Tuesday 25 January 2011

'misery loves company'

Caribou Island 
by David Vann

Vann's Legend Of A Suicide was a bit of a hit last year. Whether it was a novel or a connected set of stories it was certainly a work hugely influenced by the real-life suicide of his father, an act on which Vann managed to execute a devastating literary revenge in the book's central section - Sukkwan Island. With such deeply personal material it was always going to be interesting to read his next fiction, to see whether he would continue to write about the same subject or move his focus somewhere else. With another titular island and the mention of a parental suicide on the very first page I was immediately worried that we might be treading familiar ground, a suspicion that both was and wasn't born out by the rest of the novel.

Gary and Irene are a couple living in Alaska, a place they came to live in almost by accident, after a sojourn extended well beyond their initial plans and now several years down the line, their children grown up, their marriage is in danger of collapse. Having come here as idealistic children of the earth, hunting with bow and arrow over an unspoiled wilderness, they have become disconnected from that dream, living a life of unachieved goals. But to rescue that Gary has a project: a plot of land on the island of the title on which he will build a cabin for Irene and himself to share over the winter; a retreat they will build together, a shelter whose symbolism is all too clear. Starting the work far later in the year than he planned, the storm-laden first day does not augur well for the project's success.

We have to get this load out to the island, he yelled back, and then he pulled another log, so Irene followed, though she knew she was being punished. Gary would never do this directly. He relied on the rain, the wind, the apparent necessity of the project. It would be a day of punishment. He would follow it, extend it for hours, drive them on, a grim determination, like fate. A form of pleasure to him.
Irene followed because once she had endured she could punish. Her turn would come. And this is what they had done for decades now, irresistibly. Fine, she would think. Fine. And that meant, just wait.

The building of the cabin is of course the rebuilding of the marriage but it is clear from the beginning that this will be a botched job. Gary has made little or no planning or preparation, the logs themselves seem to be a little thin for the archetypal log-cabin, he hasn't really thought about how to include windows or even a door. As the extract above shows, this is something that they are not united behind, each has their own reason for pursuing it, and if marriage is a hard enough path on which to keep two people running along together even when they have the same aims then we know that such divergence so early makes this a project doomed to failure before it has really begun.

Irene could see, in one terrible moment, that they really would live out here. The cabin would not go together right. It would not have what they needed. But they would live in it anyway. She could see that with absolute clarity. And though she wanted to tell Gary to live out here on his own, she knew she couldn't do that, because it was the excuse he was looking for. He'd leave her forever, and it was not okay for her to be left again. That would not happen again in her life.

That final sentence refers to the parental suicide I mentioned earlier. Irene's mother took her own life when Irene was a child, an event she has barely spoken about with her own daughter, Rhoda, until the conversation that opens the book. 'My mother was never real to me' she says, but the illness that she develops after that disasterous rain-soaked first day out to the island is the physical beginning of something that gives her an insight into what might have lain behind her mother's suicide, and Irene's engagement with what had remained taboo for so many years not only makes her mother real for the first time but is all part of her examination of a life in exile.

A concentration again behind her right eye, a fault line, the bones of her skull like tectonic plates moving, grinding at the edges. Her only goal each day now was to get through the day, her only goal each sleepless night to get through the night. Reduced to existence, to bare survival, and there was something good about that maybe, something honest. But she still felt other things, too, light drifting notes somewhere out there: loneliness for instance. She missed Rhoda. She hadn't stopped feeling entirely.
Irene wondered if this was what had made her mother's end possible, the fading away of feeling...

Gary meanwhile is driven by other forces far more destructive, as his stubborn behaviour on that very first day showed. One lifelong passion has been the epic poem Beowulf, passages of which he has always been able to quote, but it has taken all the years of his life so far, to have seen his life 'wasted', to finally understand that the poem isn't simply about religion but 'A kind of bliss to annihilation, to being wiped away. But ever he has longing, he who sets out on the sea, and this longing is to face the very worst, a delicate hope for a larger wave.' A self-destructive streak that is closer to a death wish drives his doomed labour and Irene as we know is convinced of his determination to fail and make his escape. Vann's description of landscape and location is excellent but it is his physical descriptions of labour that really give the reader a sense of the volatility of emotions and a psychological landscape as dangerous as the physical one around them. Occasionally the metaphors feel a bit obvious with Irene at one point even naming it as such after suggesting that Gary nail the ill-fitting logs together.

And she was thinking this was some kind of metaphor, that if they could take all their previous selves and nail them together, get who they were five years ago and twenty-five years ago to fit closer together, maybe they'd have a sense of something solid.

Part of me wished that the need to make things explicit had been resisted, the metaphors and symbols couldn't be clearer, but there is no doubting the power achieved by Vann in his examination of an intimacy battered by environment and experience and the danger of unearthing those thoughts that we have kept buried under a comforting and beautifying blanket of snow. In fact so good is the central story of Gary and Irene's marriage that it might have been enough on its own, containing the same kind of claustrophobia in wide open spaces that made Sukkwan Island such a powerful piece of writing. But it's easy to see how Vann needed to bring in the story of their daughter Rhoda not only because it allows us to develop the theme of parental care and the legacy a mother can leave her daughter (whether through advice or action) but also because her own desire to be married can contrast with the state of her parents marriage; her own dreams for a tropical wedding in Hawaii aren't just an obvious counterpoint to the freezing landscape of Alaska but her ignorance of her potential fiancees philandering and attitude to marriage show how far she is from even starting off on the right foot. By bringing in her elder boyfriend Jim, we then have to look at the young girl who turns his head, Monique and by extension her boyfriend Carl. Suddenly we have a story that has become a novel by widening the gaze but characters like Carl and Monique, however entertaining, weren't ever truly satisfying for me and I couldn't help but want to get back to the far more focused and compelling story on the island of the title. Might this have been better approached as a novella like Sukkwan Island, showcasing again Vann's unique ability to make us feel the claustrophobia of open spaces when combined with the suffocation of our closest relationships, or am I just wishing for what I would have preferred personally? Your own thoughts after reading it will be the only way to answer that one. But there is no doubting the significant achievements of this novel and the impact that Vann has made with his first works of fiction. Comparisons with Cormac McCarthy have already been made showing just how much he has cemented his arrival. Personally, I'm already looking forward to what he does next.


Simon (Savidge Reads) 28 January 2011 at 13:54  

Great post William. I was also left mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand I thought it was a fantatsic book in many ways, I mean the writing is genius, and yet in some ways I was a little let down (maybe thats too harsh as I am glad I read it and will read more of his work) at the same time. I felt I had been there before and yet at the same time like I hadn't. Overall though I think he is definitley an author to watch!

William Rycroft 29 January 2011 at 10:15  

Thanks for commenting Simon. A lot of the newspaper and other media reviews for this book have been full of praise, keen to see it as the book that lifts Vann up there to contend with the heavyweights. I definitely enjoyed reading it and think that his writing at times does put him up there with the best but I'm still not quite convinced that this book is the full package. It's hard as you say to put your finger on exactly why it feels that way but that feeling was there nonetheless. I await impatiently what he will produce next.

Max Cairnduff 9 February 2011 at 17:14  

It doesn't sound the full package. Too obvious perhaps. The situation sounds unlikely and yet portentous, which isn't the best combination.

On an incredibly petty note, I'm far from persuaded that Beowulf is about the bliss of annihilation in any way much, but I've been wrong before and could be again of course. Is that just an idea of the character's or is there some argument for it?

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