The narrator offers one last hypothesis for what happened to John and Kathy. After a book of pessimism and cynicism, the narrator notes, it’s time to offer up the possibility of happiness. While happy endings may seem sillier and more childish than gruesome endings, there’s no reason that John and Kathy might not have run off together, thinking that they wanted to start over in a faraway place.
Ultimately, the narrator suggests, In the Lake of the Woods says more about the reader than about the narrator or John and Kathy. There’s no way to know to a certainty what happened to John and Kathy; thus, the readers’ hypotheses reflect their own idiosyncrasies and beliefs.
In two consecutive footnotes, the narrator discusses the proper way to end his story. One could believe that John poured boiling water on Kathy and disposed of the body. This is an aesthetic question—perhaps this gruesome scene is wrong simply because it’s disgusting—in addition, it’s unlikely that John killed Kathy, because he loved her. On the other hand, there’s no accounting for taste. Maybe a scenario in which John poured boiling water on Kathy is the best ending, aesthetically speaking.
If there’s one big conclusion to draw from O’Brien’s novel, it’s that there are mysteries in the most innocent and banal of places—John and Kathy’s disappearances, one should remember—are only a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands of similar cases that happen every year. Because the universe is full of mystery and uncertainty, the function of art and storytelling is to make sense of the mystery. Even if objective truth isn’t possible or feasible, one can still control the function of evidence—in other words, a novelist can manipulate evidence, acknowledging his own manipulation, with the goal of transforming uncertainty into optimism and happiness.
Perhaps, the narrator suggests, John rejoined Kathy in Buckete Island or Massacre Island. They reunited, and sat around a fire together, thinking of children’s names. Perhaps soon afterwards they made their way to a nearby city and boarded a small plan or a bus. John was able to produce passports and other documents, because he was Sorcerer. As they flew or rode along, John and Kathy might have promised each other to start again and become different people.
The remainder of the novel is an optimistic version of what happened to John and Kathy, following the narrator’s argument that in the absence of perfect information one might as well assume the best. Here, John’s talent for deception is used for the good of both himself and Kathy, rather than to deceive his wife.
In a footnote to the above passage, the narrator says that his heart tells him to end the novel here. But this would be wrong, he continues, because there is no solution to a mystery as big as the mystery of John and Kathy. The narrator adds that everyone has secrets, and everyone performs vanishing tricks.
The narrator reiterates what he’s spent the entire novel proving—everyone has secrets. More to the point, secrets need not be malicious or damaging—on the contrary, secrets are an essential part of the human experience.
John makes a radio broadcast on October 26, 1986. He is drunk. He speaks to his father, asking for his love and respect. He also calls out for Kathy, asking where she is. He never admits knowing where Kathy is. Perhaps this is the biggest mystery of all—how John, a magician, could have woken up and discovered that his wife was gone without a trace. John loved his wife, and now that she was gone, he couldn’t bear the pain.
We get another version of John’s radio broadcast, from the narrator’s perspective instead of John’s. We can’t tell if John is telling the truth or not (he knows that the police are listening), or whether he’s lying to himself or not. Based on what the narrator has been arguing, we might as well assume the best, so long as we also acknowledge that our assumption is only an assumption, not the absolute truth.
The novel ends with the image of John alone on Lake of the Woods, heading north, “lost in the tangle.” The narrator asks if it’s possible that John was a man, not a monster, and if he was innocent of everything except his life. In closing, the narrator asks, “Could the truth be so simple? So terrible?”
The narrator has already acknowledged that no single explanation for what happened to John can sum up his personality, or the mystery of how he and his wife disappeared. This hypothesis is no exception—instead of resolving ambiguity, it shows ambiguity in all its glory. “Innocent of everything except his life” is a concise way to describe the paradoxes of free will we’ve seen in John’s behavior. He’s both the victim of an unjust war and a cruel father, and a moral agent capable of knowing right and wrong. O’Brien doesn’t end his novel with a “solution” to the problem of free will—instead, he implies that John, and all human beings, have to confront these moral problems throughout their lives and will never get to the bottom of that mystery.