Friday, June 22, 2012

Struggling to Read about Life at Its Worst

Until this year, David Vann has been for a few years on the faculty of the MFA Program at the university where I teach, the University of San Francisco. Although he openly states that he has had a difficult family history, and a hard time at certain points in his life, his writing has finally gotten recognition in the past few years, including critical acclaim, several prestigious prizes in the U.S. and in Europe, and excellent sales. I don't know Vann at all well, but have conversed with him a couple of times at writing retreats and on campus, and he is -- as other faculty colleagues agree -- a charming, friendly, cheerful person. Yet he has obviously used his books to grapple with pain, violence, and disturbance in his past. Normally readers should not assume connections between an author's work and his life, but in this case Vann has been open about these connections, although fictionalized and transformed by his imagination and talent. His books are all about difficult, depressing topics, including suicide; there have been five suicides in his own extended family. I have read many reviews of the work of this prolific writer, and tried and failed -- because of the difficult subject matter -- to read “Caribou Island” and “Legend of a Suicide.” With the publication of his latest book, I determined to try again, and have now just finished reading his novel “Dirt” (Harper, 2012). According to an interview with the USF Magazine (Summer 2012), the story is “drawn from Vann’s mother’s side of the family…Vann doesn’t just air family secrets; he exaggerates them, creating something that looks like his own history, only more shameful and scandalous. Galen [the main character], Vann said, is…the worst possible version of himself.” The other main characters are Galen’s mother, grandmother, aunt, and cousin. It becomes clear that although there is love among at least some of them, there is also hatred, deep simmering resentment, secrets, and violence, both in their family history and in the present. Sartre’s famous line about hell’s being other people kept going through my mind. Galen, 22 years old, bulimic, and obviously disturbed, is living with his mother near Sacramento, California, attempting to practice his own version of New Age beliefs. The triteness but believability of Galen’s taking his direction from “Siddhartha” and “The Prophet” mixes with the rising awareness of the reader that this character is going off the rails. The events of the book are at first low key although ominous, and then build slowly and in torturous detail to a horrific conclusion. The last 120 pages of this 258-page book are excruciating to read. Once I could see what was happening, I was tempted to stop reading, but forced myself to continue. Vann is a master of showing how curdled family history can rot away the emotions and even sanity of its members. His writing and his control of his story are most admirable, but reading this book is beyond painful. I wish David Vann the best, and predict he will become even more well known than he already is, but at this point I doubt I will be reading more of his work. I fully admit this is because of my own limitations rather than any shortcomings of his brilliant writing.

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