'Bright Air Black' is an atavistic bloody take on the Medea story
March 19, 2017 12:00 AM
Author David Vann
"Bright Air Black" is David Vann's retelling of the story of Medea.
By Rebecca Foster
Classical-style tragedy is nothing new in David Vann’s fiction. Starting with “Legend of a Suicide” (2008), he has built a solid reputation for bleak, violent stories of family breakdown, typically set in Alaska or on the Pacific coast.
His previous book, “Aquarium” (2015), about a young girl’s dysfunctional home and sexual awakening, retreated from brutality, whereas his sixth novel, “Bright Air Black,” thrusts us into the thick of it with a retelling of the myth of the witch Medea, best known via Euripides’ fifth-century B.C. play.
The novel opens in medias res and is full of references to gods and other legendary figures; if it’s been a while since you studied Greek mythology, you may well need a refresher course. You might remember that Medea, granddaughter of the sun god Helios, murders her two sons to avenge Jason’s betrayal, but that incident doesn’t appear until the very end of this book.
Instead, we open on the bloody tableau of Medea crouching over her dismembered brother Absyrtus’ remains.
"BRIGHT AIR BLACK"
By David Vann Grove Press ($16).
When Jason and his Argonauts landed at Colchis to capture the Golden Fleece, Medea offered to help Jason complete the heroic tasks her father, King Aeëtes, required of him — if Jason promised to take her with him afterward.
Now, with the Fleece in Jason’s possession, the Argo is speeding back to Iolcus. To delay her father’s pursuit, Medea slit Absyrtus’ throat and is throwing his body overboard in pieces, knowing her father will slow down to collect the parts so he can give his son a proper burial.
This grisly scene is delivered in blunt, partial phrases, with articles and verbs generally pared away to create a sort of rough, often alliterative poetry: “Blood of the sun. My own blood, my own brother. I give you this. … Smell of blood and viscera, sacrifice. A smell she’s known all her life.”
That atavistic glorying in gore is a trademark of Mr. Vann’s work, particularly 2013’s “Goat Mountain,” but there’s an extra layer of nihilism here. Medea has lost faith in Hekate, whom she once served as a priestess; now there’s “no one to call on. Empty invocations.”
The long stretch between the opening scene and the “Argo” landing at Iolcus is an oddly monotonous swirl of battles and sex scenes. Upon arrival in his homeland, Jason and Medea are greeted by the new king, his Uncle Pelias, as slaves rather than as heroes.
Book Two recounts Medea’s two extravagant acts of revenge, one of which recalls “Titus Andronicus.”
The relentless present-tense narration, incomplete sentences, and lack of speech marks may represent resistance to traditional storytelling techniques, but simultaneously render the characters emotionally inaccessible.
Medea is lonely, clearly, but there’s no sufficient explanation for her irrational behavior. “Some deep need to kill and tear and taste more blood” merely reinforces the idea that she’s a monster.
A rare attempt to humanize her by having her second-guess her actions — “She did not need to kill her brother, perhaps. Difficult to know. We can never see the other path ”— ends up sounding absurd: Medea is a prophetess; foretelling outcomes is her duty.
It’s in applying timeless mythology to contemporary life that this author’s work has shone before. The almost complete contextlessness of “Bright Air Black” will likely be difficult for today’s readers, while the style — which starts off lyrical but quickly grows repetitive — and the echoing of stereotypes of Medea as (in Jason’s words) a “bitter woman, butcher, [and] barbarian” are problematic as well.
Strange that Mr. Vann’s most straightforward tribute to Greek tragedy should result in his least resonant and cathartic novel.
Rebecca Foster is an American transplant to England and a full-time freelance editor and writer. She reviews books for a number of print and online publications in the USA and UK.
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