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Review: Tracy Daugherty on Tim O‘Brien
Thirty years ago, if you ran into Tim O’Brien at one of the many readings he gave in bookstores, on college campuses, or at literary conferences, he might tell you that he’d recently had lunch with his old friend Kiowa. And you might think, “Wait a minute. Wasn’t Kiowa a fictional character in his book The Things They Carried? And didn’t Kiowa die in one of those stories, a casualty of America’s war in Vietnam?” And you might wonder whether Tim O’Brien wasn’t just playing narrative games in his fiction to question the nature of reality or the slipperiness of language, but whether, in fact, he had a problem in real life distinguishing truth from fantasy.
Or maybe he was just messing with you.
The Things They Carried, the now-canonical portrait of the war that defined and has haunted O’Brien’s generation, began with the standard disclaimer that all the incidents, names, and characters in the book were imaginary, but this was followed by a loving dedication to “the men of Alpha Company,” including Kiowa and other apparently fabricated soldiers.
I once heard Tim O’ Brien enthrall an audience at a reading with a story about a little girl he’d loved when he was a child. The little girl died of cancer. (This narrative serves as the basis of “The Lives of the Dead,” the last piece in The Things They Carried.) O’Brien said that for years afterward he composed stories about the little girl in his room at night, just to keep her alive in his head and to ease his grief. He had the audience in tears. Then he said, “Actually, there was never a little girl. I just made that up.” An old woman rose in the back row and denounced him for cruelly manipulating her emotions. He grinned and said, “I’m a fiction writer. That’s what I do. That’s what fiction does.”
After a twenty-year hiatus from doing all that, O’Brien has now returned with a new novel, America Fantastica. He is still obsessed with the smudged boundaries between fact and fiction. Every character in the book is a liar. Nobody is who they appear to be. The novel bluntly asks, Does the truth really matter? In a recent interview with The Los Angeles Times, O’Brien said this question is “complicated for a fiction writer where … you’re using lies to get at universal kinds of truths.”
America Fantastica appears at a vexed moment in our country’s history, when the culture, saturated with deliberate misinformation on social media and with AI-generated “deep fakes,” has caught up with, and even surpassed, O’Brien’s acrobatics of truth and falsehood. The novel takes the form of a road trip following a bank caper (the robbery goes unreported because the bank’s owners have been pilfering their own vaults for years and don’t want that information to leak). The glut of grift and lies, conducted blithely as business-as-usual, is all too current. O’Brien is a savvy writer. He understands the difficulty of satirizing things that have become self-parodies, such as political figures, corporate branding, high-minded religious leaders, and American exceptionalism. But he plunges bravely into the task, like his buddy Kiowa wading into a swampy Asian forest.
Unlike a trained soldier for whom a twenty-year layoff would be disastrous, O’Brien has lost none of his energy or timing. His comic and dramatic setups are elegant and efficient, and the payoffs always spot on. He can sum up a character’s life story in a single, spare paragraph. He finds words for hard-to-describe experiences, like a “jittery, someone’s-knocking-on-the-door sleep.” He has a storyteller’s sure sense of when and how to surprise the reader with developments they didn’t see coming but that seem inevitable, and deeply satisfying, in retrospect. He balances pathos and humor without straining for effects.
The characters here border on the cartoonish, but he makes us love them anyway, particularly Angie and Boyd, the pair at the core of the book, Ping-Ponging their way across a lying, scumbag America, trailed by the country’s violent, thieving citizenry. The novel has a manic, slapstick quality, as it shifts from hortatory omniscience to more intimate third person, but the overall sensation is of listening to a wise, if cynical and world-weary, elder spinning entertaining, cautionary tales.
And if he doesn’t quite succeed in outperforming our shameless culture (who could?) he comes damn close: “Mythomania, the lying disease, came with an odor: a mix of sulfides and rotting crawfish … To smell a rat or to smell something fishy were now literal responses to an avalanche of oratorical whoppers issued by occupants of high, medium, and low office.” Tim O’Brien, fit as ever to be an agile guide through illusory landscapes.
In “How to Tell a True War Story,” the heart of The Things they Carried, O’Brien wrote, “absolute occurence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” Telling war stories, this observation comes as a poignant meditation on what can be called “the fog of war” and on the uses of fantasy in surviving harrowing circumstances.
America Fantastica is another kind of war story, the story of our current culture wars. Appropriately, it is, like its subject, considerably shallower than the grave, mid-twentieth century conflict that led us, in so many ways, to this squirmy moment. It is not Tim O’Brien’s failing that the times do not live up to his great novelist’s skills of witnessing. Shallowness does not mean lack of danger, and America Fantastica is a potent testament to that truth. Tim O’Brien says this may be his last novel. He is nearing eighty and he is tired. It is our good fortune that he kept himself in shape for twenty more years, for the writing of this novel, to carry the things he had to carry to their inevitable, sobering conclusions.
Tracy Daugherty’s biography Larry McMurtry: A Life was released this autumn. He has also written six novels, seven books of short fiction, two books of essays, as well as biographies of Donald Barthelme, Joseph Heller, and Joan Didion, among others. He wrote about Cormac McCarthy for Book Post last year.
I loved this group portrait of the editors of Jezebel, the latest of the once extremely successful “media properties” to fold amidst the ongoing upheavals in the industry. It’s a theory of mine that magazine cultures bring kinds of writing into being and educate audiences to be receptive to the new forms they grow—think of the epic nonfiction explorations of the midcentury New Yorker and the now canonical status of “longform journalism.” Jezebel founder Anna Holmes said she wanted writers to “use the actual word ‘feminist’ or ’feminism’ over and over again.” What a change that was. I worry about how such cultures will cohere in an era of remote work.
Meanwhile President Biden signed a few weeks ago, ahead of a summit in London attended by Vice President Harris, an executive order on artificial intelligence, building on voluntary standards adopted by the large tech companies themselves. It only touched on the many concerns about copyright and AI that face writing and publishing, for example by charging the Commerce Department with developing standards for “watermarking” work to establish authenticity and protect consumers (for our purposes, readers and writers) from AI-generated piracy and deep-fakes. The United States Copyright Office is still collecting public comment ahead of proposing to the President standards on the use of copyrighted work in AI training and the copyright status work generated by AI.
Most observers seem to think the executive order is a good start but leaves a lot to be developed. Some worry that the big tech companies are too close to the process; tech companies worry that more democratized approaches, like allowing “open source” AI development, leaves too much room for rogue actors. The European Union’s standards, still under negotiation, may prove more constraining to the industry. Then suddenly yesterday OpenAI, which electrified attention to the field when they released their voluble chatbot ChatGPT a year ago, fired their highly visible co-founder and CEO Sam Altman for reasons that are still unclear. We looked at the implications of AI for writing and books in January and September. —AKj
Update: One day later words was that the OpenAI board wanted Sam Altman back, and then that he was starting his own AI unit at Microsoft. As Karen Hao and Charlie Warzel wrote in The Atlantic: “This tumultuous weekend showed just how few people have a say in the progression of what might be the most consequential technology of our age. AI’s future is being determined by an ideological fight between wealthy techno-optimists, zealous doomers, and multibillion-dollar companies … The future, it seems, will be decided behind closed doors.”
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