In the novel In the Lake of the Woods, O’Brien channels between his life in the present at the lake with his wife, and his life in the past, recalling memories from the war in Vietnam. The novel begins with a preview into the love life and marriage of John and Kathy Wade. While the novel progresses, their relationship begins to deteriorate and as the narrator jumps from his past to his present, the impact of his time in Vietnam becomes more apparent as a primary factor in the failure of their marriage.
Throughout the book there are sections of hypotheses and evidence that observe a mixture of fiction and non fiction documents. Some are simply historical facts about the condition of soldiers after Vietnam, particularly the My Lai massacre, while others are fabricated interviews and statements from the characters in the story examining the strange behavior of John Wade himself. The way the chapters are arranged in a scattered format attest to how the jaded past of John Wade sporadically emerged into his life with his wife, the election, and his sanity. Like many stories, the novel is not presented in chronological order.
Even as the narrator jumps from past to present to evidence to hypotheses, the sections are not always continuous individually. O’Brien utilizes this method because the story was not written to develop the life of John Wade, but rather to examine it as it relates to the past that he tried to conceal from the election and his wife. Each piece of evidence serves to further expand the elements that tainted John Wade and provide possibilities to the case of his missing wife. The hypotheses are an explanation of the story that also maintains the mystery in the novel because they never provide a concise ending.
In the beginning, these chapters are confusing, but they help the reader see the main plot in greater depth. The significance of the events is more indicative than the order of the events. John Wade’s involvement in Vietnam is most associated with the My Lai massacre, an event where numerous American soldiers violently slaughtered innocent men, women, and children at a small village called Pinkville. It is a tragedy that has forever shamed America and especially the soldiers that contributed to the horrific event. John Wade is not introduced as a collaborator in the My Lai massacre until the middle of the novel.
Although this is a crucial part of the story, if John Wade had been broadcasted as a participating factor in the massacre, the point of the novel would be lost. The reader would continue to hold a bias towards John Wade and therefore disregard any sort of empathy for his difficult situations. Since, however, the reader finds out he did contribute to the My Lai massacre later in the novel, an opinion and understanding of John Wade is already present, which helps provide some justification and sympathy for the narrator.
O’Brien, a Vietnam veteran himself, employed this deferment of information to the reader because many see the My Lai massacre as a black and white atrocity, without ever considering the feelings and frustrations of the American soldiers themselves in fighting an “invisible enemy”. The structure of the novel is not only used to gradually inform the reader of the damaged mind of John Wade, but also to emphasize the difficulty of dealing with his experiences. As the narrator begins to distrust his own senses and memories, the reader knows less of what is fact and what is speculation.
The evidence provides a look into the lives of people that dealt with John Wade and people or events that relate to his condition, including post traumatic stress excerpts and political figures’ approach to loss. The narrator combines his memories with these relatable findings that results in a union of fallacy and actuality as John Wade slowly slips into insanity. The issues that John Wade and his loved ones endure dealing with incorporating a guilt ridden event with his near perfect present life represents the hardship many Vietnam soldiers, including O’Brien, had to face when trying to live their lives normally again.
The novel is a testament to the trifles of Vietnam veterans, not only during the war, but after; O’Brien writes about the character’s fragmented mind and life as it relates to every damaged soldier. The structure of the novel lends itself to comprehension and the revelation of John Wade. The rather intermittent sequence of events helps the reader increasingly comprehend the nature of dismantled soldiers and how the attempt to erase John Wade’s past ended in the destruction of his future. It also symbolizes the disorderly fashion that John Wade’s past interrupts his present life. The structure is perfectly suited to the subject matter.
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