Ockham Shortlist 2020: Halibut on the Moon by David Vann
Below is an excerpt from the novel Halibut on the Moon by David Vann, which is shortlisted for this year’s Jann Medlicott Acorn Prize for Fiction at the .Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.
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About the writer:
David Vann’s internationally bestselling books have been published in 23 languages, won 14 prizes and appeared on 83 Best Books of the Year lists in a dozen countries. A former Guggenheim fellow, he is currently a Professor at the University of Warwick in England and Honorary Professor at the University of Franche-Comté in France.
About the book:
In his riveting new novel, internationally bestselling New York Times Notable author and Prix Medicis étranger winner David Vann reimagines his father’s final days.
Middle-aged and deeply depressed, Jim arrives in California from Alaska and surrenders himself to the care of his brother Gary, who intends to watch over him. Swinging unpredictably from manic highs to extreme lows, Jim wanders ghostlike through the remains of his old life, attempting to find meaning in his tattered relationships with family and friends. As sessions with his therapist become increasingly combative and his connections to others seem ever more tenuous, Jim is propelled forwards by his thoughts, which have the potential to lead him, despairingly, to his end.
Halibut on the Moon is a searing exploration of a man held captive by the dark logic of depression struggling to wrench himself free. In vivid and haunting prose, Vann offers us an aching portrait of a mind in peril, searching desperately for some hope of redemption.
‘An absolutely riveting read, and I take my hat off to Vann for not just imagining his father’s very troubled mind, but for writing such an arresting and beautifully melancholic testament to him…[T]he best thing that I have read so far this year’ (Readings Monthly).
Extract from Halibut on the Moon:
……..“The seas are so huge,” David is saying as they enter, and Jim has a vision of the future, his brother becoming a replacement father for David and Tracy, taking them hunting and fishing and telling them nothing about a life or how it should be lived, same as other fathers.
……..“What are you talking about?” Jim asks, in a rare social moment, feeling some will suddenly to last a bit longer.
……..“The moon,” David says. “We get to use the telescope tonight. You should see it. It’s so cool.”
……..“He’s talking about seas on the moon,” Gary says. “I used to know the names of some of them, names like Sea of Tranquility or something, but I can’t remember now.”
……..“They took a halibut up there once,” Jim says. “NASA wanted to see how it would adapt. A big one, almost three hundred pounds, in its own special Plexiglas tank, and they set it on the ground to let it flop, to see how high it would fly.”
……..“Jim,” Gary says.
……..But David and Tracy are both listening as if Jim is delivering news of the Messiah. “Imagine its white underside against the white dust and ash and sand or whatever it is on the moon, looking identical, like a mirror image, and that dark topside looking like the moon from farther away, patterns like craters. Dark side of the moon, essentially. The halibut has been waiting for this meeting, waiting for millions of years, brought home, finally. Destiny. And then it hits both ends, hard, like wings, and the gravity is so much less. Even on Earth, they can launch a few feet above deck. But on the moon, this halibut flew.”
……..“Wow,” David says.
……..“That’s right. The astronauts were supposed to measure how high, but their pole was only twenty feet. They saw it pass that two or three times, rising into thin air, wobbling like a great celestial jellyfish, white as milk, the underside that is so smooth and impossible, made of dreams.”
……..“How long did it fly?”
……..“They don’t know. None of them looked at their watches, and none of them could remember time or what it’s supposed to be. That flight could have been minutes or hours. They can’t say. And they can’t remember when it first took off, the first few feet of it rising. For some reason, that’s gone. All they remember is watching it fade into the sky above them.”
……..“Whoa,” David says.
……..“Silly goose,” Mary says. “You can’t bring a halibut to the moon.”
……..“They did,” Jim says.
……..“It couldn’t survive up there.”
……..“They didn’t mean for it to survive. It was supposed to have one beautiful flight, is all. That’s all any of us are meant to have. None of us survive. The most we can be is an experiment. Billions of us are for nothing, but then maybe one of us has some use. Just think of all the other halibut who lay flat on the bottom of the ocean all their lives and died there in a place far more frightening than the moon, hundreds of feet down under colossal pressure, the pressure of having a mountain stacked on top of you, and no light, and so cold, but this one halibut is brought up from that world, put carefully in a tank on a boat, brought to Ketchikan or Prince Rupert and trucked all the way to Florida, thousands of miles, or maybe they flew the tank. I don’t know. They probably flew it in a cargo jet. And they take it to the launchpad and lift it up by crane, this tank held by straps being lifted alongside a rocket, hoisted up toward the nose cone. Just imagine that, clear Plexiglas with Alaskan water and this three-hundred pound alien resting on the bottom, both eyes on one side of its head, looking more strange than anything we’ll ever find in space. They lower that tank onto a kind of gangplank that enters the nose cone and wheel it in and strap it in place. And when the rocket engines ignite, the halibut is the only one who can take the pressure, all the g-force. Nothing at all compared to the pressure where it comes from. It’s already flat and can’t be flattened more. It was made for this trip. It doesn’t mind the cold of outer space, and doesn’t need to breathe. All it needs is Alaskan seawater and no heating, no special care. Just a bubble filter to oxygenate the water, and some food pellets. Best astronaut there ever was. And patient. No need for psychological tests or precautions or worries about whether it might go crazy or get listless and suicidal or miss family too much, no need for communication back home. The other halibut don’t even know it’s gone. No parades down there, no stupid ideas of heroes or sacrifice.”
……..“Jim,” Gary says. “Really, just sit down. The manic thing now, and you’re scaring everyone.”
……..“Just focus on the story. Think of that halibut cruising two hundred and thirty-nine thousand miles, and spaceflight is so easy for it. We don’t know what we’re made for. Who would have realized that a halibut is the best astronaut? You might not think at first about how well adapted it is to cold and pressure and darkness and endless time with nothing more than feeding off the bottom. You have to understand the beauty in finding what the halibut was meant for. When they finally arrive, the humans are essentially bonkers and on the edge of death, all fucked up from lack of gravity and normal human contact and sunshine and fresh air and from eating space goo and that orange drink, but the halibut is ready to go. But beyond that, not even worried about being ready or not, no thoughts at all, which is the best possible state of mind. No fear as some mechanical arm shifts its tank out onto the moon and then tips the tank. It sloshes out there, the first water to hit the moon, something that hunk of rock must feel, recognition of thirst or something like it, desire for things never known, just like when sexual desire first hits us, so foreign and strange and impossible, nothing like our previous experience, and even the air feels it, evaporation, a vacuum becoming air because of this water, feeling itself come into being, and to the halibut the place feels warm, easy, so light, a weightlessness it has never imagined, the most exquisite freedom. It flops not out of fear or any instinct it’s known before but this time out of pure joy, as much as a fish can know that. It’s not missing oxygen yet, has just been immersed, healthy and strong and now absolutely free. It hits both ends and knows flight, true flight, for the first time. Not restricted by the thickness of water. No resistance. Something no human has ever felt either, and no bird, to fly in an airless place, and without any suit. No barrier. Only the purest flight ever known, pure also because both its eyes are on the top side of its head. Any other fish would see the astronauts below, the lunar module, the surface of the moon, but not the halibut. It sees only emptiness above, undistracted, or maybe it sees Earth, a blue-and-white orb so far away, and knows the ocean is there, Alaskan waters, reaches for home, flops again against nothing to try to propel itself faster. What does a halibut think in that moment of flight? Until we know that, do we know anything?”
……..Gary is holding him, which is so strange, holding him from behind, hands on his biceps. “Let’s just sit down,” Gary says, and Jim does it. He feels exhausted suddenly, so exhausted. He lies back against the couch and closes his eyes, curls to the side.
……..“What’s wrong, Dad?” David says, but this is so far away Jim can’t respond. He needs to rest.
……..Tracy does her nervous cute laugh, and he’d like to reassure her, be a father, be normal and who he’s supposed to be, but he just can’t. How did he ever do it before?