Thursday, January 24, 2013

On Reading Tim O'Brien

I did not read Tim O'Brien in chronological order, by any means, but I can now say I have read all his published novels. With this last one, The Nuclear Age, I can only say -- I wish he'd yet write another.
Apparently, O'Brien has given himself over to teaching writing, more than writing itself, or at least giving us new books to buy.
But I have thoroughly enjoyed all eight of his combined novels and memoirs.
People are most familiar [I think] with his 1990 bestseller The Things They Carried, which is a searing glimpse into the horrors of the Vietnam War. The book is required reading in some [good] high schools, I believe. And where it isn't, it should be.  It holds, in my own experience of reading it, the distinction of being one of those Rare Books That Made Me Cry.

 In pretty much all of O'Brien's novels, you will find elements of what Vietnam meant to those that were a part of that regrettable epoch. The author was a soldier in that conflict -- and there is no real understanding of what O'Brien seeks to do with his novels, without knowing this.

The Nuclear Age is the story of William Cowling, a young boy obsessed with the impending doom of what it means to live in the nuclear age. Written in the late 1970's, the novel spans the late '50's and 1960's -- but projects itself on up to 1995.
William devotes himself, during his college years, to protesting all things war-like. He stands outside the cafeteria with his hand-made poster which reads, "The Bombs Are Real" and soon aligns himself with four like-minded dissenters. Together they launch a covert [and sometimes not so covert] campaign to bring awareness to the dangers of nuclear armament. Their lives will be forever entwined, not only because of these common interests, but because of genuine love for each other.
The novel examines the psychological trauma that results [primarily in William and his "nuclear" family] from devotion to trying to eradicate what is ultimately an inexorable fact -- the existence, in our world, of nuclear weaponry.
This was a real page-turner of a book and I highly recommend it.
I agree heartily with the comment from the Los Angeles Times on the back of my Penguin edition -- "O'Brien has… flashes of Joseph Heller's irony, Don DeLillo's dark humor, and Aldous Huxley's witty pessimism."

Give us another one, Tim. Please?

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