Sunday, May 10, 2009

Tim O’Brien – ‘In the Lake of the Woods’

What I thought at first:

You hear all the time about books which read like film scripts. In the Lake of the Woods is like a script for a comic: descriptions not of how characters feel, but of how their feelings make them look.

A little further in:

In the Lake of the Woods veering deeper into the Vietnam war with a horrific description of the slaughter at the village of Thuan Yen. As it does so the nastier aspects of John Wade’s character become somewhat excused – and the book cancels itself out, almost. What is the point of him if he is to be made sympathetic? I can’t help thinking of Adam Curtis’ section of Charlie Brooker’s recent Newswipe programme, on ‘Oh Dear-ism’, in which news becomes simplified and de-politicised to the point where the only appropriate response is ‘isn’t that awful?’ The destruction of Thuan Yen is unequivocally awful, but I don’t see where it takes you. There is no political context provided – either of the war, or of Wade’s later campaign to become a senator. You can’t even say that the point is that it shouldn’t be allowed to happen again, because you are not really told what happened in the first place.

A little further still:

Maybe ‘Oh Dear-ism’ is more appropriate to the novel than the news broadcast.

It took a while for this book to win me around. It begins with a countdown to the disappearance of Kathy Wade, wife of John, who has just suffered a humiliating defeat at the polls (the press reveal John Wade’s involvement in the Thuan Yen massacre at an awkward moment, and – end of campaign). A sympathetic supporter has lent them a remote cottage for a few weeks, to give them time to come to terms with this. There is a suggestion that he kills her: he is shown pouring boiling water over the pot plants in the living room, then boiling the kettle again and making his way to the bedroom where Kathy is sleeping. There is another suggestion, given at least equal weight, that she takes the boat out early in the morning and gets lost on the huge and rambling Lake of the Woods, which lies at the intersection of Minnesota, Ontario and Manitoba. In the opening chapters the focus is on the couple, the election, and Kathy’s disappearance: the Vietnam war creeps in gradually, and I suppose it should be predictable that it will take over, but I didn’t feel that reading it. Instead, the book felt like a thriller: I groaned at the prospect that Kathy would disappear, there would be a search operation, and eventually they’d find her body and prove that John had killed her, because of his unhappy childhood (his father’s suicide is repeatedly alluded to). That seemed pretty uninteresting, but the prose was so basic I didn’t hold out much hope for a more imaginative plot development. ‘At least don’t tell us what happened to Kathy,’ I thought.

It doesn’t, it is not that kind of book. Uncertainty is its theme, and nothing produces uncertainty quite like a missing person. O’Brien is very open about the desirability of this effect. This is from one of the footnotes in one of several ‘Evidence’ chapters (which mix real quotations on war, Vietnam and magic with invented testimony from those who knew Kathy Wade):

The thing about Custer is this: no survivors. Hence, eternal doubt, which both frustrates and fascinates. It’s a standoff. The human desire for certainty collides with our love of enigma. (p. 269)

On one level the book is playing a trick: it seems to promise a simple, certain resolution to a criminal act (the murder of Kathy). But it pulls away from even admitting that the crime happened. Why is this a good way of illuminating war crimes? I think it’s to do with John being unable to accept what he was part of in Thuan Yen: he has constant flashbacks to that day, in particular shooting an old man who came at him with what he took to be a gun, but which turned out to be a hoe. This and a few other images will not leave him alone. A parallel with a murder would not be enough: his memories of the massacre are too fragmentary, alive and insistent to be compared to anything so definitive.

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