Reading the first few pages of In the Lake of the Woods, it becomes clear that the novel is written in an unconventional style. There are fairly normal-seeming chapters written in the third person. But there are also chapters that consist of nothing but pieces of evidence; furthermore, most of the evidence consists of quotations from other people, some real, some fictional. There are also chapters that illustrate how certain events might have transpired. Read side-by-side, these hypothetical chapters often contradict one another. Finally, there are occasional footnotes, in which the narrator speaks in the first person, revealing that he, like his main character John Wade, fought in Vietnam and visited My Lai. (In real life, the author Tim O’Brien served in Vietnam and went to My Lai a year after the massacre.)
In one sense, O’Brien writes this way because it’s the best—arguably the only realistic—way to convey the experience of an American soldier in Vietnam. In contrast to the way earlier American wars had been conducted, Americans were being told multiple, contradictory things about who the enemy was, where the enemy could be found, and how Vietnamese civilians should be treated. After atrocities like the My Lai Massacre, many American soldiers and commanders lied about their complicity in the war, while on the home front, American politicians misrepresented the success and conduct of American soldiers. By reading In the Lake of the Woods, then, the reader can be said to experience a low-stakes version of the moral conundrum of the American soldier in Vietnam. The reader must decide which elements of the story are truth and which are fiction, which parts are misdirection and which parts, if any, should be believed.
But O’Brien doesn’t only describe Vietnam in this fragmented, chaotic fashion—all of In the Lake of the Woods is written in this way. O’Brien isn’t just aiming for heightened realism; he also wants readers to rethink authorship and reading. At the end of the novel, for instance, the narrator—and Tim O’Brien, a similar but nonetheless separate entity from the narrator—leaves us to decide what happened to John Wade and Kathy Wade. Kathy might have left John, or she might have killed herself. John might have killed her, or they might have run off together.
In order to decide what happened to the characters, the reader is forced to make moral judgments about John and Kathy. By deciding that John killed Kathy, for instance, one falls into the moral judgment that John is guilty of murder in Vietnam, and that his murderous tendencies overwhelmed his life of respectability. More broadly, this might suggest that all humans have the capacity for evil, or that some of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam became evil as a result of their experiences there.
There’s no way to tell whether this opinion is right or wrong—and this is precisely the point. In other novels, the author acts as a kind of “military commander,” telling the reader exactly what happens and how to feel about it. By playing with the more normal techniques of authorship, O’Brien neglects or rejects the usual duties of the author. He wants the reader to be active, not passive, and to be forced to consider and interpret the full complexity of reality, to face the impossibility of ever knowing “the truth”, whether in wartime Vietnam or peacetime Minnesota.
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation ThemeTracker
Vietnam, Authorship, Interpretation Quotes in In the Lake of the Woods
Humming to herself, Kathy adjusted the tiller and began planning a dinner menu, two big steaks and salad and cold beer, imagining how she’d describe everything that was happening out here. Get some sympathy for herself. Get his attention for a change.
The idea gave her comfort. She could almost picture a happy ending.
The unknown, the unknowable. The blank faces. The overwhelming otherness. This is not to justify what occurred on March 16, 1968, for in my view such justifications are both futile and outrageous. Rather, it’s to bear witness to the mystery of evil. Twenty-five years ago, as a terrified young PFC, I too could taste the sunlight. I could smell the sin. I could feel butchery sizzling like grease just under my eyeballs.
All you could do, he’d said, was open yourself up like a window and wait for fortune to blow in. And then they’d talked about stuck windows. Tony suggested that she unstick herself. So she’d shrugged and said she had tried it once but the unsticking hadn’t gone well.
Why do we care about Lizzie Borden, or Judge Carter, or Lee Harvey Oswald, or the Little Big Horn? Because of all that cannot be known. And what if we did know? What if it were proved—absolutely and purely—that Lizzie Borden took an ax? That Oswald acted alone? That Judge Carter fell into Sicilian hands? Nothing more would beckon, nothing would tantalize.
If all is supposition, if ending is air, then why not happiness? Are we so cynical, so sophisticated, as to write off even the chance of happy ending?