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[415] In the Lake of the Woods – Tim O’Brien

” In the dim light she seemed to be smiling at something, or half smiling, a thumb curled alongside her nose. It occurred to him that he should wake her. Yes, a kiss, and then confess to the shame he felt: how defeat had bled into his bones and made him crazy with hurt. He should’ve told her about the mirrors in his head. He should’ve talked about the special burden of villainy, the ghosts at Thuan yen, the strain of his dreams. ” (8,50)

In the Lake of the Woods is a disturbing post-Vietnam mystery charged with haunting ambiguity. It explores the Vietnam aftermath, in the form of a married couple dancing on the precipice of disintegration—in their marriage and prospect of life, with all the past deceits of their lives suddenly coming unraveled. The book opens with a US Senate election, in which a politician’s carefully built career is ruined overnight by revelations of his wartime participation in a village massacre in Vietnam.

In the darkness it did not matter that these things were expensive and impossible. It was a terrible time in their lives and they wanted desperately to be happy. They wanted happiness without knowing what it was, or where to look, which made them want it all the more. (1,2)

Following a major loss that terminates his career during a bid for the Senate, John Wade and his wife rent an old yellow cottage in the timber at the edge of the Lake of the Woods in Minnesota. All they want is for lives to be good again, but there’s the emptiness of disbelief. Amid the solitude of the wood and hypnotic drone of the water, they wish to rekindle a mutual passion, but Wade’s life becomes irrevocably undone by the sudden disappearance of his wife Kathy.

Sorcerer had his own secrets.
PFC Weatherby, that was one. Another was how much he loved the place—Vietnam—how it felt like home. And there was the deepest secret of all, which was the secret of Thuan Yen, so secret that he sometimes kept it secret from himself. (10,73)

In the Lake of the Woods uses varied narrative structure techniques to create a story and its characters. A multiple of voices reveal Wade’s secret past, Kathy’s struggle as the political wife, and the changing dynamics of the marriage. Following Kathy’s disappearance, O’Brien turns the mystery from inside out, replacing answers with plausible hypotheses as he provides a harrowing glimpse of a marriage that has built upon deception. It’s a love story, a decayed marriage, with deferred dreams and withheld intimacies. As the book builds up a burning desire for resolution, tension mounted, the actions steer the opposite direction, toward doubts and uncertainty. Their secrets, which render an ever-widening distance between the life they wanted and the life they had, lead to the dark, and beyond this dark there is only maybe. There is really no end to this novel, just a void of things missing, some inconclusiveness of conclusion. However dissatisfying this ambiguity might be, O’Brien is not to blame but the human heart. The unadorned prose is both lyrical and contemplative.

It was an echo, partly. But inside the echo were sounds not quite their own—a kind of threnody, a weeping, something melodic and sad. They would sometimes stop to listen, but the sound was never there when listened for. It mixed with the night. There were stirrings all around them, things seen, things not seen, which was in the nature of the dark. (26,267)

What the novel evokes is a horrifying human experience that wrecked one’s life for good. By keeping silent, and pretending there is no history, the consequence can be more excruciating and hurtful to the ones we love than death itself.

303 pp. Trade Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[352] The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien

” The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. This is the illusion of aliveness. [from The Lives of the Dead, 230]

What is the difference between truth and reality? Aren’t they the same? This seems to be all that revolve around the linked pieces in The Things They Carried. The novel is not only an unparalleled Vietnam treatment, it’s also an unparalleled approach to literature. By combining memoir, novel, and rhetoric, the book puts an interesting twist on the genre by blending reality and fiction into a literary fluidity of compelling action and human nature at work. O’Brien plays with the truth—spawning stories with altered facts and juxtaposing them, teasing out the reason behind the writer and then flipping what you thought you knew.

In way you lose your sense of definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true. [from How to Tell a True War Story, 82]

There is a gravity to these tales although I was repeatedly confused, wondering what was true and what was totally fictitious, in O’Brien’s terms, the happening-truth and the story-truth. Soldiers who were killed earlier reappeared in subsequent stories on other themes. This unusual device only serves to render the soldiers’ experience more real, as in war, the closest to truth can be overwhelming uncertainty.

They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. [from The Things They Carried, 21]

As the book winds down in a very strong finish, which juxtaposes two deaths, one realizes the absolute truth doesn’t really matter. The truth sometimes does not lie in facts but in the genuineness of the experience it depicts. In On the Rainy River, Tim tries to dodge war by running away to Canada. The story doesn’t read as if it could have been true, but the sentiment cannot be anything less than real. Both Tims ended up going to a war they didn’t believe in. Rendered in similar style, that is, of unreliable memory, is the story of Tim’s throwing a grenade that exploded at the feet of a Vietnamese lad. equally as mystified is the manner by which a comrade died. Did a grenade go off in his hand?

In Vietnam, too, we had ways of making the dead seem not quite so dead. Shaking hands, that was one way. By slighting death, by acting, we pretended it was not the terrible thing it was. [from The Lives of the Dead, 238]

The Things They Carried focuses on human beings who were troubled by fighting this ambiguous war. Storytelling becomes a way to cope with one’s past and preserve sanity. It illuminates on the subjective truth of what war (and its repercussion) meant to soldiers and how it continues to change and define them years to come. In blending fact and faction, blurring truth and reality, O’Brien makes the point that the objective truth of a war story is less relevant than the act of telling a story.

246 pp. Trade paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]