It may be premature to identify a writer’s interests as obsessions when his fictional output includes just a single collection of short stories, and now a novel; but from the first pages of Caribou Island, it is clear that David Vann has some things that he cannot get out of his head. Bleak and terrifying things, too: suicide as an act of aggression, nature’s power to reflect and inspire madness, and the perverse allure of doomed endeavors.
A narrative could be expected to sink under the weight of such an insistence on catastrophe. Yet Vann’s first book of fiction, Legend of a Suicide, in which a father’s suicide forms the axis around which a dazzling set of stories are sent spinning, had the weighty thrill of a loaded gun—you knew it would go off, but the suspense came from not knowing how or when. The opening, straightforward stories are told from the perspective of the child, Roy, whose father, Jim, a dentist and manic-depressive would-be outdoorsman, has killed himself. Yet at the book’s center is an astonishing novella that follows Roy and his father, alive again in a masterfully subtle alternate universe, to a primitive cabin in the Alaskan wilderness. They are unprepared for the hardships of this new frontier life—preserving food, staying warm, passing time—and the arrival of winter brings with it a brutal accident and a grotesque, senseless aftermath that in its fable-like monstrousness has drawn comparisons to the father-and-son journey in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Vann then upends his readers’ expectations by following the novella with several other conventional short stories, bringing Roy and Jim back to life and to civilization, if only to introduce tragedy in new ways.
Caribou Island traces the path of another Alaskan family scarred by suicide and hurtling toward its own violent end. Early on, Irene, a middle-aged woman, newly retired, recalls for her adult daughter, Rhoda, the day as a ten-year-old girl that she returned home from school to find her mother “hanging from the rafters” shortly after her father had left the family for another woman. Irene’s own marriage, we soon learn, is also crumbling, and to hold it together she has agreed to her husband Gary’s latest ill-conceived scheme: they will build a cabin on a remote island and live in it for the winter.
Rhoda, meanwhile, is a familiar name from Legend of a Suicide: she appears briefly as Jim’s second wife, a mysterious woman whose mother shot her husband and then herself. In this new novel, she has a boyfriend, Jim, once again an unhappy dentist, whom she hopes to marry. She dreams of an idealized Hawaiian wedding, complete with “coconut palms, big bowls of fresh fruit, guava nectar, macadamia nuts,” a negative image of the hard weather and her hard life in Alaska, that other non-continental state in the union. But Vann has altered these characters, as he did among the stories in his earlier collection—these are partly the same people, but noticeably different—making the novel another digression in his larger narrative project, another attempt to wrestle with his obsessions.
Caribou Island, though, is a lesser literary star. Vann has flattened out his previous structural idiosyncrasies in favor of a rather dutiful third-person narration that marches this collection of unfortunate characters toward a choreographed and unsurprising end. There is a fine tradition in American fiction of the impossible task undertaken for all the wrong reasons, from Moby-Dick to John Casey’s Spartina (Vann puts one in mind of boats), but as the central element of the plot—as well as a metaphor for a failed marriage—the construction of the cabin is too static and airless a device. Irene and Gary never seem likely to do anything but fail: they begin construction too late in the summer, with the wrong materials, no blueprints, and without any outside help. “Irene grabbed the log and followed Gary into oblivion,” Vann writes, just pages into the novel, and from that moment suspense gives way to the grim machinations of fate. As Gary later thinks, “This was without a doubt the ugliest cabin he had ever seen, a thing misunderstood and badly constructed from beginning to end.”
Already ill conceived, the plan is further fouled when Irene develops an ominous, crippling headache—what Vann, a precise observer of pain, describes as “a concentration again behind her right eye, a fault line, the bones of her skull like tectonic plates moving, grinding at the edges.” Vann has used the headache as a harbinger of madness before, and it is not long until the throbbing in Irene’s head connects back to her family history of suicide: “Her mother had experienced some awful pain in her head and asked for silence.” In Vann’s world, fate beats an incessant drum, and those borne of pain and violence must return to it and pass it on to others.
The brutality of the past is matched by the pitiless silent pronouncements that Vann’s characters make on one another. Left to their hopeless task on the island, Irene and Gary nurse a fiery hatred, often expressed in oddly broad platitudes. “Because you can choose who you'll be with, but you can't choose who they'll become,” thinks Irene. “He should have gone for someone smarter, but instead he went for someone safe,” thinks Gary. While there are moments of elegant prose in the novel—as when Irene is described as “crying carefully,” or when a boat in the water is seen “drifting away in a curve”—Vann’s language is often spongy and imprecise at the moments when clarity is most needed; passages here resemble McCarthy at his most obtusely lyrical. Gary thinks about his marriage as “a thing of pressure and weight.” Irene reflects about the pain Gary’s withdrawal has caused her: “It had a volume and depth, a physical space inside her, vaulted, a carving out of everything.”
If Caribou Island is a step sideways rather than forward, it nonetheless reaffirms Vann as a talented conjurer of the natural world, and of our nakedness in the face of its power and cruel impassivity. For example:
It was easy to forget that this was one of the few toeholds in a narrow path of settlements, and that all around was the real wilderness, extending unimaginable distances. What happened there, no one knew. Something tempting about wilderness, something inviting and easy, and yet the truth was that the spaces became much larger once you entered them. Hard and cold and unforgiving.
Those last adjectives could just as well describe Vann’s own sense of the world. This is not James Michener’s diorama Alaska (and it certainly isn’t Sarah Palin’s four-wheeler paradise). Instead it is Appalachia moved north, a dead end, a land full of holes big enough to swallow a family whole. The supplemental materials for Legend of a Suicide reveal that Vann’s father committed suicide in Fairbanks. And publicity notes for Caribou Island explain that these characters come from his past as well. Vann’s deeply personal art testifies to the ways in which fiction can and cannot replace biography. That he has chosen to mold his various versions of the past into such harrowing shapes, each more cruelly deformed than real life could perhaps ever be, signals the emergence of a curious and exciting talent. That Caribou Island strains so far from the burdens of its ideas suggests that it may be time for Vann to cast his line in new directions, toward new obsessions.