Book review: Aquarium by David Vann

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AWAY from the wild frontier, David Vann takes off in a new direction, writes Lydia Millet

David Vann’s new novel, about a lonely young girl who meets an old man at the Seattle Aquarium, begins on a deceptively light note. Its cinematic quality is due largely to a series of lovely photographs that accompany 12-year-old Caitlin’s observation of the exotic fauna. But the momentary lightness of these early pages soon unspools into psychological darkness – and the intricate, colorful pictures diminish – as Caitlin moves into the more dangerous spaces of a world populated by humans.

Vann is a talented, Alaska-born writer whose professional success in Britain and several other countries has been extraordinary but who is, so far, a bit less known on his native soil. He has always written fiction about brutal violence – and always against a backdrop of the land, where men of strong character (albeit tragically flawed) know how to build boats and gut deer and haul in halibut, whereas men of weaker character tend to be, say, students or dentists. His frankly autobiographical novels and short stories return persistently to the subject of marital breakups, depression, suicide, murder and torture – to guns and to killing, of game animals, of bears and of wives, husbands and mothers.

His new book is marks a complete change. This may disappoint readers seeking fare in the tough-guy/frontiersman tradition (Vann has more than once been compared to Cormac McCarthy, whose Blood Meridian he deeply admires), but for the rest of us, its delicate, coming-of-age sensuality and bright saltwater menagerie – even if these are eventually scraped away to reveal an ugly underbelly – are a pleasant relief from the palette of gunmetal gray and blood.

Compared to his earlier works, Aquarium is almost paradisical, although it, too, ultimately returns to story lines of paternal abandonment and vicious mistreatment of children. To say any more about its revelations and tense climax would be to offer spoilers. But the novel has a vastly different feel from Vann’s other books, a tone and texture quite removed from the relentlessness of his Alaskan (and rural Californian) tales. It leaves more air and space for the reader, it dwells less on physical mechanics, and it has a softer touch, as befits its gentle child protagonist.

Gone are the reliable and arguably easy archetypes of violent men. Here, the central men – Caitlin’s mother’s long-suffering boyfriend and the old man – seem to have been tamed; they’re caring and they’re kind, in one case by nature and in the other by cruel experience, which has left him repentant and reformed. Is it a coincidence that these more nurturing, saner and better-adjusted male characters are also city dwellers?

This is Vann’s first novel set in a big city as well as being his first book not dominated by furious and dangerous men or boys. It’s as though his characters finally became civilized – as though, having abandoned nature, or possibly been expelled from the Garden of Eden (Vann has an interest in biblical themes), these men have finally become more womanly.

If they have, we understand, it’s a welcome development but a strange one, because Vann clearly knows and loves nature and knows and loves the wild. Fish, for instance, were a personal passion of his as a child, and their forms and behaviours have enraptured him from the time of one of his earliest autobiographical stories, “Ichthyology,” right up to the present novel, which is partly a song of praise to them. Despite this love, nature for Vann seems always to be a place of direst human mischief. We’re safer in cities, Aquarium suggests – or at least, men (if not women) can more readily be trusted there.

On the other hand, Vann’s repeated reliance on building sites in wilderness as the locus for men’s anger is telling: invariably it’s when people try to assert their dominance over the wild that their psyches and personal lives implode. Nature itself is clearly not the villain; the villain, for Vann, is the man who would tame it.

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