Final Week: Going After Cacciato Read-a-Long

Welcome to the final 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 Ch. 25-the end.

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:

Serena: Do you think the use of the surreal and fantasy helps illustrate the process soldiers go through in coming to terms with their actions in war?

Anna: Yes, I think O’Brien does a great job showing the coping mechanisms that are needed for them to keep going after all they’ve seen and done. After the description of Cacciato dumping Buff’s face out of his helmet, I knew the whole story must be a daydream, which goes back to the quote before the opening of the novel: “Soldiers are dreamers.” Paul Berlin needed something to push these images out of his mind. And there were clues all along the way that things weren’t what they seemed.

Were you surprised about that aspect of the story? What do you think happened to Cacciato?

Serena: I wasn’t surprised so much that it was all a dream, and that Berlin had to create a fanciful story to make it through his daily missions.

Cacciato is the catalyst for Berlin’s daydream and it gives him hope that there is something beyond these jungles and the war. That there will be life after his time as a soldier. The helmet scene still disturbs me now!

What do you think about Doc’s position that war is war no matter the perspective and Berlin’s comments that you cannot outrun the consequences of running even the consequences of imagination?

Anna: Exactly. I didn’t feel cheated by it having been a dream because of the idea of hope and the sadness of the whole situation. The soldiers were just boys, and how can they not be haunted by it all?

There are consequences to every action, whether running or imagining that you are. It made me think about what the consequences might be for Berlin related to his imagination. He could lose himself (and his mind) in those dreams, lose his ability to see clearly, and lose his life as a result. And in a way, imagining that he was running was another form of running away from the war.

As for what Doc says, maybe he means that running or not running or dreaming about running, it’s all part of the war. The soldiers each come from a different place, have different perspectives, internalize what they see differently, but it doesn’t matter, because when it comes down to it, they’re all fighting the war.

What do you think was the significance of O’Brien calling him “Paul Berlin” throughout, never just “Paul” (or not that I recall anyway)?

Serena: I agree, even running away in his mind is a kind of desertion that would have consequences…but even then Berlin says that he never thought he would be a good soldier or even effective. I wonder if in that way he’s worse than Cacciato who gave it a go and just left.

I’m not sure why he was consistently referred to as Paul Berlin — there is some reference when he’s promoted to WWII and all of that, but I’m really not sure what to make of it. What are your thoughts on it?

Anna: I honestly don’t have a clue. There must be some significance because he’s the only character referred to by first and last name. For most of the other characters, you either know their first or last or a nickname but not both.

Do you think Sarkin Aung Wan was the girl with the gold hoop earrings that Paul Berlin wanted to like him, to see he had no malice in his soul? I know he’d kept saying how young she was throughout, but I didn’t make the connection between the two until after he described the girl with the gold hoops and then later described Sarkin Aung Wan taking hers off. O’Brien was very subtle in the clues he gave that the journey was a figment of Paul Berlin’s imagination.

Serena: I think Sarkin Aung Wan was the young girl with the earrings, but that’s why I’m a bit disturbed by his kissing her. While he clearly wanted more from her, there relationship seems pretty chaste. She also seems to be some kind of lifeline to hope — like if he can get her out of the war and to Paris, life will resume a more normal path, not like the crazy unpredictability of war.

There are so many moving elements in this book, fantasy and reality. What did you think about those Observation Post chapters? Did you think they were merely anchors to reality for readers? Or do you think they were something more?

Anna: I wasn’t so disturbed by the kiss, because based on all the talk about girls and sex, even with the kiss, their relationship was pretty chaste. Plus, he never says how old either girl is, and I just assumed she might be slightly younger than him. She’s young enough to be excited about beauty products, but old enough to understand that the lieutenant needs someone to care for him. He might have been attracted to the young village girl’s innocence, and that gave him hope.

The Observation Post chapters were interesting in that you knew they were taking place after the whole thing with Cacciato. I think those earlier OP chapters gave me the first inclination that the chapters in which they moved from country to country were a fantasy. So maybe they were a way to ground readers, to get them to see Paul Berlin’s state of mind as he contemplates it all when he’s alone in the dark of night.

Serena: I think you’re right about that.

Thanks, everyone, for joining us for this discussion. See you in 2015.

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.

December Read-a-Long of Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien

As part of the War Through The Generations 2014 Reading Challenge with a Twist, we’ll be hosting our final read-a-long in December for the Vietnam War.

For December, we’ll be reading Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien.

Discussion questions will be posted on Friday for the designated chapters.  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

While we know that the final chapters fall on the say after Christmas for most of us, you can feel free to add to the discussion long after the holiday.

We hope you’ll be joining us next month for our final read-a-long.

Review: GOING AFTER CACCIATO by Tim O’Brien

Scrappy Cat recently read and reviewed Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato for the Vietnam War Reading Challenge.  Here’s a snippet:

“Cacciato, a private, goes AWOL in 1968 Vietnam to walk 8,000 miles to Paris.  The rest of his squad goes after him.  The events get more and more absurd as it goes along, until you really wonder what is real and what isn’t.  It is told from the point of view of Paul Berlin, one of the soldiers in Cacciato’s squad.  I wasn’t sure whether I was going to like it at first, but I did.”

Read the full review.

**Attention participants:  Remember to email us a link to your reviews, and we’ll post them here so we can see what everyone is reading!**

Review: GOING AFTER CACCIATO by Tim O’Brien

Rantings of a Bookworm Couch Potato recently read and reviewed Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien for the 2010 Vietnam War Reading Challenge.  Here’s a snippet:

O’Brien manages to combine humorous events with the tragic effect of war seamlessly. I don’t know how to describe what it is about his writing that gets me – it isn’t particularly complicated, but it’s real, and he really took me into the mind of Paul Berlin, which is part of what I loved so much about this book.

Read the full review.

**Attention participants:  Remember to email us a link to your reviews, and we’ll post them here so we can see what everyone is reading!**

Guest Review: GOING AFTER CACCIATO by Tim O’Brien

Mary Simonsen, author of Searching for Pemberley and The Second Date, recently submitted a review for our 2010 Vietnam War Reading Challenge.  Please give her a warm welcome as she reviews Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien.

In its simplest form, Going After Cacciato is about a soldier who goes AWOL during the Vietnam War and the squad that is sent out into the jungles and rice paddies to bring him back. After that, there is nothing simple about this book because Paul Berlin, the leader of the squad, and his men are told that Cacciato is headed for Paris.

The story moves back and forth between the real and the fantastic. When Berlin is in the observation post, the story describes past events that Berlin has seen. His fellow soldiers die in rice paddies or while clearing tunnels where the Viet Cong are waiting for them. But then there are the fantasy chapters in which Berlin’s squad is on the trail of Cacciato as he leads them to Paris, freedom, and a sane world.

The story takes place in 1968, the year of the Tet offensive, when the United States was taken by surprise with attacks on Hue and Saigon by the combined forces of the Viet Cong, who used guerilla tactics, and regular army forces from North Vietnam, and which exposed the weakness of using a traditional military strategy in guerilla warfare. It was the year that people at home started to ask the question, “What are we doing there?”

Going After Cacciato is a brilliant novel about young Americans who were asked to fight in a war where “Victory” was an ill-defined concept and against an enemy who moved freely among you during the day and tried to kill you at night. No place was safe; there was no “behind the lines.” For some, the only way to escape the madness was to withdraw into a world of fantasy, very much like Alice in Wonderland and her rabbit hole, and to follow one soldier all the way from Vietnam to Paris.

Thanks, Mary. We appreciate your guest review.

**Attention participants:  Remember to email us a link to your reviews, and we’ll post them here so we can see what everyone is reading!**

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