In the Lake of the Woods | Critical Review by Michael Kerrigan

Tim O'Brien
This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of In the Lake of the Woods.
This section contains 1,194 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Michael Kerrigan

Critical Review by Michael Kerrigan

SOURCE: "Memories of War," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4803, April 21, 1995, p. 20.

In the following review, Kerrigan suggests that In the Lake of the Woods reveals "a people at ease but never at peace," referring to the impact of Vietnam on the American psyche.

For Wilfred Owen, apparently, the poetry was in the pity; for America's Vietnam literature it is in the irony. The tone of swaggering cynicism we recognize from so many novels and films is that of men who feel utterly confused as to where—and ultimately who—they are. "What's the name of this goddamn place?" asks one man in O'Brien's memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973). "I don't know. I never thought of that", replies his comrade: "Nobody thinks of the names for these places." The military institution, non-combatant readers know from Catch-22, is absurd enough without having to function in the context of a war whose fundamental "mistakenness" has now, thanks to Robert McNamara, been given all but official confirmation. If the grand geopolitical point of the war was obscure, the "search and destroy" tactics appointed for US troops on the ground amounted to a sort of systematic purposelessness. As the narrator of Going After Cacciato, O'Brien's novel of 1978, remarks:

They did not know even the simple things: a sense of victory, or satisfaction, or necessary sacrifice. They did not know the feeling of taking a place and keeping it, securing a village and then raising the flag and calling it a victory. No sense of order or momentum. No front, no rear, no trenches laid out in neat parallels. No Patton rushing for the Rhine, no beachheads to storm and win and hold for the duration.

Nor was there an identifiable enemy: indistinguishable from the general populace, the Vietcong seemed at once pervasive and maddeningly elusive.

And maddened, notoriously, they were—though as John Wade, the protagonist of In the Lake of the Woods, realizes as he watches, appalled but uncondemning, the massacre at My Lai, "this was not madness…. This was sin." The main action of O'Brien's new novel opens many years after these events and unfolds in backwoods Minnesota, yet it is all the more a Vietnam novel for that. Time has only made John Wade more completely a creature of his combat experience, though it has been internalized, suppressed until now through a successful political career and an outwardly successful marriage. War was a nightmare—horrific but unreal. Only when the veteran is back in "the world", does Vietnam begin to assume its grim if unacknowledged reality. As the novel begins, Wade is with his wife Kathy in a woodland retreat, trying a pick up the pieces after a crushing defeat in the polls. It is clear that Kathy is about to leave her husband: what we don't know is exactly how or given that she has stayed with him through what is gradually revealed as having been a purgatorial couple of decades, why. Though "Hypothesis" chapters flash forward to explore the possibility that Kathy may indeed be leaving her husband, and back to consider some of her possible motives for doing so, there remains the inescapable suspicion that something more sinister may have befallen her. Will Kathy be alive at all? The soldier kills innocent civilians: why should he not have killed his wife? The attempt to piece together the answers to this question involves the quasi-legalistic assembly, in "Evidence" interchapters, of snatches of testimony, not only from Wade's friends and relations but from non-fictional sources including the transcripts of the Calley trial and the veteran's self-help literature. But it is an attempt to piece something together. Some novels may revel in postmodern fragmentation and centrifugality: In the Lake of the Woods would dearly love to recover its lost centre. "For me, after a quarter of a century, nothing much remains of that ugly war", O'Brien reports in an authorial footnote towards the end of the novel. "My own war does not belong to me." Vietnam remains in the memory incoherent but ineradicable, a set of "splotchy images" which must be brought into focus if the experience is to be apprehended. Aesthetics here are no more than a means to an ending. Combat offers multiple encounters with death but leaves the surviving soldier with a need for closure life cannot meet. So it is that the world becomes Vietnam, and the beautiful woods and lakes of Minnesota come to stand in for the jungles and paddies of South-east Asia.

Yet perhaps the North American wilderness has always contained its Vietnam, at least for as long as the United States has existed. "It had been Indian land", recalls O'Brien of his Minnesotan birthplace in If I Die in a Combat Zone. "Ninety miles from Sioux City, sixty miles from Sioux Falls, eighty miles from Cherokee, forty miles from Spirit Lake and the site of a celebrated massacre…. The settlers must have seen endless plains and eased their bones and said, 'here as well as anywhere, it's all the same.'" Vietnam. O'Brien implies, is just one more stop along the trail for a nation which has indeed "celebrated" massacre in its western tradition but has never come to know the soil it has so ruthlessly conquered. It is significant that O'Brien includes the testimony of a Native American witness at My Lai, a witness who looks on with something like resignation but nothing like involvement. It is significant too that Wade's problems pre-date Vietnam. The humiliated son of an alcoholic and thus largely absent father, he had a boyhood passion for conjuring tricks, and while the tips from conjuring manuals offered in evidence here may suggest the manufacture of consent for an indefensible war by government and media, they provide more immediate insight into the mind of an individual with a mania for control: a boy who will grow up incapable of trust in himself or others and who will find no adequate confessor for the sins of adulthood. Themselves the products of war, born into the baby boom that followed victory in 1945, the Vietnam generation is in some sense sterile: in some sense arrested in childhood. More disturbing than John and Kathy Wade's marital difficulties is the barren infantilism of their marital happiness; more alarming than their conscious decision to abort their baby to further John's political career is the clear subconscious motive that they themselves should remain the children. Foreigners tend to be impatient of the notion that Vietnam was "an American tragedy", pointing out that the war was a sight more tragic for the Vietnamese. Yet it remains interesting that in this, for all its haunting beauty perhaps O'Brien's bleakest novel yet, the most chilling passages are not those which deal with guns and gore in Vietnam but those set in Minnesota many years later, revealing a people at ease but never at peace. Just what is it that American fathers do to their sons that gives them this need to kill and conquer in nameless places abroad? Whatever it is, it robs them of any sense of belonging at home and makes of America itself an indeterminate, disorientating wilderness.

(read more)

This section contains 1,194 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Michael Kerrigan