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Legend of a Suicide is a strange, sobering book, titled as it is for good reason. Forensic psychiatrists tell us that even when a suicide leaves a note, their motivations are still obscure. For those left behind, the pain of loss is exacerbated by the torture of never really understanding how anyone could do it…
Legends are fictions that are based in reality. They are believable, but not necessarily true or true in their entirety. Traditional legends are those stories told over and over so often and retold in variations over such a long period of time that it becomes impossible to know what is true. The story of King Arthur is a legend, and so is Robin Hood. Unlike fairy stories there is no magic, though there may be a miracle if that fits in the belief system of the teller. I found myself wondering if there had been a miracle in this book, but that’s because I didn’t know beforehand that this book consists of five short stories and the central novella. (There’s nothing in the blurb to tell you this). I thought that perhaps Vann had created some kind of postmodernist magical realism as he tried to come to terms with the reality of a shocking event in his own life.
I watched Andrew Denton interview Richard Dawkins on TV last night, and although I was impressed by the sheer brilliance of the man, I thought his mind was impoverished by his insistence on having evidence for everything. (He even wrote a letter to his ten-year-old daughter, to impress the importance of evidence over belief to her.) He said that fairy tales are lies, and that adults who tell them are liars. (Does he know so little about children that he doesn’t realise that children instinctively understand that fairy tales are ancient tales of the imagination? That legends are stories which seek to make a kind of truth about a confusing world?) As I mulled over Legend of a Suicide this morning, I found myself thinking about this, and the value of imagination when trying to make sense of life, its pain and its mysteries.
I think what we see in Vann’s tales is an attempt to creatively reconstruct his father’s suicide so that he can make sense of it, and restoratively, to be his father living out the impact of suicide on the loved one. It’s a very powerful book.
Author: David Vann
Title: Legend of a Suicide
Publisher: Penguin, 2008
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $24.95