Apologies for not posting more this week. I was teaching a class in Chicago, and when I returned I had a very bad bout with insomnia that's left me unable to think clearly for the past several days. But I have finished my first book of 2007 and wanted to tell you why I loved In the Lake of the Woods. It wasn't published in 2007, but as always I'm playing catch-up.
(I'm still 20 pages from the end of White Teeth and am afraid to finish it. Literally afraid, because nothing that's happened since page 50 has surprised me and I want desperately to see something unpredictable happen at the end. The book in so many ways is brilliant and clever and a huge, massive achievement, and I am afraid of being disappointed by a totally predictable and dull ending.)
So. On to Tim O'Brien. I read Going After Cacciato in college, and it was awesome, great, etc., but overshadowed by the fact that I read Housekeeping, which rocked my world, in the same course. Then I read The Things They Carried (short story) in grad school, which lead me to the story cycle of the same title and then If I Die in a Combat Zone, his absolutely riveting memoir. In fact, Tim O'Brien is one of the few writers for whom I can say I've read most of his stuff. And it's all good.
My father is a Vietnam vet, the kind that tells his stories over and over rather than keeping them boxed up, so I grew up hearing about the war--in bits and pieces, in anecdotes in which I got to "know" the people in my father's unit--so much of O'Brien's work (especially The Things They Carried) gave me that kind of shiver of recognition that occurs when you read something that is capital-T Truth (rather than simply facts, which rarely tell us anything true).
But my friend Katie from Northern Michigan U, where I taught for a year, lent me this book last summer when I told her I was thinking of writing a kind of literary murder mystery. I told her I was terrified, since I don't know squat about writing a murder mystery (I never read them) and she lent me her copy of In the Lake of the Woods.
I could hardly put it down. I kept making the mistake of reading it at night before bed, which is why the insomnia got to me--I kept thinking about it when I closed it for the night. The story of a man whose wife disappears one night while he's asleep, it offers no easy solutions to the mystery. It's as much a mystery to the main character, John Wade, what happened to his wife as it is to the people who are searching for her, and yet he may in fact have been responsible for her disappearance. The story offers both fact and conjecture and weaves the secrets of love and marriage with the massacre at My Lai with equal weight.
In short, it's a psychological study with a mystery at its heart, and a true gem of a book. As always, I am in awe of O'Brien's skill and the way in which he will allow his characters to be deeply flawed and sympathetic at the same time.
I don't know if I'm any closer to feeling like I can write my own murder mystery, because I was so awed by this book, but I can tell you to go read it. You won't be sorry.