Dad’s Maybe Book, the first in almost two decades from the National Book Award-winning author of The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato, began with stories and reflections Tim O’Brien wrote for his sons after becoming a father at the age of 58. Over time, the book evolved into a recursive meditation on fatherhood, fiction writing, and the unexplainable mysteries of life.
Midway through the book, O’Brien shares a scene from his own childhood in the 1950s, when his father—often drunk and absent—gave him a book of Hemingway stories and asked him to pick five to read and discuss with him. When he finished, his father was nowhere to be found. As a boy, it was devastating, but in looking back on it now, discussing the Hemingway stories and telling us how the best fiction doesn’t explain, he arrives at a stirring description of what fiction does instead:
The essential object of fiction is to embrace and widen and deepen all that is unknown and unknowable —who we are, why we are—and to offer us late-night company as we lie awake pondering our universal journey down the birth canal, and out into the light, and then toward the grave.
O’Brien and I talked about the book, the life lessons he offers, and how to tell a true story.
The Millions: At what point did you know this would be a book book as opposed to a “maybe book”?
Tim O’Brien: All books are maybe books until they’re finished. Even War and Peace and the Bible. So it went beyond just a title to something important about the way we live our lives. We’re always provisional and conditional. Maybe there’ll be tomorrow and maybe there won’t. So that’s kind of how it developed. After I knew I would have children, I gave up writing and thoughts of publication for many, many years, but periodically I’d sit down and write a little vignette about something that caught my attention that I’d laughed at or cried at. It began really as little messages in a bottle to leave for my children. The way I wish my own dad had done.
At some point along the line, my youngest kid saw me writing and he said, “What is it?” And I said, “I hope it’ll be a book someday.” It was the first time I’d even said that, kind of not believing it when I said it. He said, “What are you going to call it?” And I said, “I don’t know. I don’t even know if it’ll be a book.” That’s when he suggested the title. Call it what it is. Call it a maybe book.
TM: Sometimes, in literature and in life, fathers inhabit a silence. Your book speaks from the place of late fatherhood, and you have a great deal to share, which made me think about how other fathers and sons might interact with the book. What did you want to share about fatherhood?
TO: There are several chapters called “Pride,” which get into my misgivings about the subject. We tend to erase our kids’ failures or remember the basket they made from the three point line, and then forget the 25 ones they missed. The same goes with grades and everything else you tend to take pride in. On the other side, disappointment and anger and sadness can come in. Then there’s the pride we take in our country and how we’ll kill and die for it. Pride can be a vice and it can kill people. So there’s this tension inside of me about this whole fatherhood and pride thing. Telling myself, “Watch it. Be careful. It can kill.” And not only can it, it does and has. This is an example of how the book moved from fatherhood to a kind of memoir, in a way. I suppose the book really is essentially a selective memoir. Not chronological, but picking out points of my life or things that have happened that have changed my life.
TM: You write about the dangers of certainty and absolutism. In our increasingly polarized world, what you think is the best way to beat them?
TO: Going After Cacciato ended with the word “maybe” as the second-to-last word, and it infects all my work, since I was in Vietnam when staying alive was always a maybe proposition. Everything seems conditional and I see few absolutes that I can’t some way modify or qualify or change my mind about.
There’s a kind of know-nothing rhetoric, when it comes to immigration and warfare. Who cares about the facts? We’re hearing it from very high places now on a regular basis, in the form of little tweets, which have their own kind of absolutist rhetoric. A tweet doesn’t qualify, show modification or exceptions to the rule. It just declares things. It’s disturbing.
TM: Some of the book’s vignettes are similar in style to your short fiction, where you convey a truth while calling attention to the made-up parts. Did you start drawing intentionally on the writing style that you became famous for?
TO: That’s the age-old question of writing, in that it’s not going to be word for word dialogue. It’s going to be my reconstruction of things that were said, and so on, as faithful as I can be to what I recall. Never exact, but I think that’s true for everybody, not just me. If I were to ask you, “Tell me what happened yesterday,” how much you could get out of your mouth before you’ve blocked out the dish washing and the dialogue coming out of the TV set? I don’t think you could reconstruct what you said when you were shopping for groceries. But none of us can. So much is lost.
There’s a line in Nabokov’s Speak, Memory: “Well, your memory speaks, but it stutters. It speaks in ellipses.” You do your best to give an impression of a thing that happened, but it’s not an exact replication of what occurred. A few things were so indelible they remained permanent. There’s a part where we’re vacationing in France and my mom died. I told my young kids, who were then 7 and 5. We were walking down this long road down to a little town in France, and one of my sons looked over to me. I asked, “Are you thinking about grandma?” He said, “No, I’m thinking about you thinking about grandma.” That’s indelible. I didn’t make that up.
I met Chuck Palahniuk in Pasadena, California, at a signing for his latest book, Adjustment Day. When I arrived, 30 minutes ahead of time, there was already a long line. Young girls and boys were standing there with the yellow book in their hands, waiting to see him. Everybody was particularly excited because they knew that he was not only going to sign books but also talk with them individually and take some pictures with them, writer and reader posing in fighting positions. “He really wants to give back to his readers,” one of the girls at the log-in point told us. I waited in line, reading and talking with the others. Some came from North Hollywood, some from Orange County. “What about you?” I’m asked. Palahniuk’s fans want to know each other, they discuss when and how they read Fight Club, they joke and bicker about its real meaning.
One of my critical theory graduate friends explained to me once, “The first rule of fight club is nobody knows what Fight Club is about–not even the author.” Thus, if you ask Chuck Palahniuk, he might answer: It’s a romance. It’s just The Great Gatsby updated a little.
At the end of Palahniuk’s tour for Adjustment Day, I emailed with him to chat about his books and the psychology of his main characters.
The Millions: Tyler from Fight Club and Talbott from Adjustment Day can be psychopaths, but they also say things that all of us have thought at least once in our lives. How do you construct the psychology of your characters? Do you think that we can consider them the Raskolnikovs of our time?
Chuck Palahniuk: Talbott has no child, no heir or apprentice, and he’s trying to pass along all the wisdom he believes he’s acquired in his lifetime. This is what any responsible parent does, so does it make him a psychopath? Likewise, Tyler is trying to empower another person with the only skills Tyler has. They both might be wrong-headed, but their motives are sound. Neither is malicious, so I’d say neither is a psychopath. Most likely that makes me a psychopath. I’ll embrace that idea. As for either one being Raskolnikov, I can’t say because I’ve never read Crime and Punishment.
TM: There’s a sense that all your characters are so fragile and scared, and angry with society, and all they look for is “one something that explains everything.” Do you feel that in our society there is an avoidance of complexity and conflict?
CP: Please, let’s not kid ourselves. I divide my life between two states that have both legalized marijuana. Not to mention that I staggered through my 20s in a cloud of dope smoke, never daring to write a word. Opiate abuse is soaring. We’re so bombarded with complications and conflict that our lives make a Kafka story looks like a cute kitten video. We’re starving for the One Big Idea that will simplify our world and unite us. What a relief that we have Jordan Peterson to show us the way, at last.
TM: One of the most interesting themes of your work is the issue of power—the idea that power is not about controlling the body but controlling the mind. Are you drawn to the topic by an influence of French philosophy, or has it been shaped primarily by your own life experiences?
CP: Experience is our first teacher. Academia merely gives language to what we’ve lived. Me, my background is journalism so I’m always surveying people and looking for patterns between their seemingly disparate lives. These larger, shared patterns I try to illustrate with fictional stories. The last and most abstract way of communicating real life stuff is via the buzz words of Foucault and Derrida and Heidegger.
TM: You said that Adjustment Day is a rewrite of Gone with the Wind. In the book the characters discuss the repetition of the American narrative model and the importance of breaking with tradition. How is this important for you as a writer?
CP: Once you recognize the myth you’re retelling, then you’re truly free to cleave unto it or to violate the myth. So many groups are calling for civil war, or self-segregating, it seemed like a new American civil war novel was needed.
TM: One of your characters talks about Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet, comparing the difficulty of finding fulfillment in his life and even to Kurt Cobain’s life. Do you think that parable is more relatable today than in the time of Flaubert?
CP: My guess is, yes, it is more applicable today. We have so much more social mobility. Our values are more fluid. And with more options we’re free to experiment and avoid our Dasein. Each of us knows her or his destiny, but we will move heaven and earth to avoid getting to it. Having said that, damn, I could use a Percocet.
Sadly, Denis Johnson is no longer my favorite living author. But he knew death was coming, and left us with his best work since Jesus’ Son—which spent a few decades as my favorite book in my lifetime*. That’s a lot to live up to, and I was a bit disappointed by the first two stories, which were good, but not classic. (Yes, an insane bar.) But “Strangler Bob” turned me around, and “Triumph Over the Grave” was extraordinary. The final lines of “Triumph”… I wrote in my copy, “What a send off. Who could ever top that?”
The closest thing to reading The Largesse of the Sea Maiden for me was listening to Warren Zevon’s The Wind album, recorded as he was dying of lung cancer. Both extraordinary works, weaving the artists’ final days, and their reflections about them, into timeless art. I will treasure both of them for as long as I’ve got down here, and I have a feeling I’ll be thinking about them as I kiss this place goodbye.
(A functional bonus for travelers: Largesse is slim and light. I spent much of the year chasing the Parkland kids, and packed this wherever I went. I also enjoyed it in small doses of wonder. There are magical moments in here. And about that title: I hated it until I reached the end of the title story. Now I smile every time I think of it.)
Now about that asterisk. Jesus’ Son was my uncontested favorite recent book until 2015, when Farrar, Straus and Giroux published a story collection by the obscure late author Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women. Lucia rocketed from unknown to legendary overlooked genius. I was lucky enough to know her well; we were thrown together by blind luck. Lucia taught me much of what I know about writing, both directly, and by example. I’ve been reading these stories over and over since grad school in the ’90s, but I keep hesitating to read new ones. They’re all that’s left of her, plus my slightly fading memories, and I can’t bear to run out of Lucia to discover.
FSG released another volume this November, Evening in Paradise. I had read about two-thirds of them, gobbled up a few more and made myself stop. They are too priceless to gobble; I want to savor each one. I went to a release event where Ruth Franklin read one of Lucia’s earlier stories, “Point of View.” I must have read it 20 times, but it’s been a while, and I was taken aback by how tight it was. A whole world unfurling each paragraph, fully formed, without a word to spare. I had taken a break from editing my book to run over to the reading—actually brought pages with me to edit—and felt the urge to shred them. I’m not prone to those feelings of unworthiness. I usually only get them after a dose of Nabokov or Tolstoy, or Denis Johnson, wondering how I will ever do that. Of course they are all doing something different that I’m driving at, but still. If someone can be that enthralling, in so few pages… well, that’s something to aspire to. Lucia fits comfortably in that extraordinary cast.
What is it about those Russians, by the way? The 19th-century Russian Empire seems like the last place I should go searching for a kindred spirit, yet I keep finding them there. I finally dove into Anna Karenina in 2016—the first half glacially, over the course of 18 months, then devouring the second 400 pages in three to four weeks. I kept going back to it this year, rereading vivid passages, mostly Levin’s immersions in serf life. Levin tended to annoy me as a character, but his serf-envy was endearing, and his moments among them glorious. (It’s pretty clear Tolstoy envied them as well, and illustrated why.)
I thought about diving into War and Peace next—which I aborted in my 20s, before Anna taught me I just needed to keep a character list to keep them all straight. (My translation of Anna comes with one in the front. I photocopied it to use as a bookmark, and added to it, liberally.) What I really wanted was another dose of Anna Karenina, though, and since my all-time favorite author is Nabokov, I spent early 2018 on his Lectures on Russian Literature. It covers 13 works, yet nearly a third of it is devoted to Anna. My fear was that Nabokov would contradict everything I thought, and I’d be irritated by both of them. Nope. Nabokov has no trouble both choosing it as the masterpiece of Russian literature and pointing out major flaws. Like the first half: way too long and repetitive. Thank you! (Why, Leo? No editor? Didn’t listen to him or her?) And way too much dialectic on both the philosophy and minutia of Russian collective farming. He really lost his focus there.
I find two things refreshing about that, as a reader and a writer: towering achievements can have gaping flaws. Same with humans. Same with everything. It doesn’t denigrate a treasure to acknowledge where it went astray. And it’s comforting to know that even the geniuses I aspire to get some of the big things wrong. Though I haven’t found any glaring flaws in Lucia’s work yet. Maybe I’m still too close.
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