"Misery loves company, he said. And all you wanted to do was drag me down with you. You're a mean old b*tch. You don't say it but you're thinking it, always judging. Gary doesn't know what he's doing. Gary hasn't planned a thing, hasn't thought ahead. Always a little bit of judgment. A mean old b*tch."
"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.