Sunday, October 04, 2009

Amazonian Contradictions

I've been thinking of rereading a novel by Tim O'Brien that left me reeling the first time I read it. As I recall, it frustrated and intrigued me in equal measure.

In the Lake of the Woods (1994) is a bizarre, morally nebulous, flashback-laden tale of a troubled Vietnam veteran and failed politician whose marriage is on shaky ground. The POV character and his wife retreat to Minnesota's "Northwest Angle" (that tab that sticks up into Canada), a wilderness area taken up largely by the labyrinthine Lake of the Woods. The couple plan to spend two weeks in an isolated cabin there, attempting to recover from a devastating election loss and salvage their strained relationship.

Then the wife disappears, quite suddenly and mysteriously. Of course, searches and investigations ensue. But they yield nothing. And yet, a great deal. Maybe. Or maybe not.

I can't possibly condense this novel in any sensible way. It's a missing-person case wrapped in personal history wrapped in a psycho-emotional tangle, a Gordian knot that seems impossible to undo. It's reality and recalled reality, fantasy and horror. It sure as hell has no happy ending; in fact, it doesn't even have a resolution. Unsympathetic characters, meet your open end.

Still, the book has haunted me since I read it. So I've kind of been itching to read it again.

I thought I'd see what the "reviewers" on Amazon had to say, since there were no Amazon reviewers when I first read this novel and my recollection of it is more like an echo in the heart than a set of details stored in the brain. I figured they would help me decide whether or not to give the book a second go.

In the Lake of the Woods mostly got high marks. But there were thirty-five people who rated it from 1 to 3 and were intensely dissatisfied.

I was fascinated by this disparity and what it says about the nature of human perception, so I kept plowing through the negative comments (which, I figured, might save me some money). More than one person hated the characters. Another, the writing style. Someone else said it suffered from "very poor plotting."

Here are some of the most scathing comments: "Horrible. Simply and utterly horrible;" "I would have rated this no stars but wasn't given the option;" "...I will be throwing the book out;" "rubbish;" "...exhibits no emotional power;" "clumsy in its attempt to be ambiguous and different;" "...piece of garbage ... [The author] should retire;" "In the last several decades, this is the book I am most sorry to have read."

Holy WTF?

What I ultimately realized was that I wouldn't learn a damned thing by reading any of these assessments. It never ceases to amaze me how two people can view the same thing in such diametrically opposed ways. The clashing perceptions did nothing but confuse me, so I pretty much abandoned all of the reviews and decided to go with my gut instinct.

Yep, guess I'll read it again. Interesting exercise, though.


Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

Excellent example of how each of us experiences a different reality and truth. ;)

(Same as the comment I deleted, only with previously excluded key word now included for more coherency...)

Jenre said...

Do you know, I'd be more worried if I read a bunch of reviews (at Amazon or on GoodReads or any set of review sites) which all wholly endorsed a book. That would seem odd or artificial.

I've read boks which have won the Booker Prize (or been nominated) which have been some of the most dreadful books I've ever read. I don't think it's about the so called 'quality' of the writing and more to do with our own personal emotional response.

Jenre said...

or books even (groan, too early in the morning to spot typos).

Tam said...

You should have deleted like Chris did Jen. :-P

Well, from your description I think that would land on my DNF pile. I don't do ambiguous endings much. Or maybe it's like a David Lynch movie, you feel compelled to keep watching because you're sure it will start to make sense soon ... and then the credits role and its 2 hours of your life you can't get back. LOL

I try not to ever be mean though, even if I hate a book because you're right, there will be a dozen people who loved it. Sometimes you're better off going with a general impression "more people loved it than hated it" "it was kind of middle of the road" and go with that because unless you personally know those people who loved it or hated it and that their taste is similar to your's its a crap shoot.

To be honest it sounds like intriguing movie material. I'm suprised no one snapped it up yet.

K. Z. Snow said...

Welcome, Chris! I imagine there are many such instances on Amazon. Maybe I was a little startled because I rarely shop there.

You're absolutely right, Jen. And this is true of everything in life, from food to fashion to music and movies. As I said above, I think I was just jolted because I rarely go to Amazon and get smacked by such divergent opinions. I did notice, though, the admirers of the book were more articulate than the nay-sayers. This gave them more credibility, at least in my mind.

Tam, this book is definitely not a feel-good read. It has been made into a movie, which I didn't find engaging at all. There's a lot more tension and nuance in the novel.

Tam said...

Well there you go, I'm always behind the wave. Sigh. Out of the loop, yep, that's me. But hey, I've been to Lake of the Woods and lived to tell the tale so that should count for somthing.

Kassa said...

Amazon has a lot of variety in opinions and really that's all it is. Good reads and such have a tremendous amount of variety too. Four people read the same book and all have different views or sometimes all have the same view? lol which is better?

MB (Leah) said...

Hmmm... I think when I read reviews of a book that are so extreme in opposition then I know that book is affecting people on a very visceral level and is probably worth to read.

When I see a lot of mehs, then it's probably not going to affect me too much and I probably won't bother.

I would have done what you did and focus on the neg reviews. I know for me, it's much easier to articulate what sucked for me rather then what worked. If I like a book there's probably something intangible in it that's hard to describe about why I liked it. But when a book sucks, I usually know exactly why.

But it just goes to show that reviews are neither here nor there as far as really telling a person whether or not they will like a book.

Wordveri: bangsped. I got bangsped last night. LOL

K. Z. Snow said...

Ooo, have you really been there, Tam? I know most of Lake of the Woods is in Ontario.

I lived in Minnesota for six years but never made it up to the Angle. I usually spent my leisure time camping along the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers or along the North Shore of Lake Superior.

What's it like? O'Brien makes it sound as easy to get lost in as a South American jungle. His evocation of place is really stunning, which helps give the novel its unique, moody atmosphere.

K. Z. Snow said...

Leah, what the negative reviews did, ironically enough, was help me recall exactly why I liked the book.

I was drawn in by its quirks, including the "unlikely" plot that really wasn't, after I'd thought about it, all that unlikely in this day and age. There are stressors in life that play with the mind and twist it out of shape...and adversely affect other people.

I've never really been drawn to run-of-the-mill stories, so the readers who were screaming about the book's badness just reignited my interest in it (heh, perverse bitch that I am)!

K. Z. Snow said...

I never check out GoodReads either, Kassa, but yes, I suppose the same diversity is there, too. I usually let excerpts and instinct be my guides. (Hell, I've been reading for SO long--won't say exactly how long, 'cause that would be way too revealing ;-)--that I have a pretty good handle on my tastes.)

Tam said...

I grew up in Manitoba, granted north western but I lived in Winnipeg for many years and have been camping in that area with my parents. It's been many years though. There isn't much in the way of civilization so I think you could easily get lost. Not sure it's quite on the South American jungle level, but one tree pretty much looks like the next one. LOL

K. Z. Snow said...

Okay, that makes sense. It isn't much of a drive from Winnipeg to there. How cool! Lake of the Woods is really sprawling, though. Islands all over the place, too. I imagine some parts are more isolated and woodsy than others.