Darkness unfathomable, Darkness inherent
I was steered to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried by a reviewer who had commented on another post-Vietnam, anti-war novel which I’d read, and been profoundly impressed by. It was a good recommendation, introducing me to a reflective, powerful, brilliantly crafted writer who was new to me.
In The Lake of the Woods, first published in 1994, and therefore written some twenty years after active USA involvement in that war, has as its meta-theme, war, and the thin layers of reasoned, tender humanity which we build over – not our animal nature, but something which arises from our consciousness and the complexity of rationality itself.
O’ Brien was a vet, and that experience – and, he suggests, the experience of that entire generation is now buried deep, and therefore, not always clearly seen, in the psyche of modern American. What is deep-denied cannot be engaged with, worked with, used and transformed.
John Wade, a rising Democrat politician suddenly, crushingly defeated in primaries, following the revelation of forged military history which hid his involvement in Charlie-1 platoon (the My Lai massacre), escapes the media circus by holing up in Lake Of The Woods, an isolated part of Minnesota, with his beloved wife, Kathy. Then Kathy disappears.
This can indeed be read on one level as a mystery or thriller. But it is also a portrait of not just a nation with festering wounds, but of this tendency to darkness within collective and individual psyche.
The interesting structure of the book weaves ‘the facts’ of the story of John and Kathy, (fictional characters) with police and procedural enquiries. Some of these are fictional – but interwoven with these, as the character of Wade and his background in Charlie-1 emerges, are real reports from enquiries into My Lai, and what happened. And lest anyone thinks the atrocities were particular only to that time and place, other writings, other reports are cited, into the whole history of young America and How The West Was Won – and early British settlers, too, when this side of the pond thought America was ours.
‘There is a line that a man dare not cross, deeds he dare not commit, regardless of orders and the hopelessness of the situation, for such deeds would destroy something in him that he values more than life itself ‘
J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors : Reflections On Men In Battle, quoted in this book.
O’ Brien is a subtle, complex writer, delving deeply into nuances of collective and individual psychology – he postulates many versions for what ‘might have happened’ to Kathy, in chapters of Hypothesis, and refuses, and explains why he refuses, to give the reader the easy fictional, tied-up, wrapped up end.
Partly a clearly argued, unfolding look at what is unresolved, at skeletons in cupboards, partly a beautifully chilling thriller, it is also a darker exploration into something which does not sit well with a society which tries to rationally categorise, weigh and measure everything, – the possibility of more ancient forces – does sin itself exist, does evil?. The Ancient Greeks may well have found stories like these easier to understand than a society which believes darkness can always be banished by fluorescent strip lights. The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.
What resonates for me in O’ Brien’s writing, is his ability, as writer, to sneak up into the face of the reader, and address him/her directly, to remind us this is story, but where story comes from, to make the reader take a long, cool, gravely thoughtful look at themselves in the mirror. What lies beneath the surface you recognise? Whose is the face beneath the practiced mask? And dare you even look? This is a fine writer indeed, who can entertain whilst extending, instructing, and maybe even fulfilling the role of shaman, rending the veil between the seen and the unimagined.
This could not have happened. Therefore it did not
Already he felt better
I did have one cavil : I felt many of the quoted sources were repeating information, re-iterating points already made, so some of these sources could have been cut, making the book tighter, and with even more deadly punch.