One of the things that fascinated me when I was in graduate school was the way that landscape functioned in fiction, and in particular, the ways that wildness and wilderness were portrayed. In part this was because I was trying both to discover and to portray what it was about landscape that kept me in the West after I’d sort of accidentally arrived here.
I spent a lot of time during those years I was writing Place Last Seen working against the idea that setting and place in fiction have value only as they magnify or reflect the human action of the story. What I was interested in was a fiction in which the natural world, and in particular, the natural world of the American West, functions not as myth, not as some refraction of the human perception, but as a place that exists in its own right. What I fell in love with when I moved West, was a landscape in which the weather can kill you, but where that’s just one of the facts of life. It isn’t Tennyson’s “nature red in tooth and claw,” it isn’t a world that is out to get human beings, it’s simply a world in which human beings are embedded along with all sorts of other creatures and trees and animals.
And yet, there is a long long tradition of mythologizing the landscape of the American West as either a force against which human beings (usually men) go forth to test their manhood, or as a sort of mythological space into which human beings venture in order to discover their “true” nature. In this version of the American fictional mythos, the landscapes of the west can never simply be, they must always exist as a mythos.
It’s enough to drive a person a little bit crazy when you’ve lived here for a while. Yes, I live in the midst of several astonishing mountain ranges, and in proximity to wilderness areas where bears and wolves and coyotes and elk and moose and deer and all sorts of smaller woodland creatures live. Mushroom hunting here involves keeping an eye out for grizzly bears, which is interesting, and forces one to keep ones wits about them. But it’s just where we live. It’s not a mythic journey.
I have one friend, an artist who raises sheep and does carpentry. He’s an extremely well-read guy whose wife is a librarian, and nothing sets him off like those fiction writers who turn the West into a site of mythos. Gretel Ehrlich makes him apoplectic — her work reads to him as a false romanticization of the life he knows, like someone smearing their personality all over a landscape that should be allowed to stand for itself. Despite my personal fondness for Gretel, who was encouraging to me at a time when I really needed it, I can see his point.
Because he had lived in Alaska as a child, and had spent much of his life in California, I had really high hopes that David Vann’s Caribou Island was not going to be a book about the mythology of the west, but rather, a book about how people actually live out here. For much of the book those hopes were sustained and I was relieved to find myself in a fictional Alaska that seemed a lot like anyplace else in America, but with much better scenery and weather that could kill you. A place where people have regular jobs like being a dentist, or a veterinary assistant, or a retired preschool teacher. Sure, there are tourists like Monique, the bored and beautiful trustfunder who wrecks some havoc early in the novel, but she’s a pretty well-known type out here, and so even that felt like we were still in a world in which the West is just a place, not a myth.
But Vann seems to want to have it both ways. On the one hand he seems eager to show the West that is a sort of ordinary place, a place where, for instance, boats and helicopters and planes are perhaps more normal than in other places, but where people want pretty much what they want other places: sex, love, marriage, meals in restaurants, destination weddings, and to get high. But then the book takes a turn into that country of “myth” that always seems to infect a certain kind of Western novel.
While it’s tempting to say the landscape takes over the character, I think it’s actually the other way around, the characters fall in love with their own myths about the landscape, and set out to live them. Which happens. I’m not saying it doesn’t, I just wish it didn’t feel so much like some other story took over this novel during the second half. That Gary is determined to build a cabin on an island in the lake, and that he pressures his wife Irene to join him in this quest despite the mysterious and debilitating headaches she’s suffering seems willful and bullheaded, but understandable. What’s less understandable is the sheer lack of common sense Gary shows. He’s lived in Alaska for decades. Apparently, he built much of his own house, which the novel describes as comfortable and pleasant. But when it comes to this cabin, he seems to be making it up as he goes along, and with very few skills. He’s supposed to be driven to build this cabin in the woods out of some irresistable urge to finally take part in the kind of medieval epic the study of which he abandoned decades before to move to Alaska in the first place. He resents Irene, she’s furious at him, and yet, together, they continue their improbable project, started way too late in the season (after decades in Alaska they’re still unclear on the implacability of weather?) and Vann drives this part of the story to a relentless end. This, which was supposed to be the driving heart of the novel, the mythos of the place, of marriage, of “modern” life rang so hollow to me that I found myself infuriated in some of the same ways that my sheep rancher friend is infuriated by The Solace of Open Spaces.
This part of the book (the part that’s garnering great reviews for exactly the mythological aspect I’m objecting to) felt inauthentic to the same extent that the rest of the book felt authentic. It felt like the kind of story you tell when you’re back East to show off. From my little valley, these stories tend to involve our local cult members, many of whom tend to own a lot of weaponry and some of whom believe that the government has no “sovereignty” over them. It’s the kind of story that people who don’t live here want to hear about the West. About how the landscape drives people to extremes. About how different the place is. About how it is not like where they live.
Yes, we are myth-addled out here (just run a profile on Match.com and see how many responses you get from guys whose profile names are some variation of “mountain man.”) Yes, the landscapes are dramatic and the weather will kill you if you don’t pay attention. Yes, people are few and far between, which for most of us was the point of moving here in the first place. And yes, people do go off on the sort of late-life tangents like the one Vann describes. I suppose what I found so disappointing here was the shift in tone. I was so delighted by the portrait of ordinary 21st century life that I found the deep-dive into mythos at the end to be a mismatch. Perhaps that was his point, that they mythos of these places is a specific danger, like the weather.
It’s a type, the person who comes West seeking to smear his or her own inner dramas all over the landscape, and I found myself annoyed with Gary and Irene for the same reasons I found Chris McCandless and Timothy Treadway’s stories infuriating. The drama in each of these cases was generated by the total lack of common sense that the characters display, and that lack of common sense is cast as some sort of Romantic Quest. It is the most annoying of Western stereotypes, that one can, simply through the purity of one’s desire, strike out to “live deep and suck the marrow from life.” (Remember, when Thoreau wrote that he was describing life a mile from town, a town he more often than not walked home to for lunch.) And hence my disappointment, that a book that showed such promise as a clever, witty sendup of the ordinariness of life in Alaska, couldn’t resist a bathetic dive into the big myth of the West.