Going After Cacciato

Author: Tim O’Brien Born: October 1, 1946; Austin, Minnesota Type of Plot: Impressionistic realism Time of Work: 1968 Locale: Vietnam Principal Characters: Paul Berlin, a young soldier who provides the point of view Cacciato, a soldier who goes AWOL Lieutenant Corson, the platoon leader Doc Peret, the medic Oscar Johnson, an African American sergeant Stink Harris, a soldier Sarkin Aung Wan, a Vietnamese woman in Paul Berlin’s fantasy Li Van Hgoc, a Viet Cong major in Paul Berlin’s fantasy The Novel Going After Cacciato is a novel about the Vietnam War, memory, and the imagination. The novel develops three distinct yet interwoven strands. The first is the story, told mostly in flashback, of Paul Berlin’s experiences in the U.S. Army in 1968, the height of the Vietnam War. The second strand consists of ten chapters, each entitled “The Observation Post.” In these chapters, Paul Berlin is on night watch at Quang Ngai. The “Observation Post” chapters are chronologically later than the chapters detailing Paul’s experiences. Throughout the night, he considers the nature of reality, “what happened, and what might have happened.” The third strand is concerned with an imaginary journey from Vietnam to Paris in pursuit of Cacciato, a soldier who is absent without leave (AWOL). Paul constructs this journey as he stands watch. A number of critics describe Going After Cacciato as an example of Magical Realism, a style of writing that blends the fantastic with the realistic; O’Brien, however, has resisted the application of that label, insisting that daydreams are real. The principle daydreamer in the novel is Paul, a young, frightened soldier who provides the point of view for all three strands of the novel. The reader is first introduced to Paul several pages into

Paul imagines that his squad chooses to go after Cacciato. the reader is inside Paul’s mind as he considers the nature of courage and of his own past actions. First. Cacciato has escaped. The short “Observation Post” chapters often separate the fantasy chapters from the past experience chapters. the reader observes Paul engaged in the process of creating the story that the reader will read in the following chapter. The character of Paul himself develops in several ways. the chapter ending just as the squad appears to be closing in on him. Paul’s squad once again is shooting flares at Cacciato’s position.the novel. Consequently. after all. When . the reader is forced to consider the relationship between memory and imagination and to ask these questions: Is memory constructed in the same way that imaginary stories are constructed? If so. what is nature of reality? The final chapter of the book is a return to the events of the first chapter. crossing over the border into Laos. are chapters in which Paul recalls the reality he has lived through for the past six months. he makes it to Paris. Indeed. the moments of Paul’s “waking life” seem so horrendous that they become more fantastic than the moments spent on the daydream journey to Paris. Along the way. and no one really knows what has happened to him. detailing the daydream journey. then. Through these chapters. The next chapter. it is through his eyes that the reader comes to know the other characters. the reader comes to know Paul by the way the other characters treat him. in the “Observation Post” chapters. the descriptions become more detailed. apparently. have been the impetus for Paul’s flight of fancy. is the product of these thoughts. and the squad prepares to rush Cacciato. Because Paul Berlin provides the point of view for the entire novel. This choice launches the journey to Paris that Paul imagines. Interspersed with chapters such as this one. at the time of Cacciato’s decision to leave the squad and go AWOL. the reader comes to understand Paul as a thoughtful. the squad picks up a young refugee woman named Sarkin Aung Wan. sometimes the following chapter is a recollection of a past experience. However. someone who thinks about the role of memory and imagination in the creation of reality. the “Observation Post” chapters are not always followed by a fantasy chapter. that Bernie Lynn and Frenchie Tucker were killed when trying to clear out a tunnel. As the book closes. The reader discovers that the time has shifted to sometime after Cacciato’s flight and that Paul is occupying himself with reconstructions of his squad’s attempt to capture Cacciato. the reader discovers that Paul collapses in fright and loses control of his bladder. The shame and humiliation of the moment. The novel jumps in the next chapter to the observation post where Paul is standing overnight watch. In addition. Paul circles around these stories several times. Second. and that First Lieutenant Sidney Martin was killed by his own men for insisting that the men continue to clear tunnels. The squad begins chasing after Cacciato. the reader discovers that Billy Boy Watkins died of fright on the battlefield. Each time the event comes to the surface. The Characters Tim O’Brien develops his characters in a variety of ways. and Paul’s reality becomes increasingly more surreal. Perhaps. At the observation post. For the first time. reflective young man.

they correspond to the stereotypes O’Brien imagines might be floating around in Paul’s head. Consequently. Finally. Consequently. Likewise. Martin. At the moment of confrontation with Cacciato. His thoughts circle and return again and again to his own loss of self-control. Paul is a kind. O’Brien also develops characters by pairing them with other characters. a theme that subsumes and defines courage itself. the men “frag” Martin before he can order them to clear any more tunnels. he seems to be much less in control of himself in these chapters than in the others. by contrasting him with the platoon’s earlier commanding officer. As the products of Paul’s imagination. Whereas Corson seems to understand the war as something to be survived.Paul reflects on the past six months. In short. This ignorance leads to the deaths of Bernie Lynn and Frenchie Tucker and earns Martin the hatred of every man in the unit. is the theme of control. For Paul. Paul’s personal need for and loss of control parallel the larger war effort. by contrasting him with Paul. courage in war requires self-control of body. Themes and Meanings Going After Cacciato. Rather. by his insistence on searching the tunnels. Two additional characters are products of Paul’s imagination: Sarkin Aung Wan and Li Van Hgoc. Sidney Martin. knows little about the war he is fighting and violates any number of standard operating procedures. the characters are in some ways caricatures. Martin tries to fight the war. the dreamer. violates standard operating procedures. they choose to kill Martin in an effort to regain control of their own lives. . like any number of war novels. That is. the two characters are not “realistic” in the same way that the other characters in the story are. a young man fresh out of a military academy. In these chapters. Perhaps even more central to the novel. O’Brien develops the character of Doc Peret. sick commanding officer. takes as one of its themes the question of courage. For example. What is it to be courageous in the face of dangerous circumstances? Paul’s long meditations often return to this idea. The military structure depends on the strictest observance of military command and standard operating procedures. Paul loses control in the most noticeable way: He urinates in his pants. leaving his men desperate and out of control. O’Brien first imagines how a young soldier might picture an Asian refugee and a Viet Cong officer. he seems to be a naïve and clumsy young man. senses. a situation that should be tightly controlled. O’Brien develops these in a complex manner. Consequently. Indeed. an older. a realist. control is a large issue. someone who does not always know what action he ought to take. and emotions. O’Brien develops the character of Lieutenant Corson. however. the reader comes to know Paul by the idealized version of himself that he creates in his own imagination in the fantasy journey chapters. brave young man who ends up with the girl they find along the road. Sidney Martin. O’Brien develops the theme of control by juxtaposing examples of people or events under strict control with examples of the out of control. Only through the strictest self-control can a soldier withstand the fear that an attack inevitably brings.

Paul repeatedly attempts to order the events of the past six months chronologically in an effort to bring his memory under control. O’Brien continued to write about Vietnam in The Things They Carried (1990) and In the Lake of the Woods (1994). However. Going After Cacciato is an important contribution to the canon of Vietnam War literature for a number of reasons. The control over his material stands in stark contrast the lack of control O’Brien exerted over his own life as an infantryman in the Vietnam War. Likewise. Essay by: Diane Andrews Henningfeld . refuse to lend themselves to such ordering. Some of the chapters of Going After Cacciato had been printed earlier as short stories in a variety of magazines. At the time. Going After Cacciato. although he has remarked that he does not want to be thought of as a “Vietnam” writer. First. before collecting and revising the material for the book. It demonstrates the unavoidable ambiguity of memory and imagination. many critics considered it to be the finest piece of literature to grow out of the Vietnam War. The technique allows for some of the chapters of Going After Cacciato and all of the chapters of The Things They Carried to stand alone as complete works. it does not limit itself to that experience but rather probes and questions the nature of reality itself. and the continuing reflections on the nature of truth serve to connect and amplify the stories. and it has continued to be held in high esteem. the ongoing cast of characters. the technique seems to work in the same way that memory works: The same scenes are replayed in different stories with slightly different emphases and details. The Things They Carried. all under his own control. his works concerned with the war have been better received than his other works. depicted characters dealing with the aftereffects of the war. however. when the stories in each of the novels are brought together. which was an immediate critical success. it depicts with utter realism the lives of infantrymen in the front lines. He creates characters and kills them. the repeated references to events in the past. sometimes it is a fully developed story. Second. He returned to Vietnam in his next novel. Critical Context Tim O’Brien first wrote about the Vietnam War in his memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone. On the fantasy trek to Paris. Likewise. winning the National Book Award in 1979. Paul turns instead to creating an imaginary past for himself. Paul is able to control each detail and to avoid the memories of his own self-perceived failure.In a final example of control and loss of control. published in 1973. O’Brien is able to control the way the story is told. The horrors of the war. His first novel. and perhaps more important. O’Brien published nearly all the chapters of his next Vietnam War novel. as the writer of the novel. Northern Lights (1975). Indeed. and he allows his characters to have memories and imaginations. Sometimes the scene is merely a fragment. O’Brien offers Paul’s imagination and memory.

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