It can be interesting to watch the subtleties of marketing change between different editions of the same book. From covers to titles to apparent target audience, dramatic changes take place as books move across oceans. David Vann‘s Legend of a Suicide is a good example: in the US, it’s a collection of short stories built around a central novella; in its UK edition, published by Penguin, it’s a novel. Neither description is inaccurate.Legend of a Suicide tells the story – the stories, rather – of the suicide of Jim Finn, as seen mostly through the eyes of his son Roy. Jim is a dreamer with no follow-through: he embarks on extravagant trips without sufficient planning; he invests a fortune in a fishing vessel without knowing enough about commercial fishing; his relationships with women are ill-conceived and collapse in on themselves. His suicide makes of his life the fundamental misfire that he’s already made of his various adventures.
Roy can do little more than watch and try to understand his father’s behaviour, what it means to him, and what it might mean about him.
The stories examine these same two characters, and in a sense the same event, from different angles, breaking it down into a kaleidoscope of how comes and what ifs and whether or nots. Even within the individual stories, perpective can change, the light refracted through a different part of the glass: at one point in story ‘A Legend of Good Men’, Roy breaks into his own house and views it as a stranger would; another story features a more dramatic shift in perspective. This is why Penguin are right to market the book unequivocally as a novel; the power of the book is as much in the shifts and differences between the stories as it is in the stories themselves.
David Vann’s father killed himself in 1980, a topic previously addressed in Vann’s 2005 account of his own seafaring misadventure, A Mile Down. This element of truth provides a centre of gravity around which the different unreal stories in the book are arranged, giving them relative weight according to their adherence – or lack thereof – to the different versions of the truth. While Legend of a Suicide isn’t autobiography, it’s tempting to view it as such, as much in its overall form as in the content of the stories themselves; its variations on a theme powerfully evoke a mind helplessly obsessed with an unsolvable riddle, forever turning it over, examining it from one angle and then from another.
Vann’s style is spare, masculine, and controlled, and at times it might wander a little close to Hemingway territory, but with these kinds of themes that’s hardly surprising, or inappropriate. It’s also very much his own voice: on initial reading, I marked several places in the text where I felt Vann had ‘done a Hemingway’, but when I went back through these, having finished the book, they all just sounded like David Vann.
Vann has two other books in the works, including a novel and a companion piece to A Mile Down. I’d be interested to read them, though it would certainly be a challenge for them to match the perfect storm of theme and content that Vann manages in Legend of a Suicide, which is certainly one of the three or four best books I’ve read this year.
David Vann will appear on Simon Mayo’s book panel on Radio Five Live on Thursday 29th, which might be worth a listen – the show is podcasted if you’re not a radio tlistenerype. He’ll also be doing a reading at Book Slam in Notting Hill that evening. Info on that event is here.