David Vann’s latest book is a strange and wondrous beastie. I finished reading it a wee while ago and I’m still in the twilight zone – the betwixt and between stage of wondering what I just read and re-reading it while I sort my thoughts into a coherent form.
So what is it?
I got a third of the way into Legend of a Suicide before I realised it isn’t a novel but a collection of 5 interconnected short stories and a novella. The ‘story’ as such, is centred around the life of Roy Fenn and it relates how his father’s suicide affected him in childhood and later life. The shifting point of view is key, I think, to getting to grips with the narrative.
Beginning in the first person we get Roy’s perspective. Within the first tale he tells us the details of his life: how, when and where he was born, about his parent’s unhappy marriage and divorce and his father’s suicide and its aftermath. Subsequent stories fill in more details, moving both backwards and forwards in time and shifting between registers with alarming ease. It’s simultaneously funny and tragic, shocking and poignant.
In the novella, the viewpoint moves to third person. It’s a significant change. Vann plays with our readerly expectations and packs a quite surprising punch at its conclusion.
The book is dedicated to Vann’s own father, who, it turns out, committed suicide. The short bio note at the end tells us that, like Roy Fenn, Vann ‘was born on Adak Island, Alaska and spent his childhood in Ketchikan.’ I think that’s why I’m having trouble writing about Legend of a Suicide. It’s a work of fiction, a fabrication woven out of the facts of Vann’s life. Postmodernists will have it that the author is dead – the text is king and nothing else matters. Here, though, it’s hard to separate out the author from his fiction. Vann knows this, of course, and toys with the reader.
To whet your appetite while I ponder on it some more, click to Penguin’s websitewhere they’ve an interview with David Vann, some critical comments and an extract from the first story.
1. Ichthyology, pp. 1-10
2. Rhoda, pp. 11-23
3. A Legend of Good Men, pp. 24-34
4. Sukkwan Island, part 1, pp. 35-128; part 2, pp. 129-199
5. Ketchikan, pp. 200-219
6. The Higher Blue, pp. 220-228
Already published in the US to critical acclaim, it will be published in the UK by Penguin on 29 October
-here’s the publisher’s blurb:
Roy is still young when his father, a failed dentist and hapless fisherman, puts a .44 magnum to his head and commits suicide on the deck of his beloved boat. Throughout his life, Roy returns to that moment, gripped by its memory and the shadow it casts over his small-town boyhood, describing with poignant, mercurial wit his parents’ woeful marriage and inevitable divorce, their kindnesses and weaknesses, the absurd and comic turning-points of his past. Finally, in Legend of a Suicide, Roy lays his father’s ghost to rest. But not before he exacts a gruelling, exhilarating revenge.
Revolving around a fatally misconceived adventure deep in the wilderness of Alaska, this is a remarkably tender story of survival and disillusioned love.