Defining Landscapes

  • Don LePan
    Rising Stories. Broadview Press (purchase at
  • Susan Perly
    Death Valley. Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd. (purchase at
Reviewed by Alison Calder

Susan Perly’s novel Death Valley takes on a devastated landscape that is simultaneously celebrated and erased in North American consciousness. Her principal characters move through scenery that is the setting for glamorous Hollywood versions of the West and also the site of atomic tests past and present. The novel opens with Vivienne Pink, a photojournalist, seeking subjects for her next book, a collection of photographs of American soldiers about to ship out to Iraq. But Iraq is only, it seems, a manufactured distraction from the real violence occurring in the Nevada desert, as the American military detonates atomic bombs that devastate its own citizens. As the text notes, “this was the place that language was built to cover.”

In 2006, the Bush government initiated the Divine Strake project, a planned non-nuclear missile test in the Nevada desert. The project was delayed and eventually halted, owing to concerns from environmental and Indigenous groups that the test would activate radioactive material from previous nuclear tests. In Perly’s novel, Divine Strake happens, and her main characters are caught up in it.

As the hidden damage from nuclear testing is externalized, the text becomes increasingly surreal. The half-woman, half-jackrabbit whom Vivienne encounters explains her situation as a result of an earlier test: “A jackrabbit was standing nearby when the test went off. The jackrabbit got blown by the shockwave into my face. When the fire was over and the shock wave, the jackrabbit had a woman’s head and I had its face. Somewhere out there is a thing with paws and tracks, with the face of an eighteen year old girl.” Vivienne herself becomes a document of the blast’s toxic effects, as her hair falls out and her skin becomes increasingly blistered and scaly, ultimately falling off in strips. Vivienne’s brother-in-law, Donny Coma, represents American foreign policy, with its failures and cover-ups. Reduced to a madman in a bird suit, Donny speaks nonsense that is no less absurd than the kind of reality that the military-industrial complex seeks to mask.

Chicago’s distinctive cityscape becomes the background to Don LePan’s novel Rising Stories. It opens with two children playing on a high-rise balcony: their mother steps inside for just a moment, and by the time she returns, a toddler is falling to her death. Her son, Robin, himself still small, may have contributed to the tragedy. Years later, Robin, along with his parents, tries to come to terms with his guilt. Robin makes clandestine visits to the apartment of his grandmother, K. P. Sandwell, who may or may not be dead. As she tells him the details of her life and of the city that surrounds them, a second narrative develops that traces her painting career decades earlier as P. K. Pace (her character parallels P. K. Page in many ways). Though her vision was strikingly original, the artistic establishment of the time could not believe a young woman’s genius, and thus her masterwork remained uncredited. These two narratives converge when Robin sets out to find her lost masterpiece in the archives of the Art Institute.

Artistic endeavor, its price and possibility, is one of the themes of this book, shown both in K. P.’s paintings and in the skyscrapers that house the family’s apartments. These skyscrapers emerge as monuments to human achievement at the same time as they symbolize hubris: the climactic earthquake reveals the fragility of such structures. The damage suffered by the Art Institute’s archives points also to the impossibility of monumentalizing the past. After the earthquake, Robin thinks of K. P’s painting, wondering “Had it survived? Had it been damaged?” These questions can be asked of the characters as well, as they strive to get over the losses that they have suffered. The final chapter, which provides a fast-forward view of Robin’s life, ultimately emphasizes impermanence over stability.

Much of the novel focuses on conversations between Robin and K. P., and the main narrative is followed by an appendix containing twelve additional slices of that conversation, each centring on a particular Chicago building. This discussion of architecture encompasses much American social history, as the buildings, and who lives in them, are inextricably linked to issues of race, class, and sexuality. Also included in Rising Stories are colour reproductions of vintage postcards featuring these buildings. The effect is deliberately nostalgic, as the city’s architectural history overtakes the representations of its present-day configuration, and suggests a sense of loss in the midst of commemoration.

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