Bright Air Black by David Vann
Dark, visceral, lyrical, sinister, sad: David Vann’s hypnotic reimagining of Greek mythology’s famously fiendish Medea is masterful – the expressive style is bizarre but brilliant. Vann’s poetic prose rushes inexorably to the tragic ending we know is coming, barely pausing for breath. Maniacal and mesmerising, Medea’s story is told using a close third-person narrative style, and relies on unusual syntax, incomplete sentences, broken rhythm and tempo, and dramatic urgency to draw the reader into Medea’s world. There is very little dialogue: indeed, much of this story takes place inside Medea’s head, told in language that is instinctive, animal. The prose mirrors Medea’s madness and sadness, her desire and brutality; Vann goes for lyrical darkness and sparkle, and achieves it: the language, poetic and phenomenal, goes deep.
Vann’s writing will not be to everyone’s liking. The broken prose is difficult to engage with at first, but if the reader is willing to take the plunge and let Vann’s continuous volley of words, feeling, visuals and action pull them in, they will soon find themselves pulled under, submerged in words and story and carried along. Once engaged, the reader will find Bright Air Black to be spellbinding and difficult to put down. There is only one break in the text, between Books One and Two. If the reader needs a breath, that is where they can take it. I read the book in one sitting, compelled by the narrative, the visuals, and by the beauty and blackness inside Medea’s mind. The imagery is stunning: Vann’s work is chock-full of sensory fireworks and visceral gut-punches, but the visual images Vann renders in Bright Air Black bring life to a world long-gone.
In the acknowledgements at the end of the book, Vann makes it clear he’s been wanting to write this book for a long time (since he was an undergraduate). He is at the height of his storytelling power here. This is a book for lovers of poetry, Greek mythology, or for anyone who likes their prose offbeat, magical, or unclassifiable.
Ed Moreno works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.