The Woods (Magill's Literary Annual 1983)
The Woods, David Plante’s ninth novel and the third about Daniel Francoeur, chronicles his first year in college, his summer vacation, and the beginning of his second year at school. The first section, entitled “The Reflection,” shows Daniel engaged in activities common to most college students: going to a dance, drinking beer, studying, talking to his roommate. The second part, also called “The Woods,” takes Daniel to his parents’ lakeside home, where he has an affair with Lillian Cooper, the daughter of a neighboring family. The closing section, “The War,” brings one of Daniel’s brothers, a Marine stationed in Japan, home with a friend for a visit. Later, back at school, Daniel learns through Debbie, Lillian’s sister, that his brother’s friend has killed himself. As the novel ends, Daniel is walking through the snow on campus, wishing it were “possible to leave one’s self and walk away.”
This brief plot summary hardly conveys the texture of Plante’s novel or his style. The Woods is an exploration of Daniel’s heightened sensibility. Indeed, the novel seems to leave Daniel as confused about life as he was in the beginning; its interest is in recording how, to Daniel, the smallest details of life carry an almost cosmic significance. While drying a plate, for example, Daniel becomes obsessed with “the space around the plate,” which then leads him to an almost ecstatic separation from self that he finds terrifying. This incident is part of a scene in which Daniel is helping Lillian clean house and also trying, hesitantly, to kiss her; the combination of tentative seduction (which leads to nothing in this scene) and mystic vision is typical of Plante’s elusive, nondramatic style.
The themes of The Woods range from sexual awakening to spiritual identity, all developed through Daniel’s sensibility. Of particular importance are the comparisons and contrasts established between Daniel and his roommate. Both young men are virgins as the novel opens, but Daniel makes love to Lillian during the summer while, back at school in the fall, Charlie draws pictures of naked women “from my head.” Perhaps more important—since sex often seems more metaphoric than actual in this novel—is Plante’s theme of the individual and his relation to others. Charlie, for example, does not “believe in special friends,” since he is “a real democratic spirit from Illinois.” Daniel, as one would expect, elevates this theme to a religious level as he imagines the mystical body of Christ, encompassing all people no matter what their individual beliefs. Even his lovemaking with Lillian causes him to ponder the nexus of spirit and flesh: as he kisses her breast he wonders “what made of body a soul.”
Not having the resources of a dramatic style, Plante instead develops his themes through leitmotifs that extend throughout the work. As the first part ends, Charlie regrets that he did not make love in “the pine woods” where he went with a date; Daniel later makes love to Lillian in the woods near his house. When Daniel attends a dance in the first section, he meets a Japanese girl and, in the course of seemingly trivial conversation, tells her that his brother is stationed in Japan: “He fought the Japanese in the Second World War, and now he loves them. Isn’t that strange?” Daniel’s comments raise a political question implicit in his religious vision: the extent to which human beings can live together in a peaceful union. His brother Albert believes that peace is a chimera, “that we destroy ourselves more in peace than in war.” Daniel, however, decides to register as a conscientious objector midway through the book. Daniel’s conversation with the Japanese girl, then, takes on resonance when his brother later comes to visit and asks Daniel to get out an American flag. While rummaging in the attic, he discovers an old newspaper with the headline “Victory in Japan.” The past (World War II) and the present (Albert’s love for Japan) are fused in this scene; Daniel’s casual encounter with the Japanese girl prepares the reader for this ironic fusion.
One difficulty with Plante’s novel is knowing when details like these are thematically important; in a work where so little happens and what does happen is not dramatically presented, every tiny detail seems to assume momentous importance. At times, however, these details seem to be false clues that only muddy the narrative rather than clarify it. When Daniel, Charlie, and Joe (another college student) ride into Boston, for example, they see two old men, almost identical in appearance, masturbating side by side. Joe comments that “It’s like looking at yourself in a mirror and jerking off.” On the very next page, as Charlie introduces Daniel to a girl he has met, he says “We’re reflections of one another” and she notices that “You two look alike.” Since no thematic value has been given the old men, this careful echoing seems, finally, pointless.
The lack of drama raises other problems as well. At times, the almost random actions of the characters seem appropriate to them: Daniel’s fumbling attempts to kiss Lillian as they clean her house—they walk around straightening things, occasionally...
(The entire section is 2156 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 1983)
Library Journal. CVII, June 1, 1982, p. 1114.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 15, 1982, p. 2.
The New Republic. CLXXXVII, October 11, 1982, p. 37.
New Statesman. CIII, January 29, 1982, p. 20.
The New York Review of Books. XXIX, December 16, 1982, p. 38.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, August 15, 1982, p. 11.
The New Yorker. LVIII, September 20, 1982, p. 152.
Newsweek. C, September 6, 1982, p. 70.
Time. CXX, August 2, 1982, p. 76.
Times Literary Supplement. January 29, 1982, p. 105.