Heads Above Water: David Vann’s Aquarium

SUKKWAN Island, Caribou Island, Dirt and Goat Mountain. For a while it seemed that David Vann was not only building a body of work – and quickly, at a rate of almost one book a year – but also drawing some kind of map. The first of those titles referred to a real place off the southwest coast of Alaska, though Vann had never been there.

He grew up nearby, in the rainy mainland port of Ketchikan, and used Sukkwan Island as a semi-imaginary stage set for the two-part central novella in his debut story collection Legend Of A Suicide, which hinged on the most shocking and resounding gunshot in recent American fiction. When that book was published in 2008, after a decade of writing and a baffling round of rejections, no review or interview could ignore the biographical charge behind it: the author’s father had fatally shot himself in the head while on the phone to Vann’s stepmother, a woman whose own mother had murdered her husband and killed herself less than one year earlier.

Vann was 13 at the time and he was open about it now, admitting that those first stories were near-compulsive efforts to chart the pathology of shame, rage and self-obliterating violence in his family. And with that book finally out in the world, he quickly followed it with further variations on his theme, rendering the forests of Alaska and deserts of California as profoundly indifferent and possibly insidious landscapes that speak to the bleakest mental states. These weren’t grim literary fictions but gripping, propulsive tragedies, filling in the merciless narrative lines laid down by the Greeks with the colour and texture of real-world, latter-day, home-grown unhappiness. Then in 2013, Vann said that his most recent book, Goat Mountain, had “burned away the last of what first made me write”, and that his next would be a comedy.

Not comedy as in “ha ha”, he added, but comedy “as in nobody dies at the end”. It’s hard to say whether this constitutes a spoiler for that new novel, Aquarium. This is certainly the lightest thing he’s written so far, his first portrait of a parent-child relationship that allows for good humour and healthy affection between the central pair, at least in the early going.

Twelve-year-old Caitlin and her mother Sheri live hand-to-mouth in low-income housing near Seattle Airport in 1994, a struggling but functioning family unit with a legacy of loss and abandonment that the latter won’t talk about. Anxious and a little oxygen-deprived, Caitlin keeps company with the luminous marine life at the local aquarium every day after school – the pygmy seahorse, the oscillated waspfish, the mola mola with its name “like a god” and its face like the man in the moon. There are gorgeous printed photographs to go with each of these, illustrating Caitlin’s impressions. Her first-person narration comes from an older self, which gives the reader breathing room and permits the prose a few degrees of elevation in describing “the sharks like monks, repetition of days, endless circling, no desire for more but only this movement”. She sees her circumscribed life through the filter of the fish tanks, envying the cod their apparent willingness “to believe this aquarium is the whole world”.

The world intrudes to smash the glass, in the form of another regular visitor who turns out to be Caitlin’s long-lost grandfather, and the suggestion of sugared melodrama in this scenario is balanced out by Vann’s acute sensitivity to the true taste of bitterness. “There’s something that adults call expectations,” Sheri tells her daughter, “which means that we never get what we want and in fact we don’t get it because we want it.”

The story does get pretty heady later on, and these three characters seem well on their way toward the interpersonal apocalypse that Vann’s previous novels descended into, as her father’s return causes Sheri to home-school Caitlin with a reconstruction of her own childhood suffering. But it spoils nothing to say that this book shows a more forgiving side of the author without feeling like a pulled punch. He once said that drama expresses what is bad in us, and the endpoint of this is hell. But if hell is real for us, then the other place must at least be possible, and if hate can kill us then the opposite might yet let us live.

There’s a beautiful passage in Aquarium that’s worth quoting at length, because it shows you how good a writer Vann is, and tells you whether this book is for you: “The entire legacy of humanity will be only one thing, a line of red goop in the paleo-oceanographic record, a time of no calcium carbonate shells that will stretch on for several million years. The sadness of our stupidity is overwhelming. But when I watch a moon jelly, its umbrella constellation pulsing into endless night, I think perhaps it’s all okay.”

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