Legend of a Suicide
Paperback : 29 Oct 2009
Read an extract from: Legend of a Suicide
Roy is still young when his father, a failed dentist and hapless fisherman, puts a .44 magnum to his head and commits suicide on the deck of his beloved boat. Throughout his life, Roy returns to that moment, gripped by its memory and the shadow it casts over his small-town boyhood, describing with poignant, mercurial wit his parents' woeful marriage and inevitable divorce, their kindnesses and weaknesses, the absurd and comic turning-points of his past. Finally, in Legend of a Suicide, Roy lays his father's ghost to rest. But not before he exacts a gruelling, exhilarating revenge.
Revolving around a fatally misconceived adventure deep in the wilderness of Alaska, this is a remarkably tender story of survival and disillusioned love.
Customer Review: 06 November 2009
'I read a lot of humourous books (Pratchett, Holt, Robert Rankin) although not exclusively humour. This book is the best, non humour book I have read in a long time! If you read no more of this review then at least try this book. The synopsis of the book does not reflect the book I read. It is a story about a suicide. Or two? We keep shifting perspectives and see the story though a different view point although mostly narrated by the same ''person''. It is not comfortable inside the narrators head, but it is strangely compelling. Despite the discomfort I had to read this and enjoyed it immensely. Having felt the twists in the middle, I may not read it again, however I may - to try to get a better understanding of how all the strands fit together. Thank you David Vann - you really entertained me. http://ourbookreviewsonline.blogspot.com/2009/10/legend-of-suicide-four.html'» Submit a review
'Oh my God Legend of a Suicide just bowled me over completely. It is such a tender, heartbreaking, breathtaking, horrifying and insanely compelling read that when I finished it I went straight back to the beginning and round again.'
Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine
‘This is my ‘One to watch’, a literary debut set in Alaska about the effects of a father’s suicide on his son. It’s stunning, beautifully written, with genuine surprises and a complexity which makes you retrace your steps, wonder what really happened and ponder over the whole scenario for days. I loved it. It’s Richard Yates, Annie Proulx territory, and highly recommended.’
Sarah Broadhurst, Bookseller magazine,
‘The most powerful piece of writing I have read for a very long time. This book squeezes more life out of the first 100 pages than most books could manage in 1000.’
Ross Raisin, author of God’s Own Country, and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year 2009
‘I can’t remember … when a book last demolished so many of my expectations about what shape a narrative might take and about how much truth can, or should, be told by altering, rather than sticking to, the facts. Most of all, though, I am just shocked. For a while my encounter with this little book challenges everything I thought I knew about the limits of what fiction can do’
‘Headlong narrative pacing, a memorable train-wreck father who gives Richard Russo's characters a run for their money, and a sure, sharp, inviting voice. So hard to put down that I am thinking of suing David Vann for several hours of lost sleep’
Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk about Kevin
'In his portrayal of a young son's love for his lost father David Vann has created a stunning work of fiction: surprising, beautiful and intensely moving'
Nadeem Aslam, author of Maps for Lost Lovers
‘From the shores of Vann’s Alaska one can see the Russia of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons… “A father, after all,” Vann writes, “is a lot for a thing to be.” A son is also a lot for a thing to be; so is an artist. With Legend of a Suicide David Vann proves himself a fine example of both’
New York Times
‘An extraordinary piece of work. David Vann’s dark and strange book twists through natural forces and compressed emotions towards an extraordinary and dreamlike conclusion. One of the most gripping debuts I’ve ever read’
Philip Hoare, author of Leviathan, winner of the 2009 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize
‘It is in that terse, yet heavily freighted American style of Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff and Cormac McCarthy where small incidents and details ring with a far more resonant significance than they first appear to have … The result is a richly dense, emotionally complex set of stories, superbly written’
David Mills, Esquire
Michael Arditti, Daily Mail
‘A sad and heartbreakingly wise story’
Eithne Farry, Marie Claire
‘Extraordinary … Reminiscent of Tobias Wolff, Vann’s prose is as pure as a gulp of water from an Alaskan stream’
‘Perfectly crafted, heartbreaking’
The subject matter is extremely personal and you’ve said you’ve been working on the book for ten years. Did you feel a responsibility to tell the truth, or honour your memories in a particular way, given that you were fictionalising them?
The stories reflect on my father’s suicide, but they’re fictional. The novella is entirely made up, for instance. I never went homesteading with my father. But I took a course with Grace Paley, and she always said that every line in a story should be true, meaning true to who the characters are, true to the meaning and significance of what’s happening in these people’s lives. Fiction in this sense is truer to a person’s life than what actually happened, because it distils and reveals, cutting through all the dross of everyday life. So I consider this book to be as true an account as I can write of my father’s suicide and my own bereavement, and that truth is constructed almost entirely of fictions. As for honouring memories, I think writing is all that any writer should honour. I think memory, family, and everything else has to be sacrificed or else it will limit the work.
Has it helped you work through some of the personal elements of the book?
I don’t view writing as therapy. It does have therapeutic value, of course, and writing the book did help me to understand my father better and work through feelings about his death, but that wasn’t the focus or the real value. I was trying to write something beautiful.
The stories in Legend of a Suicide are not only linked by characters and subject matter, but show a clear progression and development, thematically and stylistically. Was this always the intention from the start or was it something that came out of the writing process?
You’re right that the stories are meant to be read together and in this order. That’s the only way they fully make sense. They argue with each other, and this was something I wanted after studying Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. A Legend of Good Men, one of the stories, takes its title from Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women. The arguments in Legend of a Suicide are about who my father was and the meaning of his death and its aftermath, but they’re also about different ways of telling a story, different voices and styles, and each opens up the material in a different way. The final story is a retelling of the first story, for instance, with the same material and dramatic arc, but written as a fabulist riff instead of as a realistic short story.
It’s always hard to say how much of the writing process was intentional and how much was unconscious. The major turning point halfway through the novella came as a shock to me, for instance. I didn’t see it coming at all until that sentence, and this is what I love most about writing. But I did have a sense early on of wanting to write stories that would be in conversation with each other.
How would you categorise it? As a novel, a collection of stories, or even as a kind of memoir? Perhaps a better way of asking that question would be ‘How would you like readers to view it: as memoir, stories, or as a novel of sorts?’
It’s definitely not memoir. Most fiction has some basis in real life. But it’s more difficult to say whether it should be considered stories or a novel, because it’s really not either. It has too many gaps for a novel, but the overall arc and novella make it feel like something other than a collection. I like to think of it as a Legend, which has several meanings. In the hagiographic tradition, a Legend or Legendary is a collection of portraits, and that’s what this is, a collection of portraits of my father and, by inevitable extension, myself.
Your preoccupation with nature and the wilderness is reminiscent of Hemingway. Are you an admirer of his work? Can you tell us about any other particular influences on the book?
I am an admirer of Hemingway. Most of my influences are landscape writers and stylists—Annie Proulx, Marilynne Robinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Cormac McCarthy—who amplify sentences to get at the beautiful, but their amplification is an increase in organization and structure, extending through relative clauses, similes, adjectives following their nouns, etc., whereas Hemingway amplifies through dissolution. Borrowing from Stein, he watches sentences fall apart. Conjunctions are the simplest way of joining, and even these lose their syntactic function after a while in Hemingway. What’s left is repetition, word collocation left patterned in a place where syntax has fallen away.
Judging from this book, and your previous account of a sailing trip, A Mile Down, you seem drawn to certain extremes and dangers; is this fair? Why do you think this is?
Honestly, I think I’ve just been desperate. I went to sea because I couldn’t get a professorship and needed a job, and I tried my non-stop solo circumnavigation to try to move to a bigger publisher. That’s the sad truth. I love the sea and boats, too, but would I really have taken all those risks without something else driving me? I have a good professorship now, and I’ve moved to a bigger publisher without having to do that circumnav, but in the past, I’ve certainly been willing to sacrifice life and limb for the writing career. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I’ve never really wanted anything else.
Do you still sail a lot, given that you’ve had so many near-death experiences?
I do. I love sailing, and also designing and building boats. But I’m not running a charter business anymore, not having to do passages on deadlines without regard for weather, etc. Now I can just sail when the conditions are right. I’ll be sailing in the
Can you tell us a bit more about
Sarah Palin is about right-wing nuts in the
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What was it like growing up with guns as an everyday part of life?
I’ve written quite a bit about this in a piece for Men’s Journal which is coming out in their June 2009 issue. I’ve also written online for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
You’ve spent a lot of time alone on boats and in the wild: do you enjoy or seek out solitude?
I like to spend the first part of every day alone, writing and reading, but the truth is that I don’t like to be alone in the evenings. Even one day without my wife and I really miss her. When I was single, I used to panic soon after sunset if I didn’t have plans to see people. Somehow, the idea of filling all of those hours until bedtime just seemed impossible. But wilderness and being alone at sea both appeal to me for some reason. I feel at home out of sight of land or high in the mountains with no sign of other people. Just a contradiction, I suppose.
The book has a filmic quality. Can you tell us what film makers you enjoy?
In graduate school, I studied a lot of Italian film makers—Fellini, Bertolucci, Antonioni, the De Sica brothers, etc.—but I don’t think I actually have been able to use anything from them. I’ve loved a lot of Woody Allen films, too, and the Coen brothers, but I don’t think I’ve been able to use those in a particular way, either. I do try to write everything in scene, though, and my sense of structure is influenced by film. Harold and Maude was the first movie I studied scene by scene, writing a one-line summary each time they cut in time or place. By the end, I had four pages which outlined the movie, and I was amazed at how symmetrical and carefully shaped it was.
You’re reading Beowulf in the original Old English. How is that going and what are you gaining from it?
I love Old English, the sound of it and the syntax, the odd arrangement of meaning in a sentence. It shows a different kind of thinking, a different relation to story and audience. I think it’s important to know how authorship, language, and stories have changed over time, not only because that makes us better readers but also because we can still reach back in ways that have impact. I’ve memorized the opening lines, too, and I’m trying to add a few new lines each day, because we hear and own a work differently when we memorize. The internal shape of it starts to become visible. It wasn’t until I’d memorized Elizabeth Bishop’s “At The Fishhouses” and Robert Pinsky’s “At Pleasure Bay,” for instance, that I could see how heavily he’d borrowed from her poem, all the turning points, the progression and vision.
I also like works in Old English other than Beowulf. “The Seafarer,” for instance, has this great desire to return to sea despite the suffering.
If you could have written one book you haven’t, what would it be and why?
Cormac McCarthy’s novel, Blood Meridian, because the voice is over the top but he gets away with it. I love the way he extends literal landscapes into figurative landscapes, and this was a big influence for my novella within Legend of a Suicide.
Finally, what other writing projects are you working on?
I’m working on a novel,
Size : 129 x 198mm
Pages : 240
Published : 29 Oct 2009
Publisher : Viking Adult
Other formats for Legend of a Suicide:
» ePub eBook: eBook : £7.00
Legend of a Suicide
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