David Vann is one of the more curious creatures of American letters. He was born in Alaska, currently lives and teaches in England, is beloved by the French and Spanish (he was awarded both the Prix Medicis Étranger and the Premi Llibreter for his Legend Of A Suicide), and yet remains criminally under-read in the country of his birth. Almost everyone has a favorite author on whose behalf they lodge the complaint of unjust obscurity, but considering Vann sold a quarter of a million copies of Legend Of A Suicide almost everywhere but the United States, the gripe seems particularly apt in his case.
He has since given us a trio of novels (Caribou Island, Dirt, and Goat Mountain) all of which, in differing degrees, manage to remake notions of boyhood and manhood (and the odd bonds of violent acts that can snare sons and fathers into a type of closeness that might be considered love) into seemingly brand-new notions. God knows these things have been written about before and you don’t have go back any farther than the rifle fire of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories to draw out a more worthwhile comparison. Yet he’s been lazily likened to Cormac McCarthy because, well, perhaps because of all of the blood. He’s also been set alongside filmmaker Wes Anderson to defend the nobility of artistic repetition. But to call Vann one-note or self-plagiarizing would be akin to diagnosing Edgar Degas with a ballerina fixation, or Brian Wilson as beach-obsessed.
With this in mind, Vann’s latest novel, Aquarium, might come as a surprise to many of his regular readers looking for yet another cabin in the woods tucked away among a blood-spattered leaf bed where men howl with their lungs and guns to be understood by someone, anyone.
Instead, we are introduced to 12-year-old Caitlin, a girl fascinated by fish. She spends her afternoons after school awaiting the arrival of her mother, who picks her up after her shift as a crane operator, lifting containers from ships at a Seattle port. Staring at the strange creatures that populate the tanks of the city’s aquarium, Caitlin befriends an old man who listens to the young girl describe the strange habits and markings of each fish they longingly admire together day after day. She drags him from room to room in disbelief at the things he’s yet to see on his own. (The novel itself is illustrated with color photographs of the small-eyed, twig-like wonders the girl moons over.) The relationship becomes complicated the day the old man finds the courage to embrace the young girl, and mutters something about loving her. What transpires next is for the reader to discover and the reviewer to leave unspoiled.
Caitlin, now in her early 30s, narrates the novel with all the forgivable romanticism of a nostalgic trying to piece together a life into some coherent shape. She tends to overindulge in aquatic metaphors, drawing on her childhood fascination that has likely fractured and become corrupted by the simple process of becoming an adult. In the case of Caitlin, growing up wasn’t simple, and it lends whatever wide-eyed retrospective lens she holds to the glass tank of her upbringing an authenticity that trumps any triteness.
The city becomes an aquarium, for example, each lit-up window containing lives of randomness and those trapped within, swimming without aim, only to survive. “My mother was able to live without a future,” narrates Caitlin. “This was perhaps her best quality, that she never despaired.” Aquarium is about mothers and daughters, a departure for Vann, but one he navigates as deftly as his brutal portrayals of how men pass down their neuroses through generations, dropping them with the impossible force and weight of gravity into the laps of bewildered children. Here, with Sheri and her daughter Caitlin, that trajectory is no less inevitable.
The triumph of Caitlin derives from what she sees in the fish, even the ones whose scaly patterns appear identical, but aren’t quite. Looking at the mandarins one afternoon, Caitlin notices the striking similarity in the scales that make up their colorful backs, but also sees the small variations in each. She wonders “if each of us might have a blueprint. As if somewhere there’s the shape of my life, and I had the chance to choose a few variations, but not far from the pattern.”
Here Vann finds the through-line that connects much of his work, sounding not entirely convinced himself that the variations in each of us are quite enough to embolden us to break free of the blueprint that existed long before we arrived. If, in the end, we are doomed to swim circles in the same waters, maybe somewhere deep in the depths where Caitlin craves to hide there might be flashes of beauty yet to be discovered. There have to be. Aquarium contains scenes of unbearable ugliness. But, in the end, Vann can’t quite resist the current of hope, providing in his art exactly the type of beauty and immersion Caitlin so desperately seeks for herself.