Landscapes by Christine Lai; Two Dollar Radio; 230 pages; $26.00
There’s a lot going on in Christine Lai’s debut novel, Landscapes, but little with the whole of life can be made so easily reducible. The author doesn’t shy away from the sheer immensity of human existence pushed to the precipice, to include the shared complexity of communities and connections across histories and into the future. Through three different and distinct architectural schemes, Landscapes unfolds first as epistolary diary read as the daily journal of its main character Penelope as she closes down her time as archivist of antiquities in the not-too-distant apocalyptic future. Along the way, each chapter starts with an archival essay that Penelope has assigned to an actual and real work of art throughout English history, and then again at some point soon after in the novel we begin to receive a second narrator following the antagonist, Julian, as he returns to Penelope’s life for the first time in decades. It can be a lot. Lai sets up the internal drama of the sufferer through her diaries but counterposes her trauma with the close third-person viewpoint following Julian, with each mirrored by the catalog entries that Penelope completes along the way. This contextual scaffolding places the act of sexual assault within a real-world frame – internal to a victim, but unknown to others – which Lai achieves with great nuance, never bringing these intimate discrepancies into a conflict that could not be resolved, but leaving the reader with the looking glass through to understanding.
Readers who can manage the complex and heavily demanding layers, the rewards are obvious. By the time readers finish the novel, Lai has treated her audience to a survey-level course in art history, European travelogues, and the life of J. M. W. Turner, but most importantly, the empathetic nuances of living with trauma. Using easily approachable prose in the vernacular of the forlorn, we immediately sink into the daily life and ritual of Penelope as the poles of her world, her work and her abuser, come crashing together. Set some time in the future when stable communities have been disrupted by unnamed natural phenomena that renders our way of life unsuitable, the world’s cities have resorted to using geodesic domes to enclose what parts of their major cities can be saved, and Mornington, where Penelope fastidiously works to archive the private collection, will soon be sold and demolished to make way for agriculture. The imminent closing of the home forces her partner, Aiden, to notify his brother, Julian, the same man that assaulted Penelope so many years before and for whom she first picked up the habit of writing daily journals.
This is where Lai starts us, but it’s always where we remain. All the details of this structure are made to known to the reader, first through following the scaffolding of the novel as it builds itself through the epistolary structure, but then immediately through the internal dialogue of the protagonist that speaks directly to the readers. What we get then, and what Lai achieves with great success, is the actual process of marking trauma and its lingering uncertainty. Penelope catalogues the daily changes she encounters just as a means of living with the memory of her worst days, and moves the reader through the living, breathing, ritual of finding hope to persist. The best way I can even think to ascribe this effect is in giving it all away: there is no closure in this story, even if you come looking for it. Lai wisely stays away from actually bringing Penelope and Julian into the same room together, because that would be an entirely separate story on its own: the story of confrontation.
But life isn’t so easily resolved in that way. What we’re all forced to walk around with is the troubling confusion of the fog, the unknown moments that get confused when physical and mental trauma erases the details to spare us the pain of reliving it. Creating this feeling is the point where Lai stammers in her attempts to create something so large, that the mere puzzle of putting pieces together – journals, art catalogs, multiple narrators and points of view, layered meaning – can often keep the novel from rising above the sum of its parts. When it clicks, though, Penelope serves as the avatar of this confusion and pain, working her way through her own trauma on the page, first by avoiding it, then by naming it, then by sharing it with her father, and finally by preparing for a confrontation that ultimately never occurs. That her life’s work is spent describing in great detail the landscape paintings of J. M. W. Turner is the metaphor at work – painting a landscape is an attempt itself in capturing the changing environment in a singular visible moment, which Penelope knows is impossible. When an original Turner was sold and replaced by a reproduction, she “understood how easy it was for things to slip away,” she says. “How I might lose at any moment, through circumstances over which I had no control, something that I loved, including all the things… that I considered a part of myself.” Lai knows she’s working in vague territory, and won’t let the moment get lost, issuing a directive through Penelope to make clear what’s really being discussed. Penelope continues talking about the painting, but the reader knows what’s being left off the page: “Each loss is a fresh cut. And each process of healing subject to its own vagaries and setbacks… Sometimes, if I dim the lights, I can fool myself into thinking that nothing was ever lost.” Later in the novel, Julian openly ponders the merits of attempting to paint by memory, and the metaphor closes on the reader. Everyone’s version of events might always differ from the actual unfolding, and too many things can never be known after the passing of time obscures the facts.
Along the way as we move through the months until Penelope’s date of conflict, she shares with us the final days of the Mornington Estate as it reflects back onto the collapsing world. As if it weren’t enough to read through Penelope the ways that Louise Bourgois’s sculptures were among the first to openly dare an audience to see the rape of woman, we learn about a future seemingly without hope. In the end, Penelope merely closes the estate as planned, and for all the work to that point, we never learn what comes next. This can be part of the masterplan, but it can leave readers empty, which remains the seesaw: what we don’t know about ourselves and our trauma, we can only watch unfold in the real world. These anchors in the story propel the reader through a seemingly real and potential future. People still ride trains, but fewer and far between. They still wear headphones and use cell phones and buy fashion clothing, but the surmounting suffering of those in the lower classes increases tangentially, heard through the newscasts of people drowning on the seashores, drought and famine starving the middle continents, and class riots breaking out throughout the communities left on the outside of the geodesic dome.
But like the approaching moment of actualization that never comes for Penelope, Lai leaves out the speculative details of explaining how the world got so hard to live in. But you can see it anyway, can’t you? Somewhere in the reader already exists, through contemporary newscasts and science fiction alike, the coming-on of that uncertain future. If there’s anything unsettling about the world that Lai describes is coming, it’s the mere existence of creature comforts alongside suffering. And in that way, Lai has really touched on the reality of life and living: it’s never really as good as we want, but it’s never really as bad we imagine, either. Everything is always somewhere in between, making its way into the future, and all the past a little dimmer for having gone by in a glimpse.