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Using Influences: David Vann, Elizabeth Bishop and Marilynne Robinson

If ever there was a story that wears its influences on its sleeve, David Vann's "Ketchikan" is it.  The story steals its influences from two sources: largely Elizabeth Bishop's poem At The Fishhouses and to a lesser degree Marilynne Robinson's novel Housekeeping.  In various interviews Vann unabashedly speaks of Bishop and Robinson being two of his primary influences (Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx being his other two), and their spirits, especially Bishop's, seem to coalesce in this story.

Let's back up.  I know David Vann, or at least I knew him, before the Prix Medicis Etranger award, before the movie rights,  before the celebrity set in (sort of).  In 2009, my first year as an MFA student, Vann was my first workshop instructor and my MFA adviser.  He would bring to class examples from his influences and we would talk about them.  He was talkative, opinionated, intellectually bright. On my first meeting with him he proceeded to recite a story from Canterbury Tales in Old English, then recited a Gaelic poem from memory.  I thought he was trying too hard to impress, to show that he deserved his tenure position at USF, which, putting pedagogy aside, he deserved on the strength of his writing. 

In workshop, he spoke glowingly of Bishop and McCarthy, Robinson and Grace Paley, as if they were the best thing since a fresh cut of grilled halibut cheek.   He didn't just talk about them, he celebrated their prose, citing what they did to achieve the effects he believed they produced without actually revealing how they did it.  In short, I didn't learn why he loved those passages and writers, aside from the general statements about landscape as metaphor for character and prose rhythm.  

Vann's teaching style--that year at least--was instruction by indirection.  He presented paragraphs and chapters from writer's he liked and asked us to ask the same questions of the text as he perhaps had asked himself.  His pedagogical technique was more Socratic in spirit than in example, because rather than engage us to talk, he offered his own opinions, leaving us to sit and stare ate him with blank expressions on our faces.  Leaving his class, I thought he failed me as a teacher.

But where I thought he failed as a teacher, he excelled as a writer.  Using his example of deconstructing text, I learned to re-examine my own prose by looking at his.  I also took a closer look at his influences, including McCarthy and Proulx.  But while I was in his class, I resisted him.  I swore I wouldn't read his work.  He was too young looking, too arrogant, too vain, too distant, too unhelpful, too sanctimonious, and too opportunistic for my tastes, teaching us in his Life After MFA seminar that to get what we wanted out of the writing life we had to be surreptitious at best and at worst a flat out liar.

It took me a long time to finally buy his prize winning collection A Legend of a Suicide (still in its first edition hard cover), took me longer still to accept that he was a good writer, and even longer to understand he is perhaps, despite all his personal shortcomings, a great one. 

What the three texts he cites as his literary influences share are a love for language, images of transfiguration/transmutation, and loss.   Vann's narrator, Roy, like David himself, has lost his father to suicide, and the five stories that make up his fictional memoir/collection, address this bitter fact.  So the hero's journey begins with a single step, and so the price of knowledge gained at the end is nothing short of reclamation of your past, of your memory weighed against fact, of your identity mutated as a result of it.  The choice for his narrator at the end is always "Fitzgeraldian" in tone: Do I give up the grand and bitter illusions of my past, or hold on to them and wallow, since there is pleasure in wallowing at some primal, reptilian level.  These are a few issues David Vann's narrator struggles with as he seeks to define himself in the wake of his father's suicide.  But he seeks more than closure; he seeks a new sense of self, unburdened by loss.  

By retracing his father's  steps, the narrator's journey takes him to Ketchikan, an Alaskan fishing town, where he hopes to befriend his father's ex-girlfriend, the woman who led to the dissolution of his father's marriage.  In Ketchikan he hopes to lay his memories to rest.  In Ketchikan he hopes to find reasons. But what costs him little now, ends up costing him a lot later.

Bishop's influence arises immediately in the story. Not only does Vann, like Bishop, explore the art of the long sentence, Vann's opening coming in at 113 words, both love to write about fishing.  In Ketchikan, Vann talks of the fishing village, like Bishop talks of the fishhouses.  Vann writes, "I walked the purse seiners and trawlers, gillnetters and great tugs, floating planks iridescent with fish scales and waved to the two or three fishermen in their lighted cabins who heard or otherwise sensed me and looked up from their odd hours, their strange, solitary lives, to nod and look down again."

Compare this to Bishop's images and language in At The Fishhouses: "The big fish tubs are completely lined with layers of beautiful herring scales and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered with creamy iridescent coats of mail, with small iridescent flies crawling on them." What jumps out at me are the words "iridescent," used in the context of describing the fish scales. What also jumps out at me is the fact that Vann could have used any number of modifiers without having to resort to this one.  He could have, for instance, used "variegated," or "polychromatic, " but by choosing "iridescence, he creates an intertextuality to Bishop's poem.

He goes a step further and uses several lines of her poem in his story.  Upon his arrival (I am assuming, for it isn't clear), when the narrator reflects upon the water at night, he thinks, "Cold, dark deep and absolutely clear, element bearable to no mortal, etc..." which is a direct line from Bishop's poem.  He even cites the poem's originator, Bishop herself, without making it sound heavy-handed.  So many times we read writers who cite texts and the result sounds clumsy, equivalent to self-congratulation for knowing and understanding (we assume) a text.  I have never been a fan of this technique, creating a false sense of intertextuality, although, I must admit, I have used it in my own work, then quickly discarded it for the very reasons I cite above.  But Vann does it effectively.  Because he links it to character interiority.  These would be the thoughts a man who loves Bishop's poems would say when staring into water out of loss, because it is his character/nature to do so.

Where Bishop's diction fuses with Vann's is in the very last paragraph at the bottom of page 149.  When Roy steals a rowboat to go for a night time joysail (joy ride?) around the harbor, he writes: "I rowed unnoticed beneath masts and sonar, bells and spotlights, rowed, I fancied, with the seamless propulsion of jellyfish in the one element, rowed past jagged rocks onto a sea nostalgic and opaque, swelling slowly as if considering spilling over, etc." (italics mine)

Compare to Bishop: "All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea, swelling slowly as if considering spilling over, is opaque, but the silver of the benches, the lobster pots, and masts, scattered among the wild jagged rocks, is of an apparent translucence, etc." (italics mine).

By using Bishop's diction (element, jagged rocks, opaque, etc), Vann fuses Roy's mind with Bishop's so that we hear her words recombined through Roy's consciousness.  It is an effect that works, falling just short of plagiarism.  This "technique" if you can call it that, if taking stylistic cues is a technique, seemed a novel way of creating prose that admired the author's influences. I liked what he was doing. 

What he borrows from Robinson's Housekeeping is less blatant.  He takes certain stylistic cues, but also steals Ruth's (Robinson's narrator) need to speculate.  Given that Ruth engages in speculation, which, like Emerson's "transparent eye," a narrative style that is seemingly everywhere and nowhere (a sort of first person omniscient narration), Roy propounds similar speculation, similar lyricism.  Compare Roy's speculating on his father's consciousness to Ruth's speculating on her grandfather's.  Both were never in a position to know the intimate thoughts of their forebearers, yet each seems to imagine that they do.  First Roy.  On page 150 he says, "My father loved something about Alaska.  Though frustrated himself he had many friends who lived the kinds of lives he imagined."  And I am right to ask, how does he know this?  How does he know what his father imagined?

And Ruth: "Edmund was like that, a little.  The rising of the spring stirred a serious mystical excitement in him, and made him forgetful of her.  He would pick up eggshells, a bird's wing, a jawbone, the ashy fragment of a wasp's nest.  He would peer at each of them with the most absolute attention, and then put them in his pockets, where he kept his jacknife and his loose change...This is death in my hand, this is ruin in my breast pocket, where I keep my reading glasses" (HKPG 17). And I am right to ask, how does she know this?  She was never and could never be in a position to observe this, let alone to use free indirect discourse to convey what Edmund actually said in those ending lines. 

Both Robinson and Vann also employ the use of the modal verb "would," indicating the conditional mood.  Vann: "The night would grow colder, the light would almost fade, and my father would go inside, see the cabinets Healy had built, even the walls of his small cabin, etc" (LGOF 150).  And Robinson, as per the sentences above, "He would pick up eggshells...He would peer at each of them..." (17).

As I said, I had never seen intertextuality, the use of influences and texts referring to other texts, used in this way to enliven and raise prose to a level that sang.  Vann did it and taught me how.  By looking deep into the heart of his text, I found certain keys to my own writing, keys that unlocked doors I never even knew existed, let alone was searching for.  But having found them and opened them, I feel I am a better writer because of it.  

There are other influences in Vann's book as well.  In Vann's novella "Sukkwan Island," he channels Cormac McCarthy and Hemingway.  In his story, "A Higher Blue," he evokes (at times) Annie Proulx.   This "technique" is something I embrace in my own novel Somerset.  I use it to enlarge the novel's sense, to engage the reader with my own influences and to pay homage to them, because, as someone once said, sometimes imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, sometimes it is cheating, and sometimes it is just plain glorious.

I never did learn to recite poems in old English or Gaelic or Sanskrit.  I'll leave that one to David Vann alone.