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‘Aquarium’ Mesmerizes

“Aquarium” by David Vann (Grove Atlantic)

Internationally-acclaimed author David Vann’s new novel, “Aquarium,” offers a lovely and harrowing exploration of family, growing up, and the possibilities of forgiveness. 12-year-old Caitlin Thompson lives with her single mother in early 1990s Seattle. She visits the aquarium every day after school while waiting for her mother to return from her job at the city’s container port. Lonely, Caitlin befriends an elderly man at the aquarium, but his entrance into her life unleashes a storm of violence out of her family’s past. Caitlin’s narrative, told in a powerful yet believably youthful voice, is at times beautiful, at times searingly painful to read. It benefits from Vann’s original use of metaphor and spare prose. Vann’s unflinching gaze as it examines the barriers people create between themselves and the world.

Caitlin is an engaging narrator, and her reflections on childhood and adolescence are original and honest. During a fight with her mother midway through the novel, Caitlin thinks, “The worst part of childhood is not knowing that bad things pass, that time passes. A terrible moment in childhood hovers with a kind of eternity, unbearable.” Childhood is both idyll and nightmare for her, its joys new and intensely felt but its terrors equally so. Continuing this exploration of the paradoxes of childhood, Caitlin often seeks to understand her life through fairy tales. Locked out of her house one night, she compares her life to “some fairy tale on pause, the cottage door never opening. Characters gone to the wrong place, the wrong story. Little Red Riding Hood finding herself at the houses of the Three Pigs. A wolf out there somewhere.” In Vann’s hands, a device that might seem cliché becomes surprising and original. The comparisons make it clear that Caitlin’s story is no fairy tale, and part of the novel’s success lies in its ability to hold the reader suspended. Even a happy ending, in this book, is by no means certain.

Vann’s formal choices also enhance the credibility of Caitlin’s voice. Sentence fragments occur frequently, perhaps suggesting Caitlin’s immaturity as a writer, and they give the narrative the feel of a series of thoughts immediately recorded. Vann’s choice not to use quotation marks in dialogue, if occasionally confusing, also enhances the immediacy of the story. The reader seems to experience the action directly, along with Caitlin herself, rather than as a narrative mediated by literary conventions.

Perhaps the most striking formal aspect of Vann’s novel is the centrality of the motif of the aquarium. The aquarium, whose fish are described in kaleidoscopically beautiful detail, becomes the focal point of myriad metaphorical resonances. Caitlin describes the aquarium’s leafy seadragon thus: “a sea horse become a golden branch, sprouting leaves that might have been wings. If you looked at her long enough, you could imagine trees coming alive, entire forests waking up and drifting across the land, speaking in whispers. No trunk vertical but all gone horizontal, moving along on their branches, roots hung in the air. I wanted to live in that world.” In an almost Whitman-esque moment, the vast world becomes visible in a tiny animal. The fish becomes the basis for Caitlin’s reimagining of her whole universe, for impossible dreams and poetic visions.

Vann accompanies each description with a photographic illustration of the fish in question, an unusual though effective choice. The photographs certainly offer useful context for Caitlin’s words. At 12 years old, Caitlin is forced to confront physical and emotional dangers that many adults never have to face, and the unexpected appearance of pictures in a novel for adults reflects the novel’s larger exploration of innocence and the perilously permeable boundaries between childhood and adulthood.

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The aquarium motif, developed from the novel’s first scene to its last, also takes on multiple layers of unexpected meaning as the narrative progresses. At different moments in the novel, the aquarium becomes a symbol of the safety of childhood, of the preservation of beauty in a ruined world, of the enduring presence of the past—as Caitlin tells her grandfather, jellyfish were among the first creatures on earth and may outlast us all—in a world with an uncertain future. Perhaps most importantly, the aquarium serves as a metaphor for the enclosed worlds each character in the novel is engaged in constructing, maintaining, or escaping: Caitlin’s mother’s isolation and aggression, the elderly man’s fear of revealing his identity to Caitlin despite his affection for her, Caitlin’s dreams of travelling outside the confines of Seattle. Through its exploration of the seemingly mundane environment of a local aquarium, the novel poses the frightening question of to what extent a person really can understand anyone else’s experience.

Vann refuses to provide his reader with an easy answer. Near the story’s end, Caitlin herself reflects, “Maybe this is as near as we can come to forgiveness. Not the past wiped away, nothing undone, but some willingness in the present, some recognition and embrace and slowing down.” This is as close as Vann comes to a solution, and his reluctance to embrace a fairy tale ending is the novel’s most marked strength. With Caitlin, Vann tells a moving story of a memorable protagonist. His novel, at once bleak and poetic, told in shimmering, original figurative language, succeeds in its uncompromising look at family relationships.

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