Vann, David (2011). Caribou Island. New York: Harper-Collins, 293 pp.
This is a dark, unrelenting story set in a dark, unrelenting land. A long-married, long-bickering couple try to build a log cabin by hand, on the eponymous island in Alaska. She thinks the cabin is stupid; he believes it is his destiny. There are literal and metaphorical ominous storms, slashing rains, dark clouds, rough seas, areas of thin ice, cold nights. It never gets better, never lightens up, and in the end, they die, the cabin unfinished.
The story is supposed to be an intense psychological study of these characters, their lives, frustrated aspirations, crushed dreams, and so on. And that would have worked, except that they are unmotivated. The husband, Gary, is obsessed with building this cabin and annoyed at his wife’s lack of enthusiasm. Why? No reason is ever given. He’s just moody and crazy. He wanted to be a scholar of medieval languages but never finished his dissertation, so he’s building a cabin in Alaska instead, despite having zero building skills, no capacity for planning, and questionable intelligence.
As for Irene, the wife, she is convinced he is going to leave her and that grips her with fear. At first it seems she is delusional, since there is no evidence, but later, the narrator switches to Gary’s POV and he just says he’s going to leave her. Why? Because she doesn’t support his dream. Why, we might ask, is Irene so afraid of being separated from this miserable husband who treats her like dirt? No reason is suggested.
Irene falls inexplicably ill early in the novel, with migraine headaches, severe musculo-skeletal pain, loss of appetite, and a host of other symptoms. Doctors find nothing wrong, so, she just has to suffer. She pops pain pills for the rest of the book. Her husband thinks she is faking, to punish him because he needs her help on the cabin. The mystery illness remains unresolved.
I never could get a fix on these characters. The narrator is wont to make declarations about their psychological states and motivations, but those are arbitrary and situational, with little evidence to support them. These two people simply resent each other. That can happen, I guess, but it doesn’t seem like such a relationship would persist long enough to support a marriage, let alone a novel-length story.
Likewise, the sub-stories involving family members are populated by opaque, one-dimensional characters. Rhoda, Irene’s daughter, is obsessed with her mother’s illness and safety, to the point where she can hardly do her job. Her fiancé, Jim, has been fooling around and we learn later that he has no intention of ever being faithful. Why not? No deep reason beyond generic horniness. Rhoda remains oblivious. Other family members are equally flat caricatures.
Finally, the ending, while surprising, is manufactured, unmotivated, and not believable.
There are sections of nice writing, both in description of the landscape, and of psychological moments. Descriptions of working on a salmon fishing boat were particularly vivid. However, the writing too often turns purple or bland.
Selected at random: “Carl climbed out awkwardly, having to straddle the side of the taller boat and getting rocked in opposite directions. But he did it without falling in or dropping his lunch… Why was he here? He stood on the back deck and looked vaguely at the horizon. The question seemed larger somehow than just this boat or this sunrise or Monique or even Alaska. Something about his life, something impossible and dimly urgent, but this effect was probably only from lack of sleep.” (p 79, quotation marks added for clarity.)
How do you “look vaguely at the horizon?” What’s the alternative? And he felt something inside of him bigger than Alaska? But maybe not?
There are no quotations marks in the book, for no apparent reason. In fact, the book opens in media res, with a direct quotation from Irene, that itself contains a direct quotation, so you are set up to believe you are reading a first-person tale. Then it turns out the narration is actually third-person-close, and you have just read a half page of a quotation, so you must totally reorient and re-read. Why would you start out a novel by deliberately confusing the reader?
The author hates verbs. The book is filled with sentence fragments. Why? No reason is apparent, and the practice becomes tedious.
“Hollows inside him, only hollows. No substance. She had somehow blown the center out of him. He could see her face, when they had first gotten together, when it seemed that she loved him. Her smile a little hesitant, even as if she were nervous too.” (p. 139, quotation marks added for clarity).
I wanted to like this book. I did enjoy the descriptions, but the characters remained flat, the story unchanging and the narrator intrusively declarative, so in the end, I can’t say I learned anything or was entertained much.