Bright Air Black – David Vann

29214418This one was another birthday present, and one where I read the blurb and just went “yessssss”. Because I am predictable, and giving me reinterpretations of Classical myths to read is never going to go wrong.

And then it comes with an author’s note explaining why he’s setting it firmly in the Bronze Age, “following the archaeological evidence and never straying from realism”. Yes, yes and more yes.

We join Medea on the stern of the Argo, disposing of the body of her brother in the sea as her father chases, and follow her with Jason through to Iolcus and Corinth and the death of her own children. Vann doesn’t stray from the events of the traditional narrative, but the joy is in how he interprets, the choices of style and tone and realism he makes, and with the characterisation of Medea, and the reader’s view of her from within her own head.

And the prose.

First and foremost, I loved this book because the prose is beautiful. Even more than for the Classics (because sure, putting Classics in something will 100% get me to read it, but might make me angry if you do it “wrong”), I was just sucked in because it flowed wonderfully. It’s very much focussed on imagery and less concerned with actually setting out a clear plot, which I’m fine with, but I suspect is not everyone’s cup of tea. Vann seems quite keen on dropping verbs as a very direct way of giving his prose a distinctive style, and if I’m honest, it works surprisingly well. It feels very vivid and immediate, while also slightly alien – it helps with getting inside the mind of someone who thinks totally differently to us… while still having it feel real and there.

And Medea is so easy to slip into the mind of – while her actions and motivations are completely outside of what any reader might actually do, she remains plausible, while being constantly changeable. Her love for Jason, coming and going with each of his actions and her own revelations, is immensely believable, as well as her constant rage and need to undermine the kingship of men.

And this is really a central theme in the book – Vann paints Medea as a revolutionary within her mind, raging against the very existence of kings across the world, wondering why they must exist at all, where they came from. Why is it that men rule over everyone? Why do people allow it? Vann’s Medea questions everything with no answers – she posits all sorts of things, including that there was no world before the time of her father, but never comes to a conclusion that satisfies her – and seems to rage against this uncertainty too. She wants to rule herself, she wants to rule kingdoms, and all the while hates men and kings for doing so. She’s inconsistent and inconstant, united only by a theme of wanting change and destruction by her own hands. By joining her just after she has killed her brother, watching her regrets slip away into justification and determination, and following her right up until the deaths of her own children, we join the circle of destruction at beginning and end, as she cannot stop herself from breaking the world because she doesn’t like the shape of it. Her regrets, even at killing her sons, seem distant and small compared to her all-consuming, omnidirectional anger, and that consumes the reader too, colours how we see the world around her.

Outside of Medea’s mind, people seem flat and dull, but only because that’s how Medea herself sees them – thinking them trapped in the daily grind, no different from the animals. She sees herself as seeing the truth of things, under the surface of the lies everyone tells to get themselves more glory and power, to get by, to pass the time. This is how she casts her eye at the world too, thinking herself to see the truth beneath the surface. Sometimes this means her seeing the gods that must be there, a mixture of Egyptian and Greek, Nute and Hecate, and sometimes this means a revelation that there are no gods, only what she makes in the world, the fear she brings to others. The fact that she sees more than one truth, even quite close together, is inconsequential, from her perspective.

When we have this perspective of her, Medea’s actions don’t seem reasonable, but the do become plausible, not in the way they often are portrayed – justified by the hurts done to her, borne of sadness and pain and emotion – but instead as part of this all consuming rage against what she sees the world to be. She almost seems to have herself outside of it all, not connected, which allows her to do what others would not. Not that it doesn’t matter to her, she sees how it all connects and what each action will achieve, and she does feel, her love for her children particularly is communicated very strongly, but that it too is distant to her, part of a world she is not fully in.

I love this Medea, the Medea who doesn’t pull back from her own monstrous actions. She knows what she’s done, what it is, the awfulness of it, and embraces it – “Let me be the most hated of women and most true”. There’s a power to it, and her, that is really captivating. Her determination to be free, too, is powerful, and draws together the threads of her anger and fear, drives her onward.

I also love the world Vann builds, viscerally primitive and real. He doesn’t shy away from the grim details that would populate the world back then, and he particularly focuses on smells, animals and plants and rot and the sea and human waste, the layers that would build together the atmosphere of society. He also brings a realistic smallness to it all, tells us what a “city” really meant back then, how close to the edge they often lived. This isn’t a world of any grandeur but for the fear and dreams Medea herself brings, or the vastness of nature while she experiences the “truth” of it. She finds beauty in the quiet of night on a ship, the light of the moon on the water, and Vann portrays these in gorgeous prose that brings the images and feelings right inside your mind, and uses the same vivid prose to bring out the foulness and reality of the world of men she walks through to life. There is no grandeur to the Argonauts, no honour or glory. We can’t look up to the man we watch shitting over the side of a boat. The only beauty Vann paints in the world is that Medea finds, and she has no love for the world of men (much though she wants to rule it all). But for all its grimness, I love that setting, that authentic agedness, detached from the way the heroic age is portrayed in the Greek myths and grounded in archaeologically-fuelled realism.

Particularly, Vann’s description of the Argo is borne of the fact he was involved in the building of a reconstructed ship of the type the Egyptian expedition to the fabled land of Punt might have used. We can hear the creak of timber and rope, the flap of the sails, and it really feels like the words come from someone who has been on a ship exactly like that (because he has).

Vann manages to contrast the beauty and the horror of a distant past that, for all it is contemporary with the myths we know, is glossed over so often. He brings both to life in a way that hypnotises the reader, unable to put the book down, and balances those two much in the same way he balances the emotions of Medea. She is many things, often contrasting, all at the same time, but somehow manages to exist as a real and believable character nonetheless. Likewise, the world is horrifying, yet glorious by turns.

This balance is highlighted by the way he constructs the story, chopping off beginning and end to give us a matching, linked, start and end-point, both embodying Medea’s rage and hatred, both depriving us of the immediate context we know exists, but with their rage and fear pointed very differently in both instances.

If I had to make a criticism, my only one would be that the impact of his prose lessened as I got used to the style. The first chapter was so enjoyable because I couldn’t ignore what he was doing with the writing. But as always, the mind gets used to things, and I stopped noticing what he was doing until I forced myself to stop and pay attention. I’m not sure there’s anything anyone can do about this, but if I had to nitpick, this is where that nitpickery would lie.

But it doesn’t stop me from giving the book a wholehearted five stars. I got a beautifully written Medea whose power wasn’t her gender, wasn’t her sex or her wiles. A Medea whose power is her ability to instill fear, and who embraces that to be the monster she doesn’t care that she is. I don’t want an apologetic Medea; I want a brutal, raw and vicious one, and that’s exactly what we get.

This book is brilliant and I love it, and I fully intend to get my sticky paws on other of his work, if this is the standard.

Oh, and also, the fact that the title is a direct quotation from Euripides does not go amiss. Just saying.

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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One Response to Bright Air Black – David Vann

  1. Pingback: Who Fears Death – Nnedi Okorafor | A Reader of Else

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