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5 June 2019updated 02 Sep 2021 5:09pm

David Vann’s unhappy families return in Aquarium

A refinement of his earlier work, Vann's new novel gives a socially determined take on how things fall apart.

By Anthony Cummins

David Vann
William Heinemann, 266pp, £18.99

In David Vann’s previous novel Goat Mountain (2013), a boy’s father and grandfather fight over how best to punish him after he accidentally shoots a man dead on a deer hunt. Vann’s afterword for it said the book “burns away the last of what first made me write: the stories of my violent family”. His other fiction includes Dirt (2012), whose narrator buries his mother alive, and Legend of a Suicide (2008), which recast the death of Vann’s own father, who shot himself when the author was ten. If his new novel initially looks like the fresh start that he hinted he might need – the focus not on wounded males but on a loving mother and daughter, the setting Seattle rather than Vann’s native Alaska – Aquarium soon sheds its skin and pounces to reveal itself as yet another horrifying variant on his theme of filial hurt.

Twelve-year-old Caitlin lives near an airfield with her mother, Sheri, a docker on ten dollars an hour. (No father is mentioned; in much of Vann’s fiction one or the other parent is absent without explanation.) Life is happy but hard: on the two or three nights a week that Sheri works overtime, Caitlin hangs around the port until midnight, returning home to rise at five so that Sheri can drop her at school before starting another shift. After school Caitlin usually waits for her mother at the downtown aquarium, where she befriends a retired old diesel mechanic, another frequent visitor, who one day says he loves her “more than any man ever will”. He means no harm, but when Sheri finds out, she calls the police, and it is here – with two-thirds of the book remaining – that Vann returns to the brutal psychodrama of his most recent novels.

Caitlin narrates as an adult but from the point of view of her younger self, a strategy that favours suspense over accuracy: when she explains that she “didn’t like talking about my mother with the old man” because “he had never even met her”, she is performing her past innocence.

Moreover, Vann’s use of a child’s voice doesn’t always sit well with his desire to stress the figurative resonance of the novel’s title. Cuddling Sheri in the good times, Caitlin thinks: “No frogfish ever gripped a rock as tightly. This apartment our own aquarium.” Seattle by night is “something resting on the ocean floor . . . Bioluminescent glow pulling everything near, individual lights of aircraft in the depths above like deep-sea anglers.” The feeling that Vann hasn’t quite nailed every sentence ultimately matters less than the force of his scenario, as the revelation of the old man’s identity plunges Sheri back into a painful childhood she previously kept private. It is Caitlin who suffers: her mother starts calling her “Sheri”, refuses to cook and deliberately soils herself with vengeful glee.

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For some readers the descent into terror may stretch belief, especially when Sheri’s new boyfriend, an IT guy with biceps and a harmonica, lets the prospect of sex distract him from the degraded scene he finds when he surprises her at home. But Vann has always operated in the accelerated and amplified realm of nightmares; the difference this time is that he remembers to let a little light in. Where the protagonists of Dirt and Goat Mountain had no one on their side, Caitlin is allowed to fall for another girl in her class, which broadens the novel’s horizons as well as heightening the drama – when Sheri, fully metamorphosed into a car-smashing, punch-throwing gorgon, walks in on them sharing a bath, it recalls the scene in Dirt where the narrator’s mother catches him pants-down with his underage cousin.

For Vann, Aquarium may not be a departure, but it is a refinement. Added to his typically elemental view of intergenerational trauma is a more socially determined take on how things fall apart. At the start of the book, Sheri is doing her best to stay afloat when a cop decides, for kicks, to apply the letter of the law and order Caitlin away from the docks. It is this episode, and the loss of overtime it heralds, which upsets Caitlin and prompts the old man to comfort her, with the fallout that follows. If the novel doesn’t end entirely without hope, I doubt Vann has become more sanguine about the ways parents damage their offspring. The short story he recently published in this magazine offered NS readers a preview of the subject of his next book: Medea. 

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