Voyages deep into a dark landscape
His childhood in the epic terrain of Alaska, culminating in the suicide of his father, haunts the pages of David Vann’s first book of fiction, a work that has gone through its own complex journey
‘ALL OF our family photographs from my childhood were with something dead,” says David Vann. It seems that’s the kind of family album you wind up with when you grow up learning how to hunt and fish in Alaska – before he was 10 years old, Vann could shoot a deer from 50ft away, while, at almost 50in, the first king salmon he caught was taller than he was himself.
But when Vann was 13, death entered the family photographs in a terrible, irrevocable way, when his father, depressed and angry, took his own life. The fact of his father’s suicide would consume Vann, rule him, for the next 20 years. As he wrestled with its force, he would come to see how it flashed with different shades and aspects; how it was slippery, made up of as many lies as truths. By the time his father died, Vann was already writing, but now he had a story which, to survive, he had to make his own.
Legend of a Suicideis Vann’s first book of fiction, and it is an extraordinary one. It is inspired by his father’s suicide but is not about that event in any straightforward sense; it is, rather, a voyage deep into the darkness of what it was – and what it might be – to be the son of such a father. Vann’s character, Roy Fenn, is that son, and Jim Fenn is the father.
We follow them through an Alaskan landscape which mirrors and deepens their dread, their guilt, their inner chaos. But this is no misery-lit; in fact, it is scarcely recognisable as any “lit” – neither a novel nor a collection of stories, it resists category, a racing six-part stylistic hybrid which brilliantly baits assumptions of what it is to write from life, from “the real”. Here is a suicidal father, here is his vulnerable teenage son, but here are so many versions of their story, including Sukkwan Island, a novella-length narrative in which Vann allows Roy to do what he himself, in real life, refused to do: accompany his father to live in a cabin on a remote Alaskan island for a year. Vann’s father killed himself a fortnight after the refusal, but in Sukkwan Islandthings pan out quite differently for Jim and Roy. Vann’s authorial twist here jolts the whole book into another dimension, and so will not be revealed here; it is audacious, and delicious, and yes, cruel. And if it comes as a surprise to the reader, it arrived the same way for Vann.
“It just happened instantly,” he says of this moment. “But I think, looking back, that it was made inevitable by all the pages that came before it. That all the momentum was leading up to it.”
Vann knows a thing or two about sustaining momentum. This book took a decade to write, and a further 12 years to get published, since agents at first would not touch its apparently dark subject matter, its shape-shifting style. So discouraged was he by the book’s prospects that in the mid-1990s, in an echo of something his father had done years previously in the face of a failed career, Vann went to sea. He knew he could make money as a sea captain, and hoped he could write on the side, but the boats took over – as they do when you are not just sailing them but building them from scratch, as Vann did, remarkably, with a 90ft catamaran and other vessels.
Five years at sea came to an end on his honeymoon, when Vann and his wife sailed a boat through the Caribbean – and sank it. But it was far from disaster – on that trip, Vann had finally begun to write again, sketching a memoir of life on the water, and it was the boat’s sorry end which made the book attractive to publishers. (It was also fortunate, Vann says, that his wife thought to save his manuscript as the boat sank.)
That book became Vann’s bestselling memoir, A Mile Down(2005). It brought him visibility, and then, in 2007, just before her death, his former teacher Grace Paley sent a lifeboat in Vann’s direction when the manuscript of Legend of a Suicidewon a prize in her name. As part of the prize, the book was published by an academic press at the University of Massachusetts. Excellent reviews got it picked up by mainstream publishers. Vann now has a second book of fiction, Caribou Island, on the way in 2011, and began writing a third over the last fortnight while on tour in the UK and Ireland.
Each of these new books is a novel rather than a series of portraits, which is how Vann sees Legend of a Suicide, taking the description from the medieval sense of the word “legend”. One portrait of a suicide follows another, each inhabiting a different world of possibility. The book is also, however, a series of portraits of Vann himself as a writer coming through his late teens and twenties, since each section shows the influence of a different writer and a different style. There is Marilynne Robinson’s lightness of touch in Ichthyology, Raymond Carver’s minimalism in Rhoda, the loaded landscapes of Faulkner and McCarthy in Sukkwan Island, the fabulism of García Márquez and Donald Barthelme in The Higher Blue. And yet the result rings true – it is not an object lesson in the derivative, but another layer in which memoir and fiction converge.
Vann’s first influences, however, were the hunting and fishing stories he heard growing up in Alaska. These stories taught him moral lessons “of socialisation, of manhood, the things to do and not to do”, but the fact of their importance to his family taught quieter and less obvious lessons which would later be invaluable to him as a writer.
“With hunting and fishing, my family always had a third focus, an indirect focus,” he says. “We shot things and caught things and played cards, and so we would not have to focus on our actual lives.”
It was this idea of the indirect focus which helped Vann to get past the problems he had as he first set out to write Legend of a Suicide, when, he says, his writing was too emotional, too close to the actual event. “I really think the way fiction works is that you have a lighter story on the surface, and that the heavier stuff always comes up from below that and whacks you over the head,” he says. “I don’t think that direct description ever works.”
Experiments in style and in truth-telling gave him the path he needed to write about his father’s death. Afterwards, he says, some family members were kind, some were heartbroken, some were silent. His grandmother, who had always encouraged him to read and to write, was furious. “She said it was a pity I hadn’t respected my father, and that I should turn to Jesus,” says Vann.
What he finds himself turning to, however, is place. It’s from place that his fiction always emerges, rather than from ideas, and though he has not lived there for many years now, it is Alaska that he still considers home.
This is partly because Alaska and its landscape are what enable him to write. “Those rainforests, the huge fish, the bears and moose, the wolves that my dad trapped – all of that still remains strongly enough in my mind that if I write about it, it starts to shift and represent what is happening inside my characters,” he says. “And I feel like writing is something that can’t be faked. I can only set a story in certain places that have some power for me. And the other places are other people’s to write about.”
David Vann reads at the Set Theatre tomorrow at 3pm, with Ed O’Loughlin, as part of Kilkenny Arts Festival