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A History of Violence – the work of David Vann

Paul Howarth

‘I didn’t know there’d be so much therapy!’ David Vann sits back and laughs. As does Chris Bigsby, his interviewer for the UEA Literary Festival event, where Vann has made a relatively rare UK appearance.

It is a typical Vann response: candid, self-effacing, laced with ironic humour.  This is not an author who seeks to separate his private life from his work.  On the contrary, all of Vann’s novels draw on either his personal or familial past.  There have been five suicides and a murder in his family, he tells us, laughing again — what else was he ever going to write about, if not that?

Vann was born on a naval base on the remote Adak Island, Alaska.  His father was a dentist, but also a hunter, and Vann talks of a childhood suffused with hunting, fishing, killing and guns.

‘It seemed normal to me,’ he tells the audience.  ‘I enjoyed it.  A child born into brutality will find it natural, and I did.’

At the age of eleven, he killed his first deer and undertook the initiation ritual of eating the animal’s liver and heart. Such experiences have understandably left their mark—the same scene is played out in his latest novel, Goat Mountain, in agonising detail—and Vann admits that violence has become something of a mystery to him, perhaps even a preoccupation; the theme recurs regularly throughout his work.

If Legend of a Suicide (probably his best-known fiction), was a response to his father’s suicide when Vann was only thirteen, then Goat Mountain is on its surface a reflection on the hunting culture in which the author was raised.  Beyond that, however, lies a more fundamental examination of mankind’s relationship with violence, and whether our propensity for killing is learned or innate.

As with most of Vann’s fiction, the novel takes as its starting point an event plucked directly from his own past: his father placing a loaded rifle into his hands and making him sight unsuspecting poachers through the scope. ‘My father would have me look at these guys…almost willing me to kill them.’  Vann did not pull the trigger; in the novel, the unnamed narrator, eleven years old at the time, does.

What follows is a hellish descent into both literal and spiritual darkness, as three generations of one family grapple with the consequences of the boy’s actions and the question of what is to be done.  It is a familiar Vann conceit: family members trapped alone together in a beautiful but hostile landscape, the looming threat of madness and violence, and the inevitability that, one way or another, all of these factors are sure to collide.

Religious references abound.  From the very origin of violence (‘Cain was the first son.  Cain was how we began’[1]), to the inverted crucifixion of the dead poacher, to the grandfather’s brutal emergence as, in Vann’s words, ‘a terrible Old Testament God’.

It is a deliberately suffocating read.  Written in stripped, spare prose, and frequently adopting a continuous past tense (violence is atavistic, the narrator tells us, and endless), the reader feels not only plunged into the nightmarish world these characters inhabit but, like them, unable to escape.  This is not a novel about the act of killing so much as the reasons we kill and the consequences of doing so.  The actual shooting occurs on page sixteen; two hundred and twenty-three pages remain.

I have used the word ‘nightmare’, and indeed there is a dreamlike structure to how the novel unfolds.  There was no plan, Vann claims, no outline, no notes.  Apart from occasional line edits, he did not even re-write, an admission which will seem unthinkable to many writers.  There is, he says, a logic to the story that is inherent in its telling, unfolding from his subconscious onto the page.

He began with landscape and a character with a problem, and allowed the novel to evolve.  There was no manifesto, no grand idea (‘The worst thing that can happen to a writer,’ Vann says) and only fifty pages from the end did he realise what the book was actually about.  This might seem hard to believe, particularly given the thematic concerns which permeate the story, the internal consistency and the sense of doomed inevitability foreshadowed throughout, but Vann describes the process of writing as an unconscious, not an intellectual, one.  It is advice more inexperienced writers (or at least those prone to procrastination) might heed: turn off the brain, put the fingers on the keyboard, allow the imagination to roam.

The jacket of my edition of Goat Mountain contains an extract from the Observer review, likening Vann to Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy, and the reviewer is certainly not the only one to have suggested such a link.  Vann himself cites McCarthy as an influence and in another interview[2] called Blood Meridian his ‘favourite book’, ‘the greatest American novel ever written’, encapsulating through its protagonist, ‘a test of us, of what we’re made of, of humanity’.

As suggested by the Observer, Goat Mountain seeks to occupy a similar territory, but whilst there are parallels between the two novels (the spectre of Judge Holden looms over the grandfather, for example), the very fact that Vann writes from such personal experience gives his fiction, and Goat Mountain in particular, a unique dimension.  He was in this exact situation.  He was that eleven year old boy.  His novels, he explains, are his own attempt to re-write history, to take his own experience and add a ‘what if’ twist, at which point the fiction truly begins.  If there is therapy here, it is attempted therapy for the human race, not just for the author himself.

There is no escaping the personal questions; one suspects Vann is used to it by now.  How does his family feel, he is asked, having their lives laid bare in this way?  Vann reveals that when writing the novel Dirt, he feared that his mother would never talk to him again.  As it turned out, she was supportive. He beams his now-familiar grin at the audience and announces, ‘a writer is the worst thing that can happen to a family.’

[1] Goat Mountain, p17


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