by: Tim O’Brien
[NOTE: This review was a bit harsher before I found out that O'Brien is a Vietnam vet. Given that, things make a lot more sense. But I still didn't enjoy the book.]
Heyyyyy is this literary fiction? I didn’t sign up for that. Whatever the case, the book feels like it’s groping toward poetry. I suspect people like this (the book was very well reviewed, after all) but so far all the hinting an the edge of things is annoying me. (In contrast to Little, Big where I felt it worked, possibly because it wasn’t supposed to be “real”, and the poetic nature of the thing helped a lot with the otherworldly feel.)
For example: John comes back from Vietnam, stalks his girl around. One night she stays out all night. Did she cheat on him or does he just like the fact that he doesn’t know what she was doing? The second seems counter to his personality, so I guess I’m just supposed to assume that she cheated? Or he thinks she did? Whatever. (This gets even weirder later on when it is revealed that she generally knew he was stalking her and he was terrible at it.)
What role is the Mai Lai massacre playing here? Is it just being used as a way to give the mc a fucked up background? Is the point of the book to draw attention to this fucked up act? Ahh, now that I know that the writer is a Vietnam vet… so the book is some kind of therapy for him or something. It “feels” like he had some kind of question he wanted answered and this book is his examination of that question. That would be great, if this were some kind of MFA assignment.
So. Yeah. I… is there even a real plot here? I mean, there kind of is, but… art. Oi. The “meat” of the thing is thin enough that it would have been a novella or … something (right, Bethany??), but there’s extra padding. There are a couple chapters that are straight up labeled “speculation”. I guess me and experimental/nonstandard fiction just don’t get along. Sorry O’Brien, nothing personal. You are obviously a very skilled and proficient writer, but I found nothing compelling about this book beyond the writing itself.
Why do people read a book like this? I admit I read it because it seemed to be one of those books “everyone” liked, and I was curious. I’ll be honest though and say I didn’t like it. I wonder if this is just one of those “go with the flow” books where people just say they like it because everyone else does?
What IS art and enjoyment? Deep stuff. For me, when I’m not reading to learn, I’m doing some kind of escapist thing. Reading a good story brings me some kind of joy. That joy… you feel it in the words, in the craft of the story, in good characters. Shit just permeates, you know? There was none of that here. It felt dry and mechanical.
At least four for the quality of the writing itself, but less than one for the story. I just can’t give any more to something that I did not enjoy at all. I’m not saying “This is a terrible book”. I’m saying “This book is not for me. At all.”