Caribou Island

Caribou Island, David Vann, Penguin, 304pp, £8.99

In 2008, David Vann's first work of fiction was published. Marketed as a novel in the UK and, more accurately, as a collection of short stories in America, Legend of a Suicide was an audacious, brutal reimagining of Vann's own father's death. The setting was Alaska, and each of the stories was a subtly different take on the same central event, reshot. It was a groundbreaking piece of storytelling, dreamlike, violent, suspenseful and written in sentences as cold and clear as glacier melt.

The seeds of Caribou Island were planted in this dark soil. The stories in the first book featured a repeating cast of characters, among them Roy Fenn, Vann's alter ego, Jim, his depressive dentist father, and Rhoda, who briefly becomes Jim's second wife. Jim's split from Rhoda precipitates his descent, and is a consequence, as Vann reveals in one of his trademark deadpan lines, of Jim being insufficiently supportive when Rhoda "lost her parents to a murder-suicide ten months earlier". In Caribou Island, this bloody event - inspired by the death of Vann's real stepmother's parents - is at the fore.

In this particular isotope of Vann's chilly Alaskan universe, Jim is childless and unmarried, while Rhoda's parents have been assigned new names. Nonetheless, the setting is familiar: an icy waste of inhuman beauty, populated by canneries and snowmobiles, where people carry out the business of survival in conditions of almost primitive desolation and despair.

Unsurprisingly, domestic bliss doesn't seem to flourish here. Rhoda's parents, Gary and Irene, are about to move from their cosy lakeside house to the island of the title, an un­inhabited lump of land in the middle of a freezing lake, where they plan to build the single-room log cabin to which they will re­­tire. Drenched by rain on the first day of this in­fernal labour, Irene develops a migraine that won't go away; haunted by memories of her own mother's suicide, she becomes convinced that her taciturn husband is planning to abandon her.

Rhoda and Jim aren't exactly happy campers, either. Rhoda is desperate to marry, and is so oblivious to Jim's infidelity that she invites the girl he's having sex with to supper, and remains mystified when the conversation doesn't run smoothly over the caribou steaks and Twister. The emotions are so tightly torqued that something is bound to snap, and yet it's still hard to be prepared for the horror of the denouement that lies ahead.
In one of several virtuosic descriptions of manual labour, a fisherman muses on "all the ways to lose a hand on this boat, caught in any of the lines under pressure, everything wet and slippery and moving". The work Vann is engaged in is of equivalent risk, and his use of autobiographical elements is grimly serious. It is not wholly clear what relationship his multi-fictions have to the traumas from which they arise and that they refashion, but the reader's awareness of real deaths, real griefs, gives his work something of the lethal intensity of hand­ling an unsheathed knife: at times the power is exhilarating, and at other times it cuts bloodily and to the quick.

The book is marred by a tic already evident in Legend, but which has ballooned here to deforming proportions. Vann likes to construct sentences without certain words, particularly the verb "to be" in all its forms. He perhaps hoped that his writing, in the absence - not total, but debilitating - of "were" and "was" and "has been", would tumble more rapidly, more ruggedly, to its untimely end. But many a two-bit thriller writer has made the same mistake.

Instead, the accretion of these unfinished sentences becomes progressively irritating, until it is like being whipped across the eyes. "A long morning and afternoon with the joists, Gary growing steadily more frustrated and angry," a sample paragraph reads. "His hat off and jacket unzipped from the exertion, his hair in ruffs that stood at odd angles and bent in the breeze." This is not lazy writing, but it is misjudged, because it draws attention to itself when the focus should fall squarely on the unravelling events it is supposed to describe.

Yet, too visible a style is a sin that Vann shares with Hemingway, the writer he most resembles in both language and preoccupations. Hemingway was not immune to toppling into self-parody, but even at his sodden worst his writing retained a rare capacity for capturing the physical. Vann's descriptions of hunting, or fishing, or the miserable work of packing sockeye salmon possess some of the same knowingness and ease that made Hemingway's blood-vigils so enduring.

There is another resemblance between the two. Hemingway's father shot himself, an event he found so shameful that he could barely bring himself to acknowledge it, though some of his later work whirrs uneasily around the theme. By contrast, Vann's fiction seems driven by an intense and clear-eyed compulsion to understand what makes a person wish to cease to be. l

Olivia Laing's book "To the River" - the story of the Ouse, in which Virginia Woolf drowned - will be published by Canongate in May

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The New Arab Revolt