Caitlin is twelve years old, lives with her mother in Seattle, in the poorest part of town. Sheri works at the docks in the local container port.
Life at home is drab --- Mum is out of it by the time she gets home --- and Caitlin finds her dream world at the Seattle Aquarium in the afternoons. She knows her fish: that the cod is yellow, and that the trigger "looks like art projects, colored with blue chalk. The blenny has hairs on its head" and the mackerel swims with its mouth open, "forever hungry, always eating." The ocellated waspfish looks "like a moth, and a head that could have been covered in white fuzz."
In fact, many of the fish have something of the old man about them, and it may have something to do with the old man she meets in the Aquarium. He meets her there every time she goes and the two of them get to be pals. Until Mum finds out that she is hanging around with an old man away from home.
Has he touched you?
No. I mean I just sat with him and he hugged me. He was helping me.
Has he ever touched your chest?
No. I mean yeah, but just because I was panicking and my heart was going fast.
"My mother slapped me, hard. How can you be so fucking stupid." And she calls the police, who arrive at the aquarium the next day just as the old man and Caitlin are eyeing the yellow clownfish. She is explaining that it is a "Fish that always belonged" and when he goes to hug her, a man from behind her comes up and says "Sir. Step away from the girl. Seattle police."
§ § §
Well, it gets a little complicated here, because the old man in the aquarium, despite our worst fears, we find out (as she does) that he is her long lost grandfather. Great. Now she can have a family.
No. Sheri goes into orbit, tells Caitlin that she is never to see him again. Why? Because he left her wife --- Sheri's mother --- when she was fourteen years old; and for four years after she had to care for this abandoned woman who was alone; and had cancer.
There was no money, so she had to drop out of school to care for her mother who was always in pain. And then when she was sixteen, to bring in a little cash, she had to go over to a nearby highway sex bar and do pole-dancing. In front of lusty truckdrivers.
As I said, it gets a little complicated here; and it gets a little hairy too, not unlike the ocellated waspfish. Because Mum wants to make sure that Caitlin knows what it was like to care for an old mother who was sick and dying. With no money. So she pretends to be sick and dying, an old woman with cancer.
And because she wants to make the point, Caitlin (and the reader) get to suffer along with a brand new reality show: before, life was hard but gentle: mother was allowed to be loving with her innocent daughter. Now, life is hard and cold and brutish, no love permitted. Mum drops her job, feigns being an aging, dying woman.
Caitlin now has to haul this huge truck-driver of a woman down to the bathroom. School time! We have to give this stupid girl a lesson she will never forget! Talking to a strange old man at the aquarium! A man who, many years ago, abandoned his own child, this woman, when she was Caitlin's age.
So Caitlin gets her weighty Mum out of bed, down the hall, into the bathroom, and then pulls and pushes and drags her into the bathtub. A girl twelve years old, malnourished, doing the work of a longshoreman. She describes herself as "thin;" but in this new abuse school, excuses are not acceptable.
Once she gets Mum into the tub, she has to bathe her, while the old lady curses and complains and screams, "I'm hungry!" After bathing her, the girl has to haul her out of the tub, back down the hall, back into the bedroom, somehow into the bed, where this woman (her once sweet mother) commences to groan and piss and moan and then finally crap in the bed (no gross detail left to the imagination),
And when the girl finally cleans her up, we have to haul her back to the bathroom again because she's filthy from pooping on herself.
Not soon after the girl gets sent out in the cold night at 3 a.m. to find drugs for her, because of the pain, that's what her mother's mother would make her do, and . . . and . . .
§ § §
It goes on for forty long pages. We counted. pulling and puling and puking and pushing and screaming and shitting and pissing and complaining and after a while . . . we get the picture. In spades.
We also get the idea that in another context, this would be called "child abuse." Whatever that strange man may have done is trumped. In spades. So that . . .
. . . after awhile we begin to get the idea that author David Vann is getting a kick out of all this: setting up the reader with ghastly, gross, gruesome scenes. Which will never end --- acting out one damaged person's damaged life.
One must admit that Vann is extremely good at the noise and insults and self-pity and the smell and screams and detestation of it all.
You will hate me, she said. I know you will hate me. But my mother did all of these things and I loved her. And I am going to make you see. You will know what it was like, and that is all I care about.
§ § §
Over the last few years, we as reviewers have found ourselves complaining about a new form of abuse, which we call Reader Abuse. Where authors apparently get their rocks off by dragging us through horrific lives of wretched people with appalling, desperate, hopeless, stinky existences . . . authors who rub our noses in it, page-after-page, without respite.
For instance, in our review of Martha Long's Ma, He Sold Me for a Few Cigarettes, we wrote,
The author has done a fine job of setting up the tale of a young girl living in the worst of Dublin slums in the 1950s. And then the author proceeds to see to it that she gets hit, smashed, banged, struck, thrown, shoved against the wall, yanked by her hair, pushed out and held out the window (almost falling), mangled, bopped, and thwacked again. And raped. Again and again . . . To the point that the reader wants to beg for mercy.
We concluded: "A serious novel must utilize selectivity in scenes of love, and in scenes of play, and in scenes of violence. In this last, it is best not to turn it into a Rambo movie."
In Aquarium, we find that the author simply cannot stop his high-volume, full-throated, foul, ugly scene of child-abuse. In fact, it's apparent that he enjoys the hell out of it. But the reader wonder why this extended horror movie has been stretched beyond reason (and good pacing). How much of this are we expected to take? A reader comes to wonder why they paid $24 plus taxes for this.
Library Journal said Aquarium was "lovely, wrenching,"
Publishers Weekly called it "emotionally intense."
Kirkus found it "striking."
We would certainly agree with this last, especially after Mum slams Caitlin in the face for the third time, then grabs her hair, shoves the girl's head under the dirty water in the tub long enough to leave us all gasping for air.
Aquarium is striking. Yes.
To a suffocating degree.--- Lolita Lark