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.

Big Project: In the Lake of the Woods

For my project, I have chosen In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien. This is a novel which was written in 1994. From what I can tell from word of mouth and from having done a small amount of research on the topic, this novel is not canonical (although O’Brien’s more famous novel The Things They Carried could be considered to be at least approaching acceptance into canon). This book tells the story of a war veteran, John Wade, who returns home from the Vietnam War to his home and wife and, after a span of time, decides to run for political office. After a harrowing election in which horrifying stories about him from the Vietnam War emerge, John loses the election. He and his wife, Kathy, take some time away from the public and go to live in a small home by a lake. Suddenly, Kathy disappears. Over the course of the novel, O’Brien leaves the reader constantly guessing as to who is guilty for Kathy’s disappearance and what could have happened to her. Additionally, in a theme consistent to the rest of his writing, O’Brien feeds off of his own experience as a Vietnam veteran to narrate the horrors of war and the impact they had not only on John, but on humanity. I chose this novel because I have never encountered a more powerful or unique narration style than that which O’Brien employs to lead the reader in intricate (and often emotionally taxing) circles. I read this book in my senior year of high school and continue to be in awe of the masterpiece that O’Brien created in this work. Furthermore, its emotional impact on me was truly significant. I truly think that this is the best novel I have read, and I am really looking forward to studying O’Brien’s masterful writing and amazing narration in a more in-depth fashion. There are definitely resources which will be adequate to work with this novel. In the Lake of the Woods is a literary masterpiece in my eyes, and I can’t wait to work with it.

Jan 25: Subjectivity

On page 43, the author states that “…we are inexorably dependent on social and cultural categories for our well-being and satisfaction. To say that the subject/self is made or constructed is to say that it’s dependent on myriad things other than itself.” To what extent do you agree with this statement? What effect do you think our dependence (or lack thereof) has on us as individuals? Additionally, what effects does it have on us as readers or writers?

Jan 23: Author/ity

On page 16 of The Theory Toolbox, the author states that to call a work “authored” means that it “…offers a maximal amount of interpretative ambiguity or possibility.” Consider a work you have enjoyed and that you believe could be interpreted in multiple ways. How did you interpret it? How do you believe others may have interpreted it? Do you believe this “interpretative ambiguity” contributed to its validity as a work?