Having finished David Vann‘s novel, Caribou Island, I’m still trying to figure out how I can possible forgive this author for writing a novel so compelling I could not stop reading it (or wanting to read it when I couldn’t be), and coming to a finish that was so disturbing it has disrupted my thoughts – both while awake and sleeping – for the past several days. I DON’T recommend this one to anyone already suffering from seasonal affect disorder or cabin fever bordering on The Shining.
A half dozen characters take the lead by chapter for the third person omniscient narration. Irene sees her marriage to Gary coming to an end. Their daughter Rhoda can’t see it coming any more than she can see the fault line in her own engagement to Jim, her cheating fiancee. Other characters move in and out of the story, like storm clouds across the Alaskan sky, and each seems to be the other’s antagonist. In fact, if asked, I’m not sure I could clearly identify a single protagonist in this story. I suppose each character has their moment: Carl, when he finds out Monique is banging Jim and takes of into the cold Alaskan night; Gary as he struggles against the northern snow and wind to build his “dream” island cabin; Irene as she finally sees a doctor who might just help her to understand the cause of the splitting headaches she suffers.
But just as it seems a character is the lead of the plot, breaking away from adversity, each is confronted yet again with an adversary – another of the characters or the unflinching, damnable Alaskan nature.
Vann’s story is an exploration of the human psyche, that which fails us is that which we are and continue to grasp onto. Each character seems to realize this: Gary knows in fits and starts that his cabin is a stupid idea, but he stubbornly persists; Irene knows their marriage is ending, but goes along with the cabin building because she knows they have to play the final card; Rhoda knows her relationship to Jim is nothing more than what she always felt was the right thing to want, whether she feels passionately about it or not. It’s this kind of knowing that makes the writing both so compelling and devastating to read. As much as I would like to see one thing work out well for one character, there are no happy endings here. This is simply a reflection of real life that has its moments of just enough insight to help us accept what we have as good enough and move on. Or not.