Caribou Island by David Vann

by Orual

I’ve wanted to write about this book for weeks, but I think there’s some kind of voodoo surrounding Caribou Island that stunts my reviewing ability. Even now, I can’t quite find the words to verbalize my experience reading the novel and my reaction to it. I finished it a month ago, and it still makes me cold to think of it.

The basic story: Gary and Irene’s marriage is kaput, but they aren’t completely convinced of it, yet. Gary finally puts his lifelong dream into motion and begins construction on a cabin on Caribou Island. Irene doesn’t share his passion but allows herself to be swept along, even as she’s nearly incapacitated by a mysterious illness. That’s the real story of the book, I think, even though as many pages are spent on sub-plots involving Gary and Irene’s children and their friends.

David Vann is a master of atmosphere and mood. Legend of a Suicide, his book of short stories and a novella (“Sukkwan Island,” which is his single best work, I think), is emotionally and physically chilling. Though I have been acquainted with two different classmates who committed suicide, I’ve not been personally affected, really. But if such a hell of a thing can possibly be conveyed in words to someone who has no experience of it, David Vann has done it. And his perfect wielding of such frigid bleakness and consequence is no less present in Caribou Island. His description of Alaska makes me both afraid and desperate to live there.

Regarding his handling of the characters of Gary and Irene: I was struck by Vann’s talent when I realized that my sympathies shifted with every change in point-of-view. When Gary was narrating, I was solidly in his corner. I understood his frustrations with his marriage and Irene. I shared his passion for solitude and dead languages. I wanted his dream to come to fruition. But when it was Irene’s turn, her pain eclipsed Gary’s, and not just because I, as someone who suffers from migraines, was almost physically affected by her strange illness. I suddenly saw Gary as incompetent, practically delusional in his obsession with building the cabin himself and nearly abusive in his insistence that she play along. This is some of the best characterization I’ve encountered in any novel. I am completely impressed by Vann’s ability to manipulate my sympathies like this, particularly because I am usually unmovable. And I think the book is worth reading just for this element.

But it’s not an easy book to read. Quick, but not easy. It’s hopeless. It’s relentless. It’s bleaker than Legend of a Suicide, which I might not have thought possible. In fact, as I was reading, I consistently worried about Vann himself and his state of mind. It sounds silly, but I just wanted to give the man a hug.

So all of this should make Caribou Island a new favorite book and a real masterpiece. Unfortunately, I think the sub-plots severely detract from the novel as a whole. One of them reaches a point where it’s just bizarre and off-putting. To be honest, I wanted to abandon the book because of them, and even now, I’m just confused by their inclusion. Granted, it would be a very short book without them — a novella, really — but, personally, I think the pages would have been better spent on more of Gary and Irene’s history.

Oh, and I did want to mention the design because this book is gorgeous. I want to own it just for the cover. And I love how the chapters are separated. I’m sort of peculiar when it comes to chapters — I hate chapters with titles. Chapters with just numbers are only tolerable. But they’re perfect and genius in this book! You won’t understand unless you see them, but I love how they communicate the enduring and unmerciful nature of Alaska itself as it batters the too-changeable characters.

In the end, I think Caribou Island is a decent book with spectacular moments. Gary and Irene make it worth reading, even if it’s not a masterpiece. I have high hopes for David Vann’s next project.