In the Lake of the Woods

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1871

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...

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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 stage is set for a gripping mystery drama. This is not, however, a mystery novel, at least not in the conventional sense, because O’Brien refuses to solve the mystery; there is no climactic discovery or denouement to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. Like life itself, In the Lake of the Woods is a fascinating and frustrating mystery without any absolute truth. O’Brien emphasizes that what humans call “facts” and “truth” are mental constructions that can never be isolated from the perceiver’s point of view; just as the angle of light from the sun determines the color of the Lake of the Woods, the author’s angle of vision shapes the reality projected in a novel. As in his earlier works, O’Brien intentionally blurs the boundary between fact and fiction, suggesting that the latter can be more truthful than the former.

Toward the end of the novel, readers are told that everything that has been related is hypothesis. Several of the chapters in fact bear the title “Hypothesis.” In them, O’Brien dramatizes possible scenes of Kathy’s disappearance—she gets lost in the Lake in the Woods, she is murdered by John, and so forth. Other chapters are titled “Evidence.” The evidence in each includes testimony about John and Kathy by their family, friends, and acquaintances—testimony that is inconclusive and often contradictory. Similarly, the material facts of the case cannot prove or disprove any of the hypotheses. The “Evidence” chapters, moreover, do not restrict themselves to the novel’s fictional world, for they contain quotations from Miguel de Cervantes, Fyodor Dostoevski, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sigmund Freud, Harry Houdini, Richard Nixon, Woodrow Wilson, and a host of other novelists, historians, psychologists, and famous personages. All the quotations are cited in footnotes, as if they were part of a scholarly book rather than a novel. Thus the “evidence” reaches out into the “real” world of history. Yet history, as the quotations and source notes signify, is itself textual, a verbal reconstruction of past experience that is no longer immediately accessible. By embedding his novel in the intertextual web of other narratives that comment on war and war crimes, evil, love, and other ideas that are at the core of In the Lake of the Woods, O’Brien paradoxically makes his fiction a part of history and of the “real” world.

The “Evidence” chapters also contain footnote comments by O’Brien himself, or rather by his persona, which discuss the writing of the novel and express opinions on the issues it raises. In his final self-reflexive footnote, O’Brien explains why he refuses to solve the mystery he has created: “Nothing is fixed, nothing is solved. The facts, such as they are, finally spin off into the void of things missing, the inconclusiveness of conclusion. Mystery finally claims us. Who are we? Where do we go?”

O’Brien’s refusal to provide a tidy ending to his tale; his insistence that all truth is a mental construction and therefore never “universal”; his mixing of genres and intentional blurring of the lines between fact and fiction; his self-reflexive footnotes—all these are common traits of the postmodernist novel, for example, E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1975) or John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969). Readers unacquainted with or hostile toward postmodernism might therefore lose their bearings in In the Lake of the Woods.

Even those whose taste leans toward traditional realism will be gripped by O’Brien’s brutally realistic descriptions of Vietnam, which are supplemented by the appalling testimony taken from transcripts of Lieutenant William Calley’s court-martial proceedings, and from historical documents detailing inhumane acts in other wars. Any lover of fiction will appreciate the novel’s splendid dialogue, especially the dialogue that suggests more than it explicitly states (in this regard, O’Brien rivals another teller of love-and-war stories, Ernest Hemingway). O’Brien also has a gift for startling images, such as that of two snakes swallowing each other (the image is a metaphor of John and Kathy’s self-devouring love for one another). Most readers will be captivated by the novel’s unflinching glimpses into the dark side of human nature, a dark side that is often brought into action by feelings of love rather than hate. Ironically, this postmodernist novel, which questions the existence of objective truth, seems almost unbearably true at times.

In the Lake of the Woods closes with the question of whether John Wade was a monster or merely a man. That question points to a problematic issue in the novel. On the one hand, O’Brien emphasizes that Sorcerer got lost in the moral jungle long before he went to Vietnam; his obsessive need for love and his bent toward secrecy and deceit stem from his relationship with his alcoholic father and from the father’s suicide. On the other hand, if Sorcerer’s psychological problems are rooted in his particular childhood experiences, then why does O’Brien suggest at other points in the narrative that Sorcerer is the embodiment of a dark self that lurks within all human beings? The novel seems to be at odds with itself as to whether Wade is to be viewed as a figure of abnormal psychology or as universal human nature.

In 1994, O’Brien, who had patrolled the My Lai area the year after Calley’s company committed the atrocities there, returned to Vietnam and to My Lai itself. Writing about the trip in The New York Times Magazine (October 2, 1994), O’Brien states that the Vietnam War was like a long horror film that would not end for him, and that he hoped his return to the site of his painful memories would “make the bad pictures go away.” In the Lake of the Woods, which took O’Brien six years to write, is an imaginative return to the tragedy of Vietnam, with the same purpose as the physical trip: to make the bad pictures go away, to finally put to rest the ghosts that have haunted him, and his country, since his return from that war. Whether the novel can perform that magic feat must remain a mystery.

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic. CCLXXIV, November, 1994, p. 46.

Booklist. XC, August, 1994, p. 1992.

Library Journal. CXIX, August, 1994, p. 132.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 2, 1994, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, October 9, 1994, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXX, October 24, 1994, p. 111.

Newsweek. CXXIV, October 24, 1994, p. 77.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, July 11, 1994, p. 61.

Time. CXLIV, October 24, 1994, p. 74.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, September 25, 1994, p. 5.

In the Lake of the Woods

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 460

GOING AFTER CACCIATO (1979) and THE THINGS THEY CARRIED (1990) have been praised as two of the finest works of fiction focusing on the Vietnam War. In the latter book, O’Brien states that Vietnam veterans carried home with them “ghosts,” terrible memories and feelings of guilt about what had occurred in that tragic conflict. 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, participated in the My Lai atrocities in Vietnam. An amateur magician since his youth, Wade—nicknamed Sorcerer—is an expert at trickery and at making things disappear. Returning to Minnesota after his tour of duty, he successfully conceals the facts of his Vietnam experience, and becomes a rising political star. When his political opponents discover his secret history, his career is shattered. After the election defeat, Wade and his wife Kathy retreat to the Lake of the Woods in the Minnesota wilderness, where they attempt to come to terms with their self-destructive love and hidden guilt.

Kathy suddenly disappears. Did she get lost in the Lake in the Woods? Accidentally drown? Commit suicide? Or did the psychologically unstable Sorcerer make her disappear? The stage is set for a gripping mystery novel, but O’Brien refuses to solve the mystery: There is no climactic discovery or denouement to satisfy the reader’s curiosity. Several chapters titled “Hypothesis” describe what might have happened to Kathy. Several other chapters titled “Evidence” present facts and testimony that fail to prove conclusively any of the hypotheses. Moreover, the “evidence” includes quotations from dozens of other writers and from historical documents (including testimony from the My Lai Court Martial proceedings.); and O’Brien even offers his comments and speculation in footnotes. Thus, IN THE LAKE OF THE WOODS may best be described as a “postmodernist” war/mystery novel, a fascinating and frustrating narrative that, like life itself, creates riddles without answers.

If the novel frustrates with its postmodernist tricks, it also captivates with its vivid depictions of the horrors of Vietnam, and its explorations into the dark side of human nature that reveals itself in war—and also reveals itself in love, for O’Brien suggests that the desire to be loved can impel people to do terrible things. Ironically, this postmodernist novel which repeatedly questions the existence of objective truth, seems almost unbearably true at times.

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic. CCLXXIV, November, 1994, p. 46.

Booklist. XC, August, 1994, p. 1992.

Library Journal. CXIX, August, 1994, p. 132.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 2, 1994, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, October 9, 1994, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXX, October 24, 1994, p. 111.

Newsweek. CXXIV, October 24, 1994, p. 77.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, July 11, 1994, p. 61.

Time. CXLIV, October 24, 1994, p. 74.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, September 25, 1994, p. 5.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 61

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic. CCLXXIV, November, 1994, p. 46.

Booklist. XC, August, 1994, p. 1992.

Library Journal. CXIX, August, 1994, p. 132.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 2, 1994, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, October 9, 1994, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXX, October 24, 1994, p. 111.

Newsweek. CXXIV, October 24, 1994, p. 77.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, July 11, 1994, p. 61.

Time. CXLIV, October 24, 1994, p. 74.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, September 25, 1994, p. 5.

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