I am naturally suspicious of any artform whose excuses are built into its very framework. Such is most obviously the case in the war novel, which can increasingly leer at its critics with the dismissive “you weren’t there.” This rejoinder, meant to silence all opposition, is indeed daunting, but I think unfair to the reader and to the bevy of novels on the subject which are accessible, comprehensible, and moving.
Going After Cacciato, a novel of the Vietnam War by the author of the more renowned The Things They Carried, is only moving in parts, and seems intentionally inaccessible and incomprehensible. O’Brien’s meandering, circular prose and narrative structure are daring you to critique them, so that he can spring his “you weren’t there” trap.
Unfortunately for Mr. O’Brien, the best argument against Going After Cacciato is his other novel, which tells a bunch of loosely interconnected stories in a much more palatable manner.
Going After Cacciato is the story of a soldier who goes AWOL determined to reach Paris, and the rest of his unit, who are dispatched to retrieve him. The story of their search is told through the point of view of Spec Four Paul Berlin, a mild-mannered and withdrawn Midwesterner who seems more haunted by the deaths of his fellow soldiers than the other men on this mission. Most of the men on the mission are merely suggestions of characters, but a few are more fully developed. Doc Peret is a world-weary crackpot medic, Stink Harris is a bully with thin skin, and Oscar Johnson is a pot-smoking African-American with an aversion to needlessly risking his life.
At the first the men believe they will recapture Cacciato in a matter of hours, but they find him harder to track down. He also seems to be intentionally leading them to him, leaving behind clues as to his next destination.
The novel becomes more surreal when the troops reach the Laos border and, against all regulation, cross it. After that, the chase is really on, as they follow Cacciato through Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and finally, Europe. Along the way they encounter strange characters, and Paul Berlin falls in love with a refugee. They have several narrow escapes, including one from an Iranian prison.
Much of this episodic rambling is just pointless stalling, delaying the inevitable, but no less disheartening resolution of the novel. The fact that Mr. O’Brien decided to end his novel in the fashion that he did does not speak well of the level of respect he has for his audience. Without spoiling it, let me just say that Going After Cacciato is pointless, repetitive, and ultimately unrewarding.
And yes, I can already hear the defenders calling, “but that’s what it’s really like. It’s brilliantly evocative of the true nature of war. Don’t you see!”
If true, I don’t care. A novel has to be more than just realistic. It has to be worth my time.