A couple of things occurred to me while groping my happily horrified way through David Vann's new novel, Dirt. The first is that Vann has a serious thing about cabins, and, more specifically, about terrible stuff happening in them.
In Legend of a Suicide, his stunning 2008 debut collection of obliquely autobiographical stories, a divorced and depressed father takes his young son to live in a cabin on a remote Alaskan island. Each story approaches the real-life fact of Vann's father's suicide (in a cabin in Alaska) from a different fictional angle. In last year's Caribou Island, the novel that followed it, a middle-age couple try to salvage their marriage in what seems the most misguided way imaginable: by moving to an uninhabited Alaskan island to live in a cabin they plan to build. The combination of marital discord, dreadful weather, extreme isolation and a poorly planned DIY project ends in inevitable bloodshed.
There's a family in this new novel, too, and a cabin, and a lot of terrible stuff that goes on in it. This is what caused the second thing to occur to me: Vann is one of those writers who keeps returning, book after book, to the same creative source, and this is not always such a bad thing.
Like the father in Legend of a Suicide and the husband in Caribou Island, Galen — the 22-year-old high-minded layabout at the center of Dirt (Harper, $25.99) — is obsessed with disengaging himself from the messy business of modernity and returning to an imagined condition of innocence and harmony. As in the earlier books, there's a misguided effort to achieve this through returning to a state of nature. (Galen's approach to this is comically literal-minded: He has a penchant for sneaking outside at night, stripping and running naked through the woods.)
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Like everything else Vann has written — including Last Day on Earth, his recent non-fiction book about a massacre at Northern Illinois University, and A Mile Down, his bleakly comic memoir about a disastrous attempt to restore a ship and start a charter touring company in Turkey — Dirt ends in catastrophe. It is also, again, a catastrophe in which an insane ad hoc DIY effort plays a crucial role.
Dirt is not Vann's strongest work (Legend of a Suicide remains the most thrilling and disturbing example of his work), but it does illustrate the principle that repeatedly returning to the same themes, settings and motifs can indicate a singular artistic vision as much as creative bankruptcy. He is reusing the basic elements from which he built his earlier books — the family corrupted by a violent past; the Thoreauvian yearning for isolation and purity that leads to a kind of self-devouring madness; the constant and cruelly comic reminders of the tendency of romantic dreams to degenerate into gothic nightmares — but he's arranging them into new forms.
There is a certain kind of writer whose work is characterized by this shifting, repetitive pattern. And there's something of a paradox, too, in that often the more distinctive and original the writer, the stronger the tendency to drill down, book after book, into the same wellspring.
Reading Dirt brought this idea into focus and made me realize that many of the writers I find most consistently compelling are those who leave themselves most open to the charge of endlessly rewriting the same story.
But repetition is not the same as being in a rut. One gets the sense that Vann could keep writing books in which tragic things happen in cabins without ever exhausting the human possibilities of such an apparently straitening scenario.