" his plane ride from Vietnam back to Minnesota after he was processed out of the service. He switches from first person narration at this point to second person.

"When the no-smoking lights come on, you go into the back of the plane. You take off your uniform. You roll it into a ball and stuff it into your suitcase and put on a sweater and blue jeans. You smile at yourself in the mirror" (203).

In his novel, "In the Lake of the Woods," there is a similar description of John Wade's actions on the final leg of his flight from Vietnam to Minneapolis.

"In the gray skies over North Dakota he went back into the lavatory, where he took off his uniform and put on a sweater and slacks, then carefully appraised himself in the mirror" (41) .

This switch to civilian clothes is something O'Brien knows will be familiar to many Vietnam veterans. Changing out of the uniform is not just symbolic of his desire, or his character's desire, to leave his unasked for military service behind. Soldiers returning from Vietnam in uniform were targets for abuse and some have tales of being heckled, or spat on, or having beer cans thrown at them in airport terminals. It is not universally true of course. I know a Vietnam veteran who is surprised by these tales because no one bothered him as he strode through the airport in uniform. Of course he was carrying his souvenir Russian AK-47 assault rifle at the time.

There are parallel passages in O'Brien's books, other than the return home, that are indicative of less universal experiences, or perhaps less universally acknowledged experiences. O'Brien recalls in "If I Die,"

"Arizona, the dead kid I always remember first, died on the same day that Johansen's Viet Cong died" (131).

In "Going After Cacciato," the book begins with a list of the dead soldiers in the platoon, (1) and the protagonist Paul Berlin works on the order of this list throughout the novel,

"He tried again to order the known facts. Billy boy was first. And then . . . then who?" (185)

The order may change but Paul Berlin never forgets that Billy Boy was killed first.

There are incidents peculiar to O'Brien's tour of duty that give you a sense by their repetition that they haunt him. I heard him read the account of Rat Kiley butchering the baby water buffalo from the story "How to Tell a True War Story" included in his novel "The Things They Carried." It is a rather long passage and his delivery added to the unsettling nature of the story because he appeared to have it memorized. It says in part that Rat Kiley shot the animal because:

"[he] had lost his best friend in the world. . . . Rat went automatic. He shot away chunks of meat below the ribs. . . He shot randomly, almost casually, quick little spurts in the belly and butt (85-86).

This is based on a real incident O'Brien describes in his memoir:

"Some boys were herding cattle in a free-fire zone. They were not supposed to be there: legal targets for our machine guns and M-16's. We fired at them, cows and boys together . . . The boys escaped, but one cow stood its ground. Bullets struck its flank, exploding globs of flesh, boring into its belly. . . . I did not shoot, but I did endure, without protest, except to ask the man in front of me why he was shooting and smiling." (CZ 135-136)

And in "Going After Cacciato," the character "Stink Harris" kills a water buffalo yoked to a cart.

" . . .Stink was on full automatic. He was smiling. Gobs of flesh jumped off the beasts flanks." (47)

Eric James Schroeder discusses this event in an interview with O'Brien. Schroeder observes:

"There are many passages in 'If I Die' which presage 'Cacciato.' " (132)

O'Brien agrees and mentions as an example the killing of the buffalo in "If I Die" where he says it is meant to be a:

"lesson. Here's what happens to men who get frustrated. They blow away a buffalo. Guess what else they blow away."

But his intent in "Going After Cacciato" was:

"[not to frame it] in any kind of moral way . . . [but to let] The reader make the judgments." (133)

Although he is letting the reader make the judgment, this is the only time the story is told mentioning the effect of the buffalo's death on its Vietnamese owners:

"At night, after the fire had died, the [two old women] would wail for the loss of their [buffalo]. . . . They could not be consoled." (GAC 53)

Schroeder's interview predates publication of "The Things They Carried" which gives the fullest and most graphic account of this brutal incident. Rat Kiley's actions are in response to frustration and anger at the loss of his best friend. But the comments of his buddies who witnessed the event express this reader's thoughts and presumably O'Brien's:

"`My whole life, I never seen anything like it. . . .' `Well, that's Nam . . . Garden of Evil. Over here, man, every sin's real fresh and original.'" (86)

O'Brien is troubled these days (O'Brien, "The Vietnam in Me") and explained in a 1994 interview that he was

" a kind of passive witness to the most incredible brutality. And I gotta tell you I feel a sense of shame about it, and a sense of responsibility, a sense of guilt that I hid from people for a long long time, and not just from people, I hid it from myself . . . " (Steele)

What he endured without protest at the time, like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, he is doomed now to tell over and over.

"Since then, at an uncertain hour, That agony returns; And till my ghastly tale is told, This heart within me burns." (Coleridge, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 233")

Two of his novels, "In the Lake of the Woods" and the earlier less successful and now out of print "Northern Lights" have frightening descriptions of what it is like to be lost in the wilderness. The sense of panic from finding yourself alone and lost in a featureless landscape is made very real to the reader, not because the characters panic but because their efforts to fight their fear are made so real.

In "Northern Lights," two brothers, Paul and Harvey Perry, are on a skiing camping trip in the lake country of Minnesota during the winter. The snow starts falling and Paul, the brother who is not the expert woodsman, begins to realize that his brother Harvey has gotten them lost.

"He was afraid. It was not a thought, just a feeling that seemed to well somewhere behind his eyes, and he did not recognize it as fear. It was a deep sting behind his eyes. It was a redness, a kind of growing red welt that made his eyes begin to water. The forest was all the same.

Harvey suppresses his panic by concentrating on his skiing" (180).

His more recent novel, "In the Lake of the Woods," is an exploration, in part, of the disappearance of Kathy Wade, who may have gotten lost in the land of a thousand lakes while taking the motorboat out for a cruise. Kathy is not an outdoor person and the case is made that she may have gotten lost by not paying attention:

"No accident at all, just a banal human blunder, and [missing the channel she should have taken] she would've continued up the lake without worry, soon crossing into Canadian waters, into a great interior of islands and forests that reached northward over many hundred square miles.

For well over an hour she would've been lost without knowing how lost she was" (165).

Kathy isn't panicked at finding herself lost on the lake, but the reader feels her anxiety for her. We have the advantage of knowing that if she did get lost, at this point better than halfway through the novel, the searchers have been unable to find her.

The brothers in "Northern Lights" have maps and are not novices, but the featureless wilderness overwhelms them. Kathy is less prepared, but had not intended to stray where she might become lost. Both stories are cautionary tales. You can get lost with a map and a compass and you might never return from an afternoon outing on the lake. These are activities that shouldn't end in your death. It isn't like fighting in a war, where it is axiomatic that the most trivial action may be your last.

Yet even in Vietnam, O'Brien describes fears other than the fear of dying

"One of the most persistent and appalling thoughts that lumbers through your mind as you walk through Vietnam at night is the fear of getting lost, of becoming detached from the others, of spending the night alone in that frightening and haunted countryside (CZ 85.)"

As you read O'Brien's books, you will have a sense of the familiar as events are told and retold from one book to another. As you see from the examples presented, he reuses the material in more than one book. The stories are too important to tell only once. They are being refined to their essential truth and you, the reader, get to see part of the process.

O'Brien shows you this process within his books as well, as illustrated by three references to the death of O'Brien's friend "Chip" in "If I Die in a Combat Zone." First he tells the story emphasizing how casually death can come by describing the period of relative relief after a successful ambush. The soldier may relax, but the feeling is deceptive, he is just as vulnerable:

"They were talking these matters over, the officers pleased with their success and the rest of us relieved it was over, when my friend Chip and a squad leader named Tom were blown to pieces as they swept the village with the Third Platoon." (96)

Twenty pages later he retells the story, this time it is about the soldier's rage at an enemy who was not to be found:

"When a booby-trapped artillery round blew two popular soldiers into a hedgerow, men put their fists into the faces of the nearest Vietnamese, two frightened women living in the guilty hamlet . . . Scraps of our friends were dropped in plastic body bags. Jet fighters were called in. The hamlet was leveled, and napalm was used. . . . There were Viet Cong in that hamlet. And there were babies and children and people who just didn't give a damn in there, too. But Chip and Tom were on their way to Graves Registration in Chu Lai, and they were dead, and it was hard to be filled with pity. (117)

Finally he tells the story of his private mourning:

"Chip, my black buddy from Orlando, strayed into a hedgerow and triggered a rigged 105 artillery round. He died in such a way that, for once, you could never know his color. He was wrapped in a plastic body bag, we popped smoke, and a helicopter took him away, my friend." (120-121)

You don't learn more about the manner of Chip's death through having the story told three times. He doesn't add to the stark account of how Chip died. If anything, it is initially confusing to the careful reader who pauses and thinks "Didn't he say this before?" The story is repeated because of the powerful effect the event had on O'Brien and not because of careless editing. The ending words, "my friend," are particularly sad in their simplicity.

"Chip" reappears as "Curt Lemon" in "The Things They Carried," and is briefly mentioned in one of the numerous footnotes to "In the Lake of the Woods (298)." As to the reason for continually revisiting this sad story of a boy who triggered a booby-trap thirty years ago, I think you need look no further than O'Brien's poignant assertion:

"We kept the dead alive with stories" (TTTC 267).

To the extent that this is possible, O'Brien has done it.

I have by no means cited all the examples of repetition that may be found in O'Brien's books. The repetition in Tim O'Brien is not some absentmindedness on the part of the author, but a device to make the reader realize that reading a story is not the same as understanding what happened. You think with each slightly different iteration of the story "Oh that's what happened" until you come to the realization that maybe you can't know what happened. Or to give Tim O'Brien the last words:

"A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe. This one does it for me. I've told it before -- many times, many versions -- but here's what actually happened (TTTC 84-85)."

Caldwell, Gail. "Staying True to Vietnam." The Boston Globe 29 Mar 1990: 69+. Mercury Center/America Online.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." The Literature of England, Vol. II. Ed. George K. Anderson and William E. Buckler. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman and Company. 1968.

O'Brien, Tim. Going After Cacciato. New York: Dell/Seymour Lawrence, 1992.

If I Die in a Combat Zone. New York: Delta/Seymour Lawrence, 1989.

In the Lake of the Woods. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

Northern Lights. London: Calder and Boyars, 1975.

Interview. Talk of the City. By Richard Steele. WBEZ, Chicago. 11/11/94 rebroadcast of excerpts from a 10/10/94 interview.

The Things They Carried. Boston: Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence. 1990.

"The Vietnam in Me." New York Times 2 Oct 1994, sec. Magazine: 48+.

Schroeder, Eric James. Vietnam, We've All Been There: Interviews with American Writers. Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 1992.

Let Me Do Your Website!



Do you know someone in the service?

See www.BlueStarGardenFlags.com

My Vietnam Related Websites:
Women in Vietnam ~ Read about ALL the women who served . . .
Dusty's Home Page ~ Poetry and prose by a woman who was a nurse in Vietnam
The Irish on the Wall ~ An effort to locate the Irish who died in Vietnam
Tim O'Brien's Home Page ~ National Book Award Winner and Americal Vet
Emily's Poetry ~ By a Red Cross Donut Dolly
Shrapnel in the Heart ~ The most moving book you will read on Vietnam
All About Vietnam    ~ An annotated bibliography of books about Vietnam for sale thru Amazon Worldwide!
Battle Dressing ~ The Journey of a Nurse in Vietnam
Project Hearts and Minds ~ Help put Viet Nam back together
Photos from a Holts' Military History Tour ~ My trip to Vietnam, February 1998

My Other Websites:
Maybe Later . . . ~ My Creative Nonfiction
Irish in Korea ~ Irish men and women who gave their lives in the Korean War
Literature of the Korean War ~ Don't let the literature be forgotten
Samuel Pepys ~ One of my favorite authors
Chicago Theatre Z - A ~ This is the best theater town in the country!
Soccer Literature ~ I'm a fan and I read
O'Leary Lantern ~ Fire! Fire! Fire!
Gil Thorp ~ THE Coach (apologies to The General!)
Poetry of the First World War ~ Owen, Hardy and others
Chi-COW-go ~ Cowz plus Commentary (this used to be a cow town)
Graham Fulton, Scottish Poet ~ Charles Manson Auditions for the Monkees

Other Important Websites:
The Truth About Caroline ~ a  really good Young Adult book by my niece, Stacey M. Lane Grosh
Remember Oklahoma City ~  The Civil Service and Military will NEVER forget!
Milton L. Olive III ~ Posthumous Medal of Honor Recipient

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