For years now, whenever I read a novel, narrative has been impressing itself more and more visually in my mind. Or maybe it’s that my mind has gone more and more toward these fictional visions. Even though I’m a writer, it’s not always language I’m drawn to. When I start writing a new story, I often begin with setting. Before plot, before dialogue, before anything else, I begin to see where a story will take place, and then I hear the narrative voice, which means that character is not far behind. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about landscape painting and literature, and perhaps as an extension of this I have started to think through the idea of character and landscape as similar things, or at least as intimates, codependent.
In I Await the Devil’s Coming, Mary MacLane writes, “We three go out on the sand and barrenness: my wooden heart, my good young woman’s-body, my soul … this sand and barrenness forms the setting for the personality of me.” This is a gentle Mary MacLane, not a caustic one, going sadly out into her Montana landscape (she would rather be in the city). Again and again. Taking the reader there too. Taking the reader to her personality. For where are we when we read Mary MacLane? We are in the three things that form her, and we are in the sand. I would like to visit MacLane’s Montana in the same way I would like to visit the wasted, spectral landscape in Paul Delvaux’s painting The Lamps (those gray, crumbling hills), partly so I might meet the female figures who haunt it—doppelgängers—except there are five of them trudging across that land.
It’s Anna Karenina that Orhan Pamuk returns to again and again in his book The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist, as a character formed by her surroundings, as a “perfect” novel. Pamuk believes that
Anna Karenina is memorable not because of the fluctuations of her soul or the cluster of attributes we call “character,” but because of the broad, rich landscape that she is so deeply immersed in and that, in turn, reveals itself through her in all its sumptuous detail. Reading the novel, we both see the landscape through the heroine’s eyes and know that the heroine is part of the wealth of that landscape. Later on, she will be transformed into an unforgettable sign, a kind of emblem that reminds us of the landscape she is part of.
To look out of the train window while Anna looks out of it too. To see Anna as the train and the snowy landscape, or at least made of the same cloth. I think this is what excites me about narrative. Outside the body and inside the mind, a novel can be like a landscape painting with a character moving through it, all of her violences and joys playing themselves out in only this setting, only this narrative, for in another it would not be so.
In Renee Gladman’s Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge, it’s the sentence that is alive and that is also a kind of architecture or landscape. “The story wasn’t given to me as most are, as some kind of choreography beaten against the body rather it was laid on top of my voice.” I am reading Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge, not watching it, but I see this so clearly: invisible words laid on top of a voice. A kind of drawing; drawn lightly, perhaps. One thing beaten against another. We get to this image, this way of being alive, through narrative. Like we get to the territory of Mary MacLane.
Recently, while working on a short story, I kept seeing its setting in the same way its narrator sees setting in the paintings she looks at when she visits a museum. It was natural then to write them in the same way, and also that they would, in some sense, join. The narrator of this story is always gazing at landscape (in paintings) and she is always in landscape (her own). She takes pleasure in each and sometimes they give her trouble but still she seems to live in both. When she looks at the paintings, they allow her to emerge into another kind of place, even though the physical space around her hasn’t actually changed.
What does a reader do with these literary landscapes? Is it enough just to see them? Going back to The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist reminds me that to link them creates more than an aesthetic experience, that there is something to be gained in that linking. “To go beyond the limits of our selves, to perceive everyone and everything as a great whole, to identify with as many people as possible, to see as much as possible: in this way, the novelist comes to resemble those ancient Chinese painters who climbed mountain peaks in order to capture the poetry of vast landscapes.” But also, what if you are a short story writer or a novelist interested in something other than story? What if when you look at a piece of art there is something in it you want to try in writing, because to you it seems as if a story should be able to hold something like that—hold possibilities, not exclude them.
The novel Burial by Claire Donato makes visible a world of disorientation the death of a father must bring. It’s a mind made into a place, not unlike a setting, but it’s more than that. Remarkably, this life of the mind is sometimes sensual. How is it that a death place could in any way be inviting? “It is not snowing so heavily now, though what is not seen is always meant to break. Human beings are made of ice, crystals that fall through the body, freeze until they melt, discharge, and then detach atop the ice atop the lake. The crystals are frozen. The lake is crystal. A body becomes frozen crystal at the moment of its death.” Is the body a lake? Here, they are made of the same thing. One of them falls through to the other. It is easy to see this passage of the narrative as a landscape painting, one that has the potential to be comforting, even if you think it shouldn’t.
I remember the first time I encountered the work of Bill Viola, at a retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago. I walked through the dark galleries, video installations everywhere, and it was like I was in a haunted house, large screens with their larger-than-life projections. Afterward I went home and immediately wanted to write. It’s not that I wanted to write a story about Viola’s work, or even based on it. I wanted to write to something in the work, or I wanted to reproduce in writing some quality I had seen there. More recently, someone posted a video by Viola on Facebook, I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like (1986), the one of the owl to which the camera gets closer and closer, until the cameraperson (Viola?) is reflected in the owl’s eyes. The video is very short, barely three minutes, and it is not a story, or even story-like, and yet there is something in it I’d like to do too, in a story.
What is it that happens when a narrative allows us to look at an image longer than we are “supposed” to, when it is just as interesting as the story being told? Can a performance of character rest there? I think about Anna Karenina and the train, superimposed on top of each other, all the humanity present in that image, racing through the snow; the three things that make Mary MacLane in her empty Montana sandscape; a crystal lake and a frozen body; one thing laid on top of another. Together, not separate. Relaxing into each other with their outlines intact.
Amina Cain is the author of two collections of short stories: Creature (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2013) and I Go To Some Hollow (Les Figues Press, 2009). Her writing has appeared in BOMB, Denver Quarterly, n+1, Two Serious Ladies, and other places. She lives in Los Angeles.