Friday, March 18, 2011

Caribou Island, by David Vann

Caribou Island is a domestic horror story, not in the vein of Stephen King or Shirley Jackson but rather of Jonathan Franzen. A couple in their mid-50s, recently retired, children out of the house, are having difficulties in their marriage. Each partner has different reasons for the difficulties. Each blames the other for disappointments in life. To attempt to repair their marriage and to address personal issues, they decide to build a log cabin on a small island in an Alaskan bay. (The husband insists on this solution, to which the wife acquiesces—this is a life pattern for them). I can hardly conceive of a worse way to solve marital difficulties, which play themselves out in the course of this novel by David Vann, his second.

The children of the couple also lead lives of disappointment, or lives headed in that direction. Their son Mark lives in a half-built house he has left unfinished. He earns a living as a fisherman. Their daughter Rhoda is thirty and unmarried, though halfway through the story she becomes engaged to her boyfriend, a dentist. He begins working out in anticipation of extramarital affairs.

Vann’s view of human relationships is dismal. In this book they all head towards pain, betrayal, unhappiness, and worse. The Alaskan setting accentuates the predicament of the struggling married couple. They’ve made their own hell, and the natural world with its storms, cold temperatures, wind, rain, snow, offers little solace. They are on their own, as are we all.

Setting is a strength of the novel. Descriptions of the ocean, the Alaskan countryside, the island and the lake surrounding it give a visit sense of place. Of particular interest are the descriptions of trolling for salmon on Mark’s fishing boat. A community of counter-culture wanderers, disaffected souls, eccentrics on the margins populate the peripheries.

This novel demonstrates how in the course of a 35-year marriage small resentments and larger ones build up, accumulate, until they add up to far more than the sum of individual complaints, and then some final accounting brings them all to bear. It also shows how children inherit the miseries of their parents, dooming them (at least in this book) to repeat failed lives already lived.

I recognize the skill of the novel, especially the scenes on the island, and in the final chapters, but nothing in Caribou Island gave me any satisfaction.

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