In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Date read: April 26 to 29, 2018

This is a deceptively angry book. It may look normal and unassuming on the outside, even boring, but on the inside, it’s a slow-building, roiling, burning rage, the kind that sucks you in and makes you burn along with it. And I could not stop reading or even look away. Finished it in 36 hours. All I did this weekend was read this book and let it burn.

Beautifully written, bitterly frustrating, angry and wholly unexpected.

Looks real black and white now–very clear–but back then everything came at you in bright colors. No sharp edges. Lots of glare. A nightmare like that, all you want is to forget. None of it ever seemed real in the first place.

[…]

Would it help to announce the problem early on? To plead for understanding? To argue that solutions only demean the grandeur of human ignorance? To point out that absolute knowledge is absolute closure? To issue a reminder that death itself dissolves into uncertainty, and that out of such uncertainty arise great temples and tales of salvation?

[…]

I have tried, of course, to be faithful to the evidence. Yet evidence is not truth. It is only evident.

[…]

The afternoon had passed to a ghostly gray. She was struck by the immensity of things, so much water and sky and forest, and after a time it occurred to her that she’d lived a life almost entirely indoors. Her memories were indoor memories, fixed by ceilings and plastered white walls. Her whole life had been locked to geometries: suburban rectangles, city squares. First the house she’d grown up in, then dorms and apartments. The open air had been nothing but a medium of transit, a place for rooms to exist.

The theme “you can’t ever go home again” prevails infuriatingly throughout the writing, cementing the fact that, here in this story, you really can’t go home again.

Normally I hate fiction that leaves the reader without closure or an ending. Why read books that imitate real life when there’s already too much real life in your own life? That has always been my reason for staying away from contemporary fiction. But it’s different with this book and its open ending and lack of closure and lack of subtlety, all because it’s Tim O’Brien (better known for his memoir of his experience in the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried). There’s a sharpness to his writing that has always spoken to me. It’s almost as though I get him and what he’s saying. No one writes about memory and pain like Tim O’Brien, and no one writes about being lost in the wilderness of post-traumatic stress quite like he does.

My heart tells me to stop right here, to offer quiet benediction and call it the end. But the truth won’t allow it. Because there is no end, happy or otherwise. Nothing is fixed, nothing solved. The facts, such as they are, finally spin off into the void of things missing, the inconclusiveness of us. Who are we? Where do we go? The ambiguity may be dissatisfying, even irritating, but this is a love story. There is no tidiness. Blame it on the human heart. One way or another, it seems, we all perform vanishing tricks, effacing history, locking up our lives and slipping day by day into the graying shadows. Our whereabouts are uncertain. All secrets lead to the dark, and beyond the dark there is only maybe.

This book found me at the right time and in the right state of mind to appreciate its infuriating complexity. In a different mood, at a different time, and I would have no doubt stopped reading somewhere about page 20. But there was something about this past weekend that made this book call out to me. Every word, every line, made sense in a way that contemporary fiction rarely does for me. Maybe it’s Tim O’Brien. Or maybe it’s simpler than that, maybe I just wanted to get lost in the woods or a lake (preferably one that’s accessible only by helicopter).

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