• Renee Rowland

Review: Halibut on the Moon by David Vann

Trigger warnings: Mental health, suicide

Warning: Review contains coarse language

A halibut is, for non-fisherpeople like me, a flat fish, similar to what we’d call a Flounder in NZ but, as google tells me, a halibut is firm and meaty, Flounder more delicate and flaky. Halibut live at the bottom of oceans and can grow to huge proportions, i.e. the size of a man.

But you didn’t come here for a lesson on fish, and none of this is essential knowledge you need to read Halibut on the Moon by David Vann - but when someone cites a flat fish who dwells under pressure, in the dark and freezing cold as their spirit animal, naturally, one likes to learn more about the choice.

Halibut is the spirit animal of Jim, the tortured protagonist of Vann’s latest novel and a halibut visiting the moon is the subject of a manic five page soliloquy within the novel.

“Think of the halibut cruising two hundred and thirty-nine thousand miles, and spaceflight is so easy for it. We don’t know what we are made for. Who would have realised 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.”

The halibut disquisition from Jim to his children, in a euphoric bout of mania, is for me, the highlight and heart of this story.

The story is set in San Francisco, with Jim travelling from Alaska to San Fran to be with his brother. It quickly becomes evident Jim is beholden to relentless forces in his mind which push him savagely between a euphoric mania and depression. With this story, Vann is trying to reimagine the final days of his father’s life before he committed suicide.

It’s important at this stage to reiterate that this novel is dark and pulls no punches. It grabs the themes of mental illness and suicide and leaves no room for joy. This novel will be a difficult one to read for many people. When I finished reading and closed the book, all I could do was whisper yell, “Fuck!”.

“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”

Vann is a kiwi writer living in the UK. Halibut on the Moon is published by Text Publishing, an excellent Australian publishing house. Of all the Ockham Fiction Finalists, this novel is the one that isn’t set in New Zealand and has no references, cultural or otherwise to Aotearoa. Not that that should preclude Halibut on the Moon for being recognised in our national book awards, and certainly mental illness and suicide are urgent and ubiquitous topics anywhere. (Perhaps a kiwi re-imagining would be Flounder on the Moon, or Flounder i Te Marama?)

There is no happy ending here. It is a dark, savage, brutal examination of mental illness in a man beholden to the disease, as he visits his therapist, his parents, his children, his ex-wives and old school mates in the iron grip of mental illness. Vann doesn’t hold back as he shares 48 hours of Jim’s consciousness where he is also plagued by an insomnia so cruel and unreal even Jim struggles to believe he is unable to sleep. While Jim’s reality is his truth, those around him struggle to comprehend his reality, wanting him to snap out of it or change, as if he had the choice.

“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 anymore. It was made for this trip. It doesn’t mind the cold of outer space and doesn’t need to breathe.”

Published by Text Publishing


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