David Vann’s novel – his debut, after a short story collection, Legend of a Suicide (2008), and a memoir, A Mile Down (2005) – is a book that makes Cormac McCarthy’s The Road read like a walk in the park. Compared to Caribou Island, The Road is grim-lit lite. After 200 pages of unrelenting misery, McCarthy breaks down and accepts the possibility of grace: after a long trudge through a post-apocalyptic landscape, a woman turns up on the last page, out of the blue, and says: ‘The breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.’ So that’s nice: there’s a glimmer, or a gasp, some mist on the mirror. Vann, on the other hand, after a similar slog, stands his ground, holds his breath, and neither offers nor accepts any mercy.
Gary and Irene are an Alaskan couple whose marriage is disintegrating. Gary is a graduate-school dropout who likes to recite ‘The Seafarer’ and who has failed, and continues to fail, in just about every enterprise he sets his hand to. He is a ‘champion at regret’. ‘Above all else, Gary was an impatient man: impatient with the larger shape of his life, with who he was and what he’d done and become, impatient with his wife and children, and then, of course, impatient with all the little things, any action not done correctly, any moment of weather that was uncooperative.’ Years before, Gary had wanted to be a medievalist, but found he didn’t have the patience for that either. ‘He was fine on the primary texts but couldn’t keep up on the secondary documents, long histories and registers, almanacs, journals, all in Middle English. Religious documents in Middle English, Old English and Latin. Then all the criticism, keeping up with current books and articles. It was just too much.’ You know the feeling.
Irene, meanwhile, is a retired schoolteacher whose mother committed suicide, and who starts toying with the idea herself. She has started suffering from blinding headaches. ‘Not worth living if you only felt pain, so if the pain seemed unending, the logical thing was to end your life.’ This is an error in logic, perhaps, but Irene is far beyond the reach of philosophy. She is out of sorts and out of joint. ‘Who she was today did not fit with two weeks ago, before the headaches, and who she was then did not fit with a few months ago, not yet retired, still in the classroom with the children.’ Gary has persuaded her to help him fulfil his life’s ambition by building a log cabin on a small uninhabited Alaskan island – Caribou Island. They build the cabin, and bicker and argue, while their daughter, Rhoda, back on the mainland, worries about them.
Rhoda has problems of her own. She’s in a loveless relationship with a hapless, horny dentist called Jim, who throws himself into an affair with a half-crazed prick-teaser called Monique. Rhoda’s brother, Mark, meanwhile, is a whacked-out stoner fisherman who, according to Rhoda, has been ‘an unreliable fuck’ all his life, and couldn’t care less about his parents. They’re all characters on the edge and they only need one little push to send them over. In the words of the narrator of one of the stories in Legend of a Suicide, these are people who have ‘already entered the last beautiful, desperate, far-ranging circlings’ of their lives. Welcome to Vann’s demon land.
He’s been mapping the place for some time, though Caribou Island is undoubtedly the big picture, the grand unveil; until now, everything else has been sketches. Here’s where it all began; on the second page of his first book, the memoir, Vann wrote: ‘My father killed himself when I was 13, so my knowledge of him is limited. No one can tell me exactly why he decided to quit his dental practice and build a commercial fishing boat or what he felt when he had to sell the boat and return to dentistry.’ The book is dedicated to his father – ‘For James Edwin Vann, 1940-80’ – and the dedication page bears a fuzzy photograph of a man and a boy in wet-weather gear, holding up their fishing catch. Although ostensibly a super-smooth, mucho-macho Vanity Fair-style account of his failed attempt to establish himself in the private-hire cruise business, the book is clearly also Vann’s attempt to understand his own failures and achievements in relation to his father’s. ‘I have thought more than once that perhaps I embarked on the entire boating enterprise simply to repeat his experience so that I could know him better – perhaps even, in a way, recover him after his death.’ He deliberately descends to the depths. ‘The things I believed about myself were becoming untrue. I believed I always succeeded. I believed my hard work would pay off. I believed I was good for my word, that of course I would repay any debt. I believed I treated people well and fairly. I wanted to keep believing these things.’ So what happens when you can no longer believe what you thought you believed about yourself? A Mile Down is basically Vann’s report on a question that was set long ago by his father’s suicide: when things get bad, will I too kill myself?
Legend of a Suicide asks the same question via a series of stories; the book bears the same dedication as A Mile Down, and imagines and reimagines suicide scene after suicide scene. Caribou Island has finally dropped the dedication, but the lament and the challenge remain the same. Gary’s desire is ‘to see what the world can do, to see what you can endure, to see, finally, what you’re made of as you’re torn apart’. And here is Irene, on page 1: ‘I opened our front door and found my mother hanging from the rafters. I’m sorry, I said, and I stepped back and closed the door.’ When one door closes on a suicide in Vann’s work, another one opens. At the end of A Mile Down he writes: ‘I can only hope that my entire life hasn’t been a plaything of his abrupt end’; well, it has and hasn’t. Suicide is not merely Vann’s subject, his theme, or his preoccupation: it’s the habit of his soul. It’s his method.
And this – we should admit it, terrible as it is – gives him, as a writer, a great advantage. Even someone as sane, unsentimental and straight-thinking as Raymond Aron had to confess to the awful appeal of suicide as a subject. ‘Why are the living fascinated by the act whereby a man voluntarily brings about his own death?’ he asks in his foreword to Jean Baechler’s Suicides. ‘Probably because suicide creates an unease within us all or, better, a sort of metaphysical anxiety; it interrupts everything for a moment; it ensures that we meditate on the meaning of our own condition.’ Suicide holds sway; Al Alvarez, quoting Yeats, famously called it a ‘savage god’. It demands attention, simply as subject matter, and of course in Vann’s case even more so, because we know it’s not merely subject matter, not just a story: this stuff, in some way, is about his life and his father’s life. (All characters in Vann’s fiction seem both to be and not be his father: Caribou Island has a character called Jim, a luckier Jim than the character called Jim in Legend of a Suicide, but also a dentist, like Vann’s father, Jim; Vann seems to be in the process of bestowing on his father other lives, and new possibilities.) And so Vann becomes not just a writer, or just an observer: he is also, undeniably, the hero of his work. His books have attracted a great deal of media interest and excitement, with interviewers, understandably, always asking the same questions: first about his dad, and his childhood, and then about the books. Our knowledge of the life – it cannot but do otherwise – informs and enhances our opinion of the prose.
Not that it needs much enhancing. Vann’s work would be impressive if it was only an exercise in moral statistics, a totting up of what happened, and how, with some pontificating about what this tells us about our moral or social lives – impressive in the sense that, say, Durkheim’s work on suicide is impressive, or Thomas Masaryk’s. Durkheim, in Le Suicide, famously distinguished types of suicide – the egoistic, the altruistic and the anomic – and argued that the different types expressed different conditions of society. Or, in sociology-speak:
At any given moment the moral constitution of society establishes the contingent of voluntary deaths. There is, therefore, for each people a collective force of a definite amount of energy, impelling men to self-destruction. The victim’s acts which at first seem to express only his personal temperament are really the supplement and prolongation of a social condition which they express externally.
Masaryk, another early theorist of suicide, believed that it was ‘caused by the irreligiosity of the masses’: ‘My psychological and sociological analysis of suicidism has taught me that the number of suicides is a direct mathematical measure of the real mood of society, that society is deep down in the depths of its soul excited, perturbed, sick.’ One could doubtless read Vann’s work in relation to such theories, as an indictment, a measure, or an expression of, and a meditation on, ‘suicidism’ and the American dream.
But it’s better than that: he’s better than that. He does have what one might call his Masaryk moments, when the characters start to ponder. ‘The question, really,’ Jim muses,
was what his life was about. He didn’t believe in God, and he wasn’t in the right field to become famous or powerful. Those were the three biggies: faith, fame and power. They could justify a life, perhaps, or at least make you think your life meant something. All the crap about being a good guy, treating people well, and spending time with family was only crap because it had nothing to anchor it. There was no cosmic scorecard.
But there’s not too much keeping of cosmic scorecards. Vann’s great triumph is his clear – and doubtless hard-won – understanding that the act of suicide itself, the grand gesture, is significant and interesting only in relation to every little defeat and difficulty that came before, and everything that might happen afterwards. Thus, the suicidal act is the end of his novel, but is really only the beginning of the story – just as the novel begins with Irene remembering her mother’s suicide. ‘There is, by definition, no earthly means of interviewing a suicide,’ Anthony Giddens writes in The Sociology of Suicide. In effect, Vann is doing in his fiction what in life is impossible: he’s interviewing the dead, or those who are in the process of dying, and in so doing recovering their reasons, their motives and their stories. Caribou Island is not really about a suicidal act, it’s about a series of suicidal behaviours: it’s an inventory of all the conditions that lead to a terrible thing. Because the terrible thing is never just about the terrible thing.
Let us take the obvious importance of the log cabin to Vann’s story. The cabin is a place clearly representative of, and in some way a symbol of, the American dream; not 40 acres and a mule, but a couple of acres and some tools. The cabin on Caribou Island – we are told on page 173 – ‘was not about the cabin’. But most readers will have worked this out from about page 4: ‘They were going to build their cabin from scratch. No foundation, even. And no plans, no experience, no permits, no advice welcome. Gary wanted to just do it, as if the two of them were the first to come upon this wilderness.’ The fact that it’s a cabin reminds us of Thoreau, and of the frontier spirit, and Gary and Irene in the wilderness perhaps remind us of Adam and Eve, and ‘just do it’ reminds us of … Nike. ‘They made one more layer, then lifted each layer off and dragged it aside for tomorrow’s work. Tomorrow they’d try to make it all fit together more closely.’ Or, to quote Obama, in that famous speech at Grant Park, Chicago, on 4 November 2008, ‘I will ask you to join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it’s been done in America for 221 years – block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.’ A city on a hill: a cabin in the wilderness. When Gary masturbates against the side of the cabin, it is the culmination of his yearning and desire for a new way of life. Unfortunately, as Irene points out, right at the start, Gary is no more capable of building a good solid cabin than he is of becoming a good solid medieval scholar. ‘It’s going to look like a hovel made out of sticks,’ she says, and it does. The cabin is not about the cabin. The cabin is about the building of the cabin. It’s not the destination – as Gary’s son Mark might say, after a toke or two. It’s the journey.
Most of the book, indeed, consists of page after page of describing Gary and Irene working on the cabin, and travelling to and from the island on their little boat, although it’s never really just description, it’s always action:
He hopped aboard, the back end sitting very low, every third or fourth breaking wave dumping in some water from its crest, and he gunned the motor full throttle to jam the boat closer to shore. Irene could hear the bow scrape over rocks. It moved about a foot and then stopped. The stern tipped lower, though, too, because of the angle, and more water came in. Damn it, Gary yelled, and he grabbed the bailing bucket, throwing fast to get ahead of the waves, bending and springing up and bending again, throwing gallons at a time.
Bending and springing up and bending again: Vann’s prose imitates and celebrates momentum, which is how a novelist, like anyone else, gets things done. Jim the dentist, for example, is always eating peaches. But he doesn’t just eat them; he goes through the process of eating them. ‘Pulling peach halves from a can to put on these pancakes, and licking the sides of the can unnecessarily with his fork.’ Everything in the novel is a rattling around in a can with a fork.
Plenty of things happen. There is shockingly plausible scene after shockingly plausible scene. Monique, for example, the young woman with whom Jim is having an affair, turns up with her boyfriend Carl for dinner at the house that Jim shares with Rhoda, and then Jim and Monique have sex in the living-room, everyone else having gone to bed after a jolly post-dinner game of Twister. Then there’s a scene when Carl gets rid of Monique’s clothes by stuffing them down an outhouse toilet. ‘The old man had finished the pile below with very light brown shit, covered now by her clothing. This is what Alaska is, right here, Carl said. A place where people shit. Just a bigger toilet.’ Vann could have had Carl simply say that Alaska was a shithole. But how much better to have him ponder on the nature of a shithole, at a shithole, shoving his shitty girlfriend’s clothes in the shit? Similarly, what does Vann do if he wants to show a character feeling blocked in, thwarted and obstructed? Obviously, he has their actual view obstructed. ‘Irene climbed higher, hitting plateaus and slopes all hidden by forest, until she had reached a hump with no higher to go, still surrounded, still no view, a panorama that was there but blocked on every side.’ How do you write about deep, deep darkness? In Legend of a Suicide, in the story ‘A Legend of Good Men’, Vann has the protagonist shoot out streetlights: ‘Nothing was more beautiful to me than the blue-white explosion of a streetlight seen through crosshairs. The sound of it – the pop that was almost a roar, then silence, then glass rain – came only after each fragment and shard had sailed off or twisted glittering in the air like mist.’ And what about fear, and loss and isolation? In the story ‘Sukkwan Island’, a boy’s father sets off to kill a bear, leaving him alone in an isolated cabin. ‘He felt afraid and started talking out loud: How could you just leave me here? I don’t have anything to eat and I don’t know when you’re coming back.’ One can perhaps imagine the note taped above Vann’s desk: dramatise, dramatise. Although he puts it better himself in ‘A Legend of Good Men’: ‘“Men,” my mother said, “are full of surprises. They’re never who you think they are.” I began to imagine that all men were in costume, that somewhere down each of their backs was a zipper. Then it occurred to me that someday I would be a man, also, and I wondered about the zipper thing.’ All men are in costume. And somewhere down each of their backs is a zipper. And Vann’s great at the zipper thing.
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