David Vann is said to be a ‘rising star’ in the heaven of literary fiction, has been compared with Cormac McCarthy, and has won many international awards; his books are published in 17 languages. So listen, world! This is a star to watch.
So the pundits and the publishers would have us believe. His latest novel, available in Australia through Text Publishing, is Dirt, released this month. This is another book I wouldn’t have started, let alone finished, if I had not had to review it.
Thank god I have closed the covers and sent in my review. Each night I’d grit my teeth and read a few more pages. But I shouldn’t be trying to put you off. Fortunately, anyway, it did me no harm, as it didn’t even scratch the surface of my sensibilities. I was not moved, to tears, to laughter or to despair, mainly because I felt no empathy for any of the characters. If I had, even though I am not a masochist, it might have disturbed me.
It’s all about desire. Galen, a 22-year-old virgin, is a would-be modern Siddartha; in real life, he is a bulemic vegetarian under the thrall of his destructively possessive, controlling mother. She, in turn, has consigned her dementing mother to a nursing home, and is at war with her sister and niece, because her mother has left her fortune in trust to her favourite daughter. Nevertheless, although the family is at war, Galen’s mother (she’s not given a name) drags them all, including Grandmother, to the family cabin in the Sierras for a … I can’t call it a holiday, this seems far from the agenda. It turns out to be the stage for an intensification of the toxic family drama. Galen’s cousin, Jennifer, a nubile 17-year-old, seduces him, abuses him and abandons him; he is a willing, adoring victim. His mother witnesses them copulating, and that’s when things get really dark.
Returned home, Grandma consigned again to the nursing home, Galen’s mother tells him she is going to have him put in prison for rape and incest. He naively believes in her power to do this (apparently he has not sufficient independence or will to resist her by simply leaving and defying her threats) and the rest is dirt and darkness. I won’t say any more about the plot, except that it takes 100 pages, nearly half the novel, for the final act to be perpetrated, and as the title suggests, is all about dirt, dirt and more dirt. Mounds of it.
But desire, in this world, can only lead to frustration, abuse, self-hate, self-abuse, delusion and despair, and not to kindness, compassion or redemption of any kind. Galen’s overriding desire for transcendence (against which his desire for Jennifer is a distraction and a torture) is derided and misunderstood by his family, but this just makes him more obsessive in his pursuit of meaning, enlightenment, release from samsara. It’s hard to know whether Vann is satirising spiritual desires; I’ve read reviews that find his depiction of Galen’s new-age spiritualism funny. To me, it’s far from funny, because what I see is a distortion of the teachings of Buddha and writers who have followed those teachings, and who see that the world we live in is not the only reality — Hesse, Castaneda, et al. Vann shows us how this pathway can be destructive for someone who is emotionally deprived and abused, but does not suggest any hope of redemption, of a wiser way of being in the world. All is darkness, despair and dirt.
Have you read it? Have you read any other of his books — Legend of a Suicide, Caribou Island, A Mile Down, Last Day on Earth? Perhaps you’ve seen something I missed?