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In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien

In the Lake of the Woods (1994)

by Tim O'Brien

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2,042573,271 (3.8)100
  1. 00
    Dispatches by Michael Herr (hazzabamboo)
    hazzabamboo: Dispatches was the central source for the film Apocalypse Now. It's non-fiction, but it conveys the hallucinatory horror of the Vietnam War in the same way as O'Brien's novel.
  2. 00
    Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane (Ciruelo)
    Ciruelo: Both novels are told in fragments, setting is critical to the tone of each, and finally both deal with the themes of love, guilt, memory, truth, and murder.

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Showing 1-5 of 57 (next | show all)
First, I have no idea how I hadn't heard of this book before a few months ago.

Second, I feel like I stumbled upon the key to a code. I suspect many authors writing today have read this. Even if they have not, they have been influenced by the structure of this novel, the pacing, the subject matter, the blurriness between right & wrong, & between wanting the truth & wanting to forgive. Reading this was like reading Lord of the Flies: once you do that, you see the bones of it in every story that comes after it. (So again, see the first point.)

Third, it's quite serendipitous that I read this immediately after finishing An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States. Some of the same sources are cited there as were cited by our unknown narrator here. I was primed for this book in a way I couldn't have predicted or planned. Reading about how our culture of war devastated the Indians was tough; following that by reading how it also devastates our own people is mind-boggling.

Finally, this book is so cleverly layered that I can't really do it justice with a review. My head is still spinning from it all. But let me say this: you know what happened to Kathy. You don't want to believe it, because it's too hard to believe it. It's too hard to believe because you already believe he loves her, & there's plenty of evidence for that. Perhaps there isn't enough evidence to convict him, but you still know it's true. Because it's too hard to believe people could commit an atrocity like the My Lai massacre... But you know that they did. So you know what happened to Kathy. To indulge in any other fantasy that denies that truth, no matter how tempting O'Brien makes it sound, is ultimately to deny the truths of our country's violent past. That's something that happens every day, by good honest citizens. Yet I think O'Brien is asking us to wake up. Like John calls out to Kathy as he treks north, alone & despondent, O'Brien is calling out to his readers. Listen up.

So very well done, Mr. O'Brien. Every page was a pleasure. I hope they're teaching this in school everywhere - it is stunning on every level. ( )
  LauraCerone | May 26, 2016 |
All secrets lead to the dark, and beyond the dark there is only maybe.

One of the final and most profound statements made in this thoroughly fascinating book, the above sentence, written by the author as part of a footnote within the story itself, provides a nearly complete summary of In the Lake of the Woods. A mystery without answers, in which mysteries pile up on top of a each other, mysteries that you keep expecting to tumble down like the landslide narrator Jim Wade experiences, yet somehow stay perfectly balanced from page one to page 303.

Jim Wade is a Vietnam Vet, a man full of secrets, a man who loves his wife with an all consuming passion, yet also ambitious, with plans to one day be a US Senator. Yet when crimes he commited as part of Charlie Company during the war come to light, his career is over. There will be no second chances, no next time, so broke and desperate, he and his wife Kathy hole up in a cabin in the northermost extremity of Minnesota, and it is there that she vanishes, without a trace. Did she leave on her on? Did he kill her? Or was it all just a vanishing act, like the magic tricks Wade is so fond of?

I am blown away by this novel. I am not a person for mysteries, but I fell in love with Tim O'Brien's writing after reading The Things They Carried, so I added this one to my list. Yet I delayed in reading it. Could it measure up to a book that has become one of my all-time favorites or would it be a sad disappointment? The answer to that question, is that not only did it live up his other novel, it may have even exceeded it.

There were parts of this book, like The Things They Carried, that were nearly impossible to read. The horror of the Vietnam War is one that makes it so difficult to comprehend on a grand scale, and I didn't even live through it. Yet, O'Brien managed to make the modern day mystery stand up and hold it's own against the nightmares that both he and his character Wade remember throughout the book. I was fascinated by the way that the story was broken up, alternating between Wade's life, his memories of Vietnam, his theories as to what could have happened, and chapters of evidence that included quotes from both characters in the book and from real books and newspaper clippings about people as varied as Custer, Nixon, Freud, and Ambrose Bierce. O'Brien managed to integrate these very different aspects of his story seemlessly, even including footnotes in his own voice, both related to the story and to his own time in Vietnam. I can only say that this book has definitely earned itself a permenant place both on my bookshelf and in my heart.
( )
  Mootastic1 | Jan 15, 2016 |
About Viet Nam. Though set in the 80s and 90s. The after effect. A couple. Crisis in the present because the husband was involved with atrocities in Vietnam that came to light. That trauma was the background, the ground of the marriage. The wife disappears. Narrative goes back and forth in time. Mmostly focalized with the husband but not entirely. His memory/ thought is unreliable. Mysterious even to him. What happened. Never entirely sure. Back and forth across an era and beyond. The narrative keeps circling in my mind. (Listened on audible.) ( )
  idiotgirl | Dec 25, 2015 |
I'm shocked this book hasn't received a higher rating on Goodreads. O'Brien's message was beautiful, he wrote masterfully, and made me think immensely.

Here is what the book is actually about:
*Loving a person so much that you devote your life to becoming "one" with them, or, rather, losing yourself in them.
*Building "mirrors" in your mind, to shield yourself from the real world.
*Learning to deal with, or not deal with, a traumatic past.
*Realizing that when you fall in love with somebody so deeply, you are liable to do anything.. to have it take over your life.. to become nothing but nature acting upon itself.. think: "one plus one equals zero"
*Exploring the depth of human nature--what is at the bottom of our souls. How we are so completely unique at our depth, and yet the same, and yet still different. At what level can we relate, and therefore love?

O'Brien obviously left the ending to be open-ended, even drawing out beautifully described possible endings to this love story. I feel strongly that he did this to make a point--the ending is not so important. "Figuring out the ending" of this novel is NOT what the novel is about, and shame on those that think of this novel poorly for leaving such a wildly unclear mystery ending. What IS important is what leads up to the ending... the forces that could lead us to do a number of any of the suggested altnerative ending scenes to our lives.

This novel is about putting up so many mirrors and detaching yourself from reality so completely that you cease to exist in it. You become nothing, you are lost in the pattern and uncaring nature of the lake, you are in the middle world, of the not living but not accepted as dead, one plus one equals zero. Nothing. You could be anything but yet nothing. I think the story has a fantasty ending. I think John and Kathy slip into each other, into nothing, and out of the world. They lose themselves so completely that they become whatever the reader believes them to be, because they have lost their purchase on reality. They have swallowed each other up, and face the consequences: madness; uncontrollable, raging, poignant emotion; death?

Is man a monster for doing his best? Is man a monster for following his heart and loving so intensely? Is man a monster for losing control of himself? Is John Wade a monster?

I do not think so. ( )
  Proustitutes | Jun 11, 2015 |
In speaking about this novel, O'Brien states that this work interrogates the fine line between biology and spirit," between some literal, if unknowable, "truth" and the "truth" whose only evidence is the story that contains it. And in my opinion, it is the incapacity to register reality that becomes the main character of this novel.

In the Lake of the Woods begins conventionally enough. Rising politician John Wade, a decorated Vietnam veteran and Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota by 37, has lost the primary election for US Senate when secrets he thought were long buried emerge in the glare of public scrutiny. His opponent uncovered the fact that Wade was present at a massacre in the Vietnamese village of Thuan Yen, which is the local name for a place better known to history as My Lai, where on March 16, 1968, between 200 and 500 civilians were butchered by a company of American soldiers commanded by Lieut. William Calley. In the aftermath of these grisly revelations, John and his wife, Kathy recede to a secluded cabin on the lake. Only a few pages in, and thus not much time given to muster empathy for this character, Kathy disappears. At this point, the novel turns into a speculative meditation around the events of both Kathy's disappearance and the Vietnam war.

Deeply affected by the brutality of war, John Wade lives in a reality rifled with smoke and mirrors to escape reality. Even as a child, Wade was obsessed with magic and would conjure up the image of a father who loved him. A Dostoevsky quote best sums up the state of John's character: "There are things man is even afraid to tell himself and ever decent man has a considerable number of such things stored away...Man is bound to lie about himself." And indeed, John is a calculated caricature of a loving husband, decorated war hero and dashing politician.

The structure of this novel only serves to underscore John's fragmented psyche, but also leaves the reader wanting more. There are three kinds of story in "In the Lake of the Woods." The first is a conventional, remote third-person account of plain facts, the events that can be reconstructed without conjecture, more or less. The second kind of story appears in several chapters called "Evidence": collections of quotations, excerpts from interviews, actual court martial testimony, and readings that bear on the Wade case. The third kind of story appears in chapters called "Hypothesis"; it tries to suggest what might have happened to Kathleen Wade in the days after she disappeared. The reader doesn’t, and isn’t supposed to know, what is fact and what is supposition.

At it's finest, In the Lake of the Woods reflects on the long lasting legacy of war and matters such as truth, time and inward responsibility. It questions whether culpability can be parceled out, whether it belongs to the deed or the doer or merely to what the narrator calls the "poisonous sunlight of Vietnam". But at it's worst, the novel is a derivative, slow and often too structurally messy to follow. ( )
  Casey_Marie | May 4, 2015 |
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With thanks to John Sterling, Larry Cooper, Michael Curtis, Les Ramirez, Carol Anhalt, Lori Galzer, Lynn Nesbit, and my loving familoy. Sam Lawrence, who died in January 1994, was my publisher, advocate, and friend for more than two decades. I will always happily recall his faith in me.
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In September, after the primary, they rented an old yellow cottage in the timber at the edge of Lake of the Woods.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 061870986X, Paperback)

Tim O'Brien has been writing about Vietnam in one way or another ever since he served there as an infantryman in the late 1960s. His earliest work on the subject, If I Die in a Combat Zone, was an intensely personal memoir of his own tour of duty; his books since then have featured many of the same elements of fear, boredom, and moral ambiguity but in a fictional setting. In 1994 O'Brien wrote In the Lake of the Woods, a novel that, while imbued with the troubled spirit of Vietnam, takes place entirely after the war and in the United States. The main character, John Wade, is a man in crisis: after spending years building a successful political career, he finds his future derailed during a bid for the U.S. Senate by revelations about his past as a soldier in Vietnam. The election lost by a landslide, John and his wife, Kathy, retreat to a small cabin on the shores of a Minnesota lake--from which Kathy mysteriously disappears.

Was she murdered? Did she run away? Instead of answering these questions, O'Brien raises even more as he slowly reveals past lives and long-hidden secrets. Included in this third-person narrative are "interviews" with the couple's friends and family as well as footnoted excerpts from a mix of fictionalized newspaper reports on the case and real reports pertaining to historical events--a mélange that lends the novel an eerie sense of verisimilitude. If Kathy's disappearance is at the heart of this work, then John's involvement in a My Lai-type massacre in Vietnam is its core, and O'Brien uses it to demonstrate how wars don't necessarily end when governments say they do. In the Lake of the Woods may not be true, but it feels true--and for Tim O'Brien, that's true enough. --Alix Wilber

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:01:07 -0400)

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After John and Kathy realize that their marriage has been built on deception, Kathy mysteriously disappears in the Minnesota north woods.

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