John Klassen


David Vann

Vann (1966-) was born in Alaska. He is a novelist and short story writer, and now professor of creative writing at the University of Warwick in England. He has received a long list of international literary prizes. Vann describes himself as a "neoclassical writer" and says, "My novels are all Greek tragedies...".

Aquarium (2015) and Bright Air Black ((2017) are his latest novels. The latter is most directly a tragedy as it is an imaginative retelling of the Medea myth, from Medea's point of view; Aquarium is set in modern day Seattle and tells the story of a 12 year old girl and her very damaged single mother when both must confront the effects, present and future, of the mother's crippling past.

In discussing an earlier novel by Vann, a reviewer said that possibly Vann's biggest achievement is, "...never to allow you to guess quite how far it – or he – will go. No author is better at making you lose your literary balance and a large part of his brilliance is that he knows how to adjust the level of derangement to just short of most disturbing." The story of Medea is well known, but the tension is searing in Vann's re-imagination of the myth. How Vann will resolve the story of Caitlin and her mother, Sheri, keeps the reader on the edge through some disturbing scenes.

Another reviewer, commenting on a different book, notes: "[Vann] is the real thing – a mature, risk-taking and fantastically adept fiction writer who dares go to the darkest places, explore their most appalling corners. I haven't read a novel as rough and shocking or, importantly, as wise and warm as this one in a long time. It's not safe and it doesn't seek our approval – and I've certainly no idea what Vann wants us to think or feel about it. But isn't that a plausible definition of truly great writing: a piece of work that leaves our heads and hearts in flux – rolling, churning and, if we're lucky, changing?"

Both of these commentaries apply to the books reviewed here.

Vann's writing is a joy to read: clear, even terse, powerful metaphors and similes sharply describing scenes and actions but always at the service of conveying visuals, impressions, and often visceral emotions. The writing is lyrical, especially in Bright Air Black where many times it scans wonderfully as blank verse.

"The Argonauts pull as fast as they can, the headland abreast, pounding of waves against rock. They're no longer making any progress against wind and wave. Only slipping sideways, close and closer. Jason stands between the rudders at the stern, grim, understanding too late. Knife-edged stone in strips and furrows dark on top and blackened in the surge, waves sucked away and sweeping forward again, spray flung higher than their ship, the headland shaped like an eel, long and thin, swimming closer, needle toothed and greedy.."

"The old man took my hand and we walked to the sea-dragon tank. Sand light blue, hairy green plants, and a sea horse become a golden branch, sprouting leaves that might have been wings. If you looked at her long enough, you could imagine trees coming alive, entire forests waking up and drifting across the land, speaking in whispers. No trunk vertical but all gone horizontal, moving along on their branches, roots hung in the air. I wanted to live in that world."

Caitlin is 12 years old; she lives with her single mother, Sheri, who works on a construction site and aspires to become a crane operator because they make good pay, so she and Caitlin would have money for extras, could move out of their crummy, cramped, noisy apartment, and live better than always hand-to-mouth. Sheri has boyfriends from time to time and if she "gets lucky" (as she tells Caitlin), they might spend the night in which case Caitlin has to stay quiet in her room. Shari and Caitlin are close. Shari's one major quirk is that she absolutely refuses to discuss or divulge anything about her past as a child. Caitlin is solitary, though she has one good friend. She wants to become an ichthyologist and her favourite time of the day is the couple of hours after school before Sheri can pick her up when Caitlin goes to the aquarium to admire, study, and fantasize about the fish. One day she meets an "old man" who shares her enthusiasm. They start meeting every day and then the old man says that he would like to meet Caitlin's mother. And then all hell breaks loose and the darkness in Sheri's past becomes a yawning pit of despair that threatens to devour everyone and everything.

The novel is recounted by Caitlin as the first person narrator, but we are reminded lightly, a couple of times, that she is looking back; the action all feels very much in the moment. The aquarium is clearly a metaphor for life, for Caitlin's life, and for the conglomeration that we call cities. Any one of the fish tanks could, "seem like nothing" because so many of the fish camouflage themselves for protection and alternatively as predators, but "then it could dazzle" as life bursts out. And, like the largest of aquariums, a city has "all the worlds hidden away inside" waiting to be discovered, for ill or for good. One of those worlds is Caitlin's best friend with whom she discovers desire in innocence.

This novel is about confronting demons in the evolution of life and how we deal with the past, and past generations: "We live through evolutions ourselves, each of us, progressing through different apprehensions of the world, at each age forgetting the last age, every previous mind erased. We no longer see the same world at all." And it is about how the demons and pain of the past warp the soul in ways that can carry through generations and maybe never be resolved: "I lay awake that night thinking of my mother, this other life, a shadow of my own....What do we owe for what has come before us, the previous generations? I had no words for this at twelve, only the weight.....The problem is that we can never enter this shadow world in order to make payment." Caitlin’s story is about the loss of faith and trust in others. Finally, the novel is about the frightening power of visceral, incandescent rage that sears the past and shapes everything in the present: every thought, every hope, every relationship. This is Sheri's life and Vann depicts it brilliantly, evoking a level of derangement for which resolution seems impossible.

Bright Water Black
The myth of Medea is a very ancient one, perhaps best known from the play (first presented in 431BCE) by Euripides (480-406BCE). Medea helped Jason succeed in a couple of the tasks set for him to obtain the Golden Fleece. She fell madly in love with Jason and they had children (one version mentions 14 children; 7 boys and 7 girls). The play by Euripides focuses on Medea's revenge for Jason abandoning her to marry Glauce, daughter of King Creon of Corinth. Medea wreaks a terrible revenge by murdering Glauce, and also Creon, and then murders her two sons for the ultimate revenge on Jason.

The power of Vann's novel is his focus on Medea telling her story. There is a very clear parallel to the character of Sheri in Aquarium with the anguish and all consuming rage, though Medea is a much more complex character. There is also a strong parallel to the story of Clytemnestra as re-told in Toibin's House of Names which I mentioned recently on JustOttawa.

In fleeing the wrath of her father, accompanying Jason and his Argonauts after they have taken the Golden Fleece, Medea leaves her homeland, her family, respect and prestige and safety, all for the love of this man. She did not just cut her ties, she sundered them when she kidnapped her brother as a hostage, killed and dismembered him and threw his body parts into the water to slow the pursing ship of her father who had to stop to pick up the pieces for burial. The plan works, but Medea is herself aware of the terrible cost when she muses, "Let everything that binds fall. Let all that is known be confused. Let all that we are die. Let me be most hated of all women, and most true." Truth is critical to Medea, truth in knowing who and what she is ("She feels this place inside her now, barren heart, no living or growing thing."), and truth, and power, in her relationship with Jason: "By the old stars above and the new starts below, I will rule your heart. You are the land I conquer." Hence, after shared adventures and dangers, surviving torture and isolation and slavery together, Jason's betrayal in planning to marry the daughter of King Creon, and then rationalising it as good for Medea and their sons because of the influence and security they will have, tips Medea into madness, a fire of vengeance. The destruction of her love which is the defining focus and bedrock of her life and identity throws Medea even more deeply into a spiral of violence fuelled by an untameable rage. She embraces and becomes an agent of death: “The world is built in too many layers, a suffocation, all gone mute, sources lost. All we can worship are shadows.”

Medea's isolation is complete. For her there are no gods, "There is only power, and to hold power, you have to be descended from a god. In the end, it is the same thing." And precisely because a woman is not allowed anything, she can, "become a thing of fear" which is what Medea does as her principal source of power. So powerful is the belief in witchcraft that her curses alone can make strong men falter and lose heart; Toibin plays with the same theme when Agamemnon orders Iphigenia gagged and Clytemnestra removed so that neither woman can rain down curses that could stop soldiers from executing the sacrifice.

Medea searches in her life and her soul for independence, for identity as a woman and as a person but she feels neither: “She will be killed or whipped or bathed and dressed and honoured with a feast, all at the whim of one man she has never met, and she has no say over what will happen to her children.”

Medea thrills in the her freedom but against the ephemerality of life, she strives for her days to, "be recognised and remain and not be buried and lost. How to do this unclear. Surrounded on every side by erasure....Medea would have something more personal, something remembered and caught and frozen that can be only her, some moment none can fully understand or forget." But at the same time she recognises that life is moments that, “would have changed everything” and that exist only in imperfect memory: “Every story born in pattern and wrought by the telling into another pattern again.”

There are various versions of the how the myth ends and Vann brings his own nuance to bear. His ending feels real given how we have come to know Medea. It is visceral and wrenching. It is, as a reviewer has remarked on Vann’s writing in an other context, an example of his, “willingness to to explore the unimaginable, the unthinkable, on the page.”

Highly recommended.


Edward St. Aubyn
St. Aubyn (1960-) is an English author and journalist. He is best known for the five novels that comprise the Patrick Melrose series that is largely based on his life and deals with sexual abuse, death of both parents, alcoholism, heroin addiction and recovery, marriage and parenthood. The treatment of these themes can be stark and brutal, but St. Aubyn is such a fine writer that he carries it off with a powerful realism, frequent humour, and always with an eye to skewering the pretentious materiality and morals of the wealthy. He was an inspired choice to write Dunbar which is King Lear in modern times.

Dunbar is part of the Hogarth series of retelling Shakespearean plays by novelists of today. Henry Dunbar is the titular head of a powerful global media corporation. Henry had handed over the ownership and management of his empire to two of his daughters, Abby and Megan, while his favourite daughter, Florence, was disinherited for having rejected any role in the business. The novel opens with Henry hidden in a care home in rural England where he has been incarcerated by Abby and Megan who are planning to divest Henry of any remaining authority and sell the corporation to another global competitor for the multi-millions they need to keep them in the lifestyle that they perceive as their right. Florence has got wind of the plan and is frantically looking for Henry who has escaped from the care home accompanied by an alcoholic comedian. We have a race against time with the prize being either justice for Henry or untold millions to feed the avarice of Abby and Megan. Because the structure is King Lear, we know the ending is not going to be easy.

St. Aubyn’s writing is characterised by a wonderful command of new and refreshing similes and metaphors, and Dunbar is no exception.

“The leafless trees , with their black branches stretching out hysterically in every direction, looked to him like illustrations of a central nervous system racked by disease; studies of human suffering anatomised against the winter sky.”

“...the altogether more convincing mountains of Austria, mountains with jagged peaks, and glacial passes, not these low, interlocking round-backed mountains, like a litter of sleeping puppies, into which it was evidently all too easy to escape.”

“His muddle was at once immediate and fundamental; he seemed to be reaching for the keys of a piano that was sliding across the floor of a sinking ship, tying to remember snatches of a piece he had once known by heart.”

In Shakespeare, we see Lear’s madness through his actions, his speech to others and his monologues. St. Aubyn adds another, difficult dimension by giving us Dunbar’s internal voice, how it feels to know that your grasp on reality is tenuous and deceptive and frightening, to the point where Dunbar cries, along with Lear, Please don’t let me be mad. St. Aubyn does this very well each time we dip into Dunbar’s mind, measuring what he remembers of the outside world against the swirling new, emotions and disconnections inside his head. Part of this for Dunbar is the regret of perspective: “When he had been running a global empire, his cruelty and his vindictiveness and his lies and his tantrums were disguised as the necessary actions of a decisive commander-in-chief, but in his current naked condition the naked character of those actions screamed at him, like ex-prisoners recognising their torturers in the street.” In the novel, Dunbar is Canadian; one can’t help but wonder if St. Aubyn had any real-life, modern models in mind.

A St. Aubyn novel would not be complete without skewering the mores of the wealthy. Abby’s husband, cheating and betraying for millions does muse, at one point: “How much money is enough? It was a question he found profoundly puzzling, since the money he already had gave him so little satisfaction. He seemed to fear losing it without having enjoyed it.” But even this pause does not distract him from his goal. Abby and Megan are grasping, avaricious, immoral and amoral; other people exist and are tolerated only to the degree that they can be used and then cast aside. Florence, like Cordelia, is of course the opposite; she becomes the lodestar of Dunbar’s greatest regret in life, and his path to redemption despite the pain of moments and opportunities lost.

All in all, a rollicking, fun, worthy representation of the twists and turns and attractions of Lear.

Tags: John Klassen