Caribou Island, by David Vann, Penguin, RRP£8.99, 304 pages
“Writing comes from the back of your mind, where thoughts are unformulated and anxiety is silent.” Martin Amis wrote that after a critic had identified some recurring motifs in his work that he had never noticed. But some writers undergo experiences so traumatic that they cannot be submerged in the subconscious and instead seem to dominate the whole of their mind: from back to front.
With David Vann, the critic does not have to search very hard for thematic echoes. His first work of fiction, a collection of interconnected stories called Legend of a Suicide (2008), is about a 12-year-old called Roy coming to terms with the fact that his father has killed himself; in the acknowledgements Vann revealed that his own father died in similar circumstances. Now in his first full-length novel, Caribou Island, Vann valiantly refuses to pretend that his ghosts have been exorcised. In the first paragraph a 55-year-old woman tells her daughter about coming home as a 10-year-old to find her mother hanging from the rafters.
But Vann’s work does not read like writing-as-therapy. It is true that the father in Legend of a Suicide closely resembles Vann’s own father – both dentists called James who live on islands in south-eastern Alaska, both adulterers who throw up their jobs in an ultimately doomed attempt to live off the land. But the prose in that book is often eerily detached, and its structure, with the various stories often flatly contradicting each other’s accounts of events in a way that reflects Roy’s confusion, enables Vann to portray the effects of grief with a sophistication beyond most misery memoirists.
Although Vann has returned to the theme of the effects of a parent’s suicide in Caribou Island, he seems to have taken care to ensure that the subject does not dominate the book, and for the most part that long-ago suicide ticks away like a time bomb in the background. While we wait for it to explode, we are treated to a fairly conventional study of family dynamics and tensions.
The family patriarch here is Gary, an academic from California who gave up his career to spend decades living a humdrum life in Alaska. Like the father in Legend of a Suicide, he sees himself as fulfilling the mythical role of the self-sufficient backwoodsman, and plans to get as close to nature as possible by living in a log cabin on the remote Caribou Island. Not being blessed with DIY skills, he finds building the cabin about as easy as Captain Ahab found outwitting Moby-Dick, and his increasingly hopeless attempts start to resemble a parody of a Melville-esque existential battle.
His wife Irene, she of the hanged mother, feels that it could indeed be possible to live a life of elemental purity in Alaska, “if it hadn’t all been just a distraction for Gary, a kind of lie”. Irene, who knows that Gary unfairly blames her for his feelings of inadequacy, submits to sleeping in a tent on the island and helping him to build his cabin “because once she had endured she could punish”.
Irene fears that her daughter Rhoda is setting herself up for similar misery by rushing into marriage with – alarm bells ring here – a dentist called James. This James does not commit suicide – he is not the right sort of coward – but still proves capable of wreaking emotional havoc.
Although Vann handles his portrayal of marital atrophy expertly, readers of Updike, Ford, Franzen and a dozen others may feel that they’ve seen the same thing done just as well before. What really distinguishes Vann’s work is his feel for his wintry setting. His views about Alaska are complex. He writes beautifully about the landscape, and his ability to capture the spumy excitement of a fishing trip will have many readers racing to their travel agents. But he is, oddly, just as memorable when describing a soul-crushing afternoon at the local fish cannery. This dismal shrine to capitalism, he implies, is no less authentic a part of Alaskan life than bears or frostbite; its existence is necessary because most fishermen choose to embrace the market rather than take Gary’s route of romantic self-sufficiency.
Commenting in the Guardian recently on Sarah Palin’s Alaska, a TV docusoap that briefly enabled this reviewer to see some of the attractions of suicide, Vann deplored the way in which Palin has hijacked his native state for the purposes of constructing a folksy narrative about hard-as-nails people with strong family values, among whom she wished to be counted. “The problem with wilderness is that it has no inherent meaning,” he wrote then, and this novel is full of people who fall foul of the place by attempting to impose on it their own pre-conceived narratives.
This bleak, beautifully written and bitterly funny novel provides, appropriately enough, cold comfort. But at least, unlike the uplift peddled by Palin, one can believe that the person providing it has enough hard-won wisdom to see what he’s describing with clear eyes.