Oh, O’Brien, how you have failed me! I need brilliant literature to get me through the tomfoolery of this election cycle; unfortunately, you did not provide. I really respect O’Brien as a person and an author. The Things They Carried is one of my favorite books that I’ve read this past year, and I’m consistently reminded of his innovative writing style whenever I put pen to page. How did he follow up a genius piece like that with In the Lake of the Woods*?
In the Lake of the Woods is a wanna-be Gone Girl (although, in his defense, the former was published 18 years before the latter). It tells the fictional story of a newly beaten United States senate candidate, John Wade, and the mysterious disappearance of his wife, Kathy. Is John responsible? O’Brien doesn’t tell us definitively, so we have to draw our own conclusions. John’s words and actions are scrutinized in the aftermath, and readers cling to various clues revealed through interviews with his peers and an inspection of his past.
I’m fine with this on principle. O’Brien is the king of moral ambiguities, and it follows that he could produce a compelling tale with an equally ambiguous plotline. The biggest issue with this novel is that there are too many threads. Each chapter bounces around between:
- flashbacks to John’s childhood.
- flashbacks to John’s courtship of Kathy.
- flashbacks to John’s combat in Vietnam.
- “hypothesis” chapters that explore what might have happened to Kathy.
- “evidence” chapters that include assorted quotes from fictional interviews.
- the real time narrative.
Obviously, there is a lot going on here. Too much, in fact. I didn’t connect with a single character, because their development is so haphazard. Based on the Vietnam chapters, we know that John doesn’t healthily acknowledge his crippling PTSD. He is a man of secrets, so much so that he starts to believe the lies that he tells himself. It seems like there is a good opportunity here for O’Brien to say something meaningful about PTSD—to make significant commentary that offers the reader perspective. Instead, the unfocused structure prevents me from understanding how the events in Vietnam affect John’s psyche, other than his constant will to suppress his memories, which eventually leads to the suppressing of many memories, not just that of war. O’Brien is clearly haunted by his own Vietnam experiences—and rightfully so. I know very little about victims of PTSD, and I wish he had offered me more insight.
The lack of character-connection is particularly problematic when it comes to a mystery. If someone goes missing, I’m supposed to care, right? How could I care, when the “gone girl” is only vaguely described in relation to her husband, rather than in her own right? It appears that O’Brien thinks that writing a mystery requires rendering every thing and every character overly enigmatic.
Lastly, I despise the way O’Brien portrayed Kathy and John’s love. It is possessive, obsessive, and unnerving. I can get behind that (yassss Lolita), but their love isn’t believable. They say things to each other that indicate their supposed all-consuming, controlling affection, but because I can’t connect with the characters (and therefore can’t get inside their heads), I constantly question the intensity of their love. Are these just words? What do they really feel?
Alas, I’ll never know. I assume that O’Brien intended for readers to walk away scathed by a dark, cryptic story, trying to find their own truth within the tale. I walked away confused, bored, and unbelieving. Stick to TheThings They Carried, and don’t go further. In the Lake of the Woods receives 1 out of 5 camel humps.
*O’Brien, Tim. In the Lake of the Woods. New York: Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company, 1994. Print.