David Vann really likes to write about suicides.
The author of critically acclaimed short story collection Legend Of A Suicide begins (and ends) his highly anticipated debut novel Caribou Island with — you guessed it — suicides. Unfortunately, this melancholic excess and lack of any pleasant emotion makes reading Caribou Island feels a bit like having to listen to Coldplay’s “The Scientist” on repeat for however long it takes you to read 293 pages.
The story centers around Gary and Irene, a middle-aged couple who leave the comforts of their upper-middle class home to build a cabin in the wild of Caribou Island (they are both depressed). The subplot revolves around their 30-year-old daughter Rhoda and her unfaithful fiancé Jim (they are both depressed too). Much of the story revolves around the sudden onset of Irene’s terrible headaches — lamentably, this makes the book itself feel like a headache to read.
To its credit, Caribou Island kept me reading despite the headache it gave me, and that’s saying a lot about the quality of its writing and the complexity of the characters. Vann’s prose is pretty unadorned and understated. His strength is undoubtedly his ability to create believable, vulnerable and provocative characters.
Take Jim, for example, Rhoda’s reluctant fiancé. Jim, an ostensibly normal-enough dentist, should be happy: He has a beautiful fiancé, a nice house in beautiful Alaska and his whole life ahead of him. Instead, Jim is — like all other characters in the book — incredibly depressed and in desperate need of a shrink. When Rhoda leaves for the night to take care of her mother (who is in the midst of a mental breakdown), Jim welcomes her absence as an opportunity to pick up his barely-legal mistress, Monique, at the King Salmon Motel (their usual hangout) and treat her to a night at his real house. A few chapters later, he proposes to Rhoda, out of mounting pressure.
With every character — just like Jim — the reader will wonder why they don’t just drop everything, move and start a completely new life somewhere else, since they are all so sad and never manage to cheer each other up. That’s really what kept me reading — to try and figure out why these characters were the way they were.
Caribou Island was not what I thought it would be though, and the surprising element of it was not a good one. I was expecting an Into the Wild-like fictive jaunt into the Alaskan wilderness, full of insight into nature and what compels people to push societal expectations and try to live there. Though the book does pay attention to its remote Alaskan setting, the sense of place Vann creates — or lack thereof — was disappointing; there wasn’t anything original or insightful about Alaska, just your typical descriptions of the overwhelming beauty and at times terrorizing brutality (“The lake a corollary beast, awakened also into whitecaps, breaking waves, cresting six feet high, pounding the shore,” he writes). If anything, Vann concludes that nature is not enough to sustain the human heart, and that human relationships are the ultimate source of fulfillment.
Throughout Caribou Island, Vann’s attunement with human emotion is apparent, so the exclusion of any emotion besides sadness, disappointment, entrapment and bitterness is all the more frustrating. I kept finding myself wishing he would drop this book and start a new book altogether, one with at least a little happiness in it, which would make for a more engaging, enjoyable read. Vann has a lot of promise as a writer, so hopefully his next effort will include some sunshine. Don’t get me wrong — I am no hardcore advocate of positivity, and some of my favorite books are very dark and depressing. Caribou Island, though, is one long slog of gloom — one that I wouldn’t recommend, unless you’re craving some darkness.
Time taken: A few spare hours in between studying.
Worth it? You’ll probably miss studying if you use this for breaks.