TagDavid Vann

David Vann, Caribou Island (2011)

It’s always great to have a book come out of nowhere and surprise you: when I read David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide in 2009, I knew nothing about it or its author (probably wouldn’t have read it at all had I not won a copy in a competition) – and was in no way prepared for it to blow me away as it did. Of course, the flipside of this is that the same level of surprise isn’t possible when it comes to reading something else by the same author, and that will almost inevitably have an effect on how one reacts to that new work. So, when I say that Caribou Island – Vann’s latest book, and his first novel – didn’t have quite the same impact as Legend of a Suicide… well, perhaps it was never very likely to. That doesn’t, however, stop it from being a powerful piece of work in its own right.

Caribou Island is a portrait of two relationships under strain. Gary and Irene are about to move from the Alaskan mainland to Caribou Island, to fulfil Gary’s dream of building a cabin the old-fashioned way; Irene, by the way, wants nothing of this, but hasn’t had much say in the matter. Meanwhile, the couple’s daughter Rhoda is hoping to get married to her boyfriend, Jim – though Jim has rather taken a shine to Monique, a visiting friend of Rhoda’s brother. And Monique has apparently taken a shine to Jim, despite being in a relationship of her own.

Vann’s hallmarks from Legend of a Suicide are present here: a strong sense of place, coupled with a strong sense of physicality, the work it takes to live in such landscapes; and a skilful control of mood. Right there in the first paragraph is an example of how Vann can pull the reader up short, as Irene casualy tells Rhoda how, at the age of ten, she came home one day to find her mother’s hanging body – no lead-up, no drama, just matter-of-fact; it sets a tone for the novel of tragedy never being far from the surface.

The landscape of Alaska is also used to great effect in Caribou Island, as it reflects the differing concerns of the characters. For example, Gary, who was once studying for a doctorate in Scandinavian literature, seeks from Alaska a land, or a life, redolent of those earlier times he studied. In contrast, for Monique’s boyfriend Carl, Alaska is simply a place from which to escape, as it has done nothing but destroy his relationship. And when Jim goes on a helicopter tour of the area with Monique, he sees the familiar land anew, which echoes his restlessness.

The external world reflects the internal in other ways, too, the most prominent being Gary’s cabin, which he sees as being ‘the extension of a man, a form of his own mind’ – hence, it symbolises his relationship with Irene, and Gary is equally ill-equipped for both. I’m inclined to agree with William Rycroft that the symbolism is made that bit too obvious, and that having Irene think explicitly about how building the cabin could be a metaphor for her life is overdoing it; but the entire novel remains a highly elegant construction.

There are some nicely effective contrasts in Caribou Island, such as the irony of Irene’s embracing of the wilderness towards the end, just as Gary is realising some of the drawbacks of his desire for it; and the differing trajectories of Irene’s and Rhoda’s respective relationships. What also strikes me, though, is that many of the fundamental reasons for characters’ dissatisfactions remain hidden; for all that’s revealed, I think a lot is also left unsaid. The most content character in the book seems to be Rhoda’s brother Mark; he is also one of the most distant from the reader, suggesting how elusive true happiness is within the pages of Caribou Island. It’s a bleak book, yes, but also a beautiful one.

Further links
David Vann’s website
Guardian interview with Vann
Caribou Island blogged elsewhere: Just William’s Luck; Savidge Reads; Dovegreyreader; All the Books I Can Read.

Links: 25th November

Okay, this is my first attempt at doing a links post. Hopefully, over time, these will become more frequent, and the links more numerous; but, for now, you may find these pages of interest:

  • Adam Roberts reviews Transition by Iain Banks, and doesn’t think much of it.
  • Niall Harrison reviews three books, and reminds me that I really need to get around to reading The Ask and the Answer.
  • Lija from The Writer’s Pet interviews David Vann.
  • A few months old, but well worth reading: John Grant champions the good stuff.
  • Gav from NextRead asks what reviews are good for.
  • And, finally,  just because: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ as you’ve never heard it before.

Legend of a Suicide (2008) by David Vann

David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide is one of those books that takes concepts like ‘novel’ and ‘short story collection’, tears them up into tiny pieces, and leaves the reader to make sense of the result. It comprises six chapters/stories, the longest of which takes up 170 of the 230 pages. The five shorter pieces may or may not take place within the same chronology; the novella probably doesn’t, because it contradicts the rest of the book – but it depends how you interpret what happens.

What, then, is the purpose of this narrative structure? To answer that, we have to go back to the event around which the text revolves. Roy, Vann’s protagonist, is a boy of twelve when his parents divorce, and not much older when his dentist-turned-fisherman father shoots himself in the head. The first chapter essentially tells the story of this; the others explore how the characters (in particular Roy and his parents) are affected by those events.

Vann pulls off a tricky literary feat in depicting three characters who all have personal qualities that would, in isolation, put one off wanting to know them; yet are still sympathetic, because we see enough of the whole person. Roy’s mother Elizabeth is the one of whom we see the least (the father-son relationship is most prominent, after all); but we nevertheless gain a sense of how profoundly she has been affected by her husband’s actions (his unfaithfulness was what precipitated the divorce). After the suicide, Elizabeth is unable to hold down a relationship for any length of time, actively pushing her lovers away. This is unfair on those men, of course; but, after what Elizabeth has been through, it’s no wonder that she might behave in such a way.

One is far less inclined to sympathise with Jim, Roy’s father; and I don’t think he does ultimately inspire sympathy – nor empathy, for that matter. Acceptance, perhaps. Jim’s character is most fully explored in the novella-chapter, wherein thirteen-year-old Roy leaves his mother’s California home to spend a year with his father in a cabin on a remote Alaskan island. The first part of this story, told from the boy’s viewpoint, establishes the pair’s routine: attempting to live self-sufficiently during the day (though they came ill-prepared, and pay dearly for it), and Jim crying himself to sleep at night. This cycle could have been too repetitive, but Vann maintains his narrative momentum through a combination of careful plotting that shakes things up every so often, and quietly skilful writing which carries a suggestion that all this physical activity is displacement activity, so father and son don’t have to confront the issues between them.

They do so eventually, of course, and Jim confesses his inadequacy – he knows the type of man he ought to be, but not how to become that way. We gain more insight into Jim’s state of mind in the second part of the novella, where the viewpoint shifts to him, and the mood changes subtly. The intensely purposeful activity of the first part now gains a frantic edge, and a sense that Jim is buckling under the pressure of reality. He becomes something of a tragic figure as the tale progresses, and starts to redeem himself in the final sentences – but, alas, by then it’s too late for him.

On the face of it, Roy would seem to have come through things relatively unscathed: his first-person narrative voice is calm, measured, reasonable – which makes it all the more disarming when, in that same voice, he tells of smashing all the windows in his mother’s house. At the age of thirty, Roy returns to the Alaskan island of Ketchikan, where he grew up – an attempt to lay the ghosts of the past to rest, but it turns out to be misguided. By the very end of the book, however, Roy appears to have come to terms with the events of his childhood – but his method is rather drastic. If he has indeed made peace with life, it’s an uneasy truce – which is perhaps the best he could have hoped for.

Legend of a Suicide is an intensely personal book (it is dedicated to Vann’s father, who himself committed suicide); there is a sense of protagonist and author alike working through their experiences – but not in a way that makes the reader feel unwelcome. This is a book that asks for thought and attention, and repays them richly. The title suggests an event which has grown larger than itself, which echoes long after it has finished. One might say something similar – albeit with more positive implications – about these stories.

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