Thursday, 28 January 2010

It's to die for

Legend of a Suicide is an astonishing set of short stories and a novella by David Vann (Penguin, 2008). It would be hard to call it a novel, although all the stories revolve around the same theme: suicide (oddly enough).

David Vann comes from Alaska, which is an odd enough country to be from in the first place. It’s a little like coming from Iceland, where it’s practically obligatory to be a craftsman or woman, in some line of creative endeavour, whether making clothes or jewellery or Nordic myths. Seemingly everyone worth their salt in Alaska is a huntsman and carpenter, filling their homes with handmade tables and beds, and covering their floors with furs.

But Vann’s personal history makes simply coming from Alaska pale into insignificance. Here is a man whose father went out and had affairs, divorced his mother, divorced his stepmother, had more affairs, failed as a dentist, a woodsman and a fisherman, and then shot himself.

You can’t trust that all the facts about Vann’s life that seem to be recounted within the stories are true, because they often contradict each other. But the protagonist’s father certainly shot himself. Guns are a recurring theme in the stories, whether the father or the son is mishandling them. There is a scene in which the son breaks into his own home, in the years after his father’s suicide, looking around it through the eyes of an intruder. Later he takes one of his father’s guns and shoots out all the windows of his own home. It turns out that he hopes one of his mother’s better boyfriends, a cop, will turn up at the crime scene. As it happens the cop does appear, but the boy’s very action means that the cop can never become a father to him. He both desperately wants a father, and constantly destroys any possibility of a relationship with one.

There appears at first to be little structure in the collection of tales: they seem to be connected oneirically. By the fourth, Sukkwan Island, however, it becomes clear that there is a palindromic organization, with the shorter episodes, or versions, of the main story circulating in constellation around this novella-length story. Everything points towards Sukkwan Island.

In this story Vann puts his protagonist, Roy, and his father, Jim, on a tiny island, up an Alaskan fjord. They are the only human inhabitants. Jim has sold his dentistry practice to buy a very small A-frame hut, in which he intends to live with his thirteen-year-old son for a year. They are going to hunt and fish for their food, and survive alone.

Very soon, however, Roy, through whose eyes we see the first part of the story, realizes that his father is not well. He cries at night, but pretends that nothing is wrong during the day. He clearly has no idea how to survive in the wilderness and makes elementary mistakes because he has no ability to perceive the consequences of his actions. Once, on a hike, his father appears to step off a cliff, crashing many metres down, and nearly killing himself. He begins to make radio contact with his ex-second wife, hoping to rekindle her affections, but to no avail. Roy broods silently, wishing he could get away, frightened by his father’s unreliability, abandoned and bored. They stockpile an enormous amount of food in a pit, and lock it away, but fail to build a proper shelter for firewood. The winter hits them. At the end of the first part of the story, Roy walks into the hut to find his father playing with a pistol.

Vann’s singular purpose in these stories is to articulate and re-articulate the dynamic that exists between father and son. At many points what is described is the failure of a dynamic, a dialogue that in fact only takes place in the boy’s head, as he desperately tries to understand the clues and signs his father scatters about: in the final story, The Higher Blue, the narrator imagines father and son making zabaglione, using three different recipe books which all contradict one another:

But when he [the boy] looks at the recipe, he sees that it calls for six egg yolks. They have only three eggs. The other recipe called for only three eggs. The boy grapples with his fear of annihilation. Does he dare to point out another flaw ? Won’t it start to look like his own fault ?

The boy grapples with his fear of annihilation, because he can never tell what reaction he will meet if he points out a problem to his father — and there are many problems, because of his father’s essential incompetence and unreliability. Desperate to forgive and condone his father, in order to get him back (or get him at all), the boy tries to short-circuit the adult-child order, and take responsibility for the many, many mistakes, making it his own fault that he can see them so clearly, as though he is a traitor to his father’s self-image. He does not want to be the boy who points out that the emperor has no clothes.

But the boy himself is not always so reliable. Vann is a master of leading the narrative tone in one direction, and then disrupting it out of nowhere, so that our conclusions about the boy’s own mental stability are constantly called into question. In Ketchikan, the boy, now aged 30, goes back to his childhood village, to try to lay his father’s ghost to rest. He works on a fish farm:

Late night, I wandered. At the gates of the hatchery, I spun the lock, slipped inside. I took hundreds of little fingerlings by net, dumped handfuls in my pockets, walked along cliffs above the roadway, bare rock cut in grooves, and held out the fish one by one in an open palm. The miniature salmon leaped each of their own accord, a tail flash into the night, glint of silver, sixty feet of twisting, and an inaudible slap to the pavement below. Waiting then. For water, for some new rule, new possibility, that could make pavement not pavement, air not air, a fall not a fall.

The reader believes the boy to be a victim of his father’s suicide and mental illness. The obvious sense in which the miniature salmon are standing in for Roy cannot, however, cancel out the way in which he abuses them, transmitting his abandonment to other living creatures in the form of torture. When we realize his sadism towards the fish, and couple it with other moments, like the shooting of the windows, a more frightening abyss opens, in which Roy has inherited his father’s mental absences and lapses, and we wonder what his future will bring.

Vann’s style is often still and simple, with a high degree of repetition. When Roy and his father are alone together on Sukkwan Island, they do an awful lot of sleeping, reading, eating, chopping, fishing and digging, and it rains or snows almost constantly. The narrative unfolds line by line: it is impossible to see further ahead than the next sentence, as though the words were shrouded in the same mist as the island itself. Patient and persistent, a terrible foreboding stomps along, and builds itself into a mountain of anticipation: when will things change? What is the outcome going to be? It is going to be terrible — but how terrible?

But at moments this linearity and simplicity is forsaken for an intense lyricism that recalls Lautréamont. In Ketchikan, the adult Roy decides to take a rowing boat out of harbour at night:

A warm, strong breeze, carrying all but the water, no ripple but its hold strong on everything else, making distance impossible. I rowed unnoticed beneath masts and sonar, bells and spotlights, rowed, I fancied, with the seamless propulsion of jellyfish in the one element, rowed past jagged rocks onto a sea nostalgic and opaque, swelling slowly, as if considering spilling over until the rim of the world lifted inevitably, slipped, and I was in a rowboat, wet from mist and shivering […].

He is suspended in a dreamlike state until the consequences of the ocean’s reality spill over him, and he comes to, aware of the risk he has taken, and his littleness in the face of the sea’s cold power.

In Legend of a Suicide, nature is an adversary, a killer, from which bounty may be ripped at great personal cost. Man is an ignorant, foolish weakling in nature, for the most part screened from his true nullity by city life, habit, and the common sense of women. “I don’t have to be angry any more,” says Roy’s mother. “I can feel sorry for him now and do the old-woman-rich-with-memories-and-longing routine. Though occasionally I give it a rest.”

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