David Vann’s fifth book, like most of his back catalogue, is about an extremely screwed-up family and how the horrible ghosts of the past just keep banging on the door of the present. In this case, when twelve year-old Caitlin meets and befriends a rather overfamiliar old man loitering in her favourite after-school hangout, the Seattle aquarium, he turns out to be Bob, her estranged grandfather. Quelle surprise, huh? Cue a blasting cacophony of familial discord as Caitlin’s mother, Sheri, belatedly informs Caitlin of the horrors of her own teenage years, after this same Bob walked out and left her alone to deal with her dying mother. The last thing Sheri wants to do is to play happy families with her long-lost old man, but Caitlin, sick of their lonely, hand-to-mouth lifestyle, wants a tidy nuclear family, and so she’s determined to reconcile the older generations. In the meanwhile, like this isn’t enough drama, she’s also embarked upon a clandestine relationship with her school friend, Shalini, newly arrived in Seattle via Delhi (and conveniently possessing a very convivial and well-off set of parents). A choice handful of spoilers here, sure, but don’t worry: there’s enough horrors up Sheri’s sleeve to keep any reader grimacing.
If you’ve read any Vann before, it’s likely to have been Legend of a Suicide, and there are certain resonances between the two texts: for one, there’s a recurrent concern with fish and the sea – Caitlin, like the young Roy in the earlier book, wants to become an ichthyologist, and marine life can be read in both as representing a more stable, beautiful life than the grim squalor that’s to be found on dry land. The aquarium is a place of solace for Caitlin, and the fish – from the halibut to the ghost pipefish – provide a stream of metaphorical hope and cheer as herself and Bob ponder them together, whilst they hide from Sheri’s vengeful wrath. Similarly, a nasty death is at the heart of each book: in Aquarium, Sheri’s ‘survival’ beyond her mother’s illness is as incapacitating and psychologically crippling to her as his father’s suicide is to Roy. Both books are concerned with the possibility (or otherwise) of escaping the past – that is, in each instance we’re reading to figure out whether or not Roy/Bob/Sheri will finally manage to remake or redeem themselves.
That’s more or less where the similarities end. While Legend of a Suicide is formally ingenious – weaving a complex set of reconfigurations and considerations of the past into a whole that’s as memorable for its structure as for its disturbing contents – Aquarium is a straight up recital of trouble-coming-to-town. Sheri and Caitlin have a loving relationship; Bob’s appearance messes with the trust they’ve established; Caitlin’s good-hearted efforts and Bob’s sincere remorse together move them all towards a tentative reconciliation, complete with a lovingly restored house. And all this happens in a convenient few days of revelation, reprisal and redemption. The narrative arc is so smooth you’ll whizz right off the end hours before you actually get there. That is: while the nasty details of Sheri’s revelations are themselves unpredictable and disturbing, the general shape of the story moves in grooves that feel far too pre-established to be satisfying. Bob’s new leaf, for one, beggars belief: is it really that simple to make amends? According to Aquarium, it just might be. Although the book’s ending isn’t entirely sugar-lumps and rainbows, because Sheri’s just too damaged for that to happen, it’s still pretty tidy; Bob’s conciliatory gesture (love, a home, an apology) is a peace-offering unadulterated with any messy loose ends. Now, we’re not against things turning out well, but we are against things lacking the messiness that would mark them up as realistic. In real life, Bob would f*ck something up; here, he’s Learned His Lesson. The book, then, feels a little like a morality tale: bad things happen, but people can change!
We’ve got more. The middle of the book doles out a series of emotional and physical sucker-punches, as Sheri forces Caitlin to re-enact the humiliating scenes of her own adolescence in order to make her daughter understand just why Sheri doesn’t want to accept Bob’s olive branch. It’s memorable as hell, and very visceral, and it certainly conveys Sheri’s trauma, but at the same time, it’s literally incredible: in the scenario Vann’s set up, Sheri and Caitlin have a close, solid relationship, and trauma or otherwise, the utter brutality of Sheri’s object lessons is too much to swallow. Vann has said in interviews that he doesn’t do much in the way of redrafting, and while that’s probably lent itself on occasion to a certain immediacy and energy, and while he’s definitely not lacking in ideas or imagination (or, in other books, raw life-material), in this case the immediacy translates as a lack of depth, or motivation: it probably is believable that Sheri would subject Caitlin to the ordeals described here, but it all happens too fast and with such intensity that it doesn’t feel organic, either to the character or the situation. Instead, it feels like Vann’s thought of a series of kick-ass ingredients for a really alarming family drama, but he hasn’t then spent enough time developing a sufficiently psychologically convincing narrative and set of characters to carry that story. The book, then, feels like an overwrought sketch for a (better) book that’s yet to come.
Last category of woe (we promise). Vann’s earlier work (which we love) has got a real stripped-back style that suits its characters – the worn-down outbackers of the Alaskan wilderness – but here he’s switched to a more lyrical, interrogative style, and it doesn’t feel integral to the story or the characters: it’s too self-conscious, too descriptive, and too aphoristic. Bob – ex-army, ex-labourer, abandoner-of-families – spouts reassuring olde-time wisdom to Caitlin where you might expect impatience, inarticulacy and, really, a touch less elegance; and Caitlin’s own ponderings and soul-searching read more like a writer’s idea of what a sensitive adolescent girl might sound like than an actual adolescent girl, no matter how introverted or expressive that girl might be.
So, then, while the set-up here is excellent – Sheri’s ordeal and the effect that might have on her later life and that of her child and her father (the perpetrator of that ordeal) – the treatment of that material seems, to us, to lack depth. If Bob can rock up, hoping to fix things, only to discover that, hey, he can in fact, more or less fix things, then we’re not sure what we’re really reading. It’s too slick; it veers from calm to horror to sort-of-resolution without ever really putting anything at stake. Social services hover, but not in any really threatening way; Sheri hurts Caitlin, but both Bob and Sheri’s very patient boyfriend Steve are there to help her; Sheri is prepared for Bob to show his true colours, but he doesn’t, because he’s a reformed man.
Any Cop?: We’re always interested in Vann – he’s not afraid to tackle anything – but we don’t think this represents him at his best. If you want something both more challenging and more rewarding, go back to Legend of a Suicide; if you want endings that feel cathartic and joyous, check out anything by Ann Patchett.