May 16, 2010

Two Books by Tim O’Brien

     The Things They Carried is the most powerful writing about Vietnam or about any modern war. In the Lake of the Woods, by the same author, is one of the worst.

     How can that be? In the first book the ator takes tackles the subject head on. Anyone who has ever lived and re-lived that war (as I have) knows O’Brien has expressed the impossible. His chapter “How to Tell a True War Story,” that first appeared in Esquire,…  captures everything:

“And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.”

     And it’s about when you return to the United States, wipe tears from your eyes as the plane’s wheels touch the ground and you are met by protesters who spit at you. But it isn’t them you resent. No one goes to war to spread democracy or to kill people. Like O’Brien most of us ended up there by default. But what you do resent when you come back is people who have no idea what it was like, no clue how uncertain your life is every minute of the day and every sleepless night. I feel that still when reading this first book and looking at people around me–even family, neighbors and friends. Almost fifty years later. Welcome us back, but the truth is, even those of us who survived, never come back.

     Mabye that’s why O’Brien wrote In the Lake of the Woods four years after the first book. It is about a man who just lost an election because of his My Lai past. His wife disappears from where they were regrouping in a cabin. Did she leave him? Did he kill her? Are they both disappearing into a new life? Here’s what I think. I think O’Brien wanted to reach those who had not been through Vietnam. Let them experience the nightmare. That’s what I advocate in writing workshops I put on: the emotion a writer feels must be ture; the veracity of the story he weaves around it is secondary. But in this case it doesn’t work. He has trivialized that emotion and the quotes, footnotes, use of real names–like Lt. Calley–don’t help.

     I will re-read The Things They Carried as many times as I can in my life. In the Lake of the Woods, by comparison, is like the airport-protesters misguided shit.

Order The Things They Carried directly from amazon for $8.77. Click here: The Things They Carried



  1. John, “The Things They Carried” is a touchstone for me, and I, too, go back to it often, partly because it shows where my own life could have turned. As a freshman in college, I was in the last year of the draft’s lottery where 366 ping-pong balls with 366 different birthdates bounced around a cage. The balls were removed one at a time. Young men with the first 100 birthdates were likely to go to Vietnam.

    I happen to be a fan of both books for very different reasons. “The Things They Carried” is unquestionably the richer, more successful book, broken up into different stories that have their own unique vision, and the last few bring all the different elements together. The book also has the reader question why we need stories and how real life and fiction connect.

    “In the Lake of the Woods,” though, has an amazing character arc; the story is also an examination, without it directly saying so, of post-traumatic stress syndrome. The protagonist, a Viet vet like John McCain, has become a successful politician, and his career goes down the toilet when he’s linked to atrocities in Vietnam. The loss and the reminder of the events have a powerful effect on the man, whose actions come into question again when his wife disappears.

    I happened to use this book in a college English class, and the students liked it a lot–much more than I expected. First, they didn’t know a lot about Vietnam or PTSD, and they could empathize with the man, who had been forced to participate in an unpopular war and forced at a young age to deal with moral issues that he wasn’t equipped to deal with. Second, they’d never read such an intense book. Third, it brought up issues of relationships and marriage. Our discussions were wonderful.

    I’ve also used “The Things They Carried” in other classes, and it, too, created many great discussions. Once Bush brought us into Iraq, however, a time when I thought the book would be more important than ever, the students did not find it as interesting, and it may have been because with the war in the news, the students just didn’t want to think about war anymore.

    I’ve read many of O’Brien’s books, and “The Things They Carried” remains my favorite and “In the Lake of the Woods” is #2.

    • Thanks, Christopher. It may be that I had read the first book several times and the last time throug found a copy of “In the Lake of the Woods” which at the time seemed weaker by comparison. “The Things They Carried” in my mind goes beyond being a book, it is a coming to terms with a part of life (and, as you say, might have something to do with the reader’s age and experience). I appreciate your perspective. John

  2. No question that The Things They Carried is a brilliant and forceful open heart surgery on war. But I think In The Lake of the Woods shows off O’Brien’s ability to use perspective to create a different story with important insights into life after war. The narrative tension makes the book superlative for that reason alone, and certainly takes it far beyond your closing remark, unworthy of any writer who understands the difficult process of writing a novel that carries the reader forward so seamlessly. Anything O’Brien writes is worth reading, and worth studying. There are far too many authors who don’t understand the importance of narrative tension and write run on stories that are easy to put down and don’t stick in your memory like O’Brien’s characters and stories do.

  3. The two books are very different. The thing about TTTC is that it feels real, in a way that few works of fiction can. In the Lake of the Woods, though, is crafted with a completely different intention, and so I’m not sure the comparison is really fruitful. But let me offer this opinion: O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato is better than both of those books! It’s genius.

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