Legend of a Suicide, By David Vann
The ghost of Hemingway stalks this haunting story
Sunday 15 November 2009
Suicide is always horribly violent. It's the death that wreaks maximum havoc on those left behind. Whether writing about it can be therapeutic is doubtful, but David Vann has drawn upon it to produce this striking – and sometimes shocking – work of literature. This is a collection of five interlinked short stories plus a novella, which constitute an extended fictionalised treatment of Vann's father's disturbing and untimely exit from life.
The fictional alter egos of Vann and his father are called Roy and Jim. Most of the action takes place in and around Alaska, an unforgiving environment. Jim is a disillusioned dentist in the grip of an unusually turbulent mid-lifer, which surges up and swamps his whole existence, work and private life alike. In search of an alternative lifestyle as a lone adventurer, he sells his practice for a fishing boat. But the fish keep their distance and, when his other investments backfire, he plunges into serious financial trouble. Amid the chaos, he has left Roy's mother for a mistress, but that relationship doesn't work out either. It's not long before he is on the stern of the boat, raising a Magnum revolver to his head.
There is further trauma for Roy when his mother starts to date a series of new partners. Fortunately, the US is good to boys who like guns and Roy has some enviable ordnance to hand. He shoots out street lamps ("Nothing was more beautiful to me than the blue-white explosion of a streetlight seen through cross-hairs"), then traffic lights and, eventually, the doors and windows of the family home.
The novella, "Sukkwan Island", stands alone in deviating markedly from the facts presented in the short stories. It details Jim's descent into madness and disaster on a remote island in the company of Roy. The turning-of-the-tables nature of its plot can be regarded, surely, as an act of revenge by Vann upon his father. Vann has a notable ability to capture mounting horror in economical prose. At times his writing is spare enough to evoke Ernest Hemingway, and he is adept at describing the austere and threatening beauty of the far north. When Roy gazes out from Sukkwan, "He liked... how the water became a molten gray, the sea heavier than anything and impossible to see into."
Vann is not afraid to strike out at classic themes. Roy's stories revolve around rites of passage. Jim's misplaced frontier confidence, meanwhile, leads him into a grisly variant of the death of the American dream. But to my mind, the book's most interesting aspect is its parallels within the European avant garde. The juxtaposition of conflicting versions of its numbing narrative content recall the split perspectives of cubism. And the clinical and decisive anger that shapes the narratives' progress – or, ultimately, stasis – bring to mind James Joyce's gnomon, a concept revolving around systematic subtraction. At the heart of Legend of a Suicide is an examination of the methodical withdrawal from Jim of all of the components of his life, including life itself.
Comparisons to pinnacles of modernism would be too large a burden for most young writers to bear, but Vann's back may be broad enough. There is a distinct feeling when reading Legend of a Suicide that this latest star from across the Atlantic can rise further still. In the meantime we can admire his supremely creative disposal of his father's devastating bequest.
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