In the Lake of the Woods

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Book by Tim O’Brien

Annotation by W. Ross Feeler

 

The angle makes the dream.

—Tim O’Brien, In the Lake of the Woods (286)

Experimental writing—and more specifically, experimental points of view—in fiction are often denigrated as interfering with what Coleridge calls the “willing suspension of disbelief.” Elsewhere, John Gardner talks about fiction as a ”vivid and continuous dream.” Deviations from the literary norms wake the reader up, break that sense of disbelief. Or so the story goes.

Tim O’Brien, however, subverts conventional wisdom concerning POV in same way he subverts conventional wisdom concerning Vietnam. This is in full display in his 1994 novel In the Lake of the Woods, in which chapters are told from a variety of angles.

One set of chapters is told from a close-third, present-day perspective of John Wade, the focal character in the novel. This is traditional, what we’ve come to expect from American authors.

Contrastingly, another set, labeled Evidence, is comprised of an array from quotations—from historical figures, literary works, fictional characters from the novel, psychological studies, and various books on magic. While this might initially seem disorienting, the expertly juxtaposed quotations solidify, rather than undercut, the reader’s suspension of disbelief. By allowing fictional characters to speak alongside historical figures, the narrative is endowed with a sense of historical legitimacy one rarely encounters in literary fiction.

This legitimacy also comes, in part, from the footnotes in the Evidence chapters. Rather than destabilizing the narrative, as footnotes are wont to do in many postmodern novels, the footnotes in Woods give the reader a sense of groundedness. This is because the footnotes, rather than being presented as coming from an outside, objective observer are presented as coming from the author himself—Tim O’Brien. This is similar to the way that O’Brien’s persona shows up in The Things They Carried; similar, but not the same. In Things, the persona of the author is a more active character in the story. In Woods, the persona of the author is more concerned with the compilation of evidence and the conclusions one can come to based on that evidence.

This allows O’Brien to take even more POV risks in the novel, such as the inclusion of a set of chapters labeled “Hypothesis.” These chapters are guesses: the persona of the author is trying to imagine what might have happened to Kathy Wade, John’s wife, who disappears early in the novel. This, too, has the feeling of history—it reminded me, for instance, of Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, which is essentially a guessed-at biography of Shakespeare based on the evidence. The difference in Woods is that the author is coming up with guesses that seem contrary to the evidence, which seems to incriminate John Wade in his wife’s murder. The alternative reality becomes as important—perhaps more important—than reality as such.

The novel also moves centripetally, circling its subjects from varying distances to give the reader different vistas. When, near the end of the book, we hit the center, we find that the center is not what we expected: there is no great reveal that ties up the issue of the murder. Instead of discovering the answer to the mystery, we find an ever-expanding mystery—because In the Lake of the Woods is not a whodunit, though it uses elements of that genre. It is about the mystery of human nature, love and evil co-existing at close quarters. And that sort of mystery is insoluble.

O’Brien’s gutsy POV shifts have inspired me to take more risks in my own work. This doesn’t mean, of course, I’ve inserted chapters labeled Evidence into my novel labeled. This would be theft, not experimentation. Rather, I’ve been bolstered to do creative things on my own. In one of my recent short stories, the first section is told from the traditional, close-third, the second from the second-person POV, and the third from a roving semi-authorial POV. This isn’t incredibly groundbreaking, as all of these POVs have long histories in literature, except that these sorts of shifts rarely pop up in short stories. Additionally, I include an embedded essay written for  a freshman English class (one of the protagonists is a teacher).

POV experimentation is not dead, and it’s not something that works within the strict confines of the ivory tower. Woods was a national bestseller. In this case, the evidence speaks for itself: experimentation and accessibility don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

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Out of the Woods: Stories

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book by Chris Offutt

annotation by Lee Stoops

“His arms were sore and his back hurt, but anything

was better than prison, even moving graves in Idaho.”

~ Chris Offutt, “Moscow, Idaho” from Out of the Woods (55)

 

Chris Offutt makes me want to write about the mountains of Idaho. Not because the mountains of Idaho are home for him, but because they’re home for me. Offutt’s characters are Kentucky hill people. Outcasted, exodused, escaped, and sometimes boomeranged, their stories happen out of Kentucky and in Kentucky all at the same time. The deep hills of Kentucky are Home. Home becomes the lens through which Offutt’s people see their lives, and it’s because it’s the lens through which Offutt writes to make sense of everything else.

I opened the collection knowing nothing of hill families of Kentucky, and while I learned a thing or two about the culture through his stories, what mattered more was the sense I began to feel for the importance of something intimate from the writer and his characters. Home. It means – in a variety of senses – everything. And while that lesson whets a specific creative appetite, it’s Offutt’s writing that succeeded in teaching. His prose is rhythmic, full of short beats and direct sentences. His dialogue roots in a name-based culture where stories are shared down generations by people who need to say very little to get across a point. His stories rely on characters comparing new experiences to the things they know from a place proudly isolated. I found it impossible to put the book down, and impossible, once I did, to slow the feelings stirred in me.

Short, strong sentences fill the pages of this book. Offutt’s rhythms are brief but anything but staccato. In fact, for the lack of unnecessary lettering, his work’s pacing begs even the fastest reader to slow down and let the gravity of direct language do its work. It bothers me to no end when someone describes writing such as this as “simple.” Simple implies easy. It implies an absence of complexity. It implies little or no work. Offutt’s work is the opposite of simple. He has (not) simply determined the essence of his stories and chosen to deliver the leanest forms. I want my own work to be distilled to the point where it cannot be distilled further. Another word for this? Pure.

Tilden wondered if a view of the river made men sadder or gave them hope. He figured the prison psychologist would like it, since he favored anything that was different, even a new coat of paint. Tilden had learned to give the shrink what he wanted, which was mainly the impression that you wouldn’t shank the first son of a bitch who looked at you mad-dog. Getting through the joint took the ability to make everyone think you were crazy enough to be dangerous. Getting out was the opposite. Tilden wasn’t sure what it took to stay out (57, “Moscow, Idaho”).

 

I examined the bird. Both legs, the skull, each wing, its neck and ribs – all were broken. It’s [sic] head hung from several shattered vertebrae. I’d never seen a creature so clean on the outside and so tore up on the inside. It had died pretty hard (121, “Barred Owl”).

 

Dialogue is hard. And it’s funny that’s the case considering we spend our lives talking. There’s a point to be made here that might be bigger than the point I’m after in Offutt’s work, so I’ll stick to the book. Dialogue needs to elucidate both characters and narrative without becoming something the narrative or characters rely on. That’s the first part of why dialogue is hard. The second part is this: people need to talk the way people really talk without talking the way people really talk. Throw into the mix vernacular or dialect, and it’s easy for dialogue to destroy an otherwise powerful piece of fiction. Offutt’s figured it out. Moreover, he’s made it look easy. Here’s an example between a man, formerly of the hills, working in a jail in town and a man fresh from the hills who wants to be locked in the jail for reasons unclear at the meeting’s onset:

“I heard tell a Goins worked here.”

“That’s me. Ephraim Goins.”

“Well, I’m fit for the pokey. What’s a man got to do to go?”

“Drunk mostly.”

“Don’t drink.”

“Speeding.”

“Ain’t got nary a car.”

“Stealing’ll do it.”

“I don’t reckon.”

The man kept his head turned and his eyes down. Goins decided that he was a chucklehead who’d wandered away from his family.

“Why don’t you let me call your kin,” Goins said.

“No phone.” The man jerked his chin to the corridor where the cells were. “What if I cussed you?”

“I’d cuss back.”

“Ain’t they nothing?”

“Let’s see,” Goins said. “Defacing public property is on the books, but it’d be hard to hurt this place.”

The man walked to the door and stood with his back turned. “Come here a minute,” he said.

Goins joined him. The man had unzipped his pants and was urinating on the plank steps leading to the door. Goins whistled low, shaking his head.

“You’ve force put me, sure enough,” he said, hoping to scare the man away. “Looks like you’re arrested. Lucky they ain’t no lynch mob handy.”

The man inhaled deeply and hurried down the hall to a cell. Goins opened the heavy door. The man stepped in and quickly pulled it shut behind him.

“Name? said Goins.

“Gipson. Haze Gipson.”

He lifted his head, showing blue eyes in rough contrast with his black hair and smooth, swarthy skin. They watched each other for a long time. The name Gipson was like Goins, a Melungeon name, and Goins knew the man’s home ridge deep in the hills. He glanced along the dim hall and lowered his voice.

“Say you’re a Gipson?”

“Least I ain’t the law.”

“What’s your why of getting locked up?”

“You been towned so long,” Gipson said, “I don’t know that I can say. I surely don’t” (36-38, “Melungeons”).

The above also touches on Offutt’s characters’ processing difference in the world. Writers are slammed continually with conflicting messages of writing what they know, what they don’t know, what they want to know. But it’s in processing, in weighing something seemingly understood, at least experienced, with something yet to be understood or experienced that writers often find that elusive element of what to write about.

Offutt left a small community of hill people at an early age, traveled the country and worked more odd jobs than many people work in a life time. So in writing characters from these proud and thin lines looking for something – meaning, affirmation, surprise, reconciliation – in places removed from what they know, Offutt’s exemplifying his message to other writers. It’s not about what you know – it’s about how what you know looks when it’s aligned with what you don’t know or what you want to know (or, better, what you don’t want to know).

I went back to the motel and stopped at the bar. It was called the Sip & Dip, and had a tropical décor with plastic parrots, bamboo walls, and fake torches. Any minute you expected a cannibal to jump out at you. An older couple was arguing at a table shaped like a kidney bean. A tall man about forty came in, ordered a whiskey ditch, and began talking to me. He was from Mississippi. His southern accent made me feel good, as if I were talking to a countryman.

“Luck always turns,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do when you’re running bad but develop yourself a leather ass. How did you happen to be here for the Tough Man Contest?”

“I borrowed a car from a guy at work. Me and Lynn wanted to get out of Billings and run around.”

He told the bartender to bring a couple of drinks.

“On me,” he said. “You’re a guy who needs a lot of outs right now.”

“You know I can’t buy the next round.”

“There was a time when all I owned was on my back. So you and Lynn were on the loose?”

“Yeah,” I said. “We had a couple hundred bucks and four days off from work. We’re thinking maybe we’ll hit the Chico Hot Springs when bang, we’re pulled over by the Highway Patrol. I’m sober and we’re not carrying dope, so I’m not worried. I’m good with cops, I say yes sir and no sir, and all that. They have a tough job. I respect that because my job ain’t the best. When you’re a cook, everything will cut you or burn you.”

He said he understood. The older couple who’d been arguing were kissing now, pecking at each other’s faces like a pair of chickens.

“Do you live here?” I said.

“No. I have a cabin up in Big Sandy. I’ll do some bird hunting this week.”

“There’s a river in Kentucky with the same name.”

“I suppose that’s possible,” he said. He looked at me like he was gauging my worth. “Is Lynn beautiful?”

“Definitely.”

“Beautiful women make me fear death.”

I sat and studied on that for a while. Dying never scared me, but life does every day. I couldn’t tell him that, though. I wondered if he was sick with some disease, or maybe he was older than I thought (159-160, “Tough People”).

 

Everything I read instills in me something I can take to my own searching for story, but it’s rare that someone else’s words will so astoundingly flourish in my imagination. The response Offutt’s evoked in me is the response I want to evoke in others. It goes beyond stories that compel or infect. It goes deeper, even, than connecting with the other, the human experience, or even the self. It’s the response of “I have stories I have to tell, and I am the only one to tell them.”As much as we need our stories, our homes, we must be held accountable for sharing our needs, for writing our stories, for owning whatever is Home.