A tale of dark and thwarted desire

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?



Filed under transcendence and madness

2 responses to “A tale of dark and thwarted desire

  1. You’ve had a couple of bummers to review this year. What a waste when you could be reading something you really love. I, too, don’t have much interest in black bleak novels with no offer of redemption or of leasrning about the human condition. At this stage of life I don’t need to know that people and life can be shit. On the other hand i can be seduced by a dark story which takes me to new places. I loved the movie ‘Trainspotting’ for example (my wife refused to accompany me). Sometimes I admire the skill of the storyteller who can take me on a dark journey. The power of storytelling can sometimes be satisfying. in itself. I hated “The Road”. It led me nowhere.

  2. Christina Houen

    Hi Steve
    You’re not wrong! But I find I learn something from the bummers too, though I wouldn’t choose to read them — not least the art of negative reviewing! At first I was hesitant to give a book a bad wrap, especially if the author is acclaimed. I’ve had to review at least 3 this year that come into that category, and I get sick of all the raves and the celebrity fuss, when there are so many good writers, and some wonderful ones, who don’t get published, or if they do, don’t get raved about.
    Re shit and dark stories, I like good ones with a sharp edge too. I didn’t see Trainspotting, but I like GOOD dark crime fiction. I did read The Road, but like you, it didn’t take me anywhere; I read it on one of those long plane trips to the west, and doubt I would have persevered had I not been captive.
    At present, in between Great Expectations and The Tale of Genji, I’m reading Catch 22, and I just love it. I love the dark, satirical humour, the absurdity, the wit. I will review it once I’ve got through it! I read it years ago, struggled a bit with it, but realised when I finished it I’d have to return. And here I am. It is one of the greatest modern anti-war books, I’m sure.

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