Week 1: Going After Cacciato Read-a-Long

Welcome to the first week of the 2014 War Through the Generations With a Twist Read-a-Long of Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien. For this discussion, we read through Chapter 24.

In a blend of reality and fantasy, this novel tells the story of a young soldier who one day lays down his rifle and sets off on a quixotic journey from the jungles of Indochina to the streets of Paris. In its memorable evocation of men both fleeing from and meeting the demands of battle, Going After Cacciato stands as much more than just a great war novel. Ultimately it’s about the forces of fear and heroism that do battle in the hearts of us all.

Here’s the reading schedule and discussion dates:

  • Friday, Dec. 12: Discussion of Chapters 1-24
  • Friday, Dec. 19: Discussion of Chapter 25-the end

Serena: What are your initial thoughts on the more surreal and real elements of the novel so far?

Anna: I can’t wait to find out more about why Cacciato left the war in the first place, but I was surprised by how surreal the novel is.  The shift in the time line between chapters was pretty jarring at first, but I do like that O’Brien goes back to fill in the gaps from the very first paragraph of the novel where he lists all the soldiers who died.  I’m still waiting to find out how the chapters in the observation post fit into the story, as they seem to occur after the whole business with Cacciato ends, though how it ends is still anyone’s guess.

At first the shifts in the time line had me confused, but I’m starting to understand the structure more.  I’m enjoying that I have no idea how it’s all going to play out.  However, the whole mission of finding Cacciato is a bit bizarre and hard to buy into, especially once they cross the border into Laos and seem to be more like civilians on vacation.  Of course, I can understand them looking for a way to escape the war, even if only for a little while.  I find myself just trying to go with the flow at this point.  It seems like a lot of the novel is about Paul Berlin and what at this point appears to be a breakdown in his mental state.

What do you think about it all?

Serena:  I think I’m at an advantage because I remembered parts of the novel being surreal and dream like — almost like a fantasy.  I think that at this point, Paul Berlin has definitely had a break with reality and perhaps all the stuff about Laos and “being on vacation” is just a fantasy he created to replace what really happened on the mission to get Cacciato.

All of these men in the unit seem to be eccentric, don’t they?  I find their personalities all over the place, with the one tough guy who handles it all with force and the burned out Lt. who is trying to keep as many people alive as he can but still complete the missions.

What did you think about Doc’s diagnosis of Berlin as having too many fear biles?

Anna: I was thinking that it might all be made up in his head. I hope we find out what really happened by the end if that’s the case.

Well, I’m sure the amount of pot they smoke on a daily basis helps contribute to those eccentricities. I do like how O’Brien gives them all distinct personalities, though, so that even though there are a lot of characters to remember, it’s fairly easy to tell them apart.

Doc is an especially interesting character because his diagnoses all seem to be from the 1800s, with all the talk about fear biles. Though when you take the “biles” out of the equation, what he has to say is pretty interesting.

What do you think of Paul’s relationship with the refugee girl? She’s definitely an interesting character, who seems both strong and flighty.

Serena: I agree about Doc and his remedies. They do seem to be pre-modern medicine. Perhaps he’s not really a medic at all, but the only one they have close enough to being one.

As for the refugee girl — I don’t remember from a previous reading — she could also be a fantasy of Berlin’s, especially if he saw her in town when he was on leave. Perhaps he paid for her services or she was just a girl who was nice to him at one point, and he’s got a rescue fantasy going on about her now. Regardless, she seems strong but still looking for someone to save her — which could be related to his perception of her.

I found the part in the tunnel system interesting, with the guy sentences to 10 years in the tunnels as a punishment. What are your thoughts on that guy?

I do like how O’Brien blends the surreal and real in these alternating chapters. It keeps the reader guessing.

Anna: Well, since this is my first time reading this novel, I’m just going with the flow. I know the story isn’t what it seems, and the quote from the very beginning of the book — “Soldiers are dreamers” — seems to be a big clue. I don’t want to spoil for myself the twist I sense coming, so I just file these little tidbits away while I wait for all the pieces to come together.

The section in the tunnel was probably the most surreal so far, especially the descriptions of them all falling through the hole in the road. I don’t know what to make of the prisoner in the tunnel, especially since it didn’t seem too hard for Paul Berlin’s group to get out of the tunnel system in the end. Maybe his story is symbolic of those dreams where you look for a way out but can’t find one.

And the whole thing about Cacciato is odd and doesn’t add up. He’s not just AWOL, but leading them somewhere, even warning them about the hole under the road before they fall through. He could have got away so many times, yet he’s always only one step ahead of them, almost like he’s taunting them. So it’s obvious there’s more to this story.

Serena: I agree there is a lot going on in this book, and I cannot wait to see how it all pans out — again!

What are your thoughts up through Ch. 24? Please chime in with your thoughts and questions. We’d love to hear from you.

For next week’s discussion, we’ll be reading the second half of the book. We hope you’ll join us.

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