Eudora Welty once remarked the the best way to know the world is to first understand every facet of your own backyard. Jeff Vande Zande’s latest novel Landscape with Fragmented Figures is proof that the contemporary novel can still impressively marry regionalism and universalism. Unlike so many small press titles that seem to strive for arch banality, Vande Zande’s book is a story with heart and balls, a rendering of people on the edge, all drawn with close attention to the American Midwest setting that is such an intrinsic part of their story.
The novel is essentially that of two brothers, Ray and Sammy Casper, coming to terms with old family resentments in the wake of their father’s death. Ray is an art professor at a small Michigan college, estranged from the other Casper men. His is the classic story of class distinction. Drawing on his own childhood disappointments, Ray discovers meaning through his art, a way of comprehending his place in the world, a way out from a stolid household. However, through the years, Ray has settled into a middle aged complacency. His muse has deserted him (literally, in the case of his decamped girlfriend) and he is left with an existential emptiness that is punctuated when he learns of his father’s death early in the book.
Enter Sammy Casper, the other half of this domestic equation. Sammy is the brother who stayed behind, who became a wrench turner in the same Ohio factories that his father worked for a lifetime. After a decade apart, the brothers realize that they can no longer ignore each other. When Ray sees his brother has no future in the squalid apartment he shared with their father, he impulsively invites him to move into his middle class suburban home. The novel then becomes a reckoning of past and present, love and envy, and perhaps some degree of redemption.
While Landscape with Fragmented Figures is a realistic treatment of how foreign the idea of family can feel, it is also a romantic exploration of the power art has to give real meaning to a person’s life. Aesthetics are not treated as merely theoretical. Instead, the pursuit of beauty is a way of reaching a real selfhood and knowing how an individual can find peace and fulfillment in what seems to be an increasingly indifferent existence. The struggle to find this truth in art and life is what drives the narrative, the tragically heroic venture to do something worthwhile. Ray is the artistic figure, trying to shake himself awake, to discover something that is his own:
Maybe what Ray lacked was fascination. Compulsion. Monet and his lilies. Degas and his dancers. Renoir and his curvaceous women. O’Keefe and her opening flowers. Maybe it didn’t take a vision at all. Maybe the real artists simply fell in love with one small aspect of the world. (62)
Vande Zande has found his own aspect of the world with this novel. And it is stark and vast.
Jeff Vande Zande’s blog here
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