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26th May
2010
written by Steph

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

10 Comments

  1. I’m sorry that ths didn’t work for you. I loved it! I have a similar problem with short stories and would never have agreed to read this if I’d have thought it was a collection of short stories.

    I was told it was a novel, a set of interconnected short stories, and so I approached it as a novel. I didn’t think of them as short stories in their own right, but like chapters that go forward and backwards in time. Perhaps because I didn’t look at each story for completeness I enjoyed it more?

    I thought the events in the novella were very clever and the originality of it is what made it so special for me. I wonder if they way we approach a book changes the way we feel about it?

  2. 05/26/2010

    Thank you for the thoughtful review, Steph, and thank you, also, Jackie, for your generous comments on this and other sites.
    All best,
    David Vann

  3. 05/26/2010

    @ Jackie: I wouldn’t say this book didn’t work for me, it just maybe didn’t work the way the author intended. I think I’ll always struggle with the short story format to some extent, but the fact that the same characters appeared in all of the stories definitely helped me. Like you, I think I liked this work more as a whole.
     
    @ David: Thanks so much for stopping by and being part of a TLC tour! I really appreciated the opportunity to read your book.

  4. 05/26/2010

    I had not yet heard of this book, but certain things that you mention make it seem like it has a bit in common with Olive Kitteridge. Both seem to be stories that deal with the same characters, exploring things in the way a novel would, but in short story form instead. I think this book sounds really interesting, especially the novella in the middle, and I am going to add it to my wish list. I am glad that you ultimately liked it. Are you still going to be looking into reading more short story collections?

  5. 05/26/2010

    I should maybe really start joining the TLC Book Tours, because lately they’ve been doing books I so want to read! Then again, I am too lazy and time-constrained to write a full review, lol.

  6. 05/28/2010

    You know I loved this book. I agree with you on that collective note. The individual stories glowed brighter when they were placed in that so-called bigger picture. That they get better collectively. I loved them on their own, but they’re strength lay in how the author kept visiting and revisiting them, threading it through ultimately.

    I also loved the background information. This is one of those times that you really can’t separate the author’s life from his work. And I’m very very glad that Vann offered the story of the origins of his book from the get-go.

    On a teeny-related note: I need to find you a short story collection you’ll love, haha. It’s now my personal mission. ;p

  7. 05/28/2010

    @ zibilee: Yes, I think it has raised some comparisons to Olive K, but as I’ve not read that one, I can’t do much more than a superficial comparison! ;) Jackie from Farm Lane Books said she liked this better because the stories are all told (more or less) by the same person, whereas in Olive you learn about the woman from various perspectives. I could see you really enjoying this one!
    And yes, we still have quite a few short story collections about the apartment, so I haven’t given up yet! ;)
     
    @ claire: I tend to only ask for the books that I would have picked up on my own regardless so that helps me stay motivated to read them for a deadline. Plus with my reviewing for BookPage, I’ve gotten better at planning my reading and reviewing to meet specific dates… but if not for that, I’d probably be too lazy too! ;)
     
    @ Sasha: The “Gestalt” reading experience is really why I did enjoy this collection a good deal! I think by revisiting ideas through different stories, the author did something with the short story format that might have been much harder to achieve (and perhaps impossible) with a novel.
    And please do think up short story collections I might like! I’m always hoping to find something to change everything around!

  8. 05/31/2010

    Loved this book and really enjoyed your thoughtful insights here. I think that like Olive Kitteridge mentioned above, the interconnected short pieces or short story cycle serves people well who do not ordinarily read short fiction. But unlike Olive’s story which develops along a conventional timeline with uniform perspective, this engages so much of the “what if?” The language is so gorgeous, and however painful at times, I really enjoyed being along for the ride.

  9. 06/01/2010

    @ Frances: I definitely agree that this is a great read for those who normally prefer novels over short fiction. And I really enjoyed the unconventional timeline of the narration as well; I think it really enhanced the nature of the uncertainty the narrator was struggling with. Off to read your review!

  10. [...] Steph @Steph and Tony investigate: 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. [...]

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