In the Lake of the Woods
Tim O’Brien’s novel Going After Cacciato (1978), which won the National Book Award, and his collection of stories The Things They Carried (1990), chosen by The New York Times editors as one of the best books of 1990, have established him as one of the finest fiction writers to explore the Vietnam War and the psychological scars that left their marks on many combatants, including O’Brien himself.
The central action of Going After Cacciato is escape: The title character simply decides one day to walk away from the war, and his squad pursues him through the dense Vietnam jungles and across Europe, all the way to Paris. The narrative is drenched in realistic detail, but it becomes increasingly dreamlike as the action moves away from the jungles.
The Things They Carried is also about escape, or, more precisely, what cannot be escaped. In the autobiographical episode “On the Rainy River,” O’Brien explains, with painful honesty, why he reported for duty after being drafted instead of fleeing to Canada, as he wanted to do. He went to Vietnam, he says, because he was a coward; because he was too weak to withstand the loss of love and respect that would have resulted from dodging the draft. Unlike a Cacciato, O’Brien himself could not walk away from military duty with a smile on his face; he could only imagine doing so. As he relates so vividly in the The Things They Carried, those who fought in Vietnam carried a heavy burden during and after the war. While in combat they bore with them, in addition to the physical implements of war, powerful emotions: fear, grief, anger, and guilt. After their tour of duty, the survivors left Vietnam, but Vietnam remained in them; “They all carried ghosts.”
In the Lake of the Woods is also about ghosts, personal and national, and about the impossibility of escaping them. The central character, John Wade, has much in common with O’Brien himself: like O’Brien, Wade grew up in Minnesota; like O’Brien, he went to Vietnam because he feared losing the love of his family and friends if he did not serve; like O’Brien, he did “bad things” in the war in order to be loved and respected by his comrades in arms; like O’Brien, he cannot escape the past. Yet Wade is not O’Brien. Whereas O’Brien confronts his ghosts through the act of writing—exposing his guilt and shame for public view—Wade is an expert at suppressing the past and at making all disagreeable memories disappear.
Disappearance is a major motif in the novel. Wade, who is nicknamed Sorcerer, is an amateur magician. In his youth, his magic tricks helped him escape the pain caused by his alcoholic father’s verbal abuse and eventual suicide (he hanged himself when Sorcerer was fourteen). Sorcerer learns at an early age that magic is power: the power to deceive, trick, and manipulate others. In Vietnam, Sorcerer made entire villages disappear with a few magic words and heavy explosives; after the My Lai slaughter—which O’Brien renders in vivid, gory detail—Wade makes his name disappear from the company roster. Back in the United States, he puts his magic and trickery to use as a politician; he is on the verge of winning a seat in the United States Senate when the Vietnam past that he has buried deep inside his mind comes back to haunt him. The discovery and news reports of his participation in the My Lai incident cost him the election.
O’Brien reveals Wade’s haunted past in bits and pieces. The novel opens in its present time frame (1986) with Wade and his wife, Kathy, trying to cope with the election defeat by secluding themselves at a cottage at the Lake of the Woods in the northern Minnesota wilderness. In love since college, when John compulsively spied on her, they now try to deceive themselves into believing that they can forget the past and build a new future out of the ashes of the defeat; but strong tension and anxiety run just beneath the placid surface of their daily routines. There have been too many secrets and betrayals. The Lake of the Woods, with its “secret channels and portages and bays and tangled forests,” thus functions as a metaphor for the Wades’s psychological state.
One morning Kathy vanishes from the cottage, without leaving a trace. Much of the subsequent narrative focuses on her disappearance: Did she get lost in the wilderness or accidentally drown? Did she commit suicide? Did she run out on Sorcerer? Perhaps Sorcerer made her disappear, and is now concealing that terrible fact from himself. The...
(The entire section is 1871 words.)