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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Tim O’Brien Returns to Campus

Cover of “America Fantastica” by Tim O’Brien

On Wednesday Nov. 15, acclaimed author and alum Tim O’Brien ’68 visited Macalester to lecture in classes, connect with professors and students and most importantly, read from and sign his most recent novel, “America Fantastica,” which was published on Oct. 24 of this year.

O’Brien is most famously known for his 1990 novel “The Things They Carried,” which reflects on the experiences and lives of soldiers in the war in Vietnam. After this he became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and his novel sold over two million copies. After graduating from Macalester as class president and a political science major, he served in Vietnam, where his experience heavily informed his writing in the future.

“The real world for me intersects with my imagination,” he said in an interview with The Mac Weekly. “Pain can be the source of the story, because it emphasizes that which was lost, that what you don’t have anymore, that in pain, we’ve lost something. So for writers, I say pay attention to what has hurt you in your life. And from what you’ve not recovered, it’s still there.”

In the past, O’Brien has expressed his theory that emotional truth can be better accessed through fiction rather than facts – take the creation of characters for “The Things They Carried,” for example. Though it helped get to the source of the truth of soldiers in Vietnam, it is not solely a memoir detailing O’Brien’s personal experiences. Still, it is closer to some accessible emotional truth of the war than if it had been a memoir. The approach O’Brien employs, in which he uses fictional characters to communicate a reflection on society, has not changed — but the backdrop has.

“[Fiction is] a way of understanding what was happening around me from 2016 or so, up till now.” O’Brien explained. “With people claiming they won elections they lost — why would you do such a thing, especially since it undermines constitutional democracy? It’s a way of understanding the world I live in through imagination and becoming as people in my novels.”

O’Brien’s latest novel accomplishes just that — described by the New York Times as “a manic road-trip-meets-crime-spree novel,” “America Fantastica takes place in a country plagued by mythomania, the fictional compulsive lying condition reminiscent of the very real pseudologia fantastica – pathological lying. He aimed to understand the uptick of conspiracy theories and lies in contemporary American society through his characters.

“My new book is filled with bad people, a stratum of American society that believes in conspiracy theories, that Sandy Hook never happened, that man never walked on the moon,” O’Brien said. “And I’m trying to become those people to figure out why they’re doing this.” 

O’Brien challenges readers to imagine a reality that doesn’t exist, to immerse themselves in that which feels familiar and new at the same time, and to reckon with the real feelings created by those imaginary stories.

“The novel’s aim is not at the head, rationality, it’s aimed at the heart, and tear ducts and the back of the throat,” O’Brien said. “It’s aimed at sensation and emotion.”

The book reading and signing was highly successful and well-attended by Macalester students, faculty, alumni and the broader community. Professor and head of the English department Peter Bognanni interviewed O’Brien, during which he discussed his writing, his break from writing to be a father, and “the best four years of [his] early adulthood [at] Macalester.”

O’Brien took several questions from audience members and stayed after his talk to sign books and talk to readers. O’Brien’s novels have a clear impact and have earned a spot on the bookshelves of high schools and colleges around the country, and copies of “America Fantastica” available for purchase sold out by the end of the night. Touching readers of all ages, his writing and its engagement with the puzzles of politics and society remains ever-relevant and well worth studying and connecting with.


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