A Review of Landscapes

Grace Byron
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Men love corners. They have the right of way as they impinge upon women on the sidewalk, at readings, in alleyways, and in the grocery line. All these cornerings are just trailing vapors of the real fear. The things men don’t just restrict but take. Plenty of books exist about what to do with the art of bad men, but changing the channel and walking on the other side of the street no longer cut it. Christine Lai’s debut novel, Landscapes, offers no illusions about or answers to this problem, but it is a fortifying read nonetheless. Instead of delivering a polemic, Landscapes probes the archive of feminist art for new answers, by blending diary entries, close-third-person narration, and criticism. The brushstrokes of a certain painting may offer a fresh state of mind. Ephemera are scrutinized, elevated to a level of significance normally reserved for major plot points.

In a near future filled with ecological and political ruin, an archivist named Penelope documents her partner, Aidan’s, historic home as they wait for his brother, Julian, to come for a visit. The family house is finally going to be demolished, now that it is beyond repair. As Penelope ponders the dense work of painter J.M.W. Turner, whose work adorns the home, the spectral role of violence against women casts a shadow over her daily chores.

Like her namesake, the wife of Odysseus, Penelope waits. Meanwhile, the prodigal son, Julian, who assaulted her long ago, sightsees on his journey home. He witnesses the desolation of the fields and carefully constructed biodomes in Italy that protect sacred sites like the Pantheon. The poor have scattered to the four corners of the earth, pleading for help at every turn. In response, Penelope and Aidan convert their home into a makeshift refugee shelter to allow those passing through a safe place to rest.

Lai alternates between portraying the structural violence of climate change and the interpersonal violence that Penelope once suffered at the hands of Julian. Reflections on Ana Mendieta, Louise Bourgeois, and Giambologna’s Rape of a Sabine Women electrify Penelope as she tries to work through her feelings toward Julian. She asks why men’s depictions of such violence present women as complicit in or even enjoying their own assault. She is haunted, flickering with rage, curiosity, and pessimism. Rape is not a plot point or a device, but a cold memory suppressing her ability to live in the present. To find embodiment, Penelope must confront the mundane rhythm of life after loss.

Lai presents a gentle way forward in the wake of trauma, one marked not by indifference but by tending to one’s body as one would tend to a house. One must sweep the rubble, gather supplies, go on walks, and carefully cultivate the body memory. The reparative process is not linear or finite. Penelope will never forget what was done to her. Forgiveness is neither here nor there; in fact, to consider artwork about sexual violence may mean setting aside the idea of atonement altogether. Instead, Penelope writes an essay—very like the art criticism interspersed through Landscapes itself.

When Penelope is not archiving the rubble of a collapsing world, she sits for a portrait. A refugee painter remarks that no one is ever fully knowable, but in the act of trying to capture someone’s essence, something ineffable surfaces. Like Annie Dillard in Holy the Firm, Penelope is our martyr. She will go up on the cross and take in the nightmare we’re hurtling toward: an eco-fascist future with cosmic fangs and expensive food chains. There is no way forward without penance. Soon Penelope will have to leave her archive of personal apocalypse behind and face the world.

As she sits for her portrait, she recalls her assault at the hands of Julian, falling in love with his brother, and the words of Louise Bourgeois: “my memory is moth eaten, full of holes.” Perhaps these very holes also allow an escape from the corners we sometimes find ourselves trapped in. The way out may be just as narrow, dark, and strange as the way in, full of the debris of everyday life.

Publisher: Penguin Random House Canada Page count: 296 Price: $29.95 Key quote: “Time has been slipping through me, like water through a sieve.” Shelve next to: Walter Benjamin, John Berger, Annie Ernaux, Derek Jarman, W. G. Sebald Unscientifically calculated reading time: Two long mornings in bed under an electric blanket with a mug of peppermint tea

Grace Byron
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