While blessing us with the thought of book-themed cocktail parties, Tom Lake author Ann Patchett referenced The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and its surprising mis-genre labeling that she’s witnessed among readers perhaps one too many times. “People try to explain to me that this is a book of nonfiction,” she vented, “and I always say, ‘No, it’s not a book of nonfiction. It is absolutely fiction.’ And then people are like, ‘No, it’s not.'” With a vehement laugh, Patchett quipped, “I hate when they say that to me.”
I found this fascinating, because not only was The Things They Carried my introduction to Tim O’Brien’s work nearly two decades ago, making me a lifelong fan of his work; but in Ann Patchett’s endearing remarks, I identified the heart of what I believe sets Tim O’Brien’s work far above the rest: that constant wrestle between the real and the dream or fantasy, memories and false memories, and turning to genres, the fine line we can walk between artistic, lyrical nonfiction and fiction sprinkled with real-life experiences. These were dualities I toiled with as a teenager—the struggles between the dark and the light, the stranger than fiction, the hallucination turned gospel—and pondered with pleasure as an adult, realizing that these areas of continuous, endearing gray also offered unending options of interpretation. It’s an illusive form, but charmingly so.
And after 20 years, Tim O’Brien has returned with his next novel, America Fantastica, which rings with many of the same devices I’ve admired in The Things They Carried all of these years. I’m all for avoiding spoilers, but the one spoiler I’ll give you (that the headline already gave you; shhh) is that this novel was worth the wait.
While The Things They Carried has gone on to be considered one of the greatest books about the Vietnam War to date, America Fantastica takes a closer look at the American landscape, right from its very own backyard—or highways and diners and lakesides, rather. One might summarize this as the story of a snubbed and doxxed journalist looking for revenge through an impulsive heist, but there proves to be so much more in the nearly 500 pages of this tale and all that happens (and could have happened) while out on the road—and certainly not in the nostalgic Route-66 fashion we readers have been conditioned to think of.
Rather, Boyd Halverson finds himself quite bored with his life, and after he is snubbed and doxxed out of his role as a journalist, he really feels like he has nothing else to lose. Pushed by boredom and the confidence that he can think on his feet, he decides to rob a bank and then use that money to exact his revenge against the person who caused the doxxing to occur. But when he arrives at the bank, there is less money available than he expected, and on a whim, he decided to take the bank teller, Angie, with him rather than leaving her there to call the police. What begins as an abduction and sprint from the cops becomes a wild, sometimes hilarious, always quirky trek through multiple states, climates, and landscapes as the pair turn from mild acquaintances to enemies to fast friends, with Angie always wanting a little bit more. The truly puzzling thing following them, though, is the fact that the police are not in pursuit of them, because as far as the police department knows, no crime even took place. This just begins to lift the veil of corruption hidden in the vault of the bank Boyd robbed, but the longer they travel and the closer they come to his target, the more corruption there is to uncover, and the more interconnected all of the guilty parties seem to be.
The backdrop of this novel is complete with political unrest, a rising pandemic (the same COVID-19 that plagued our world; again, that blurring between the real and the unreal), and perhaps worse, the wildfire-like spread of an epidemic called ‘Mythomania’ that takes over a person’s psyche and fosters immoral behavior, from dramatic and hurtful lies to physical violence. Where COVID-19 plagued the body, Mythomania plagued the mind, the soul, and one’s whole value system. By the same token, black birds all over the country begin to exhibit erratic and unpredictable behavior, from colliding in the sky to attacking one another to falling out of the sky dead. The surreal visuals of these birds and their disjointed behavior acts as an omen throughout the novel, indicating the worsening conditions that were plaguing people everywhere.
Back at the forefront, Boyd develops an impressive yet alarming talent for elaborate, fabulist lies—first for the sake of coping, then for his profession, but never because of falling ill with Mythomania. This, too, serves as an example of that fine line between reality and fantasy, as it becomes impossible to tell the difference between a “good liar” and someone who is plagued by Mythomania. While I think there were some minor characters in the book who had been stricken with the illness and perhaps were dealing with more subtle symptoms, much like those who had COVID but remained unaware. But Boyd was so proficient and insistent in his tall tales that he hardly needed something or someone else’s assistance, an illness or not.
In true Tim O’Brien form, I constantly found myself pondering the layers of the novel, noting potential themes that made the novel all the more intriguing. For instance, talkative and Jesus-loving Angie frequently references the Bible and confronts people about their sins, which led me to think of the Seven Deadly Sins and how each of the primary characters fulfilled those roles, especially Wrath, Greed, and Lust, though all were present. I could also see ways in which the most central characters embodied various movements of literature, such as the fabulist, the deconstructionist, the poetic, and the grotesque. While these layers were not the whole point of the novel, they were interesting to ponder and performed exactly as they were intended—additional layers to an already enriching novel.
One layer that I found myself conceptualizing throughout most of the novel, however, was the possibility of second chances. Without spoiling too much, I found myself continuously watching Angie while on the road with Boyd, trying to demystify his past and help him take control of his future, even establishing a relationship with his ex-wife, Evelyn, while attempting to save him from himself and his lying habit. This is true of other women later in the novel, some of whom try to help like Angie, while others take the role of passing judgment and exhibiting punishment. There’s only one couple, in the pages leading up to the end, who finds sweet, simple happiness, and I think through them we see the contrast and the hope one can have of attaining a quiet, content, and honorable life through putting good out into the world.
This couple and this recurring exploration of second chances kept at the forefront the possibility for redemption—not only for an individual who had done wrong but for an entire nation. Decorated with corruption, political unrest, greed, and questionable morals all around, this story was clearly set against a world that was ill long before a lying epidemic and flocks of rabid birds overtook it. Perhaps Mythomania was a manifestation, conjured up through decades of corruption and deceit, much like Boyd’s natural habit but at a grander scale. Much like the birds foreshadowing the illness spreading and becoming more complex and unpredictable with time, so too might Mythomania escalate. It’s a jarring concept, to be sure, and is absolutely something readers should take with them, even as a challenge for themselves to do better in whatever small ways they can, to make that line between fact and fiction a little bit more black. At least through this sense of redemption and second chances, there may still be hope for everyone on a grander scale.
The last point I want to mention regards the statement Tim O’Brien made that rippled through the literary community when the book was announced for publication: this very well may be his final book. I will say simply that America Fantastica is already a book I would have advised you not to miss… but now, the reasons abound. Quick-witted, funny, thoughtful, raw, vulnerable, dark, haunting, striking, lovely… fantastical tropes for those who enjoy road trips, the underdog, gangster scenes, revenge fantasies, and more… There’s something for everyone in this book if they only take the time to look.
Continue Reading for Our Exclusive Interview with Tim O’Brien.
Take a Wild Ride with Tim O’Brien in His Latest Novel.
America Fantastica by Tim O’Brien
Mariner Books: October 24, 2023, 464 pages
The triumphant return of an essential voice of American Letters begins with an act of impulse. Where most of us might decide to buy that candy bar or go into that store, Boyd Haverson decided to rob a bank and abduct the bank clerk who surrendered the money: talkative, opinionated, Jesus-loving Angie. On their tale is, ironically, anyone but the police: characters with much more than money and justice on their minds. What follows is a wild ride through several states and climates, countless attempts at torture, and a lying epidemic that leaves its victims deceitful, often insane, and irrevocably unwell.
In Conversation with Tim O’Brien
McKenzie Lynn Tozan (MLT): Hi Tim! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about your latest, America Fantastica. It was such an incredible, surprising read, and I’m excited to talk about it.
Throughout the entire book, I loved the careful line that you walked between the real and the surreal—with the crashing of the birds, and the blending of a fictional (but plausible) and seemingly agentic epidemic through Mythomania and the very real, ongoing pandemic of COVID-19… How do you decide how far to let the surreality go in your work?
Tim O’Brien (TOB): In one way or another, each of my novels lives in the unsettled borderland between truth and falsity, between reality and fantasy, and between the so-called physical world and the dream world of imagination. Are dreams unreal? Well, no. Dreams are real dreams, are they not? Also, what is true on Friday, may not be true on Tuesday. People fall out of love. People change their minds. The Earth was once flat. Moreover, what is true in France may not be true in Japan, or on Neptune. (At this instant, for instance, I can truly declare that it is 11:42 a.m. in Austin, Texas, yet the same declaration would be false in Beirut, Lebanon.) Bits of “reality” do not float before us declaring “I am reality, I am truth.” The sun does say, “This is true: I am the center of your solar system.” Human intelligence and human imagination combine to issue such adjudications about truth and falsity, sometimes honestly, other times deceitfully. America Fantastica has fun with all this. The more preposterous the fictional lie, the more it reflects the reality of what appears in internet chat rooms and on the Fox channel night after night.
MLT: I’m really interested in the concept of “Easter eggs” in a writer’s more extensive work. During the red parka scene, my mind kept leaping back to a very ethereal, haunting moment with the soldiers in The Things They Carried… and there was an emotional echo back to Dad’s Maybe Book whenever Boyd more openly spoke of his love of his son… and there were other examples of this, as well. Do you see these as intentional echoes between your books, or do you think they’re more so the natural echoes that could appear in any writer’s work over time?
TOB: Easter eggs! Yes, beginning early in my career, I’ve deliberately carried images, phrases, favorite nouns, and bits of spoken speech from one book into the next, then into the next. Even here, in my response to your first question, I refrained bits of language from my prior work, hoping to suggest a kind of “wholeness” or unity to the novels I’ve been writing for fifty-some years. In America Fantastica, as one example, I recycled an epigraph from Yeats that I’d deployed two books ago: “We had fed the heart on fantasy/the heart’s grown brutal from the fare.”
MLT: After seeing how reluctant Boyd was to face his father, to face the truth of his life—I can’t help but see Alvin’s death in that vivid red parka as a metaphor for the extent to which he wanted to escape his own truth. It’s like Alvin couldn’t go on living, between being rejected by Angie and having heard Boyd’s confession. Can you speak to this?
TOB: For me, although the author’s intent is finally irrelevant, Alvin was the Boyd who might have been–dead by suicide. On top of this, the two men share the lying contagion, affection for Angie, criminality, self-betrayal, perverse notions of what is funny, and their struggles to make sense of their own misdeeds. In the end–again, only for me–the most wrenching image in America Fantastica is that of Alvin’s red parka frozen solid beneath four inches of lake ice. Here was the fate Boyd had been planning for himself.
MLT: Mythomania eventually is paralleled with rabies, which could explain away the strange behavior of all the blackbirds in Part II of the book, but I feel like there has to be much more to it than that. Can you talk about what the birds crashing and falling symbolized for you in the book, when the main group of characters collide at Lake Larceny and beyond?
TOB: Well, blackbirds (starlings, crows, and ravens) begin behaving erratically in the novel, colliding in mid-air, and then finally dying of a “lying disease” called mythomania. The mythomania contagion has crossed species from humans to birds, the reverse of what happened with COVID-19. And so, at least for me, the birds prefigure two catastrophic and highly infectious diseases sweeping through America. Both can kill. Covid kills the body. Mythomania kills the soul, civility, and constitutional democracy.
MLT: As a mother, Teddy’s story arc through the book was crushing, and it makes total sense why it wasn’t resolved until the end. Did Evelyn really hold such contempt for Boyd’s lies, seeing as how his greatest lie benefitted her, or was that contempt more or less a cover for their lost relationship?
TOB: As with most of us, Evelyn can be two or more people at once, simultaneously condemning the deceit that murdered her marriage while also realizing (with immense gratitude) that Boyd had saved her life, or at least her spirit, by deploying a lie to shoulder the terrible burden of their son’s death. Evelyn surrenders to the lie; deep down, of course, she knows better, but the lie enables her to keep moving through life. To me, the contradiction enriches her, complicates her, and fills me with sympathy for her. We all lie. Often to ourselves, often about ourselves. So does our country.
MLT: 6. What was your favorite moment in the book to write? Or to look back on as a reader?
TOB: A number of favorite passages pop to mind, especially those that continue to surprise me. Alvin’s red parka pressing up against lake ice. Randy’s line: “Why does everybody underestimate me except me?” Angie’s elaborate story about stealing a gymnastics trophy, which she relates for no other purpose than to remind Boyd of how they had first met. (Which, of course, had nothing to do with a trophy. That’s Angie, for you. She’s a talker.)
MLT: Whenever I pick up a book with the name “America” or “American” in the title, I can’t help but wonder what that book will have to say about the American Dream. With false media, Mythomania, greed, consumerism, and a little bit of Route-66 and gangster vibes thrown in, it’s a pretty bleak depiction (but with underlying hope, too). Where do you think the American Dream fits into America Fantastica?
TOB: Great, great question. I could spend hours responding to it, but instead, I’ll point to just a few intensely American fantasies that appear in the novel: car fantasies, gunslinger fantasies, crime fantasies, God fantasies, casino fantasies, lottery fantasies, movie fantasies, road-trip fantasies, I-won-the-election-I- lost fantasies, and the fantasies of an Ozzie and Harriet America that never was. These and other American Dreams contribute to America Fantastica in ways that I find both funny and tragic, sometimes both at once. I hope readers laugh now and then. But I also hope readers feel an occasional jolt of brutal recognition.
MLT: What message would you most like readers to take from this book? What message would you hope readers take from your collective works?
TOB: I’m not sure that novels, or stories told in other forms, contain messages as such. The best I can do is suggest that America Fantastica, like The Things They Carried and In the Lake of the Woods, explores both the dangers and the psychological satisfactions of absolutism, especially when it comes to declarations about what is “true” and what is not “true”. Commentary of any sort, including messages, is a fiction writer’s death sentence. Story is everything. Laughter helps. Surprise helps. Graceful sentences help. But all must be in the service of the story.
MLT: What’s one tip you would like to send to new and emerging writers—and perhaps even to yourself in your earlier years?
TOB: I fear that any tips I might offer will end up destroying the talent and career of a promising writer. I had best stay silent.
MLT: I completely understand that! Thank you again, Tim, for taking the time to speak with me! I’ve loved going on this journey with you and can’t wait to share your latest story with the Lit Shark community and fellow readers.
About the Author
TIM O’BRIEN received the 1979 National Book Award in Fiction for Going After Cacciato. His other works include the acclaimed novels The Things They Carried and July, July. In the Lake of the Woods received the James Fenimore Cooper Prize from the Society of American Historians and was named the best novel of 1994 by Time. O’Brien lives in Austin, Texas.
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