Review: Aquarium by David Vann
I’ve been a huge fan of David Vann’s fiction ever since I read Caribou Island in 2011, so news of a new book from him is a big deal for me. His new novel, Aquarium, doesn’t release until March 2015, but I jumped at the chance to read it early.
In some ways, Aquarium is very different from the rest of Vann’s oeuvre, but in other ways you can see how the previous books have prepared for this one. Like Goat Mountain (2013), Aquarium is narrated by an adult looking back at a troubled event from childhood. As in Legend of a Suicide (2008), Caribou Island (2010) and Dirt (2012), a dysfunctional family situation looks set to boil over into unthinkable violence. Aquarium even shares a theme with the first story in Legend of a Suicide, titled “Ichthyology.”
On the other hand, this is the first of Vann’s novels to be set outside Alaska or California, and it also marks his first attempt at narrating from a female point-of-view. Aquarium also has a considerably less tragic vision than any of his previous works, several of which approach Greek tragedy in their bleak violence. But more on that later.
Aquarium is set in 1994, and narrated in the first person by Caitlin, who is looking back from the present day (aged 32) at her twelve-year-old self. She lives with her single mother, Sheri, in the bad part of Seattle. Sheri works on the docks moving shipping containers – hard, cold work that has made her hard and cold, too. Her mom’s genial boyfriend, Steve, is an increasingly frequent visitor to their small apartment. Meanwhile, Caitlin’s best friend at school, Shalini, is an immigrant from New Delhi and everything about her, from her colorful clothing to her Hindu traditions, captivates Caitlin.
Every day after school Caitlin waits at the aquarium for her mom to pick her up. She has a season pass, and knows everything about fish; she says she wants to be an ichthyologist when she grows up, and refuses to eat fish – although, ironically, people keep cooking and serving it throughout the novel. At the aquarium she befriends an old man who also acts fascinated with the fish, and at first seems to be a little bit creepy, touching her arm and talking about taking her to Mexico and wanting to meet her mother. For a moment it seems like this will turn into a pedophilia drama, with Sheri and the police staging an intervention, until it turns out that the old man is Caitlin’s estranged grandfather.
Sheri detests her father because he left the family when her mother fell sick with cancer. For four years Sheri had to care for her ailing mother single-handedly, bathing, feeding and changing her while enduring verbal abuse. Sheri decides that Caitlin needs to understand what she went through, and thus why she hates her father so much and can’t just let him be Caitlin’s grandfather as if nothing ever happened. She concocts a plan of reenacting the very worst days of her mother’s illness. This section of the novel is very hard to read; I even had to set it aside for a day or two because I was afraid of just how far it would go.
Although Sheri still wants to punish her father, she accepts his offer of having them live with him in his three-bedroom Victorian; it means she can give up work and the apartment, and go back to school. All the same, she refuses to forgive him. A trip out in the snow to cut down a Christmas tree looks set to turn into a major tragedy (as in Goat Mountain, perhaps), but Vann pulls back from making it as awful as he could. In fact, the more threatening situation is Caitlin’s surprising sexual awakening, something I felt slightly uncomfortable reading about when I remembered that this is a twelve-year-old girl.
Vann has produced another memorable story of family breakdown – but here, more than in any previous book, there is a glimmer of hope that the family might piece things back together eventually. At the same time, it’s a powerful examination of the competing impulses to revenge and forgiveness. Some things, it seems, can never be forgotten and will shift the family dynamic forever. I could see this being a sort of gentle introduction to Vann’s work for someone who doesn’t want to plunge straight into the high Greco-Shakespearean tragedy of a book like Caribou Island (splendid though it is). Call it a gateway drug, if you will.
Much as I enjoyed the novel, I was left scratching my head over the metaphorical significance of the fish. Perhaps an aquarium stands for life’s constrictions; like fish in tanks, characters are trapped by destructive habits and bitterness. Hardy yet fragile, fish have various survival strategies such as hiding or metamorphosing, terms that certainly apply to the humans in the novel. It is especially noteworthy that the book includes 18 color photos of aquarium fish. It may seem like a strange choice to print them in the text, but maybe Vann didn’t think he could convey the colors and strangeness of various fish without them.
Ultimately, I think the fish represent primal nature – life at its most basic but also its most enduring. As an earlier evolutionary stage, they might be a reminder of the beautiful simplicity humanity has lost, but also a salient warning of the animal diversity we are losing every day:
“By the end of the century, nearly all fish will be gone. The entire legacy of humanity will be only one thing, a line of red goop in the paleo-oceanographic record, a time of no calcium carbonate shells that will stretch on for several million years. The sadness of our stupidity is overwhelming.”
Or maybe David Vann just really likes fish.
Assessing Vann’s oeuvre, I would place this novel squarely in the middle of the pecking order. Caribou Island is a 5-star masterpiece; Goat Mountain is a 4-star fable. Because I read it later on, I appreciated Legend of a Suicide more as a rehearsal for Caribou Island than anything else; I’d give it 3 stars. Dirt is undoubtedly the hardest of Vann’s novels to love, with some truly abhorrent characters; I’d call it 2.5 stars. Aquarium gets 3.5 stars from me.
Aquarium releases on March 3, 2015. Thanks to Atlantic Monthly Press for granting me early access to the book via Edelweiss.