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.