Wednesday, 26 May 2010
Legend of a Suicide
Roy is the central focus of these stories, and the narrator of most of them. And the suicide of the title is that of his father. I suppose now is the time to say that David Vann himself suffered the suicide of his father, so he is writing these stories from personal experience, even though he does himself say they are fictional. The first story, iythycology, seems to encompass a large portion of Roy’s life including his father’s suicide, and his reactions afterwards. We then move on to stories that detail his fathers disastrous relationships with his wives, both Roy’s mother and Rhoda, who came after, as well as a story that concerns itself with Roy’s mother’s string of relationships, none of which last long. The central story Sukkwan Island is a bit of a ‘boys own’ adventure, describing a year that Roy and his father spent living completely self sufficiently on an Island in Alaska. Followed by two very different, more philosophical stories, with Roy considering his father as flawed and why he was the way he was.
Sukkwan Island is a much longer story than all the others, and for me, delivered the moment when it became clear that everything was not as it seemed, and it was possible Roy was inserting himself into his father’s life, in various situations, and drawing on elements he remembers to create various alternate histories. I’d love to say more about it, however it is a real bombshell moment, and the story really needs the shock aspect those few lines provide. But I defy anyone who reads this not to put the book down in horror at this point!
There is however so much more to this book than a series of stories. Even though all these stories are different, they are sort of interlinked. At first I thought they were all describing the same event, and in a way they are, but in another way, they are definitely not. This is where the Legend of the title fits in. These are all stories of a suicide, but they are just that. They are the stories of the child left behind, almost interpreting the facts in various ways. There is the odd phrase or event that turns up in more than one story, but always in a different context. And obviously I don’t think it spoils too much to say that the suicide occurs in each story, but never in quite the same way. Sukkwan Island is by far the best, but the other stories are needed to frame this one. The idea of this being the crux of the book is only enhanced by the sudden change of tense from first person to third person in this story.
I think this is what I liked so much about this book. The reader is very much left to figure it out for themselves. What is true, what is not, whether any of it is true at all! Trying to match up the pieces was part of the fun of this book. If fun is a word that can be applied to a book that is essentially writing about a suicide! Repeatedly! Having said that, I did enjoy the stories up to and including Sukkwan Island better than the final two. But as I have already mentioned the shock factor to this one, it is almost understandable that anything that came after would be an anti-climax.
What makes this book work so well is the emotion contained within the writing. The structure of the book s crucial in making this the raw, emotional read it is. The intensity in each story makes the inevitable suicide shocking, even when we know it happens. Somehow, it still manages to come as a surprise. Without this repeated jolt the stories would have less impact, apart from Sukkwan Island, which would always be shocking. As I mentioned previously, David Vann knows what it’s like to suffer a father committing suicide, and his grief and attempts to deal with this comes across vividly and makes this an uncomfortable read in places. It really does express the difficulties of trying to develop a father/son relationship if circumstances are less than ideal, and the effects that parents actions can have on a child. It was brilliant!