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.