What we're reading - David Vann

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A radical take on the familiar subject of the father-son relationship, Legend of a Suicide (out today) by American writer David Vann, is an astonishing literary debut, says Esquire's books critic David Mills.

Legend Of A Suicide is a collection of short stories (and it has already won a short fiction prize in America), but it is better understood as a linked sequence of fictional meditations. Actually, it is potentially a quite confusing book. As the same characters recur from story to story, it almost appears to be a continuous novel, until you realise the stories are contradicting each other. Vann is using each one to explore a different aspect of his subject and it’s a heavy one: how a son deals with his father’s suicide.

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The central character in the stories is Roy. His father, Jim, is a dentist in a small town in Alaska. Divorced from Roy’s mother after an affair with his receptionist, Jim hankers after a bigger life but, in the establishing first story, he shoots himself dead when his fishing boat business fails. 

Vann writes in the acknowledgements that the “uncomfortable topic” of the book is “my father’s suicide”. The stories are “fictional, but based on a lot’s that’s true”. Given that Vann was born on Adak Island and the book opens with “My mother gave birth on Adak Island” one wonders where the fictional element starts, especially when you come across Vann’s journalism and find he writes about sailing in the Pacific or, as he did in the October issue of Esquire, about the time his dentist father gave him a gun and they went camping in remote Alaska, but it doesn’t really matter when the writing is this strong.

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It is in that terse, yet heavily freighted American style of Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff and Cormac McCarthy where small incidents and details ring with a far more resonant significance than they first appear to have, like the description of the archer fish in the aquarium following the mad flight of a fly with quiet deliberation then suddenly leaving it “mired in the water, sending off his million tiny ripples of panic”.

The book is also, of course, an exercise in memory and the discovery that “memories are infinitely richer than their origins… to travel back can only estrange one even from memory itself. And because memory is often all that a life or a self is built on, returning home can take away exactly that.”

Orestes and Hamlet both struggle to emerge from the burden of heroic, noble fathers; Roy has the opposite problem. Jim is deeply inadequate, “a man who had inflicted avoidable pain on everyone around him” with nothing admirable about him, but still the son feels bereft. The result is a richly dense, emotionally complex set of stories, superbly written and resonant.

Read the full review in the November issue. Legend of a Suicide (Viking) by David Vann is out today

 

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