Caribou Island Paperback – January 27, 2011
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sure I can contribute anything substantial. All I can do is echo some of what others have
said - hopefully, a little of something new will surface.
If you've read other reviews (other than the one line types) you know Gary and Irene are retirees living in Alaska. As the weather begins turning between fall and winter, Gary has finally decided now's the time to get his "dream" cabin built, one he's been wanting to build for years, apparently. On the remote Caribou Island he and Irene begin. Gary has no plan, and is working off what he visualizes is the correct way to do things. Cold, rainy weather greets them on the first day, but Gary refuses to let it stop him from continuing to load logs on their boat. They both are soaked and freezing in short order, the result of which is a severe headache Irene contracts and which torments her for the entire novel.
Their lives together has been deteriorating over the passage of years. Irene's convinced Gary's using the act of building the cabin to drive her away, force a split. As readers, we are never quite sure she was correct in her assessment, but later in the novel, as we gain insight into Gary's mind, we discover she is.
What becomes clear is the closer the cabin is to completion, the worse things become between them and on the day Gary finishes, hammering on the last remaining piece of aluminum roof on what is undeniably no more than a miserable, tiny shack, things come to a head.
"Caribou Island" is not a pleasant read. That's not to say it isn't well written - for the most part it's beautifully constructed (though the frequent use of "so" in the early pages started to annoy) and draws the reader in with vivid descriptions of the changing weather, and the even more vivid descriptions of the characters thoughts as the book progresses.
There are other characters of course, including the daughter who's naivete in her beliefs that love will win the day, the son who just doesn't care, the daughter's fiance, a middle-aged dentist that has no real interest in marriage, Monique and Carl, two characters from the lower 48 visiting Alaska just for fun. Monique has an affair with the dentist while Carl ends up broke and returns to the states. After blackmailing the dentist, Monique also heads back. With the exception of the daughter, Rhoda, all of these other characters simply pale to nearly being pointless in the story compared to Gary and Irene's struggles.
The book disturbed me. I woke the next day with it on my mind. I thought about it off and on and even now, a week after finishing it, it will frequently enter my head, uninvited, almostlike a PTSD. In a way, I guess, it is. Right down to the final pages, when it became clear where the story was heading, you hope for a breakthrough, a reconciliation between the two tortured souls.
It doesn't come - and on retrospect, how could it? Any ending other than what there is would diminish the novel as a whole. You have to be able to read a novel such as this and savor the writing, the lyricism, the symbolism to gain enjoyment. If you need stories with hope or happiness, you'll have to look elsewhere.
Highly recommended, with certain reservations, therefore, 4 stars, though I can certainly understand those who have given it 5 stars, or even those who have given it less.
"You're a monster", she said.
"See? I'm a monster. I'm the f****** monster." (Vann, 2011: 265-6)
This here is the torturous back-and-forth between Gary and Irene, a middle-aged couple who have, on the directive of Gary, decided to build a log cabin on an Alaskan island and live there. This is the core of David Vann's Caribou Island, the follow up to his intriguing Legend of a Suicide. Caribou Island pretty much shares the same setting as Legend; the cold, isolated Alaskan wilderness, and draws parallels with Legend's story; it's momentum being driven by the mental anguish of a central character. Also thrown into Caribou's mix are Gary and Irene's grown children, Rhoda and Mark - the former a veterinary nurse dating Jim, an older dentist who's unfaithful to her, the latter a distant young man who works various jobs. For the first two-thirds of the novel, two of Mark's friends, a couple from D.C., Monique and Carl also feature; an unsuited couple, she promiscuous and daring, he hapless and out of his depth. Gary is introverted and is driven by the ill-thought out plan of moving permanently to a log cabin which he would build with Irene. Irene abides but is certain Gary's plan is just a way of breaking their relationship and that he will soon leave her. And here is essentially the main problem of Caribou Island: the characters (with mild exception of Rhoda) are all obnoxious, either self-pitying or selfish characters. And there's only so much one can take of the complaining and misery of these people. Reality entails enough of this misfortune.
Irene develops a crippling, psychosomatic illness early in the novel, one that grips her for the duration of her story. Gary pushes on with his plan, often failing to understand his wife's suffering. When X rays show Irene has no physical malady and therefore cannot be satisfactorily treated, Gary at times believes Irene is trying to punish him through her illness. He's convinced Irene is against him, she's convinced Gary wants to pull away from her. Rhoda becomes increasingly concerned for the well being of her mother but can find no support from either her apathetic, vacant brother, Mark or her aloof would-be husband, Jim. Meanwhile Jim, forseeing his "inevitable" marriage to Rhoda, makes a play for Monique, a younger, wilder version of Rhoda. He pursues Monique, deceiving Rhoda as to what he's doing, and ends up having to play a number of aggravating and silly games to bed Monique. Monique is young and carefree and provides the only instance of titillation in the story (apart from her sexual exploits, there really is no other compassion or intimacy apart from a few pitying hugs here and there) but becomes increasingly unlikeable, so much so she exits the story ignominously just over the half way point. Her luckless boyfriend, Carl is plainly pathetic, failing at everything in Alaska; his girlfriend, fishing, camping, and ultimately enjoying his time there. Mark is frankly detestable; devoid of empathy or concern with anything but himself, his dialogue is generally short and irritatingly weak. That brings me to a distinct problem with the novel; exempting the intense fights between Gary and Irene, the dialogue is frequently bland and lazy. At times it seems Vann lost interest and just threw it in to get on with it.
The novel does have it's strengths; there's an encounter between Jim and Monique which is exciting and the final verbal fight between Gary and Irene grabs attention and is even cathartic. Infrequently I found myself imagining possible or alternative outcomes to the scene that was at hand. So Vann certainly is adept at building the scenarios. But too often he lets the story get bogged down with either lifeless words or boring sidesteps, like pointlessly drawn out descriptions of fishing (Vann being a fishing enthusiast himself comes as no surprise). Comparisons to Legend of a Suicide are unavoidable, but what worked in Legend does not work in Caribou Island. The young lad from Legend was unspoiled by adult cynicism and vacancy, his father was a deeply troubled and at times ridiculously bad parent but his relationship to his son had a stronger, more understandable and empathetic bond than any that feature in Caribou Island. The son takes his revenge on his selfish father, a remarkable and original twist. Legend was also more unconventional; it comprised of three parts, connected in theme. Caribou Island takes the conventional linear narrative route and now Vann's writing loses it power. Or maybe because Legend was slightly more closer to home for Vann than Caribou is, it is reflected in his first work trumping its follow up. And I can't leave it here before mentioning the end of Caribou Island: the last three pages follow Rhoda and are probably the three strongest pages in the book. She, the only remotely likeable character of all and the novel's only hope, is levied with an awful outcome. Her ending is an exercise in cruelty but it delivered poetically. But that outcome she gets is what transpires between her parents. What happens is described graphic and persuasive detail, an accomplished delivery. But what it is that happens just struck me as ridiculous and had "Hollywood" all over it. I didn't find myself in shock, I found myself not able to digest it because it just seemed plain ridiculous.
While Caribou Island has a swift pace, can be leafed through relatively quickly (unlike the more complicated Legend, a book though shorter in length than Caribou has more depth), and is not too long - 293 pages - the novel is disappointing and not highly recommended.
The story revolves around a family, Gary and Irene who have been unfortunately married for thirty-plus years and their two adult children, all living in the bleakest of bleakest settings. No wonder Irene is as emotionally fragile as she is, a woman who taught school for thirty-three years and is now dealing with a husband who insists that they build a horrid camp-like structure on an island that no one else would ever build on.
Their children are, on the whole, more emotionally stable. But so hemmed in by the environment--and, of course, dysfunctional relationships.
There is a scene in a fish canning factory where a very pathetic Carl has taken a job--it will not last a day--where he is part of a crew that cleans salmon. It is such a brilliantly written scene, one in which the reader can feel the weather, the nastiness of the job, the bitterness of the people who work there.
And then the scenes on the totally bleak island where Irene and Gary are building a truly awful cabin. There is a scene where Gary, in bitter, bitter weather, has a fantasy about raping a warrior-type woman that will send chills up your spin.
And you will never, never, never forget the ending of this amazing novel.
And you will undoubtedly decide that Alaska is the absolutely last place on the earth you wish to live!
Top international reviews
Caribou Island is set in the wilderness of Alaska and follows Gary and Irene and the breakdown of their marriage. The setting is unrelentingly bleak and harsh and the story is along the same lines.
Gary and Irene are two people who seem to have wandered into a life which neither of them wanted. Neither has the life they dreamed about, in fact, nobody in the novel has the life they believed they were entitled to. Life, for these characters, is deeply disappointing.
Gary had, and still has, dreams of being a pioneer forging a minimalist life in the backwoods. To that end he and Irene are hauling logs out to Caribou Island in all weathers to build a log cabin. Irene, who is haunted by the death of her mother, has developed a blinding pain in her head and it's never clear why she is so desperate to stay with Gary or why she participates in the folly of the log cabin but what is clear is that Gary and Irene are heading for disaster and when it comes it is profoundly shocking.
The novel also follows Rhoda, Gary and Irene's well meaning grown-up daughter, who lives with her rather unpleasant dentist boyfriend, Jim. Rhoda and Jim are another two people who seem to have sleepwalked into their situation Rhoda because she wants to get married and Jim because Rhoda was available. Rhoda is, perhaps, the most sympathetic character in the novel and you can't help hoping that she will wake up to what Jim really is and move on with her own life. There are other characters who make appearances through the novel like Gary and Irene's drug-addicted son Mark and they are all similarly dissatisfied with life.
I won't deny that Caribou Island is bleak and gloomy, in fact it's inexorably bleak, but it is beautifully written and the disappointment felt, especially by Gary and Irene, is palpable and deeply moving. It is a stunning novel about disenchantment with life.