Monday, November 16, 2009
Legend of a Suicide by David Vann
Legend of a Suicide is a collection of five short stories and a novella, loosely brought together to form a narrative whole. In that respect I’m not sure it’s entirely successful – some of the short stories were previously published separately and the collection feels as if it has been artificially brought together, particularly in the concluding story – but otherwise this is a very fine piece of work.
At a time when so called memoirs are regularly being revealed as fiction, Vann takes the opposite approach and fictionalises real events from his life. The central fact is that his father committed suicide in 1980; Legend of a Suicide is Vann’s attempt to understand that event, to put it into some form that can accommodate his feelings of guilt and anger and pain and loss. The stories in this collection each approach that single, real event and offer different perspectives, different ways of understanding. They build into something deeply moving and impressive. There is a tremendous amount of pain here, but the wonder of the writing is that it is simultaneously extremely funny, at times laugh out loud so. To do that without falling into bathos is a fine trick.
There is a strong strain of American writing about fathers and sons, all the way back to Huck Finn and his feckless Pap, through Papa Hemingway and undoubtedly embracing Cormac McCarthy, whose ambivalent relationship with his father seems to inform his every work. Legend of a Suicide, with the tormented pairing of Roy and his father, James, adds to the canon, particularly in the novella, Sukkwan Island, that is the emotional heart of the collection. In this, Roy and his father attempt to live in the Alaskan wilderness, in a wooden cabin miles from civilisation. They are hopelessly unprepared. They catch a multitude of fish, hoping they will last them through the winter, but have no idea how to preserve them effectively. They are robbed by a scavenging bear. They go for long hikes and come close to dying from exposure. Roy is deeply unhappy but stays for his father’s sake. Throughout, the mental health of the father, never robust at the best of times, deteriorates. Roy hears him crying each night in bed. He displays a degree of solipsism extraordinary in a father ostensibly caring for his son. 'But what about me?' he whines to Roy after the boy says he wants to go home. He feels no compunction about telling his son in graphic detail – catching crab lice, for example – the various infidelities which have punctuated his two marriages. His grip on reality slips. Tragedy ensues.
It would have been easy to turn James into a caricature, into a weak and self-obsessed fool. And, indeed, he is weak, self-obsessed and foolish, and yet Roy’s love for him is understandable and credible, and helps turn him into a rounded individual rather than a mere receptacle for failure. The relationship between these two people, a man and a boy, is beautifully drawn. In this, there are at times strong echoes of Hemingway, both in the language and the handling of character (and also, in truth, the obsession with catching fish), but Vann’s is a distinctive and impresive voice, and Legend of a Suicide is a substantial piece of psychological fiction.