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“I could open the case, have a peek, and sneak out again. Just a peek. No one would know…”

Uncle Dougie's Suitcase, Alastair Chisholm

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New Ghost Stories III

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.

Cover of Legend of a SuicideLegend 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.

17 Comments on “Legend of a Suicide by David Vann”

  1. John Self Says:

    I can’t believe this has had no comments. Could it be because Mr thepublicist has been so effective that everyone who goes online has written their own review?

    Well, as I’ve read it but won’t now be posting my own review, my tuppenceworth is as follows. The initial stories I thought were OK – a bit too effortful and worked, and when I was reading the second or third one I really thought I might not bother finishing the book.

    Fortunately ‘Sukkwan Island’ came along. Rob, you have very clearly decided not to comment on the novella or its importance, presumably to avoid spoiling it for others, so I won’t say too much except that: if any other reader feels like me, and is not that impressed by the early stories, DO NOT GIVE UP. ‘Sukkwan Island’ makes it all worthwhile – and how. Yet it’s important to note that its power depends on the content of the other stories: so it would not have the same force (though still a good deal) if read in isolation.

    All that makes it very clever and worthwhile, and deserving of the praise that the book has received.

  2. Rob Says:

    Hello John! I was wondering about the silence too, although the reviews on here always get fewer comments than the ‘issues’ posts – especially when they’re positive reviews.

    Absolutely agree with everything you said. I did like the early stories more than other people seemed to, but I think we’re all in agreement about where the book peaks.

    I’m hoping to come back and read it again in a few months’ time, to see how it all fits together the second time through.

    Incidentally, from Good Reads, this is my favourite ever ‘missing the point’ review.

  3. John Self Says:

    Brilliant. And rates James Patterson’s ghost-written Lifeguard higher than Roth’s American Pastoral or The Human Stain I see.

  4. Rob Says:

    Bah – those books are just about old men. Basically Roth wrote the same story twice. Probably needs more therapy.

  5. Biblibio Says:

    I think that’s the first time I’ve ever seen a review that describes writing as “masculine”. Strange, given that it’s a perfectly legitimate and useful reviewing phrase, but it’s a new one for me…

    This sounds like an interesting book, story-wise. I have to wonder about the marketing, though. It’s such a slight difference between dubbing something as a “novel” or as a series of connected “short stories”. Do consumers really look at the subtitle and make purchasing decisions based on that? And how to distinguish, exactly?

    Answer: I’ll read it and see for myself.

  6. The Fiction Desk newsletter: win signed books! Says:

    […] For the first issue, Penguin have very kindly donated three signed copies of David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide, a book which you just might have heard of if you’ve been online lately. This is a terrific […]

  7. Charles Lambert Says:

    Well, I’ve just finished this, on your recommendation, Rob, and I thank you for it. I’d agree with John that the first two or three stories are good, but recognisably (for me) the product of some albeit high-powered creative writing classes. But then the novella comes along and blows everything else out of the water. And you’re right to talk about the Hemingway edge to some of the writing, although I’m made slightly more uncomfortable by a sort of richness – particularly in the last two stories – that felt like not quite digested Tobias Wolff. But a fine, and gruelling, book.

  8. Rob Says:

    Charles, I’m delighted (and relieved) that you enjoyed the book. It’s also interesting that you single out the last couple of stories for criticism. I thought they were probably the weakest, but wasn’t sure whether this was because they were having to follow the peak of the novella. In retrospect, I’d probably agree with you. Still, this is definitely one to reread.

    It’s also tricky that, while the strongest writing is in the novella, the novella would lose its potency without the context of the other stories. Like those groups of friends on TV shows where one or two members are losers, but – hey! – it’s not the gang without them.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rob: Not sure who else to ask about this, so I’ll try you. As someone watching blogs from across the ocean, I am amazed at how many reviewed this book — a tribute, I assume, to the efforts of joethepublicist, or whomever he is (I’m not on his list). Might you consider doing an analysis of just how he pulled this off? I am only a trolling observer but I am intrigued at anybody who can get dovegreyreader, you, Stewart and others to review what seems to be a rather marginal book (no judgment intended there, mind you) at first glance.

  10. Rob Says:

    Hello Kevin!

    That’s an interesting question.

    Joe the Publicist is the Twitter ID – @Joethepublicist – of Joe Pickering at Penguin. He’s been talking about the book there on Twitter for a long time, and has done a good job of whipping up support for it.

    He’s been working hard in general to build dialogue between Penguin and book bloggers (not so much selling specific books as starting conversations and exchanging ideas about the way publishers and bloggers can work together), so I think he had a lot of people’s attention when the right book came along.

    As for being marginal, it’s true that LoaS is far from perfect, but the central novella manages to stun even jaded readers with its plot and treatment of the subject. The problem here is that one can’t talk about why it’s interesting because to do so would reveal a huge spoiler, so everybody’s been forced to talk around the subject. That’s not to say it’s gimmicky, although I can see why it would sound that way. It’s just that the choices Vann makes there are very interesting, in terms of his motivations both as a writer and, in a sense, as the partial subject of the book. It does matter, in a fundamental way, that the book is partly based on a true event.

    I actually had the pleasure for the first time today of talking about the book in person with somebody who’d read it, and we were able to talk more about why we valued at least that central part of the book. But I just can’t do so here. I can say that it’s worth the fiver or so it costs to buy, and that if you choose to try it, I’d read it from cover to cover, even though people are highlighting the novella – it needs the context, and I think this, as much as marketing, is why Penguin chose to present it as a single novel.

  11. Joe Says:

    I hope it’s ok for me to comment on here, as the publicist…

    Kevin, I’d be delighted to add you to my mailing list and find out a bit more about you. I’ve always enjoyed your comments on Jon Self’s blog (RIP), but can’t seem to find contact details on your own blog. I’d rather not put my Penguin email address up on here so perhaps, if you want, Rob could email me yours and I could drop you a line? I like your review of Lorrie Moore’s novel, by the way: totally nailed it for me.

    As for the book itself, I think it’s interesting that people haven’t delved deeper into the stylistic elements of the book. I’m not complaining as the coverage has been amazing and I’m overjoyed that such a brilliant book has been gettign the attention I think it deserves, but no one’s really said that every story is in act very, very different, stylistically. The first is most reminiscent of Carver, Wolff and that kind, and maybe Rhoda, too, but the novella is way more McCarthy than Hemingway: it’s all glorious landscape, while the characters don’t in any way, for me, conform to Hemingway’s masculine stereotypes. And the final two stories are kind of ‘prose poem’ and finally fabulist.

    Anyway, you can tell I’ve been waiting to get that off my chest! I’ll stop now. Fully prepared for people to disagree with me but wanted to put my say in, having lived with the book for so long and now seeing it come to life, as it were.

  12. Rob Says:

    Hi Joe,

    I’m delighted that you commented. You raise an interesting point about the stylistic variations between the stories. I thought I had covered that, but reading back, I see that I talked about the perspective shifts and then just mumbled something indistinct and not particularly informative about kaleidoscopes.

    The shades of Hemgingway I saw – or thought I saw – weren’t so much in the story as in some of the phrasing; I’d agree that the characters aren’t particularly Hemingwayesque, although perhaps the occasional disgust shown towards the father’s emotional incontinence has shades of H’s less kind descriptions of Scott Fitzgerald? Just thinking off the top of my head there, though.

    I tried to keep the review away from the ‘shocking’ moment in the book, and one reason that I really do think this one is worth a reread is that I suspect it will be a different reading experience the second time around – with that aspect out of the way, there will be more time to savour the stylistic differences between the stories. I don’t know whether it will then reveal itself to be a stronger or a weaker novel after that, but it will certainly be no less interesting.

    Of course, I’d be happy to pass you and Kevin each other’s details if K agrees?

  13. Joe Says:

    Good, I’m glad my presence isn’t considered innapropriate.

    One other thing, if I may: it’s been fascinating to see how many reviews, be it online or print, have talked, or at least hinted, about hype when it comes to this book – not necessarily in a negative way, simply pointing out that it seems to have arrived with a lot of it.

    Now, to my mind, hype always involves a bit of money. With a book that includes perhaps a big advance, advertising spend, positioning spend (ie, where it goes in a bookshop and in what promotions). This book has had none of that: we paid very little for it; there is no advertising spend on it whatsoever; and we have no money to persuade the bookshops to put it front of store anywhere: our Sales team are relying solely on the strength of reviews and the publicity coverage and hoping that booksellers pick up o ntaht and get copies in.

    What’s more, with this book, there have been literally 4 of us in-house talking about it, since roughly end of Jan/beginning of Feb. The book’s Editor; the Assistant Editor for Viking who works closely with her; the Marketing person who designed posters to go up around the office on the iMac inhouse, and the lovely black & white proofs; and me, doing what I’ve been doing. I’d say that the Editor and me have been the most vocal about it, getting it out to everyone we can and, basically, not letting up about it. Other people have read it, of course, due to all this, but haven’t worked on it.

    I’d call that enthusiasm rather than hype: we have no money that we need to earn back on it, really, and no one is expecting it to sell as many copies as Dan Brown or Martina Cole or anything like that. We just think it’s a very good book, a different and exceptional book, even, which deserves attention so have worked hard for that.

    That might be a bit in response to Kevin’s question but might also be me getting something off my chest again. Otherwise my girlfriend hears it all and I think she’s a little tired of it!

  14. Rob Says:

    Hi Joe,

    I think you’re completely right, and I’d say that the coverage of LoaS is the result of good word of mouth, rather than hype. By its nature, this is a book that I think people want to talk about after reading.

    It’s true that a lot of the early word of mouth took place on Twitter, so to non-Twitterers, it seems to have exploded out of nowhere, like an orchestrated ad campaign or some kind of godawful flash mob. Whereas in fact, the release date just prompted the reviews as the next step in an already-existing, organic conversation.

    I’m trying to work out whether your comments were directed at me – I think (hope) not. I did mention the publicity in the newsletter, but only in that it was good to see the way you were, personally, reaching out* to the blogging & online community, and being genuinely passionate about the book. It was coming more from my interest in online marketing than from the review side, really, and I think other publishers and publicists should be watching the results of this with interest.

    Well, whatever, if you used nothing but your own enthusiasm to raise a buzz that other people think is the result of an expensive, well-oiled hype machine, well, good for you!

    *Great. So now I’m the kind of person who uses ‘reaching out’ in conversation.

  15. Joe Says:

    Don’t worry, none of my comments were aimed at you, Rob! I think it’s just interesting to see how hype is perceived or even built. It’s kind of nice to see it mentioned some times, as it suggests people are talking about it, even if it is strange, from an insider’s perspective.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I certainly didn’t mean in my question to imply “hype” in the way that Joe defines it — if anything it was apparent to me from far away that the book had found its way into a number of hands (of differing tastes) who found much of value in it. I’m not a Twitterer so I missed all that — I was more intrigued to see reviews pop up on so many blogs for a book so under-hyped that I would not have otherwise known it existed.

  17. nmj Says:

    I seem to be in the minority, and I almost feel guilty that I did not love David Vann’s novel. I ordered LoaS from the library after reading Julie Myerson’s review a few weeks ago. (My father took his own life when I was eight, so I have an obvious interest in the subject matter.) However, I found the book too dislocating & jarring with its shifting perspectives and ‘facts’, and when ‘the terrible thing’ (which seems to have invoked near-reverence in some readers) happens, it seems almost farcical – I found it hard to engage with the narrative anymore. Still, Vann’s writing gets under your skin, undeniably, and I don’t regret reading, but I could not read stories 5 or 6, I was emotionally exhausted, and also felt the perspectives had run out of steam. After Sukkwan Island, everything pales. I probably enjoyed the opening stories more, I liked the moments of slight humour.

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