Bright Air Black, by David Vann

3 minute read

Myth is bloody business.

Bright Air Black is a retelling of parts of Jason and the Argonauts, from the point of view of Medea. It is….poetic…grisly…tragicomic…eerie…chilling at times.

And although it allegedly weighs in at 288 pages, I read it at a sitting on the plane and it felt like a novella.

Bright Air Black is lyrical and utterly immersive. The opening pages made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. It begs for a soundtrack. So I’ve made one. Go ahead and push the play button on this, then continue reading this post, or the book itself.

Myth is a bloody business. As the book opens, Medea clinically butchers her brother as she sails away from her father with Jason, throwing the pieces overboard, so that her father must stop to pick up what is left of her brother. Later when she convinces King Pelias’ daughters to dismember him and throw him in the cauldron to be reborn a new — or not. Finally, as her children pay the price for being born to a faithless father and a distraught mother.

Medea is thoughtful, loyal, ambitious…. and taken with Jason. For reasons she herself cannot quite articulate. She escapes with him, from her father, to return and be a queen. And to be disappointed.

Jason is, well, in this portrayal he seems like a dumb jock who doesn’t know what’s good for him. Leader of a pack of semi-heroes.

As the book opens, you will be whisked away to a world not your own. Where the gods are real and terrible.

There must be at least one god not filled with rage. Medea closes her eyes and tries to remember, but every image, every name that comes is feared. She hasn’t understood this until now, that rage is god, every weather god, every elemental, all that rise from the earth, all that come from death, all with a will to destroy. Worship a form of fear and perhaps nothing more, but how can that be?… Rage that inescapable and human.

Where simple sails take on a life of their own.

The sail no inanimate thing. Terrible in high wind, rigid and merciless and powerful beyond imagining, a thing of fear and will. But even now, in lighter winds, filled with desire, a restlessness, capable even of regret and sorry, falling along an edge, hunching down, refilling but not entirely some cost to the past. Only in no air, when it hangs fully slack, does it seem like linen. At all other times, this is impossible to believe.

A retelling of Jason and the Argonauts from Medea’s point of view, we see Jason as a faithless husband, a feckless hero, and Medea the woman scorned. The writing is all water and light and rage and blood and hate and stupidity, the gravitas of the writing equal to the depth of its mythical subject matter. If you are in the mood for deep myth, you won’t be disappointed.