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Feeding on Fantasy

Going After Cacciato

by Tim O’Brien
Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, 338 pp., $8.95

Incandescence

by Craig Nova
Harper & Row, 312 pp., $9.95

Mulligan Stew

by Gilbert Sorrentino
Grove Press, 445 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Toward its end, Going After Cacciato quotes from Yeats’s “Meditations in Time of Civil War”—“We had fed the heart on fantasies, / The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.” The words are said in a fantasy-scene, by a character who exists only in another character’s mind, and it seems an apt motto for a novel about private dreaming in the midst of the public disaster of Vietnam. Yeats’s troubled perception that the imagination may be implicated in a reality of violence and terror helps to explain why postwar moods, in fiction and life, are so inevitably moods of disenchantment.

But Going After Cacciato—a strong and convincing novel that deserves its recent National Book Award—goes well beyond mere disillusionment about war and national policy. It is a book about the imagination itself, one which both questions and celebrates that faculty’s way of resisting the destructive powers of immediate experience.

Tim O’Brien considers the conflicting equities of dream and fact in a narrative of three interwoven situations. One concerns the desertion from the Third Squad of Cacciato, an infantryman who walks away from the war to go, he says, to Paris, and his pursuit by a group of his comrades. As they hunt Cacciato through Laos, Burma, India, the Middle East, and all the way to Europe, we soon recognize that the increasingly improbable adventures of Third Squad are being invented by one of its members, Paul Berlin, while he spends a night on guard duty in a seaside observation post in Quang Ngai. And as Berlin tries to sustain and bring to a “proper ending” the story of going after Cacciato, he is also remembering the dreadfully real campaign he has lived through, a campaign that has cost his platoon eight men.

Berlin tries to make what he hopes will be “a fine war story” out of experiences that were in themselves almost unendurable, but there is more than escapism in his conversion of life to art. The pursuit of Cacciato has serious if ambiguous implications. It is the duty of his comrades to follow him and bring him back to the war, it is comradely and humane to try to save him from the dire punishment for desertion, and yet “going after” him could mean not pursuing him but following his lead—it affords them a tentative sense that they too are escaping from a war they all hate and fear, a dim hope that they can have the benefits of desertion without feeling shame or incurring punishment. The real Cacciato was only a dumb kid, an amiable, childlike goof-off who ate too much and immersed himself in pointless games, dribbling a basketball or angling intently in flooded bombcraters where no fish could be. But as the Cacciato of Berlin’s imagination playfully leads them on toward Paris, he takes on interest as a figure of thoughtless, irresponsible innocence that may be the only alternative to an idea of life as warfare.

Yet for those who do think, that innocent alternative is finally impossible. Thinking men are prisoners of duty, like Lieutenant Harris, the platoon’s former commander who did things correctly, by the book, until his men, unable to obey his orders to go into the Viet Cong tunnels and flush out the enemy, finally fragged him—a collective guilt from which only Cacciato, who was off fishing when they made their murderous compact, may be exempted. Harris’s imagined counterpart, an urbane VC major in an elaborate underground headquarters, eventually admits that he too hates the war and doesn’t even know the way out of his own caverns. Berlin’s dream-story can never quite accept personal freedom and peace as its proper ending. On the verge of finding Cacciato in Paris, the squad agrees that they must capture him and take him back, and even Berlin, who’s invented a Vietnamese girl to offer him love and security, finally rejects her pleas and opts for duty and self-respect.

So there is no world elsewhere, the book seems to say. The rest of the earth is as Americanized as Vietnam itself—in Mandalay the soldiers stay at the Hotel Minneapolis, in Delhi they are offered hospitality by Jolly Chand, who studied hotel management at Johns Hopkins and loves hamburgers, television, and Winston One Hundreds, in Tehran they drive on Eisenhower Avenue. O’Brien makes Paul Berlin’s story a kind of Odyssey—with Jolly Chand as Circe, for example, and the Viet Cong major (whose periscope they smash with a bayonet) as Polyphemus—but the Ithaca they seek closely resembles the Troy they left behind, not least because of its possession by violence. They escape from Iran only after fighting a pitched battle with the Shah’s security troops (the Laestrygonians?), and in France Berlin has to make an effort not to see that the landscape of freedom looks oddly like Vietnam or any other monument to a self-destructing technology:

It is not rich country. The farms are old and small and broken-looking; many villages still show the damage of a war twenty years over. Scars, pocked buildings. But what does it matter? He ignores it. He ignores the soot and coal dust, all the artifacts of industry strewn like a child’s toys along the tracks—rusting flatbeds and switching gear, timbers, heaps of mangled iron, incinerators, tin cans, crushed old automobiles, tank cars and abandoned warehouses and barbed wire. He sees beyond this.

His hopes for civility—“decency, cleanliness, high literacy and low mortality, the pursuit of learning in heated schools, science, art, industry bearing fruit through smokestacks”—are undercut by the real world he tries to see beyond, but he can only suppose that he fought for valid purposes, whatever went wrong with the methods.

It’s finally not a commitment to liberalism and its purposes, however, that thwarts Berlin’s dream of freedom, but a harder and more demanding idea, that of personal integrity. The crucial moment is a fantasy-debate, a kind of peace conference in which his Vietnamese lover plays the Other Side, about whether he should accept his dream and try to live it. His conclusion is that obligation matters more than happiness:

I confess that what dominates is the dread of abandoning all that I hold dear. I am afraid of running away. I am afraid of exile. I fear what might be thought of me by those I love. I fear the loss of their respect. I fear the loss of my own reputation….

Perhaps now you can see why I stress the importance of viewing obligation as a relationship between people, not between one person and some impersonal idea or principle. An idea, when violated, cannot make reprisals. A principle cannot refuse to shake my hand. Only people can do that…. The real issue is how to find felicity within limits. Within the context of our obligations to other people. We all want peace. We all want dignity and domestic tranquility. But we want these to be honorable and lasting. We want a peace that endures. We want a peace we can live with. We want a peace we can be proud of. Even in imagination we must obey the logic of what we started. Even in imagination we must be true to our obligations, for, even in imagination, obligation cannot be outrun. Imagination, like reality, has its limits.”

The philosophical and human adequacy of such a view could of course be argued further, but I think that the novel asks us not to accept it but to understand it and find it moving. It moves me because it lies so perilously close to a rhetoric of public occasions that we know all too well how to mistrust. (In phrases like “We want a peace we can live with. We want a peace we can be proud of,” for example, it’s hard not to hear the voice of Richard Nixon.) O’Brien’s decision to make Berlin’s statement as flat and uneloquent as possible recognizes that it’s almost impossible to talk well about such embarrassing ideas as obligation, or personal integrity, or pride in self. Even so, it may be dangerous to live as if such ideas no longer pertained, as if imaginations of freedom, for all their necessity, were all it takes to make life valuable.

At one point in Going After Cacciato a medic feeds M&Ms to a dying soldier while telling him that they’re medicine. The incident crystallizes many of the novel’s attitudes—the dreadful absurdity of war in itself, the helplessness of technology to serve human ends, the persistence of compassion when rational purpose fails, the power of imagination (within its limits) to serve living needs. The soldier feels better while he dies, just as the reader enjoys Berlin’s extravagant fiction of escape more than his appalling memories of combat. In the lines that follow the ones quoted in the book, Yeats adds that feeding the heart on fantasies can eventually make us feel “more substance in our enmities / Than in our love,” and it is love—for those, comrades or foes, with whom one fights, for those at home whose expectations one wants to honor and fulfill—that shows Paul Berlin where the limits of imagination lie and shows us (as Homer also did) that important human issues figure even in dubious battles.

Craig Nova’s Incandescence is in its way also about the art of imagining in a bleak reality. Nova’s narrator and hero, Stargell, is not a soldier but a failed technologist, once a respectable think-tank man now fallen into the depths of disgrace and poverty. But there is physical and moral violence all around him. At the think-tank he did fairly harmless things like correcting production techniques for a toy factory whose rubber dolls kept coming out as Thalidomide babies, cheering up an armless man by providing him with a mechanical masturbator, and working on “bacteria that eat plastic and shit honey.” But the institute’s major business is darker stuff, like the idea of one of his bosses for a colorless, odorless gas that explodes after the victims inhale it. Fired for being frivolous—he proposed to solve the petroleum shortage by squeezing oil out of the wing joints of moths—he now lives in a shabby neighborhood where teenagers can buy M-16s from the local grocer. He drives a cab on the night shift.

Stargell is a resourceful survivor. When he gives up driving cabs because he’s robbed and almost murdered, he pyramids his debt at the loan-shark’s, hits the numbers, tries out for odd jobs like playing a gorilla at an amusement park, and (his greatest success) works out a scam that involves renting someone else’s apartment to ten different people and pocketing their deposits. But in the social war of all against all, he is more victim than aggressor. He needs money not for himself but to do right by others—his batty wife who, paralyzed by her fear that there are germs in her underwear and that Stargell will make love to her, does little but drink, watch television, and sleep; his parents in California, where his father is quietly dying of cancer; the old down-and-outer who helps with the apartment swindle and whose burial Stargell must finally arrange and pay for.

Stargell’s imagination is dangerously sympathetic. He’s fascinated by his downstairs neighbor, the loan-shark’s monstrous hit-man who on holidays plays Longines Symphonette records on his superb stereo outfit and who hopes that he won’t have to break Stargell’s arms before they can enjoy an Easter concert together. Stargell gets deeply involved in the business enterprises of his father-in-law, a gun-toting old Greek partisan who comes to America “looking for a product,” his breast-enlargement business having gone bad in a country where, he admits, all the women are buxom; he goes home as the Athens distributor for a burglar-alarm concern, hoping that his law-abiding city will work up a crime wave.

A dangerous world, this novel seems to say, isn’t quite dangerous enough when you get to know it, and Stargell’s mind yearns for moments of “incandescence,” a sense of existing at the edge between being and not-being, the intimation of death which he sees in old people or feels in speeding vehicles and which may let him know, for once, what it feels like to be truly alive:

I smell that thanatoid odor of the airplane’s cabin, climb aboard, strap myself in. Maybe, Stargell, I think, this time you’ll get to use the oxygen they’re always promising. Then we’ll feel that incandescence, all of us sucking at the yellow mask, staring at one another, our eyes popping with expectation, waiting for the blast of arctic air, the fun-house spin. You’d feel the blood jump then, Jack. That’s when you’d know your skin was filled with magic.

But such moments may be better in anticipation than in experience. He feels such incandescence when his cab is robbed, but he sees the irony—“Stargell, I think, most things are great, as long as you live through them”—and he promptly gives up such a dangerous occupation.

Incandescence is one of those novels that confront an awful world by generating brisk, tough, comic patter about sharply observed details of an incorrigibly vulgar culture. The suggestion is always that the absurd or horrifying is in fact perfectly normal, quite what one had been expecting, without power to hurt, depress, or anger. Nova is quite good at it, and the novel has its fine moments:

There is one woman who is looking out her window at a large billboard on which there is a picture of a beautiful woman who is sitting on a beach…. The woman on the billboard is smoking a cigarette. The woman in the apartment is smoking the same kind, pulling away on it for dear life, fixed on the billboard. I think of the apartment, filled with cases of cigarettes, brought up cheaply from Georgia: the day is spent in rapture, in smoking cigarettes and gazing at the billboard.

* * *

My father shot himself,” says. Purple Lips. “He came back from the track one day and shot himself. So I found myself thinking, ‘My father shot himself, my father shot himself, my father shot himself.’ You should have seen what it did to my tennis game. No one had a chance with me. Then they locked me up.”

But once you aim for a continued bright inventiveness, your lapses are all the more glaring:

The receptionist is about forty-five and she’s got what I call bobsled looks: going downhill fast.

* * *

My luggage emerges from a machine that looks as though you could use it to leave the solar system, to travel at unbelievable speeds beyond the galaxy.

* * *

The atmosphere is as desolate as a stripped and burned-out car.

Like some other pleasures, writing like Nova’s makes you long for ever more subtle and complicated versions of what you’ve just had, and the occasional miscalculation, however slight, encourages a suspicion—perhaps unfair—that rhetoric, not experience and understanding, is doing most of the work here.

Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew is not about “life” but about the power of language to alter life and ultimately appropriate it entirely. A pretentious and highly untalented novelist, Antony Lamont, is trying to write a kind of highbrow murder mystery, whose chapters we get to read along with Lamont’s notebook, his scrapbook, and his correspondence with an academic critic, his sister (married to a rival practitioner, Dermot Trellis), a poetess of erotic mind though prudish life, and so on. But it emerges that the characters in Lamont’s boring thriller, whom he’s stolen from Joyce, Fitzgerald, and Hammett, recognize and resent what Lamont is doing to them. And they have resources for resisting him—one of them keeps a journal of his own, full of critical attacks on Lamont’s chapters; they rewrite some of his stuff when he’s not looking. As he lapses into paranoia and incoherence they escape from his book (though not from Sorrentino’s) to take up residence elsewhere, evidently in a story by someone like Donald Barthelme.

Mulligan Stew is a quite wonderful book of literary joking and parody—if there had been no Joyce, no Gide or Sterne or Borges or Robbe-Grillet or Nabokov or Perelman, I’m almost convinced that Sorrentino could have invented them. Since he didn’t, his book could be called derivative, but it plays with its great originals with such lively intelligence, understanding, and affection as to make obscure the distinction between creative and critical imagination. Mulligan Stew would be worth quoting from at length. It contains a brilliant take-off on the Nighttown episode in Ulysses, elaborately formulaic pornographic passages about the S/M queens Corrie Corriendo and Berthe Delamode, hilariously pedantic disquisition on the religious symbolism of the color blue, as well as Sorrentino’s astonishing lists (which one wants to skip but which, once tasted, have to be devoured to the last crumb)—titles of unwritten books, colors of one of the character’s trousers (he wears a different pair each week of the year), presents that writers gave or might have given their favorite characters, to name only some of them.

Sorrentino can draw high amusement from the idea that life is almost wholly constructed of, and disabled by, words:

What would you like?” I mumbled. I have everything here…vodka, bourbon, gin….”

Scotch would be fine,” he sighed. “With a splash of branch.”

What is ‘branch,’ Ned Beaumont?” I inquired pleasantly.

Branch? Branch is a kind of swell, pure water,” Ned Beaumont whined. He sat heavily in a chair, distracted.

Will plain ‘tap’ water do?” I asked, moving swiftly toward the little bar of which I felt strangely and inordinately proud.

Of course,” Ned Beaumont replied wearily. “The word ‘branch’ is a sort of affectation usually used in the affected term, ‘bourbon and branch.”’

I don’t follow you.” I was doing my very best to be genial, but cold fury was sweeping through me. “Bourbon?”

That is the drink I mentioned in order to give you an example of how the word ‘branch’ is most often used. ‘Branch’ is a kind of terrific spring water, or well water, or stupendous crystalline-stream water. It actually means ‘something’ and water…. I mean that I want Scotch and water, that’s all.”

I follow you now, Ned Beaumont,” I chortled. “What you need is a tall Scotch and water. Rocks?”

What? Come again?”

I say: Rocks?”

What in God’s name are you talking about?” Ned Beaumont sputtered….

The fussy woodenness of their dialogue is partly attributable to Antony Lamont’s tin ear, but he suggests, better than he could know, the puzzles we get into by trying to use language, any language, at all. The novelist who tries, and fails, to make sense with words, the characters who struggle to get out of one book only to find themselves in another, even less congenial one, are in a way our representatives, since the “real” world is as incurably verbal as any fictional one.

The nice thing about Sorrentino is that he finds this predicament a funny one, as Joyce did too—the thing to do is not to philosophize about it but to bring in as many more words, of whatever kind, as one can think of. (The only passage I couldn’t get through is a 12-page mathematical article about—perhaps—why a curve ball curves.) Mulligan Stew will not, I’m afraid, be widely read, but I recommend trying it out on anyone whose literacy and sense of humor may need testing.

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