Going after Cacciato by Tim O’Brien – a review

Reading Going after Cacciato, I had this overwhelming sense that what I was really reading was a tremendous work of metafiction. A long story short, the novel is about Paul Berlin and his unit going after an AWOL soldier named Cacciato. It’s also about Berlin looking back and trying to make sense of the chase and of the construction of a fictional chase. The other third of the novel is this fictional pursuit by Berlin’s troupe, slowly tracking Cacciato from Vietnam, across the middle east, and onto the streets of Paris.

The initial part of the quest, Berlin and his group going after Cacciato, would be the genesis of the idea that Berlin later spins out into the greater story of chasing Cacciato across the continent. The time dragging by while Cacciato is standing guard would be the time every writer spends alone, bringing his idea to a boil, searching for inspiration from what surrounds him. And the journey is, of course, the story, taking shape in front of us.

And the events of the story itself become symbolic of the journey taken by the writer. Cacciato, the character being chased, stands in as the kernel around which the story is built, the ideal the writer is pursuing in putting one word after the other to find the end. Meanwhile, the characters are the fears, motivations and doubts of the writer – here personified in Paul Berlin  – as he makes his quest.

Henderson – initial doubts at the outset, also carries the biggest gun. He disappears early on, something the writer has to set aside to continue his journey of writing a novel.

Stink Harris – loud bravado, what seems like supreme self-confidence. He lasts through the majority of the novel, but finally disappears about 4/5of the way through, after having literally jumped into a pond too big for him to swim. He’s the doubt any writer feels towards the end of a work, the doubt of its quality, of the ability to finish, etc., another obstacle necessary to overcome.

Doc Peret: the medic, there til the end, trying to heal and comfort the wounded with M&Ms. Essentially, he’s the lying voice of comfort that keeps you up and going throughout the process of writing. You know that what he’s giving you are just sugar pills, but you will yourself to believe in him.

Oscar Johnson – the realist, the action, the steady one foot in front of the other, one letter after another. It’s the voice in the back of a writers head that just says, “GO!”

Lt Corson – the voice of wiseness that counterbalances the voice of action. He tempers enthusiasm, he sets the pace, he brings order to the forced chaos of Oscar Johnson’s “GO!” mantra.

Sarkin Aung Wan – the muse. While Cacciato presents the kernal the writer chases after, Sarkin Aung Wan is the flow of ideas that guide the writer along, that sparks him, that lures him through the darkness while Oscar Johnson is screaming “GO!” and Lt. Corson is advising on what direction to head. She is the writers guide through his unconscious wilderness.

And the story itself shows the ups and downs of the writing. There is the first hard trudge as they get going, and as the writer gets going. They are finding their footing, finding their rhythm, they are discovering how to move just as a writer discovers how to move his work. They disappear into the earth, into darkness, the fear and anxiety of the size of the job taken on devouring the writer but form which he is led by his muse.

Their trouble in Iran leads to the loss of Stink, and then the group fractures beyond repair in Paris where Oscar assumes full control, with the belief of what “must” happen. Meanwhile, the Lt. and Sarkin drift off together before the climactic finish of the novel that, by all appearances, ends in disaster for Oscar and Paul. Which I think is significant, looking at this as a work of metafiction, that the work falls apart when the muse and the sage leave the scene. Suddenly, the work is no longer tempered by a voice of consideration, nor is it guided by the muse. Instead, it is forcibly pushed to a rushed conclusion, and their story falls apart, killed in an ambush.

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