In Defense of Writers, Filmmakers, and Composers Who Return to the Same Themes Again and Again

Arts, entertainment, and more.
May 23 2012 7:11 AM

There You Go Again

In defense of writers, filmmakers, and composers who return to the same themes, settings, and motifs over and over and over again.

David Vann & Wes Anderson
David Vann and Wes Anderson produce work that often feels like an ongoing refinement of a simple narrative setup

Photograph of Vann by AFP/Getty Images. Photograph of Anderson by Amy Sussman/Getty Images.

A couple of things occurred to me while groping my happily horrified way through David Vann’s new novel Dirt. The first is that Vann has a serious thing about cabins, and, more specifically, about terrible stuff happening in them. In Legend of a Suicide, his stunning debut collection of obliquely autobiographical stories, a divorced and deeply depressed father takes his young son to live in a cabin on a remote Alaskan island. Each story approaches the real-life fact of Vann’s father’s suicide (in a cabin in Alaska) from a different fictional angle. In Caribou Island, the novel that followed it, a middle-aged couple attempts to salvage their marriage in what seems the most misguided way imaginable: by relocating to an uninhabited Alaskan island to live in a cabin they plan to build themselves. The combination of marital discord, dreadful weather, extreme isolation, and a poorly planned DIY project (naturally the husband’s idea) ends in inevitable bloodshed.

Mark O'Connell Mark O'Connell

Mark O'Connell is Slate's books columnist and a staff writer for the Millions.

There’s a family in this new novel, too, and a cabin, and a lot of terrible stuff that goes on in it. And this is what caused the second thing to occur to me: Vann is one of those writers who keeps returning, book after book, to the same creative source, and that this is not always such a bad thing. Like the father in Legend of a Suicide and the husband in Caribou Island, Galen—the 22-year-old high-minded layabout at the center of Dirt—is obsessed with disengaging himself from the messy business of modernity and with returning to an imagined condition of innocence and harmony. As with those earlier books, there’s a misguided effort to achieve this through returning to a state of nature. (Galen’s approach to this is comically literal-minded: He has a penchant for sneaking outside at night, stripping off his clothes, and running around naked through the woods in the moonlight.) Like everything else Vann has written—including Last Day on Earth, his recent nonfiction book about a massacre at Northern Illinois University, and A Mile Down, his bleakly comic memoir about a disastrous attempt to restore a ship and start a charter touring company in Turkey—Dirt ends in catastrophe. It is also, once again, a catastrophe in which an insane ad hoc DIY effort plays a critical role. (It’s the kind of novel about which it would be far too easy to give away far too much, so I’ll just say that, like all Vann’s fiction, it subverts the romantic-masculinist ideal of manual labor as a shortcut to virtue, causing it to collapse under its own weight like a half-assed construction project.)

Dirt is not Vann’s strongest work (Legend of a Suicide still remains the most thrilling and disturbing example of his vividly hallucinatory approach to representing trauma), but it does illustrate the principle that repeatedly returning to the same themes, settings, and motifs can indicate a singular artistic vision as much as any kind of creative bankruptcy. He is reusing the basic elements from which he built his earlier books—the family corrupted by a violent past; the Thoreauvian yearning for isolation and purity that leads to a kind of self-devouring madness; the constant and cruelly comic reminders of the tendency of romantic dreams to degenerate into gothic nightmares—but he’s arranging them into new forms.

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There is a certain kind of writer whose work is characterized by this shifting, repetitive pattern. And there’s something of a paradox here, too, in that often the more distinctive and original the writer, the stronger the tendency to drill down, book after book, into the same wellspring. Reading Dirt brought this idea into focus for me, and made me realize that many of the writers I find most consistently compelling are those who leave themselves most open to the charge of endlessly rewriting the same story. John Banville is one of the more extreme examples among contemporary novelists. Almost all of his novels take the form of first-person narratives composed by desolately eloquent men (scientists, academics, actors) who are acutely alienated from others and estranged from themselves and their pasts. With these narrators, who are really just variations on a single persona, there is invariably a palpable sense of shame at their own humble origins, and a hyper-aestheticizing tendency to idealize works of art at the expense of engaging with real people. You know what you’re going to get with a Banville book, and yet, for me at least, this never really diminishes the experience. It might sound slightly perverse, but there’s a peculiar sort of pleasure to be had from identifying the familiar elements at the macro and micro levels (something with which the person behind the John Banville Spectates Tennis tumblr, which tracks Banville’s repeated use of a single metaphor across his oeuvre, would doubtless agree).

It seems to me that this repetition—which is, at its best, a kind of productive thickening and entanglement of a central cluster of themes—comes from the same source as so much that is good and bad in art: obsession. One of the presiding book review clichés is that of the “artist in full control of her powers.” But this kind of formulation ignores the artists whose “powers” seem to be in control of them. There’s something enthralling, in other words, about a novelist who seems to be writing not so much individual and self-contained novels as successive installments in a single, ongoing, and compulsive work of art.

Samuel Beckett’s fiction, for instance, never reads like the work of a writer who comes up with a story, turns it into a novel, and then moves on to the next self-contained narrative; it reads like the work of an artist with a voice in his head and a view of the world that he needs to get down on paper. It’s difficult to see where Murphy or Mercier ends and where Molloy or Watt begins. They are all avatars of this same insistent and bewildered voice. The same is true of Thomas Bernhard’s curdled outcasts; they’re all essentially one pissed off Austrian intellectual spitting poison darts at the same target (everyone else) across a series of denunciatory first-person narratives. It never gets old because it never loses its urgency, which is the urgency of obsessive, almost transcendent contempt. One of the most consistently entertaining and original of contemporary writers is the Belgian novelist Jean-Philippe Toussaint, whose work often feels like an ongoing refinement and development of a very simple narrative setup, whereby an anonymous flâneur protagonist finds himself at a loose end in a large city, often accompanied by a woman with whom he is either beginning or ending a relationship (see The Bathroom, Camera, Running Away, and Making Love).

Nor, of course, is the phenomenon unique to writers. This week, with the release of Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson will offer us another elegantly stylized film about youngsters from dysfunctional families being impassively precocious, and Bill Murray being Bill Murray. Philip Glass, who in some ways seems like the most extreme test case in any art form, has been getting by just fine for decades on a very small bag of musical tricks. It would be hard to argue that he’s the kind of artist who goes out on an aesthetic limb, but it would be much harder to argue that he’s not a distinctive and important composer.

There will obviously always be people who keep creating variations of the same basic work to ever-diminishing creative returns. Paul Auster, to take a prominent example, has probably pushed the guy-recovering-from-a-tragedy setup and the novel-within-a-novel device about as far as is artistically profitable. Woody Allen has spent much of the last couple of decades not fixing what he (if not his critics) feels pretty confident ain’t broke. But repetition per se is not necessarily a symptom of being stuck in a rut. He probably won’t, but you get the sense that Vann could keep on writing books in which tragic things happen in cabins without ever exhausting the human possibilities of such an apparently straitening scenario. One artist’s rut, after all, is another’s groove, and Dirt is a fine and unsettling example of the distinction between the two.

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