Medea’s continuing hold over spinners of tall tales from Euripides to Chaucer to Pasolini needs little explanation; she’s an archetype with everything going for her. As a fratricide and murderer of her own children, among assorted other acts of blood lust, her acts of brutality are so transgressive and symbolic that they offer themselves up to psychoanalytic deconstruction; as a woman abandoned and betrayed by Jason, for whom she has arguably risked everything, she presents herself neatly as a sacrifice thrown to the god of male ambition, arrogance and insecurity. But perhaps most enticing are the gaps and mismatches in the records and cover versions — disputed details that allowed, for example, Rachel Cusk to depict her Medea, brought to life in Rupert Goold’s stage version two years ago, as a mother in the throes of divorce who spares her children’s lives.
You’re unlikely to guess where David Vann stands on the story’s denouement during the course of his impressive recounting of Medea’s flight from Colchis — strewing her brother’s body parts in the sea behind her to be collected by their pursuing father — to Iolcus and Corinth — the scene of jilting Jason’s infidelity. This Medea is wonderfully unknowable and mercurial, at one moment channelling the goddess Hecate to wreak havoc, vengeance and even (sort of) revivification, and at another pole-axed by sudden shifts in power and fortune. It’s a sexually powerful, witchy and intelligent Medea, complicated and subverted; the contradictions of her numerous incarnations presented to us in one figure, by turns with and without agency.
‘My novels are all Greek tragedies,’ Vann tells the reader in a postscript, and even though their settings and subjects don’t immediately bear this out — a Seattle aquarium, a deer hunt, an Alaskan island — violence, silence, guilt and concealed pain stalk through his work. Most notable is an early book, Legend of a Suicide, a novella and story collection that drew on Vann’s father’s death; and the troubled subject of parenthood recurs — unsurprisingly — throughout Bright Air Black.
At its opening, Medea ‘sails farther away with the rest of her brother, but what she feels is a need to help her father. Be his eyes in that night, take his arm and guide him.’ In the middle, her thoughts turn to him again, ‘out there somewhere still’, and she wonders what gods he might worship. Near its end, as she tricks the daughters of King Pelias into murdering their own father, she fantasises about her victim filled with blood, his mouth a ram’s anus. Fathers have become kings and must be disposed of in order to survive.
Bright Air Black is not a comfortable read; the lengthy part of it that takes place at sea is rendered in repetitively truncated sentences whose power eventually dissipates. On land, the narrative becomes altogether more active and pace-driven, so that the book feels a little lopsided. Nonetheless, it is an intensely imagined and executed examination of a myth so malleable that its days cannot yet be done.