Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods is a novel about a man who is a Vietnam vet, a politician, the product of a troubled family, and the husband of a woman he loves desperately. In his case it’s a disastrous combination. John Wade has just lost a U.S. Senate election by a landslide. The media had managed to dig up a part of his war record he had thought he had managed to bury. So, he and his wife Kathy have rented a cottage in the Lake of the Woods in order to recuperate, and to plan their next move. But then one morning Kathy is not in the bed beside John, and their rental boat is not in the boathouse, and he can’t remember much of what he did the night before, though he knows he boiled the plants and later found himself lying naked on the dock.
The novel is at once a serious literary effort, a horror story, and a whodunit (or rather, a whodunwhat). The structure is perfectly suited to the subject matter. The chapters have documentary type names – “What he remembers”, “What he did next”, “Where they looked”, and are interspersed with chapters titled “Evidence”, which consist entirely of quotes pulled from various sources – John’s mother, Kathy’s sister, texts on the effects of trauma, various politicians, the small town cops who investigated Kathy’s disappearance, John’s campaign manager, the transcripts of the court martial trials of John’s platoon members, etc., and also there are footnotes supposedly constructed by the biographer, in which he guesses and second guesses at solutions. Then there are chapters called “Hypothesis”, which provide no less than four possible explanations for Kathy’s disappearance. The reader doesn’t, and isn’t supposed to know, what is fact and what is supposition. It’s an excellent format for this novel, and works on several levels. It’s a construct representing John’s psyche which has become so fragmented even he can’t trust his own senses and memories; it gives the reader a taste of the frustration and helplessness those dealing with him would have experienced; and it’s a psychological and literary puzzle for the reader.
Lake of the Woods is the kind of book that, although excellent, isn’t likely to be anyone’s favourite and happily re-read between sips of hot tea. It’s too unsettling, and unless you happen to really like graphic descriptions of violence, it’s almost unreadable in places. But it’s an indication of Tim O’Brien’s accomplishment that while I was repelled by the character of John Wade, I could not dismiss him as not worth whatever struggles or discomfort it might take to understand him. And given my society's less than successful methods of dealing with the violent, the mentally ill, and the damaged veterans of military actions , this seems a frame of mind worth the discomfort it entails.