In the Lake of the Woods | Critical Review by Pico Iyer

Tim O'Brien
This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of In the Lake of the Woods.
This section contains 860 words
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Critical Review by Pico Iyer

SOURCE: "Missing in Contemplation," in Time, October 24, 1994, p. 74.

In the following positive review of In the Lake of the Woods, Iyer comments on "the time-released traumas of Vietnam," which the critic marks as "the elemental theme" of O'Brien's fiction.

Some writers are born with a theme, some acquire a theme, and some have a theme thrust upon them. But however writers come by it, their great subject provides a surge of intensity to their work that no other material can. The novels of Mona Simpson, for example, go electric as soon as she touches on the figure of a mother; Amy Tan's fiction reaches its heights the minute she turns to China. For Tim O'Brien, who deferred his admission as a graduate student at Harvard in order to serve in Vietnam, the elemental theme is his experience there as a shy and questioning infantryman. O'Brien's Going After Cacciato (winner of the National Book Award in 1979) is perhaps the finest imaginative reconstruction of that war; and his story "Speaking of Courage" (from The Things They Carried, 1990), the most poignant evocation of a Vietnam veteran's displacement upon returning home. In his latest novel, In the Lake of the Woods, O'Brien turns once again to the time-released traumas of Vietnam, writing about them bravely and often brilliantly.

Lake is mostly the story of John Wade, a boyish, idealistic politician who retreats to a cottage in the Minnesota woods to recover after a humiliating election defeat. There, with Kathy, his longtime wife and college sweetheart, he looks into the mist over the lake and plays hide-and-seek with his unwanted memories. For Wade is not only an earnest man of principles, he is also a spooked vet who wakes up yelling in his sleep recalling the horrors he was part of—and party to—in Vietnam. Kathy is guilty of her own betrayals, and the wary husband and wife tiptoe around each other until eventually Wade is left by himself to dwell on her secrets and his own. Both of them slip through the trapdoors of their minds, down into the subterranean passageways where we all escape when we're missing not in action but in contemplation.

O'Brien's clean, incantatory prose always hovers on the edge of dream, and his specialty is that twilight zone of chimeras and fears and fantasies where nobody knows what's true and what is not. In Vietnam, of course, he locates the ultimate "spirit world," an eerie land of shadows where kids shot at phantoms, unable to tell friend from enemy, uncertain what they were fighting for. "The jungles stood dark and unyielding. The corpses gaped. The war itself was a mystery. Nobody knew what it was about, or why they were there, or who started it, or who was winning, or how it might end." Wade is an amateur magician nicknamed "Sorcerer" by his unit, and Vietnam becomes a place where he tries to make reality go away; it is a perfect training ground for the subterfuge and surveillance tricks people also use in love.

Expertly crosscut with Wade's life is a series of chapters called "Evidence" into which O'Brien throws psychological theories, passages of presidential biography, even accounts of battlefront atrocities in 1776. Here are quotations from Dostoyevsky and George Sand; selections from The Magician's Handbook and the Nuremberg Principles; an item about the 30,000 people who go missing every year. Thus, for example, as we travel deeper into Wade's battlefront memories, we are also given hard-and-fast, nonfiction testimony from the men who perpetrated the My Lai massacre. The "Evidence" chapters broaden the book's focus and prevent us from dismissing the horrors described in the novel as pure make-believe or peculiar only to the war in Vietnam.

With Lake, O'Brien manages what he does best, which is to find the boy scout in the foot soldier, and the foot soldier in every reader. No one writes better about the fear and homesickness of a boy adrift amid what he cannot understand, be it combat or love. O'Brien shows us Wade as a lonely, pudgy 10-year-old, practicing magic tricks before the mirror, hoping to conjure a callous father's love out of thin air. "The mirror made his father smile all the time. The mirror made the vodka bottles vanish from their hiding place in the garage, and it helped with the hard, angry silence at the dinner table." At his father's funeral the 14-year-old boy "wanted to kill everybody who was crying and everybody who wasn't."

O'Brien's suggestion that people enter politics in search of the love they've never had seems reductive. And he remains much better at exploring mystery than at explaining it ("There is no end, happy or otherwise; nothing is fixed, nothing is solved"). Yet if he is no psychologist, he is a masterly evoker of shadowy psychological states. And what remains in the mind from this book is an unsparing depiction of the moral and emotional nightmares of Vietnam, made more unsparing by O'Brien's rigorous refusal to write them off as the craziness of the moment. "This was not madness, Sorcerer understood. This was sin." Lake looks head-on at those unfashionable old friends, morality and evil.

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This section contains 860 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Pico Iyer