IN THE LAKE OF THE WOODS
O'Brien proves to be the Oliver Stone of literature, reiterating the same Vietnam stories endlessly without adding any insight. Politician John Wade has just lost an election, and he and his wife, Kathy, have retired to a lakeside cabin to plan their future when she suddenly disappears. O'Brien manages to stretch out this simple premise by sticking in chapters consisting of quotes from various sources (both actual and fictional) that relate to John and Kathy. An unnamed author -- an irritating device that recalls the better-handled but still imperfect "Tim O'Brien" narrator of The Things They Carried (1990) -- also includes lengthy footnotes about his own experiences in Vietnam. While the sections covering John in the third person are dry, these first-person footnotes are unbearable. O'Brien uses a coy tone (it's as though he's constantly whispering "Ooooh, spooky!"), but there is no suspense: The reader is acquainted with Kathy for only a few pages before her disappearance, so it's impossible to work up any interest in her fate. The same could be said of John, even though he is the focus of the book. Flashbacks and quotes reveal that John was present at the infamous Thuan Yen massacre (for those too thick-headed to understand the connection to My Lai, O'Brien includes numerous real-life references). The symbolism here is beyond cloying. As a child John liked to perform magic tricks, and he was subsequently nicknamed "Sorcerer" by his fellow soldiers -- he could make things disappear, get it? John has been troubled for some time. He used to spy on Kathy when they were in college, and his father's habit of calling the chubby boy "Jiggling John" apparently wounded him. All of this is awkwardly uncovered through a pretentious structure that cannot disguise the fact that there is no story here. Sinks like a stone.