‘A diffusion of the unparticular ground beyond’ – Legend of a Suicide by David Vann

It isn’t often that a book you wish to review forces you to keep schtum. The closest I can get to explaining why Legend of a Suicide forces you to keep schtum is by comparing it, stupidly, to M Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. It isn’t that there is a ‘twist’, as such, in Legend of a Suicide; there is, however, an event in the fourth, central novella-length narrative enclosed within Legend of a Suicide that truly forces you to re-evaluate what it is you are in fact reading.

Legend of a Suicide is a troubling book. If you’ve read any other reviews, you’ll no doubt be aware that David Vann’s father committed suicide in real life. The American edition of the book trumpets this loudly on the inside flyleaf of the book; the UK Penguin edition mutes this somewhat, just as it mutes the fact that this book isn’t quite a novel, isn’t quite a short story collection, isn’t quite a memoir. When I started reading the first ‘chapter’ which is entitled ‘Ichthyology’ and concerns the young Roy Fenn’s reaction to his father’s suicide by blowing his brains out with a Magnum on the deck of a boat he’d bought with the intention of launching a fishing enterprise that failed, I thought – even as I thought the writing was good, the images Vann conjures up were good (there are fish, I recall, looking hopefully at Roy in the seconds before he clubs them with a hammer) – ‘I’m not sure about the whole ‘I’m writing a fictionalised account of something that is true’ thing’. In the second ‘chapter’, entitled ‘Rhoda’ after the dental hygienist with the lazy eyelid that Roy Fenn’s father ran off with (admitting that one of the reasons his marriage to Roy’s mother failed was because she was only the second woman he’d been with), there are slight incongruities between the information related in the first part and the information related in the second part. These slight incongruities threw me a little because I thought I wasn’t reading the ‘novel’ carefully enough.

The fourth ‘chapter’, ‘Sukkwan Island’, runs to 165 pages, by far the largest slab of what is after all only a 220 page book. ‘Sukkwan Island’, which begins as a sort of Hemingway-esque, outdoorsy tale of the 13 year old Roy’s adventure with his father on an Alaskan island, miles away from civilisation, and becomes something a heck of a lot stranger, was the point at which I held my hands up, said ‘hey, hey, hey!’, went off and read a few other reviews and came back with a clearer perspective on things.

This isn’t a novel. This isn’t a memoir. Perhaps the best way to think of this book is with each part acting one against the other, much as boats tethered in a harbour clunk and bob by their neighbours. Penguin have numbered each part which is arguably mistaken as it does have a tendency to wrongfoot you (and, sorry, the numbering feels like a purely mercantile decision to head off any accusations that this is in fact a collection of short stories – which I don’t think it is, but then, as I said, neither is it completely or wholly a novel either).

Towards the end of the book, a grown-up Roy ‘holidaying’ (kind of) in Ketchikan in Alaska where he grew up and where his father had a dental practice, says,

‘Everything my father had left me vanished. I glanced at the remains and they shifted the light until opacity became translucence and I could see only a diffusion of the unparticular ground beyond, the clutter that promised but gave nothing.’

Throwing fish to ‘freedom’ from a hatchery, he admits to

‘[Waiting] For water, for some new rule, new possibility, that could make pavement not pavement, air not air, a fall not a fall.’

At the close of things, as a reader, you are parsing for explanation of what it is you are in fact reading.

There is a sense in which Legend of a Suicide is a kind of revenge, the revenge of the son left behind on the father who went away. As I said, it’s a troubling read (troubling both in the sense that, the device at its centre that can’t be spoken of, forces you to think long and hard about the framework of the book and troubling in the content of the book itself). It’s also a tremendously satisfying read, well written, intelligent, ballsy, beautiful and courageous (even as it is also not-courageous, or at least even as it raises the possibility of not-courageousness). In the final reckoning, if a book is to be judged purely on how much it forces you to interact with it (by which I mean, think about as you read, discuss with others after you’ve read), then Legend of a Suicide is a resounding success. I haven’t read a single other book this year that has resolutely refused to move itself from the front of my head. Each of the books I’ve read since Legend of a Suicide has had to deal with Legend of a Suicide returning to my thoughts like a pushy matron saying, ‘Yeah but what about me? Have you forgotten about me? Don’t you think I warrant a bit more thought? Huh? Huh? Huh?’

Any Cop?: Legend of a Suicide is, then, apparently, a book that requires almost a 1,000 words of talking around even in the midst of ‘keeping schtum’. Let’s just say it’s recommended. Let’s just say you should read it.



  1. I’ve just finished reading it today. I’m a bit more ambivalent about it but for different reasons. Firstly I have some personal family experience of the theme at the heart of the book and that inevitably stains how I might read this. It rings true, but is maybe less of a surprise for me with the twists and turns the book takes. It is called the “Legend Of A Suicide” after all and really offers a mythologising process for something no one can get inside another person’s head about. The twist involving the son is striking, but I don’t want to give it away for those yet to read the book.

    The book’s strength I think is in portraying the complete and utter void of nourishment felt by both father and son individually and through their faltering relationship. A stunning condemnation of our notions of what it is to be male. All the actions in the wilderness hovering on the edge of giving their lives meaning, but failing by a country mile to do anything of the sort are well evoked. But I felt as a reader I was always left hovering with the characters around the essential kernel of truth, even if that truth was a nagging void. The reasons for suicide were both patently clear and yet avoided raw confrontation with its essential material fact – death. What I mean by this is the disintegration of the mind was shown from the outside, but never successfully probed at one step further in towards intimacy. What makes a person take the final step over the threshold to take their own life. The book deliberately offers differing perspectives on this, but I felt a little cheated.

    The other thing is a cultural divide. As a Hemingwayesque huntin’, shootin’ & fishin’ scenario for father-son bonding, I just feel some of the 165 page novella goes on a bit much to a British sensibility like mine. The metaphor of the outdoors survival ordeal is just a bit over-extended and risks collapsing in on itself at times. There’s only so many times we can read of someone smashing up their vital equipment cos they can’t express their feelings any other way.

    Having said all that, I would like to echo your reviewer’s conclusions that this book is a cut above and definitely worth the read.

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