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Critical Review by Verlyn Klinkenborg
SOURCE: "A Self-Made Man," in The New York Times Book Review, October 9, 1994, pp. 1, 33.
In the favorablereviewbelow, Klinkenborgpraises O'Brien's ambitious efforts in In the Lake of the Woods, especially his characterization of John Wade.
"What stories can do, I guess, is make things present." That's how Tim O'Brien put it in The Things They Carried, which was published in 1990 and which is one of the finest books, fact or fiction, written about the Vietnam War. I don't remember ever hearing a novelist make a more modest claim for the power of stories, at least not a novelist of Mr. O'Brien's stature. The statement itself—stories make things present—is unassuming and it is offered to the reader diffidently, as if the writer were about to deny the possibility of saying anything useful at all about stories. Perhaps it suggests the discomfort of a storyteller who has, for the moment, slipped outside his story, except that outside his story is where Tim O'Brien has nearly always been, taking refuge—as he says in his striking new novel, In the Lake of the Woods—"in the fine line between biology and spirit," between some literal, if unknowable, truth and the truth whose only evidence is the story that contains it.
These are important matters in Mr. O'Brien's previous works. In the 1978 novel Going After Cacciato, the reader comes to worry about the difference between a story that is merely impossible—a platoon of soldiers following a man on foot from Vietnam to Paris—and a story that is unbelievable precisely because it is true, a story of the Vietnam War itself, a war that seemed to contain every likelihood of improbability. In The Things They Carried, the storyteller's indeterminacy has grown. The narrator of those stories distinguishes between "story-truth" and "happening-truth," and he plays one against the other. For Mr. O'Brien, as for many other Vietnam veterans, the "happening-truth" is a terrible thing: it is too powerful to look at, though you are forced to witness it. And yet, in Mr. O'Brien's case, it has dwindled over time into what he calls "faceless responsibility and faceless grief," which story-truth has the power to help him accept and alleviate.
In his new novel, he turns these matters of truth, time and responsibility inward, letting them weigh on an individual character in a manner he has never done before. This is a story about a man named John Wade and his wife, Kathleen, who disappears one day from the cottage they are renting at the Lake of the Woods in northern Minnesota, an enormous reach of water and wilderness that divides the United States and Canada. Wade is a Minnesota politician, and he has just lost a primary election for his party's nomination to the United States Senate. He lost big because his opponent uncovered the fact that Wade was present at a massacre in the Vietnamese village of Thuan Yen, which is the local name for a place better known to history as My Lai, where on March 16, 1968, between 200 and 500 civilians were butchered by a company of American soldiers commanded by Lieut. William Calley. Wade's presence there was a secret Wade had kept from his wife, from his campaign manager and, in a sense, from himself.
At Thuan Yen, Wade had been responsible for the deaths of one old man and an American soldier. But in this novel, it is never clear whether culpability can be parceled out like that, whether it belongs to the deed or the doer or merely to what the narrator calls the poisonous sunlight of Vietnam. In the end, Wade also disappears on that northern lake, gone in search of his wife, leaving behind only a sympathetic narrator, an author who tries to reconstruct the tale after it has already come to its mysterious close.
There are three kinds of story in In the Lake of the Woods. The first is a conventional, remote third-person account of plain facts, the events that can be reconstructed without conjecture, more or less. The second kind of story appears in several chapters called "Evidence": collections of quotations, excerpts from interviews and readings that bear on the Wade case. The third kind of story appears in chapters called "Hypothesis"; it tries to suggest what might have happened to Kathleen Wade in the days after she disappeared. But with these stories, Mr. O'Brien is also building a character, John Wade, whose inner architecture is more emblematic than personal. Wade is the son of an alcoholic father who hanged himself in the family garage. As a child, Wade consoled himself—isolated himself—with magic. In Vietnam he came to be called "Sorcerer," and one of his last acts before returning stateside was to make himself vanish from the company rolls. To become a politician was an act of atonement for him, but it was also the practice of magic by other means. Mr. O'Brien quotes Dostoyevsky: "Man is bound to lie about himself." The lie John Wade constructed, as man and boy, was intended to avert the loss of love.
At the center of Wade's character is a problem of vision. When he was young, he practiced magic tricks in front of a mirror perfecting illusions. When his father died, Wade discovered that he could escape from his rage by slipping behind a mirror in his head, making himself invisible. And that was precisely what he did on that climactic day in Vietnam, when he found himself lying in a muddy trench while all around him, in some too-explicable exorcism of small-arms fire, an entire village was put to death. Mr. O'Brien has always insisted on the special quality of the things that happened in Vietnam, not to deny their reality, but to suggest that seeing was never adequate proof. You could look and look and look, staring down a trail where a platoon member had just that moment been killed by a mine, and yet seeing would register no reality, at least none that could be accounted for emotionally in that instant.
Incapacity to register reality has become a principle of character in In the Lake of the Woods. "We are fascinated, all of us, by the implacable otherness of others," says the narrator, who appears from time to time in footnotes. "And we wish to penetrate by hypothesis, by daydream, by scientific investigation those leaden walls that encase the human spirit, that define it and guard it and hold it forever inaccessible."
I have been trying to decide where the ambition lies in this grim, telling novel. It does not lie in reconstructing the events at My Lai, although it is deeply unsettling for the reader to find them reconstructed from within; nor does it lie in a particularly vivid grasp of the political impulse Mr. O'Brien has allowed himself only to suggest the magnitude of the story here, the nature of its psychological and historical depths. The quotations that appear in the chapters called "Evidence"—quotations from the court-martial of William Calley, from biographies of politicians, from magicians' handbooks, from the other characters in the novel—are like tentacles reaching into the unknown, adumbrations of a fuller narrative.
But it may be that In the Lake of the Woods is the kind of novel whose ambitions are less important than its concessions. Joan Didion has said that narrative is sentimental, and in his own way Mr. O'Brien concurs. One of the most powerful chapters in The Things They Carried is the one called "How to Tell a True War Story," which is, in effect, an essay, with examples, on the limits of narrative. The one question that chapter doesn't ask is: Once you've learned to tell a true war story, how do you tell any other kind? In the Lake of the Woods asks that question in a different way. It is a novel about the moral effects of suppressing a true war story, of not even trying to make things present, a novel about the unforgivable uses of history, about what happens when you try to pretend that history no longer exists.
This section contains 1,345 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)