Sunday, February 6, 2011

How much bummer is too much?

I spent most of yesterday sitting in front of the fire, watching slush bucket from the sky and reading David Vann's new novel Caribou Island.  I would say that I liked it, but this isn't really the kind of novel one can say one "liked."  It was certainly absorbing, very psychologically astute, and elegantly, straightforwardly written.  But it's hard to imagine a novel being more claustrophobic and depressing.  It isn't just that it's about a couple in their fifties attempting to repair a failed marriage by building a tiny cabin together on a remote Alaskan island--it's that the emotions are so unrelievedly grim, so unrelentingly joyless, that you can forget, reading it, that happiness even exists in the world.  The one character in the novel who gets to experience happiness, the married couple's son, is able to achieve it only by cutting everyone else in the novel out of his life.  Another guy gets to have sex with a beautiful woman, but it's portrayed as shallow and morally repugnant, and the woman turns out to be an evil manipulator who makes him give her ten thousand dollars.

I was addicted to this book while I was reading it--I ate it up with the kind of abandon I can usually only achieve with a really good crime novel--but in the hours since I finished I've grown increasingly disenchanted.  It is accomplished but, to my mind, unnuanced--it starts out in hell and just stays there.  The two main players are a total asshole ("You're a monster," he is told, and he is) and an embittered nag ("You're a mean old bitch," she is told, and it's true), with a supporting cast of losers, stoners, and meanies.  The only character we are capable of somewhat liking, the daughter, is last seen, on the book's final page, riding on a boat, in the snow, toward the horrifying revalations that will destroy what's left of her pathetic life.

It isn't that Vann's writing is humorless--it isn't.  One can sense that the author stands outside this material, that he is intentionally creating an artifact of human misery outside his own experience.  But it is also clear that he set out to write a Very Serious Novel, with a lot of hatred and disgust and really terrible weather, and Very Seriously is precisely how Caribou Island is being received.

More power to him, I suppose.  But, to me, this book is too one-dimensional to feel serious.  It isn't that I want redemption, exactly, and I'm certainly not looking for sweetness and light.  I suppose I think that good ficiton ought to acknowledge that human existence is absurd, not just painful.  I mean--I already know it's painful, of course it is.  Life is pain.  But it's other things along the way, and those things give the pain meaning.  And those things are not in Caribou Island.

For all that, I sort of semi recommend it--it's a vigorous piece of work.  Just be prepared, once you put it down, to cancel your Alaska travel plans.


Anne R. Allen said...

I just read a similar opinion in the NYT Book Review: brilliant, fast-paced, and grim. The reviewer said it took a while to realize the book had "dream logic" instead of realism.

Thanks for the insight--and the warning. I think it's something I'll avoid for now. I don't need happy endings, but I do need hope.

Melody Fohr said...

One of the reasons I stopped reading fiction (mostly) was the unrelenting grimness of what was recommended to me. I may be shallow, but struggling day-to-day with my own depression and mental health issues leaves me seeking books that are uplifting, or at least leave me with a promise of hope and chance for a better future, for me and the protagonists.

This is of course coming from someone who has nothing to do with the literary or academic world at all, so take it for what it's worth.

Anonymous said...

Dream logic? No, I would not say that. It's pretty standard psychological realism. Ishiguro's Unconsoled, that's dream logic...this is just slightly odd.

Mel, your non-litworld status is deeply welcome here. Honestly I'm not sure how I got here myself.

Krissy Kneen said...

I have read it and liked it but not enough. I loved the novella in Legend of a Suicide and that was relentlessly grim too. I felt like I couldn't emotionally attach to the material although the writing is good and as a bookseller it is easier to sell novels. Still I wish I had liked it more. I have since bought his memoir "A Mile Down" and that starts well. He is a good writer in general.

Anonymous said...

Myabe I should read "Legend Of A Suicide"...I agree, he's a solid writer.

Anonymous said...

There's a special pleasure in that unrelenting grimness, though, which sometimes serves as a consolation to the miserable reader who escapes into it. I felt this way reading David Vann, and also and especially while reading John Williams's beautiful novel Stoner (which, if you'd described it to me, I'd never have thought I'd have wanted to read it -- I picked it up because I thought it was about a drug addict. I'm glad it wasn't.)

Anonymous said...

I LOVE Stoner. Nice to find somebody else who read it. That book has a quiet beauty, I think, a maddening beauty, whereas I think the pleasures of the Vann book are coarser and perhaps more manipulative. But I do think it's good.

jon said...

Stoner is one of the greatest novels I have ever read. The despair is nearly unbearable. How does this one stack up against the all-time greatest bummer, Richard Yates' Easter Parade?