Tim O’Brien, "What Went Wrong"

David lost his leg (and a little bit of his sanity) back in ‘Nam. Marla is a nurse who doesn’t care about much. Anybody else smell a doomed marriage? Let’s get these loveable lovebirds together.

(from The O. Henry Prize Stories, 2003)

Not a bad story. Nicely cinematic moments. But. Ok. Listen.

No, you don’t need to like the characters to like the story, but you do need to believe in them. Cliché is a funny thing. Once you’ve heard about a true thing enough times you recognize it as an archetype. Then you start disbelieving in it when you come across it again. Why? Maybe because it’s funny how banal it is. Maybe it’s because you’ve lost sight of its original kernel of truth. Two key elements — David’s hallucinations/flashbacks and the concept of the cold, civil marriage — are are so familiar that I didn’t care much.

Know what cracked me up a little bit? In the back of these best-of-the-year short story compilations (and other kinds) there’s often a place for the author to discuss/explain/give the background on his/her story. O’Brien’s opens all huffy with “Stories must speak for themselves,” but then goes on for like a half page begrudgingly commenting and explaining and on and on and yawn. Better still, he ends with this: “What went wrong, perhaps, is that these two unhappy souls were born human.”

This guy, am I right, people?

One thought on “Tim O’Brien, "What Went Wrong"

  1. Ryan Godfrey

    You’re kinda right about this guy. I read The Things They Carried a few years ago. The takeaways were some memorable images (rice paddy as sewer/tomb) and a sense of O’Brien’s self-importance.


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