David Vann’s “Caribou Island:” Frost-Bound World

David Vann’s Caribou Island is a pretty intense read.  It’s the story of the disintegration of the marriage of Gary and Irene, who are in their late 50s or so.  They met at Berkeley where Gary was working on a (never-completed) PhD in Medieval Studies; they ended up in Alaska, where, it becomes clear, he has been pursuing some kind of fantasy about the sort of pure, pre-modern/pre-industrial community that he had formerly studied in Icelandic and English epics.  Gary recites lines from the Anglo-Saxon elegy The Seafarer in the woods — “frost-bound world/ hail fell on earth/ coldest of grains” — and obviously sees himself as some kind of modern Seafarer.  Gary has now decided they must move from the mainland to a deserted island where they will live in a simple wood cabin that Gary, with no training and having not even consulted a manual, will build by hand as the early Alaskan winter closes in.  Irene is sure Gary will leave her if she resists, so she goes along with it, sometimes complaining bitterly.

The level of bitter marital invective and bile is quite high, e.g. “Fuck you;” “You think you deserved someone better than me;” “Maybe I did.”  “Why not punch me in the face?”  And — this an especially memorable one — “You’ve destroyed my life, you fuck.” Gary and Irene’s grim spiral is intercut with the experiences of their sympathetic daughter Rhoda, who works as a veterinary assistant, and her awful dentist husband Jim and the young campground tourist he picks up and has an affair with.  The novel is somewhat odd, tonally.  Without giving too much away, it goes to some very bleak places, but it can also be mordantly amusing.  Much of the novel dwells on the landscape, the woods, the freezing water, and Gary and Irene’s desperate attempts to make their way through this beautiful but indifferent and overwhelming nature and to make a home in it.  (Vann is great on the claustrophobia of nature, the feeling of huddling in a plastic tent or a badly-constructed wood cabin and feeling the woods and weather pressing down at you.)  But there’s also social comedy in the depiction of the Alaska town with its bourgeois, hippies, tourists, druggies, wilderness freaks, etc., which feels sociologically accurate and sharply observed (Vann grew up in Alaska).

The novel made me think of Coetzee’s Disgrace occasionally in, again, its willingness to go all the way to extreme limit cases and to think about experiences of something like “bare life,” human beings pushed to a state of some kind of brute destitution: “Why did everything have to be taken?… All gone.  What was left?” Rhoda’s work as a vet’s assistant also made me think about Disgrace‘s David Lurie and his work incinerating the dogs killed at the pound; and both novels bear the influence of pre-20th-c English literature, albeit of different eras (the medieval epics here, Romantic poetry in Coetzee).

There were a couple moments when the implicit metaphor of the doomed cabin as a figure for Irene and Gary’s marriage threatened to become too explicit. “Maybe you can nail each layer down into the next, Irene said.  With longer nails.  That might bring them [the boards] closer together.  And she was thinking this was a kind of metaphor, that if they could take their previous selves and nail them together, get who they were five years ago and twenty-five years ago to fit closer together, maybe they’d have a sense of something solid.”  But, they’re literary people, he a former English PhD student, she a school teacher, and people who read a lot do think about metaphors in their lives in this way, so I decided this was OK.

I listened to the interview with Vann on WKCR’s Bookworm in which Vann discusses his father’s suicide (when Vann was 13) and the several other suicides within his recent family history.  I think he said that his step-mother’s mother shot herself while on the phone with his step-mother; or wait, was that his father’s suicide?  Too many.  Vann comes off as a pretty cheerful and funny guy, not grim at all in manner, although he says that he spent much of his early adult life consumed by a sense of “doom” that he would reenact his father’s experience. Bookworm‘s host Michael Silverblatt was somewhat relentless in pressing some of the implications, for Vann, of writing about these experiences (his previous work of fiction, Legend of a Suicide, was based directly on Vann’s own experience with his father).  Silverblatt said something like, “I can see how writing about this could be therapeutic, but on the other hand, did you ever worry that in doing so, you would bring yourself closer to enacting these tragedies yourself?”  Vann sort of laughed and said that he did think about that although no one has ever put it “quite so directly.”