Legend of a Suicide by David Vann
Legend of a Suicide
by David Vann
Penguin, Paperback; 230 pages,
David Vann’s debut is a disquieting work, both in atmospheric terms and in the way it challenges the reader to rethink their approach to literature. Perched uneasily between novel, memoir and short story collection, Legend of a Suicide is a fictional retelling of a real-life tragedy that shaped the author’s past.
Vann’s father killed himself when Vann was thirteen, and it is this death that forms the focal point of the book – a gravitational centre orbited by linked yet inconsistent narratives. Like most mythologies, the father’s downfall exerts a compulsive, almost inexorable pull; it is ultimately left for readers to decide whether the protagonist Roy will escape its powerful magnetism.
Vann is clear-eyed to the point of steeliness, forcing himself to reimagine the suicide from a series of different angles. The facts never quite add up: in one chapter Jim shoots himself on the deck of his boat, yet in another he slips quietly beneath icy Pacific waves. Legend’s graphic prose verges on brutality – Vann envisions his father “splattered … amongst the entrails of salmon” – but despite this the reader departs with a lingering impression of tenderness.
The first few stories (or chapters) tiptoe round the abyss, viewing the father’s suffering only obliquely. We know, of course, that the IRS are bearing down on Jim, and that his business has failed along with two marriages in quick succession, but we are still just spectators – outsiders looking in. That all changes in the central story, “Sukkwan Island”, which is really more like a novella in length and in the level of involvement it expects from the reader.
Sukkwan is an island of the Alexander Archipelago, in the far south-east of Alaska with a total population of nine people. This isolation creates a chilling backdrop to Legend’s claustrophobic set-piece.
Thirteen year old Roy and his father travel to Sukkwan in summer, planning to stay for a year. The trip is a disaster from the start: Jim clearly hasn’t been thinking far enough ahead, and the supplies they have brought are insufficient. The pair’s only contact with the outside world is a fragile and faulty ham radio set.
On top of this, Jim is a deeply troubled man. Most nights he cries and babbles in his sleep. An increasingly discomforted Roy is forced to listen to his father’s confessions, which range from seedy to disturbing. As Jim speaks, his pain starts to reveal itself, the chasm of his despair opening up before our eyes. Soon both reader and protagonist are haunted by a strong sense of impending doom. However, this does not prepare us for what happens next.
Having read Alexander Linklater’s review in The Guardian (18 October 2009), I was anticipating a twist, yet despite my attempts to predict which way the story would veer, the bombshell that hits halfway through Legend blew my expectations to pieces. The first hundred pages achieve an elegant slow burn which by itself is as much as a reader could realistically hope for. But at the book’s midpoint something extraordinary takes place, and the plot ignites like a string of firecrackers.
This pyrotechnic moment is the principal reason you should read Vann’s novel, but there are plenty of secondary ones. Vann’s narrative voice, which shows traces of influence from Tobias Wolff, Cormac McCarthy and Elizabeth Bishop, is bracingly fresh and unique, and the Alaskan wastes provide a perfect setting for a book that journeys to the wilder fringes of the human experience.
Actually, scenery is in one sense the ‘point’ of the novel. The frigid, forgotten landscapes of the northwest with their clear, icy waters, and forests of cedar and hemlock become in Vann’s hands metaphors for a different sort of desolation. In reality, however, the landscape is not desolate at all: bleakness is what humans bring to it. Vann is careful to remind us of this fact. Originally, Jim tells Roy, the world was,
a great field … And every beast roamed upon the field and had no name, and every bigger thing ate every smaller thing, and no one felt bad about it. Then man came, and he hunched up around the edges of the world hairy and stupid and weak, and he multiplied and grew so numerous and twisted and murderous with waiting that the edges of the world began to warp.
Vann later reveals that Jim’s despair is the product of a hideous and inescapable self-awareness: “It was as if he couldn’t reenter the world to act unconsciously.” Thematically, this is Vann’s masterstroke. Man has become estranged from his environment. The miracle of consciousness is also a disease. It may be worth reminding ourselves at this point that suicide is a practice only humans engage in.
With Legend of a Suicide, David Vann establishes himself as not only an impressive stylist but also a striking and subtle novelist of ideas. His debut book has redrawn the contours of possibility in fiction. I am intrigued to see what he will do next.