In full disclosure, I’ve actually read (and own) every book Tim O’Brien has written. Which is not to say that I’m some kind of expert, just a big fan. His books got me back into the game of thinking about my wartime experiences as writing material. If I Die is O’Brien’s war memoir, an account of his time with the ill-fated Americal Division in Vietnam shortly after My Lai occurred, and during the period of time the information went public.
I read all his fiction before I got to If I Die, so my expectations were fairly high. After all The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato have emerged as some of the defining literature of Vietnam. After finishing If I Die, I recall disappointment. Not that it was a bad book, because it isn’t. O’Brien’s command of language and the written word is remarkable, but I simply expected more. Reading it again last year, the feeling was the same. Not bad, not great. And I might be in the minority opinion on the book, but here’s why…
There’s this idea in writing, that what finds its way to the page must be fully-formed by the author. And it’s this idea that is the achilles heel of the memoir. Produced hard (1973) on the heels of his deployment from 1969-1970, I got the sense that the ideas put forth in the book were not fully grappled into submission. There’s this, which might be the most quoted line from the book: “Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories.” Yet the book reaches far beyond merely telling war stories, and this creates a narrative conflict between reader and narrator because we’re asked to disbelieve that the narrator has anything important to say, even as he conveys things that are obviously important to him. Then there’s the fact that I completely disagree with the statement. You will too if you believe that any story is worth telling, and is important if only as a representation of the human struggle to understand our world.
O’Brien wrestles various topics into varying levels of submission within the memoir, but in the end, the book overall felt as much a stalemate as the war itself during that period of time. You might disagree with this adversarial take on memoir, but don’t confuse my take as a condemnation of ambiguity. In fact, ambiguity is an important issue for any memoirist and indeed the writing of memoir itself emerges from question: Does what I have to say matter? That being said, a reader must feel the importance of the narrator’s stance, regardless of whether he agrees with the stance itself. The reader should have an idea of the story means.
In the end, the memoir has a cast-off air to it, and I’m not sure O’Brien ever answers the other ambiguous question that must be answered in the writing: what’s this story about? Which leads me to wonder whether, if he’d have given himself more time to write the memoir, if it would have looked different.