Bright Air Black by David Vann is a lyrical masterpiece. Based on Euripides’ classical Greek play Medea, Vann’s re-telling of Medea’s story is dark, brilliant, and hypnotic. Two notes of caution, however. First, some familiarity with the story of Medea and Jason is necessary prior to reading the novel. And second, this is not a novel for the faint of heart. Vann spares none of the gory details of Medea’s horrific actions in all of their blood-curdling madness.
The novel opens with Medea on the deck of the Argo tossing chunks of her brother’s body (a brother she murdered and dismembered) into the sea to delay capture by Aeetes, her father. Aeetes rages at his daughter each time he has to slow his ship to gather the bits and pieces of his son’s body to give him a proper burial. As horrifying as this opening scene is, it is just the beginning of a series of Medea’s violent and bone-chilling deeds.
Since the story is told from Medea’s point of view, we are sucked into her vortex of demonic rage. We watch as she scurries in the night to collect roots, plants, spiders, termites, salamanders, a scorpion, and mushrooms that induce hallucinations. She concocts a brew for Jason and his men using this potpourri, forces them to drink it, and proceeds to terrify them into submitting to her demands. We listen as she manipulates the daughters of Pelias into believing she can restore their father’s youth if they chop him into pieces, bite into his testicles, and throw his butchered body into her cauldron. We watch with horror and fascination as each of her schemes comes to fruition.
Our perception of the world through Medea’s filter forces us to understand what motivates her to do the things she does. Medea rages at a world that marginalizes her because she is a woman and a foreigner and, therefore, deemed a “barbarian” by the misogynistic, male-dominated, xenophobic Greek society. She repudiates her designation as “Other”, viewing men with absolute contempt and seizing every opportunity to lash out and ridicule them. Her hunger for power prompts her to destroy anyone in her way. More than anything else, she wants control over her life, the ability to decide her destiny. She abhors submission of any sort and murders her two children rather than surrender control of them to Kreon’s soldiers. Her many references to Hatshepsut, the female Egyptian Pharaoh who ruled Egypt independent of any man, reflect her desire to reign as king. But because she knows Greek culture will not accommodate for a female ruler, Medea has to rely on Jason to help her get what she wants. She is complex, fierce, calculating, demonic, manipulative, and a brilliant strategist who leaves nothing to chance.
Medea’s internal machinations are captured by David Vann’s writing style—a style both mesmerizing and lyrical. Most sentences are in fragments with fleeting images. They surge in short, choppy spurts. Many are stripped of definite articles and verbs. There is very little direct dialogue and no quotation marks. The effect is jarring, the impact powerful. The style borders on stream of consciousness, thrusting us in different directions as we try to navigate the maze of Medea’s thought patterns and emotions.
It’s important to note that Medea is not the only character capable of brutality and murder. We are told Aeetes hangs corpses on trees; Pelias murders his brother and nephew to seize control of the throne. He also tortures and enslaves Jason and Medea for six years until Medea obtains their release through her gruesome machinations. But because these are powerful men, they act with impunity. Medea’s conduct suggests if it is acceptable for men to behave as monsters then it should be acceptable for women to do the same. She hammers her point by perpetrating her crimes in particularly graphic and brutal ways. For example, she not only decapitates her brother, she smears his blood, licks it, and spits it out in full view of Jason and his crew. As with her male counterparts, Medea’s goal is to instill fear and absolute obedience.
Euripides’ Medea and David Vann’s Bright Air Black can be seen as cautionary tales in that they share a common theme about possible consequences of “Othering.” They suggest that if a people is consistently “othered;” marginalized; discriminated against; denied rights available to others; stripped of voice and agency; labeled foreigners, savages, monsters; some of these people may one day rise up screaming revenge. And if that revenge is ever manifested, it may take a form that is brutal, monstrous, and designed to make us reel in shock and horror.
This is a stunning novel in its haunting depiction of the internal machinations of a dark, complex, maniacal, and brilliant female in Greek mythology. Some may sympathize with Medea and understand her rage while condemning her actions. Others may turn away in disgust. But whatever one thinks of her, David Vann’s Medea is a character not soon to be forgotten.