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A Disappointing Read
on 4 September 2013
I recall very well the publication of David Vann's Legend of a Suicide in 2008. It came with a big bang. Back then one got the impression that the critics were rushing to the podium to sing the novel's praise. As a result of all the high accolade, the novel found its way on my long, long reading list and it has taken me some 5 years to get around to reading it. Let me say I have no regrets in not giving the novel greater priority and reading it earlier. The novel has some moments where it becomes emotionally engaging but the sum of those moments does not add up to a whole great novel as was made out back in 2008.
Born on one of the remote islands of Alaska, Roy is brought up by his parents, Jim and Elizabeth, who eventually divorce. Roy has a spell living with each of his parents. Whilst with his mother he endures a number of his mother's many boyfriends. Roy also suffers from the relationship between his father and a second wife. However, the crux of the story occurs when Roy goes on an ill thought out adventure or trek with his father on Sukkwan Island. This is almost like an initiation or rite of passage for Roy but for his father it is an ill conceived opportunity to put all his troubles behind and start afresh.
The novel is structured by means of six short stories with connecting themes and issues that bind them together to make a novel. One of the interesting things about the novel is its narration and the sequencing of time. Vann begins with a first person narrator, autobiographical style, through the voice of Roy. Roy narrates the dynamics of his family's relationships and by the end of chapter 1 Roy's father has shot himself. In chapter 4 the story is taken up by a third person narrator who outlines the events of an adventure into the cold wilderness of Alaska. From here on the novel commands concentration and close attention as there are no speech quotation marks, the time sequence of major events is inverted and one is left with the impression that the major events are being looked at from another perspective, opposed to that of Roy who begins with the first person narration.
The prospective reader might think that the above can only add to what should be an interesting and gripping read. For me it did not make for an interesting read. The substantial chapter of the book is rendered with repetitive and tedious description of father and son taking hikes into the Alaskan wilderness, fishing and shooting. Further Roy's father, Jim, is prone to mistakes one of which leads to a major tragedy. I found myself over burdened by the consequences of Jim's mistakes rather than being sympathetic with Jim's character.
However, as the events are presented from the second perspective there is a twist in the story which opens up the scope for engaging with the novel. To some extent that twist in the story is disturbing and it provides for a shift from tedious description to pathos. At this stage, somewhat a little late, the novel comes alive but although Legend of a Suicide is a short novel it felt like a long wait for this shift. What also clearly emerges with this shift is the novel's main themes such as father and son relationship, the overwhelming burden of loss, the ability to endure and survive hardships and the act of remembrance. There is a wonderful brief testimony of the theme of memory that runs: "Memories are infinitely richer than their origins, I discovered, to travel back can only estrange one even from memory itself. And because memory is often all that a life or self is built on, returning home can take away exactly that."
After all the hype 5 years ago, I came to read this novel with great expectation. However, for me the novel did not live up to the hype. As mentioned above the novel has it moments when it reaches a great peak and engaged me but overall it was a disappointment.