Friday, October 4, 2013

Maintaining Mystery

I recently finished In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O' Brien. This novel is built around an unsolved mystery labeled as fiction, and since it is not chronicling a real life event, the author is free to "solve" the mystery any way he wants to. Except he doesn't.
Unsolved Mystery

John Wade has suffered a crushing political defeat, due in part to public revelations of his questionable actions during the Vietnam War. His time in Vietnam - and the death of his alcoholic/verbally abusive father - haunt John's mind and memories. When the reader meets John, it is clear that he is quite unsettled. His wife Kathy soon disappears, leaving a missing boat as the only significant clue.

Despite a comprehensive search, no one can figure out what happened. The local police, family members, and acquaintances suspect John of killing her. Some chalk it up to an unfortunate boating accident. With post traumatic stress that causes him to drift from reality, even John can't say for sure what he was doing the night his wife vanished.

At first it seems a novel with an omniscent (or objective) third-person narrator. But there are well-placed footnotes and chapters dedicated to collected "evidence." Through these techniques, the reader realizes that the narrator is some kind of reporter/investigative writer, and the novel is the narrator's way of presenting a comprehensive overview of the case. I wasn't sure if this narrator was a fictional character enmeshed in the world of the novel; Tim O' Brien caught up in the midst of creating this novel and speaking directly to the reader; or a fictional extension/alter ego of O' Brien.

I started thinking - why don't we find out what happened to Kathy? Is it a cop-out on O' Brien's part? Maybe he couldn't decide what would sit better with readers: if John actually killed Kathy or if he was innocent? If Kathy died or just ran off and made herself scarce so she could start a new life?

To me, the most acceptable scenario is that the narrator is a fictional character within the world of John Wade, Kathy, and the others. It becomes clear that many of the chapters are pure hypothesis - the narrator's explorations of possible scenarios that could've befallen both Kathy and John. If the narrator is a fictional character, then the fact that we don't find out what happened to Kathy is no longer in danger of being a cop-out on the part of the author, but a more realistic mirror of what so often happens in reality. Watch a few episodes of Dateline, and you remember that crimes and odd happenings can go unsolved for decades, despite the amount of people involved/interviewed/investigated.

Sometimes in life there are no answers, despite how bad we want them. The narrator acknowledges this phenomenon in several of the novel's footnotes (one of which, if you read all of it - not just what I included below - is perhaps the most direct nod to the narrator's role within the novel):

"Our own children, our fathers, our wives and husbands: Do we truly know them? How much is camouflage? How much is guessed at?"

"Mystery finally claims us...The ambiguity may be dissatisfying, even irritating...Blame it on the human heart. One way or another, it seems, we all perform vanishing tricks, effacing history, locking up our lives and slipping day by day into graying shadows. Our whereabouts are uncertain. All secrets lead to the dark, and beyond the dark there is only maybe."
[Excerpts from In the Lake of the Woods, by Tim O'Brien]

Writing and exploring the deep psychological well of the human condition  - specifically the premise that we can never know everything about another human - is interesting, yet difficult. There still has to be enough substance within the work to interest the reader, even if the mystery is never fully revealed.

People in life don't walk around with nametags that identify them as this or that. And even if they did, there is never just one nametag/label that can sum up the complex nature of an individual. So should our fictional characters' motivations/longings/personalities, etc. be definitively labelled within our writing, just because as writers, we have the power to create them?


  1. I enjoy Tim O'Brien's writing, having read a couple of his books. I admit I wanted him to tip the scales just a little bit more so I could make an educated guess about what had actually happened. I do agree that fiction can mirror life in its ambiguity. Good review.

    1. Thanks! I agree - it was difficult finishing the book and not really knowing either way, but having enough clues presented to believe that any of the scenarios posed could have reasonably happened. But not knowing didn't take away from my interest in the book while I was reading. I totally get the frustration that can come up in fiction with wanting to know...I suppose it makes a difference what side of the coin you happen to be on (reader or writer) for the work in question :)