This is the third David Vann book I have read and reviewed and I think it is the best of the three.
I don't think you can expect to read a frothy light David Vann novel. His novels are dark tales of human dysfunction. The first two were so similar that they almost seemed to be the same novel. Here the setting is California rather than Alaska and the cast of characters is smaller, only six, two warring middle aged sisters, their senile mother and two cousins, Galen, a 22 year old virgin who is rather too closely wrapped in his mother's apron strings and who to me seems to display behaviour reminiscent of Asberger's Syndrome and Jennifer, a sexually precocious and provocative minx. The other character is the dead father who appeared to have been abusive to people around him yet appeared also to have been the only person to have led any kind of useful life. This makes the story seem more intense and claustrophobic in character - just don't expect a happy ending, it won't happen.
To give readers a bit of a taste of what to expect, I think it worth quoting a passage in which the vegetarian Galen eats a load of pigs in blankets [sausages wrapt in bacon] ostensibly to annoy his mother. 'Thank you, his mother said. And she passed the plate. A dozen piggies in their blankets. Galen slid them all onto his plte and then he stuffed them in his mouth with both fists, hot doughy intestinal meat with the taste of butchery floors and tongues and hooves. His cousing laughing and his mother gone again and he kept stuffing and chewing and swallowing the little abominations until there were only shards on his plate, the ruins of the feast, and then he bent down to lick his plate clean, left the table with his stomach heaving and lurched up the stairs to his room and bathroom to vomit into the toilet. When he was done, he folded his arms on the toilet seat, his mouth acidic, and he took a little nap. Closed his eyes and slept on the toilet with the unclean water below, thought about dipping his head in for a drink, and he would have done it if his mother had been watching.'
Galen lives with his mother in the family home. He is trying to find transcendence through meditation so he can leave this earthly plain and free himself. His mother has controlled him for all of his life and manipulates him to stay at home, she has a rose-tinted view of her childhood. His aunt is the opposite and is trying to get hold of the family inheritance and views her growing up as painful. His cousin, whom he lusts after, teases him sexually and is just as manipulative and cynical as the others in his family. His grandmother has alzheimers and lives in a care home. A trip to the family cabin brings the realtionships to a head and sets Galen off on the path of true freedom.
This is a dark and unforgiving novel where none of the characters have any real redeeming qualities, the closest you have to a sympathetic character is Galen himself. All the characters can either be viewed as either products of their upbringing or they are naturally nasty and cynical. This leads into thoughts about nature vs. nurture which is why, I think, David Vann doesn't bring in any particular motives for their actions and thoughts.
The first part starts fairly light and humorous (mostly at the expense of New Age-ism) and slowly this turns darker and nastier as the novel progresses. David Vann is a master stylist and he handles the almost non-existent plot and unlikebale characters with skill - the way he makes the book readable is with the prose, which it is easy to get swept up in.
I have a feeling this is the type of novel that critics will like and the vast majority of readers unfamiliar with David Vann will dis-like - but for once in a modern novel it is not just style over substance. I have read Vann's previous novel Caribou Island so I had some idea of how the novel would be written.
Overall if you enjoy ultra-modern fiction or wish to try something from someone who is turning out to be a true master of the literary form then this is a must read.
Galan is a disturbed young man, although he is 22 he behaves like a much younger man. Throughout the book we get to know him, along with his mother, grandmother, aunt and cousin. They are generally a pretty odd bunch of individuals who combine together to make a very uncomfortable family group.
It's not always necessary to like characters in a book but it is important to find some empathy towards someone but I couldn't find anything in this book to make me want to care about any of the people involved, except maybe the grandmother occasionally.
There is a feeling of The Wasp Factory about the way the story is told but it is nowhere near as good as that.
If you're not sure whether to read this book, I would recommend giving it a miss.
This is a vicious, brutal read full of hatred and violence - and, yet, at the same time, it's utterly compelling and intense. With Vann, all the gloves are off as he gets inside the shocking and sometimes nauseating head of 22-year old Galen, still a virgin and linked to his mother through a relationship of hating co-dependence.
This isn't a book for anyone who likes traditional storytelling or moral narrative: this is bleak, disturbing and as grubby as the title promises.
Vann is a writer who doesn't just take risks and push boundaries but throws the reader headlong into a chaos of emotional and narrative danger. This may well be one of the most powerful reads of the year, but it's also one to approach with caution - you have been warned!
It's 1985 in Sacramento, California and 22-year-old Galen lives with his 46-year-old mother Suzie-Q in a remote house that she has spent her whole life living in. Galen, a bulemic vegetarian, seeks transcendence or the state of being free from the constraints of the material world, so he is not particularly interested in the money that his mother claims she has access to by way of an inheritance from her abusive father. Galen's grandmother is still alive though, albeit with a failing memory, and the only other characters are Suzie's sister Helen and her promiscuous 17-year-old daughter Jennifer. The story starts off in one direction - Helen's fury at not having access to the family riches - but then changes to focus almost exclusively on Galen's pursuit of transcendence. He is distracted by the sexual advances of his teenage cousin, and one or two of these incestuous experiences are described in intimate detail, yet the very long-drawn-out ending has little to do with that and very much to do with the irrelevance of everything physical and material.
After a few chapters this promises to become an entertaining black comedy, but it never really fulfills that impression. In many ways emotions are described too literally and even obviously. It would have been better to have left more to the reader's imagination, but the author consistently saves the reader the bother of wondering about details and tells us himself. So despite being a relatively short novel, there's a degree of excessive and unnecessarily heavy dialogue and narrative that spells out for the reader what might have been more entertaining to figure out for ourselves. On the other hand, this could be seen as simply the deliberately adopted style of the story-telling and some might welcome it. Personally I found it a bit OTT, and would have preferred more subtlety, more vagueness.
As it is, it's a slightly odd story, or at the very least a story about an odd family, and a family that's hard to sympathise with or feel any empathy towards. Almost all of the personality of the family is embodied by Galen, and despite the very intensive examinations of his identity it's somehow difficult to really know who or what he is. The most likely explanation is that he is the result of years of emotional abuse (mainly by his mother), but as this all happened in the past, we can only gloss over that as very little of that abuse appears in the narrative. The bottom line is that this is a cold-hearted family with little in the way of conventional bonding, and Galen's obsession with transcendence only serves to underline that isolation and sense of pointlessness.
I selected this novel in direct response to the positive reviews I had read here, but the reading experience has been a disappointment. It kept my attention throughout but I can't say that I truly enjoyed it.
“Everything shrank in the glare. The roof of the shed maybe a foot or two lower, the boards thinner by half an inch. The fig tree more squat to the ground, not as tall as before. The furrows shallow. Galen didn’t know what that meant, that everything grew as the light faded and shrank again in the day”
Dirt is the second novel by American author, David Vann.
Recipe for family disintegration
1 young man, 22 years old (going on sixteen), the favoured grandchild, a virgin, trying unsuccessfully to transcend his baser instincts to exist on a higher plane (Galen)
1 single mother, product of a dysfunctional childhood, the favoured daughter, in control of the family trust fund and unwilling to let her son go (Suzie Q.)
1 grandmother, descending into dementia, relegated to a care facility
1 aunt, filled with anger and jealousy about her childhood and her violent father, resentful and determined to get her share of the trust for her daughter (Helen)
1 cousin, seventeen years old, promiscuous, flirtatious, very selfish (Jennifer)
1 trust fund, supposedly being reserved to pay for the care facility
1 secluded mountain cabin with very cramped accommodation.
Combine all the ingredients for a few days and allow to simmer. Wait for the inevitable interaction to occur, observe as things come to a head, then return all ingredients to their previous environments. To the young man and his mother, add one ill-considered threat and a shed with a rusty padlock.
Vann’s novels are never comfortable reads. In this one, he includes underage incestuous sex, described in some explicit and rather disturbing sex scenes, family secrets only hinted at, abusive relationships and mental illness. The result has all the mesmerising quality of a train wreck: readers may not want to see what happens, but neither can they look away.
His characters are people driven to extremes, and as such, not a bit likeable, although Galen does show some care for his grandma, who tells him: “Do you know what it’s like not to remember?.......It’s like being no one. You think you’re someone now, but it’s only because you can put your memories together. You put them together and you think that makes something. But take away the memories, or even scramble them out of order, and there’s nothing left”.
Vann’s descriptive prose is often truly evocative: “Everything was pale, washed-out. No depth. A two-dimensional world, a cardboard cutout. The hedge and the walnut trees in the same vertical plane though they were a hundred feet apart” and “Shadows everywhere, and the world could be seen in two ways, the light or the shadows. Shapes born and landed, or the dark spaces around them, hollows that fell back infinitely” and “Galen wanted to leave. He wanted to get away from this table. This table felt extremely dangerous. He understood now that what held his family together was violence. But he was locked here, glued in place, unable to move. He could only watch, and the only movement was his mother’s glass, and his grandmother’s glass and palm moving in its slow circles, and the wavering of the light” are examples.
Vann’s second novel is well-written and compelling: a dark and powerful read.
on 16 March 2016
One of my favourite books ever; it is twisted and weird and beautiful. It is one of the only books I repeatedly pick up, rifle through the pages, and start reading at a random point for an hour or two, just because it is so pleasurable. The writing is beautiful and strongly evocative; I can always picture the heat and dust of the setting, along with Gallen's rhythmic, meditative digging. If you like books that explore the dark places a human mind can be pushed to then you will more than likely enjoy, if not love this book.
on 15 March 2015
On starting to read this book I thought that the main protagonist was a young male aged around 12-15 yrs old. However, I soon learned that he is in fact aged 22yrs. This is the story of a young man trapped in the cycle of abuse and poor parenting that occurs in some families. His mother and aunt are psychologically damaged due to their own experiences of being parented by a violent bully for a father and a mother unable to break free. His mother lives in a fantasy world but is clever enough to manipulate the others through her own mother's money. He has no father on the scene to provide some kind of balance. His grandmother, aunt and cousin are equally damaged, and his only contacts are these four members of his immediate family. He has reverted through his anxiety, anger, hopelessness, and inability to move on, to a fantasy life related to Buddhism. The story is bleak and gloomy and deteriorates even further. I found it a very uncomfortable read and although I was unable to stop reading, wished I'd never started.
First published in April of 2012 (US) and June 2012 (UK), US author David Vann's novel 'Dirt' formed the writer's fifth book to see publication.
For twenty-two-year-old Galen, life had plodded along as a very insular affair. Living with his mother in an isolated old house in the dusty outback of Carmichael, a suburb of Sacramento in the Central Valley of California; Galen spends his time reading up on Kahlil Gibran's 'The Prophet' along with immersing himself in other such spiritual literature and 'mind-expanding' practices.
It's now 1985 and Galen is deferring his final year of school for the fifth consecutive year on the trot. Not that his mother minds or encourages him with his education in any way whatsoever. But he would like to go to college one day. But he has no idea where they'd get the money for him to do so. Since his mother, Suzie, kicked her very own mother out of the family house, the nursing home where Galen's grandmother now lives has proven to be a heavy expense on the slowly dwindling money that sits with the family.
With no fatherly figure to look towards, Galen has grown up with just women in his painfully secluded life. And as he's grown into a young man, Galen has found his desires for the feel of a woman mounting by the day. And so his seventeen-year-old cousin, Jennifer, has become somewhat of a fixation for Galen. Something she knows all too well. So she plays with Galen's eagerness for a sexual thrill. She toys with his constant lusting. His growing infatuation with her. And gradually entices him with her slender young body, only to crush him time and again.
But it all culminates to a point of no return when Galen and his mother go on their yearly trip to an old cabin of theirs, together with Galen's grandmother, his Aunt Helen and his cousin Jennifer. A trip that ends abruptly after his aunt and mother fight over the family inheritance and Galen is caught with Jennifer. And from that point onwards, something shifts considerably within young Galen's life. His endless search for a higher understanding of himself comes shattering down on him. His complete devotion to unlocking the key to life's real existence becomes a task that seems forever out of his reach.
And when it all goes sour, then the events just keep on running away from Galen's control. His mother is on a mission to bring Galen down. To wreck what he has for a life. He can't understand her reasoning, her drive to hold him back over all this time and now to see his meagre excuse for a life destroyed completely. And so he reacts. He lets things happen and keeps on seeing them through. Under the blistering hot sun, amongst the trees of the family's walnut orchard, Galen watches as events keep on descending into an abyss where there's surely no turning back.
It's tough to know who you really are. And even tougher to get a grip on where your place is in life. And for some, mere existence is a battle of wills that was, very probably, always destined to end in a pit of tragedy...
The tale begins by introducing the curious individual of Galen and what consists of his utterly dysfunctional family. Slowly but surely a picture of this broken family begins to form, with snippets of their lives together and their painful interaction with each other showing the reader that there is clearly a whole host of issues going on with each member of the family. Issues, that over the course of the tale, will be unveiled; the grubby secrets driving the storyline onwards to a volley of vicious feuding that just doesn't know when to stop.
The stripped down prose that Vann has purposefully adopted for the tale works well with the third-person-perspective; describing the descending feud and head-spinning madness of the situation with a voyeuristic air that just works. Indeed, Vann has managed to paint a truly crushing picture of the day-to-day misery and the sloth-ish procrastination of Galen and his family.
Much of the first half of the tale is particularly witty, with Galen's strange behaviour escalating to amusingly-outrageous new proportions. From an outside observer's perspective, Galen's actions would no doubt seem like those of a complete lunatic. Often resulting in extreme discomfort and as well as minor wounds - the self-damaging thought process behind these actions is more confused than anything else. However, Vann's writing bravely ventures into the mind of this troubled young man, revealing the puzzling motivations behind these actions with some warped form of justifiable meaning. And in his strange lunacy that clings to some hint of rationalisation, the comedy behind the surreal logic, such as with the likes of Joseph Heller's 'Catch-22' (1961), can be witnessed in a wildly exaggerated fashion.
To say that the novel is quirky is like saying William Burroughs' 'Naked Lunch' (1959) is a little odd. The whole thing about 'Dirt', the thing that really makes 'Dirt' what it is, is so undoubtedly the quirkiness of the characters (particularly Galen) and the storyline as a whole.
Along with all the pretty off-the-wall emotional jousting between family members, you also get seventeen-year-old Jennifer's darn sexy flirting, along with some pulse-racing scenes to get the blood pumping. Vann's certainly not shy with slinging in a hefty helping of smut, with Jennifer's advances becoming more and more raunchy as the early chapters progress onwards. And these scenes never feel like they are there just to add a little adult spice to the tale. Far from it. Galen's early explorations into sex, outside of him perusing copies of Hustler magazine, are the catalyst behind much of the snowballing drama. It's like watching Galen grow from a mixed-up-and-confused-boy to an even more confused and disturbed young man. And good god is it compelling reading!
However, after around two-thirds of the novel has passed, with Galen's plummeting sanity, comes a disappointing disconnection with the overall pace and tightness of the tale. Very possibly a purposeful and conscious decision by Vann, this breaking away from a fast-paced and energetically-written story, into something that's much looser and meandering, does begin to feel like the tale is winding down rather than plummeting to a conclusion with a determined force behind it. Okay, so I admit that the concept behind this is very possibly an interesting one. It does, in its own way, help the reader to experience more of Galen's psychological descent. But as a novel, as a tale to sit back and enjoy reading, this withering away of direction in the final third of the tale ultimately leaves the reader feeling less gripped by the tale as well as with Galen's dwindling mental state.
Nevertheless, 'Dirt' is still a thoroughly entertaining read, with some truly inspired moments of chaotic but somehow logical madness. There's nothing quite like seeing crazy behaviour from a point-of-view where it seems perfectly rational - back to 'Catch-22' (1961) again. And Vann works with the inherent comedy behind this as perfectly as he deals with the more overriding aspect of Galen's decaying sanity. It's a hell of a read.
The novel runs for a total of 258 pages.
Galen lives with his mother in a big, secluded family house somewhere in California. His mother is over protective, his grandmother (now in a home) senile, his aunt and cousin are money grabbing, and Galen is just plain odd. He spends his day reading quasi spiritual books, believing himself to be destined for greatness, while not really doing a lot asides from arguing with his family.
When the whole family travel up to their familial lodge old grievances come to a fore as the sisters try to get their hands on their mother's money and Galen tries to get his hands on his cousin.
Vann is a master stylist - clipped, precise prose, dark humour and a warped view of the world make the first two thirds of this book very good indeed. He causes himself some problems in the latter part of the novel though, the lack of plot and deeply unpleasant characters can be sustained for so long, but there needs to be some sort of satisfactory conclusion to it all, and it becomes apparent just over half way through where this is all heading and I found myself wanting to skip huge chunks of the internal exposition that make up the end of the book. The main problem is there is a very simple premise at the centre of the book, the name says it all, and he winds it out too far, until I found myself not caring and more importantly not laughing anymore. Which is a real shame, because the majority is very good and his writing is excellent.
I think there is probably an excellent novella contained in the pages, but it ends up as a bit of a novel that doesn't quite fulfil it's promise and by the end becomes really quite unpleasant.