Bright Air Black
The story of Medea, icon of female vengeance, has inspired many storytellers. Pasolini and Lars von Trier have offered filmic adaptations. The poet Robin Robertson recently translated Euripides’ play. The novelist Christa Wolf published a feminist revision in 1998, and now we have David Vann’s novel Bright Air Black.
The Alaskan-born Vann is attracted to stories of desperation and brutality, his work being favourably compared to that of Cormac McCarthy. Certainly, Vann’s treatment of Medea has all the gore and poetry of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
When the novel opens, Medea and the Argonauts are fleeing Colchis, Medea’s home, by sea. Medea has helped Jason secure the golden fleece by murdering her own brother. As the Argo sails, she feeds sections of her brother’s body into the sea to distract her irate father, who is pursuing them. Medea “takes a piece of her brother, a thigh, heavy and tough, muscled, and licks blood from it, dark and thick”, before throwing it overboard.
Here Medea is animal and abominable. When the Argonauts finally reach Iolcos, she is rendered as a stereotypically cauldron-bound witch. However, Medea is never supernatural. In fact, Vann attempts to impart a historical realism to Medea’s tale. He sets the narrative 3250 years ago, “during Medea’s time” as the author’s note asserts, and offers rational explanations for magical plot points. The golden fleece is one of many “untanned hides sifting the heavy dust of gold from every mountain stream”. Medea is a herbalist and illusionist, who strategically inspires the terror of men through hysterical performances and tricks.
She is also human in her resentment of patriarchal law and of those men, such as her father and husband, who control her life and delimit her future. It is “the thrill of her own freedom” she seeks in her violent and vengeful acts. She is, though, at her most human when she has children. While she experiences her love for them as a kind of biological enslavement, she reflects: “Everything in human life that matters is animal.”
The novel has flaws. The seafaring section is too long, and some scenes seem gratuitous rather than historically plausible, such as Medea’s necrophiliac mounting of the dead King Cyzicus. However, while the finale is well known, there are enough surprises in Vann’s revision to maintain interest, and the story of Medea continues to resonate, as its longevity suggests, in our contemporary moment. KN
Text, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 25, 2017 as "David Vann, Bright Air Black". Subscribe here.