In the Lake of the Woods | Critical Review by William O'Rourke

Tim O'Brien
This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of In the Lake of the Woods.
This section contains 953 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by William O'Rourke

SOURCE: "Into Troubled Waters," in Chicago Tribune Books, October 16, 1994, Section 14, pp. 1, 8.

In the review below, O'Rourke concludes that In the Lake of the Woods is "a risky, ambitious, perceptive, engaging and troubling novel, full of unresolved and unresolvable energies and powerful prose."

Tim O'Brien is one of his generation's most deservedly acclaimed authors. O'Brien's writing career has recorded both hits (Going After Cacciato, The Things They Carried) and peculiar misses (Northern Lights, The Nuclear Age)—his novels set in America having alternated with, and fared less well than, books that use Vietnam as their subject.

The challenging and provocative In the Lake of the Woods follows that pattern in part. Coming after the widely praised, Vietnam-based The Things They Carried, the new novel is set in the States, but it combines both worlds—doing so with mixed but ultimately satisfying results.

The protagonist of In the Lake of the Woods, John Wade, is a middle-aged politician who had been a member of Charlie Company when it ran over the number of small Vietnamese villages now collectively known as My Lai, killing most every man, woman, child and animal they found there—though it was mainly, in descending numerical order, women, children and old men. In the Lake of the Woods is Wade's biography; but the problematic premise of the novel is that it is written by a fellow veteran who has set out to discover the mystery of Wade's life: "Biographer, historian, storyteller, medium—call me what you want—but even after four years of hard labor I'm left with little more than supposition and possibility. John Wade was a magician; he didn't give his tricks away."

These interpolations, which come at chapters' end, are done by means of footnotes (other secondary source materials are also footnoted with standard bibliographic references). But O'Brien is giving away some fictional tricks with this choice, and it is hard not to question his methods.

The story, without footnotes, is in another tradition of American fiction, bringing to mind Dreiser's An American Tragedy, which also makes potent, criminal use of an isolated body of water. Lakes have played a metaphoric role in our literature that is both benign and malevolent, a medium always mysterious and unknowable. And O'Brien fills the novel with that quality:

It is by the nature of the angle, sun to earth, that the seasons are made, and that the waters of the lake change color by the season, blue going to gray and then to white and then back again to blue. The water receives color; the water returns it. The angle shapes reality. Winter ice becomes the steam of summer as flesh becomes spirit. Partly window, partly mirror, the angle is where memory dissolves.

After losing a primary election for U.S. senator, Wade and his wife, Kathy, rent a cabin in the Minnesota wilderness: "They needed the solitude. They needed the repetition, the dense hypnotic drone of woods and water, but above all they needed to be together." Wade had become lieutenant governor of the state at 30. He seemed to be a shoo-in for senator until his presence at My Lai was uncovered during the campaign. (It was a fact he had hidden from everyone since he had left military service.)

Wade's life unravels still more: His wife "disappears" near the end of their vacation, lost in the Great North. Or was she murdered by Wade? The unnamed biographer can't decide.

O'Brien has set two contradictory narratives forward: one a compelling mystery, the other a investigation into the nature of mystery, of knowing itself. They do conflict. Readers hooked on one are likely to be irritated by the other.

Wade is a compelling character; his wife, Kathy, is much less so. As Wade's life history is revealed, O'Brien recounts step by step the killings at My Lai. These pages are shocking after 25 years, even if one knows the facts. (O'Brien makes liberal use of a 1992 nonfiction book, Four Hours in My Lai, which is equally unsettling to read).

I suspect O'Brien's novel will be the first account of My Lai many younger readers will encounter. O'Brien, it appears, wants to place his fact-based fiction in the service of history (rather than the more usual history in the service of fiction), and he is for the most part successful. Even mainstream Hollywood, not especially reticent these days, has shied away from depicting My Lai.

After the carnage is revisited, O'Brien invents a most cruel and grotesque death for Kathy—he does seem compelled to top the violence already described. "Finally it's a matter of taste, or aesthetics," the "biographer" informs us. In chapters labeled "Hypothesis" we get different versions of what may have occurred. It is clear that O'Brien wants to understand violence, not exploit it.

As hideous as the possibilities are, history provides Wade (and O'Brien and the reader) with contemporary counterparts. The convicted Green Beret slayer of his wife and two children, Jeffrey MacDonald, floats unnamed (along with others) in the ether of Wade's darkest impulses.

Yet, O'Brien, in the eleventh hour, seems to have pulled back from the logic of his character's character. Reviewers were supplied with a rewritten ending for the book long after the bound galleys were distributed, a rare occurrence. The difference was small, a matter of a few lines, but the lines lead the reader to favor a verdict of not guilty for John Wade.

O'Brien himself might still be unsettled about the matter. What is clear, however, is that he has written a risky, ambitious, perceptive, engaging and troubling novel, full of unresolved and unresolvable energies and powerful prose, a major attempt to come to grips with the causes and consequences of the late 20th Century's unquenchable appetite for violence, both domestic and foreign.

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This section contains 953 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by William O'Rourke