When I saw that TLC Book Tours were offering up stops on a Legend of a Suicide tour, I jumped at the chance to participate. After reading great things about the book on blogs like Farm Lane Books and Savidge Reads, I was really curious about this novel/short story collection.
Now, I know I’ve written before about my general lack of luck when it comes to short stories, but I felt this time could be different because the same characters appear in each short story, and they are all narrated (more or less) by a boy named Roy. Through the various stories, Roy explores his relationship with his father and the impact of said father’s suicide on his family. The subject matter immediately intrigued me, so I was very happy to get my grubby paws on this (free) book.
Reading Legend of a Suicide, I don’t disagree with deeming it a short story collection, but I think I got most of out it when considering it as a whole rather than focusing on individual stories (with the exception of one, “Sukkwan Island”, which I’ll talk about in a little bit). Reading the stories, I struggled with my standard short story problem, that is, I felt I got fragments of the characters lives, but it was difficult for me to extract much meaning from a single story. I think it’s hard for me to become emotionally invested with short stories because of their brevity, so it was nice for the characters to reoccur throughout the collection. I felt that by getting to read many short stories about Roy, I was able to piece together a larger picture of him that a single short story wouldn’t have afforded, and as a result, I was able to take more from this collection than I otherwise might have. With the exception of the above-mentioned “Sukkwan Island”, I can’t really think of another story in the collection that made me pause, think, and feel. On their own, I’m pretty sure these stories would have frustrated me for not revealing more, but as a whole, they were largely satisfying.
The exception, as I’ve said, is “Sukkwan Island”, which is actually more of a novella that occurs in the middle portion of the book. What’s so interesting about this portion of the book is that many of the events in Sukkwan Island actually call into question things that have been established in previous stories. This dichotomy is jarring, and yet I think rather than clashing with the surrounding narratives, it elevated the entire collection, first by heightening the sense of unreality, and second by metastasizing this element of uncertainty and unrealized potential that shrouds all of the other stories. To me, Legend of a Suicide is all about exploring the aftereffects of a suicide, but part of that process involves wondering about the paths not taken. What if Roy’s father hadn’t died as he does in the first short story “Ichthyology”? I think it’s interesting to examine the idea that in life, we can only see “A leads to B”, but this of course leaves open the question “if not A, then still B?” How much is eventual, inevitable, unavoidable?
Maybe “Sukkwan Island” worked best for me because it was longer and so I felt Vann has more time to develop the narrative tension and explore the consequences of each action as well as probe the characters further. All told, it’s about 170 pages, whereas many of the other short stories are not more than 10 – 15. I think it would be sufficiently strong as a stand-alone read, but there’s no denying that its power is enhanced by pillowing it between the other stories that provide such a stark contradiction.
I think another thing that heightened my appreciation of the collection was learning a bit about Vann and his motivations in penning these stories. Vann’s own father committed suicide when he was a young boy, and it’s something he has never really come to terms with. He mentions in the P.S. section of the book that he actually claimed for three years after his father’s death that his dad had died from cancer, because the reality of the suicide was too shameful for Vann. I thought that was a really intimate and honest revelation, because there often is this cloak of shame that accompanies suicide. And of course, it is bound to leave all these unanswered questions and perhaps an even greater sense of things being unresolved for those left behind than other forms of death, so with this perspective in mind – that these stories are meant as a means of attempting to understand and say goodbye to a father a son never knew – I felt I could better accept the intentions behind the story and it cast the stories in a different light. In the end, these are stories about grappling with the difficult question of “why?” where no answers are likely to follow. They are about a boy trying to understand himself in light of what has happened, struggling not to be defined by an event that has entrenched itself deep beneath his skin.
Ultimately, I think Vann has used the short story format in a clever way that helps manifest the bewildering and cacophonous effects of suicide. I wish I had found each story rewarding in its own right, but I’m very glad that united, they produce something diaphanous that would not be easily captured through any other format. Thanks to David Vann and TLC Book Tours for allowing me the opportunity to read this interesting collection!
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
For other thoughts and opinions, please check out some of the other stops on the tour!
Tuesday, May 11th: Book Magic
Thursday, May 13th: 1330v
Friday, May 14th: Regular Rumination
Monday, May 17th: My Reading Room
Wednesday, May 19th: Books Like Breathing
Tuesday, May 25th: Book Chatter
Thursday, May 27th: Literate Housewife
Monday, May 31st: Nonsuch Book
Tuesday, June 1st: Hungry Like the Woolf
Thursday, June 3rd: Urban Green Farm