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.