Magic Tricks and Mirrors: Trauma and Fragmented Memory in In the Lake of the Woods

Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods follows the story of Vietnam veteran and failed politician John Wade around the time of his wife Kathy’s mysterious disappearance. Over the course of the novel, the reader is forced to question whether Wade was capable of killing the woman he loved and simultaneously learns about Wade’s traumatic involvement in the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. A brutal slaughter of hundreds of innocent civilians, the My Lai massacre was the catalyst that turned Wade’s already troubled past into an outright descent into PTSD. What makes the story of Wade’s mental illness even more affecting is the narration style of the novel. Many critics of this novel emphasize the importance of the narrator, who reveals only that he is investigating the case of Kathy’s death and communicates with the reader through footnotes, dropping subtle, dread-inducing hints about what could have occurred without ever disclosing what truly did happen. This urges and even requires the reader to come to their own conclusions, giving them a sense of being stranded by the narrator and necessitating that they carefully investigate each detail of often seemingly irrelevant evidence presented to them, from excerpts from magicians’ handbooks to quotes about long-dead presidents to pieces of the court hearing on the My Lai massacre. Furthermore, the narrator repeats dark, disturbing symbols and gruesomely graphic flashback scenes throughout the story, as well as retelling memories multiple times with slightly different endings in each retelling. This is interpreted by many critics as intentionally mirroring the mind of a person who suffers from PTSD, as if to give a reader some semblance of the feeling of what it is like to be haunted by a mental illness such as PTSD.

As mentioned earlier, critics mainly approach this novel from a stylistic perspective, focusing especially on the narration style and the impact that it has on the reader. I intend to utilize and expand upon this approach but to also put it in a psychological context. In my research, I studied not only how critics argue that the narrator demands that the reader come to their own conclusions and generates a representation of PTSD, but also how psychological scholars are working to understand PTSD. In particular, I focused on psychological reports concerning the impact of PTSD on anger, in an attempt to further comprehend whether murder would be possible on Wade’s part, and on the interrelationship between PTSD and fragmented memory. Fragmented memory was an especially important part of this, as the fragmented narration style reflects that particular aspect of PTSD. Because my research had two branches – the stylistic and the psychological approach – I plan to lay it out accordingly. I will begin with an introduction to John Wade as a character, focusing on his difficult childhood and his time in Vietnam, and focus on his memories of the My Lai massacre, as this was such an important factor in his mental breakdown. I will continue to introduce the novel, highlighting the narration style and then discussing the methods that the narrator uses to make the reader come to their own conclusions about whether Wade killed his wife. I will rely primarily on Marjorie Worthington’s “The Democratic Meta-Narrator in In the Lake of the Woods” to provide support for my claim. The next section will highlight how the narration style represents PTSD, using several examples of how the narrator reflects each aspect such as flashbacks, intrusive memories, and fragmented memories. Here, I will provide a more in-depth explanation of what each of these is with support from several scientific studies on PTSD, including an article by Oscar Gonzalez I, “Anger Intensification with Combat-Related PTSD and Depression Comorbidity”. Additionally, I will include the arguments of several other critics on how the narration style reflects PTSD, some of which support my claim and some of which I do not fully agree with but will interact with to support my overall claim. Finally, I will conclude by drawing the reader’s attention to a quote from the novel which is very brief but which points to the theory that Wade, forever obsessed with magic tricks, could have been committing a “disappearing act” in his wife’s, and later his own, disappearance and that perhaps there was a completely different outcome from the one that the reader or even the narrator could imagine. This will hopefully draw the reader’s attention to the unsettling nature of the novel as a whole and the idea that, no matter what conclusions the reader may come to, the true ending will ultimately forever be unknown.

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