From far away enough, it can pass for a happy book. There is a sparkly fish on the cover. Tattooed on its body are blossoms and waves and variations of fleur-de-lis. But then our eyes stray to the bottom, past a curlicued tailfin, and recognize a most ominous title: Legend of a Suicide. And suddenly, on closer inspection, the fish does not seem happy at all. Angled toward its center are eight pistols, shining a brilliant red, hidden among petals—death where we least expect it.
“Nothing quite like this book has been written before,” a blurb promises. So we dive into it, expectant and curious, miring ourselves deeper into mystery with each section. And afterwards we wonder, What was that? How many deaths are in this book, how many tragedies? Is it six different stories, or are they all part of a larger work? The answer, as always, is on the internet. Officially, Legend of a Suicide is a collection of stories. It has however been packaged to look like a novel for the British market. This sparks an interesting realization: that the ultimate difference between a collection and a novel rests on the thinnest of lines—a mere avoidance of labels, a sequence of numbers atop titles.
Alexander Linklater from the Observer asserts that the shift “damages Vann’s endeavor, which is to change, from one story to the next, not just perspectives, but events themselves.” Certainly that is what Vann does, but—unintended as it may be—I do not think the novel format is “damaging” to the book. Misleading, yes, but it also allows for a reading that more persistently searches for a continuous thread among the chapters. It is, after all, despite myriad inconsistencies, one story, one legend, one pain, one family.
Still, inevitable questions arise. What really happened? Who? When? Where? And the most painful, Why? Here is where form intersects with substance. The confusion we feel upon finishing the book approximates the bewilderment one feels after death, after a suicide. We can never make sense of it no matter how much we try. Loss can never be pieced together; it will always remain a profound mystery. Why? We don’t know, we don’t know.
The book’s structure also toys with ideas of culpability. Because we aren’t sure what happened, we don’t know where to assign blame. Who did what to whom? Jim, Roy, Rhoda, Elizabeth. Our characters revolve around each other, drawn together by the force of their relationships. Jim obviously bears the utmost culpability. One doubts if anyone could have saved the man. But in “Sukkwan Island,” Roy feels responsible for his increasingly remote father. Initially he had no interest in staying on the island but “in fact there was no choice at all.” He could not simply give up his father.
But was it too late already by then? When did it all go downhill for Jim? There is a scene in the same story where father and son try to figure out exactly when “it went to hell” for Jim. They end up with no answer. In the same way, after a tragedy on this scale, it becomes difficult to draw the lines, to connect events and trace a trajectory. When was intervention still possible? At which point could anyone have halted the downward spiral?
In a way this uncertainty can be liberating, because it frees one from the burden of regret, but viewed in another way, it also expands the possibilities for remorse. Instead of mulling over a specific turning point, one regrets a thousand unsaid words, a hundred wrong decisions. In “Ketchikan” and “The Higher Blue” we see Roy still struggling, decades later, to reconcile himself with Jim’s suicide. Is it possible to stop going over and over one’s memories? Is it possible to stop asking Why?
In an interview with the New Yorker, David Vann says that writing the book helped him put his own father’s ghost to rest. Being curious creatures, we cannot help but wonder, How much of this is true? Yes, Vann’s father killed himself, but what about all the other details? The zabaglione? The iridescent shark? Pondering these petty questions, we come to realize the irrelevance of facts in the face of tragedy. Vann calls his stories “legends,” and the book itself is called Legend of a Suicide. What does the word call to mind? Myth, lore, hearsay, rumor—not factual but true in some fundamentally human way. And that is what this book is, in the final account. Not a straightforward tale, but a brave, poignant, wondrous mess.
If Vann had written this as a regular novel or memoir, we would not have these questions to grapple with, these insights to gain. Without legend as the central metaphor, the narrative would never have taken off the way it has. The more we read, the more we realize how crucial form is to the story. Even the simple exclusion of speech marks (fashionable nowadays) makes a related point: Who said what? How reliable is memory?
As a writer I am interested in the inseparability of form and content, and this book shows just that. There are just some stories that can only be told in a particular way. Sometimes that means taking big risks. Sometimes that means having to defend your artistic choices. Sometimes that means forgoing certain readers. But if, after weighing all this, you decide to forge ahead anyway—not courting acclaim, not worried about failure—then that’s how you know you’ve got something worth it.
I knew where he was headed, as we all did, but I didn’t know why. And I didn’t want to know.