The prize-winning author of Legend of a Suicide
delivers his highly anticipated debut novel.
On a small island in a glacier-fed lake on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, a marriage is unraveling. Gary, driven by thirty years of diverted plans, and Irene, haunted by a tragedy in her past, are trying to rebuild their life together. Following the outline of Gary's old dream, they're hauling logs to Caribou Island in good weather and in terrible storms, in sickness and in health, to build the kind of cabin that drew them to Alaska in the first place.
But this island is not right for Irene. They are building without plans or advice, and when winter comes early, the overwhelming isolation of the prehistoric wilderness threatens their bond to the core. Caught in the emotional maelstrom is their adult daughter, Rhoda, who is wrestling with the hopes and disappointments of her own life. Devoted to her parents, she watches helplessly as they drift further apart.
Brilliantly drawn and fiercely honest, Caribou Island captures the drama and pathos of a husband and wife whose bitter love, failed dreams, and tragic past push them to the edge of destruction. A portrait of desolation, violence, and the darkness of the soul, it is an explosive and unforgettable novel from a writer of limitless possibility.
A Q&A with David Vann
Q: Set in Alaska, Caribou Island is the story of a marriage’s unraveling and the tragic events it precipitates. How does your setting reflect and shape the novel’s plot and the characters, especially Irene and Gary?
Vann: I think wilderness has no meaning on its own. It’s a giant mirror. So as I was writing Caribou Island, I kept focusing on Alaska, and as I described the landscape I was indirectly describing and discovering the interior lives of Irene and Gary. The island and lake are constantly shifting in shape and mood, and even the storms that come down off the glacier feel like they belong to Irene. She resents taking care of this man for thirty years and receiving only his vacancy in return, and the desolation of the place increases the pressure on her. There are no distractions, and no escape is possible.
Q: You were born in Alaska and spent your childhood there. What was that experience like? What are your impressions of this state that has become such a focus of public consciousness?
Vann: Alaska is magnificent, and the cold rainforest of Ketchikan, where I spent my childhood, is still mythic in my imagination. In that forest, I always felt I was being watched, and we really did have bears and wolves. There was so much undergrowth and deadfall, I’d sometimes fall through the forest floor to a second floor and disappear completely. And the ocean was even more impossible. The first king salmon I caught was taller than I was, and my grandfather caught a 250-lb halibut. I remember watching it slowly rising to the surface, growing until it became bigger than my imagination. I write about Alaska because it’s in that landscape that I can find some sense of self and possibility and freedom.
Q: You have been very open about your family tragedies, including your father’s suicide. Was it difficult approaching such a sensitive topic? How has using the raw material of these events affected you?
Vann: It took me ten years to write Legend of a Suicide, and I threw away everything from the first three or four years because there was too much emotion on the first page. I had to learn to tell stories indirectly, and the writing had to become more than therapy. Writing and therapy are both about truth, but only writing is about the beautiful. What was ugly has to be transformed and become readable. In Caribou Island there are again several true family stories in the background, but farther away than my father’s suicide, and my focus again was on seeing how the stories would shift and become something else.
Q: As a male writer, did you face any challenges capturing the voice of your female characters?
Vann: I didn’t expect to write about marriage, and I didn’t expect to write from the viewpoint of a woman, but I saw that Irene was the center of the story, and that her daughter Rhoda was also vitally important. I didn’t struggle with voice or point of view at all for some reason, perhaps because my sympathies were with Irene and Rhoda and less with Gary and Jim. To me, Irene and Rhoda make the best sense of the world and are the most honest, and this follows what I’ve experienced in real life, also. I was raised by women, and I trusted their accounts more than men’s accounts.
Q: How would you assess your evolution as a writer from your award-winning collection Legend of a Suicide to this, your first novel? Did you find your voice naturally, or was it a struggle to find the right sound and rhythm?
Vann: With Legend of a Suicide, I was learning how to write. The book is a short novel framed by five short stories, and I was tremendously influenced by various writers during that ten-year period, so the style and voice vary from story to story and form a kind of debate. This makes sense for the material, because no one in my family could agree on who my father was, what happened, or what his suicide meant. There was no one story or one voice to find anywhere. But Caribou Island is a far more cohesive piece, and I wrote two pages per day in a kind of extended dream, hoping it would feel like it was written in one sitting. And I didn’t struggle at all with voice, because I think of writing as being mostly unconscious and out of control. All I have to do is get out of the way and avoid having plans and ideas. As long as I return each day to focus on place and character, the book writes itself. The final published version is almost exactly the same as my first draft, and it just is what it is. I don’t think authors really get to choose what they write.
Q: Who are the writers you admire?
Vann: My favorite writers focus on landscape. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, and the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. These writers extend literal landscapes into figurative landscapes. In Blood Meridian, for instance, we find mountains “whose true geology was not stone but fear.” We focus on the real mountains and then they slip and shift and describe what we fear and desire and who we imagine ourselves to be. We shape ourselves through place.
People haunted by their own failures and lost dreams drive Vann's earnest but uneven first novel, which opens with Irene, an ailing middle-aged Alaskan woman, telling her grown daughter, Rhoda, about coming home and finding her mother "hanging from the rafters" one day when she was 10 years old. Irene also tells Rhoda that she believes her husband, Gary, wants to leave her. Gary, "a champion of regret," wanted to be an academic, but ekes out a living fishing and building boats while planning a self-imposed exile with Irene on an island in Alaska's Skilak Lake, where he's building a crude log cabin. Rhoda envisions marital bliss with her boyfriend, Jim, a philandering, selfish dentist. Their internal monologues rage with ideas and desires that read like authorial conceits, not the thoughts of real people. The only true character is Alaska itself, and Vann, author of the story collection Legend of a Suicide, is at his best depicting the harsh, rugged landscape of the Alaskan wilderness. (Jan.)
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