‘The harbinger of sexual fantasy after sexual fantasy; a virtual porn shop of illegitimate incestual masturbatory scenes…’

20 May

Walnut Orchard

So many problems can be found in Dirt. I do not mean porous soil or ill earthworms I mean the bat shit crazy new novel by David Vann has some serious problems and quite a few of them have to do with the use of dirt as a metaphor in the first place. In fact if dirt wasn’t the title and if it wasn’t the point that Vann was always trying to make, if the word ‘dirt’ wasn’t used an awkward number of times so that you begin to take count every time you see it on the page, then maybe this disturbing family biopic would leave you with more than an aching disquiet and a handful of dust.

Set in California, in stark contrast to Vann’s usual penchant for the colder climates of Northern America, Dirt is the warped story of a once prosperous immigrant family. Their fortune was made in the soil, born from labouring in walnut fields, acres of trees and years of picking, drying, tending.
The dead grandfather, the original immigrant and patriarch, is alluded to as the font of all the remaining families ailments. He had two daughters one of which is the single mother of our protagonist, Galen, a man stalled in his young twenties still living with his mother on their faltering land in near abject poverty. Poor because none of them have bothered to make a living for themselves, slowly siphoning off what’s left of the family trust fund that the senile grandmother controls instead.
The other daughter has a daughter herself, Galen’s cousin Jennifer, the harbinger of sexual fantasy after sexual fantasy; a virtual porn shop of illegitimate incestual masturbatory scenes get played out in Galen’s mind and then with more frequency, in reality too.

What begins as a tightly wound psychological thriller from inside the mind of either a misunderstood transcendent being or a psychopath (fine line) quickly devolves into a nasty loop of self-obsession and repetition. Vann has made the scope of his book so small, the perspective so monochromatic, that we’re only ever privy to Galen and whilst there is a little brilliance in being able to craft a narrative from inside an unhealthy mind – illustrating how it justifies itself, how it denies all other perspectives – we miss out on the kind of compassionate empathy Vann achieved with Caribou Island where he showcased the hearts, good and evil, of a small collection of people. When you’re limited to one voice the potential for arch and movement can become limited too. Admittedly some of the greatest books are written from a single perspective, Lolita for one example. But Humbert Humbert was an observant deviant whereas Galen is a narcissist so we miss out on the valuable context of contributing perspectives.
What we get instead is this earnest young man, a disciple of modern hippy dogma, of Carlos Castaneda and Kahil Gibran, splitting from the inside out, slowly yet surely coming apart in incredibly unsettling ways and dragging his family down with him whilst blaming them for his own downfall.
The last third of the book is a painful devolution into inevitable madness that repeats itself, burying itself under layers of dirt based metaphors; perhaps searching for a deeper meaning but sadly failing to root it out.

David Vann has made a career out of deftly channeling broken people. Dirt certainly has some of that insight, that frightening calm exposition on madness, greed and suffering, but unfortunately Vann’s trademark claustrophobia goes limp when set in a warmer climate. All that dry dirt: I didn’t really care whether this Californian family shriveled up and withered or whether it survived.

——-

Quick Caveat: I reviewed Dirt by David Vann on 95Bfm with Charlotte Ryan a couple of weeks ago and at the time, having just finished it, I was more clearly able to describe some of the interesting subject matter that underscored the book, its dark fucked-up-ness, in a semi-positive light. However on closer inspection, when called to write a print review, some of those initial sensations took a back seat to the overall failings of the work as a novel. I don’t want anyone to feel as though I was duplicitous in either review; they both reflect actual revelations about the book.

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