Landscape is Action

Finding life in landscapes


in Beyond Words


New writers approaching creative work are often told that “landscape should be a character,” or, even worse, “landscape is a character.” To the extent this means anything, it’s well-intentioned enough. Landscape should be vivid, is how the phrase breaks down, and it should be important to the plot. But I’ve long wondered whether saying “landscape should be a character” is to misunderstand the nature of both character and landscape.

Unlike characters, landscapes can plausibly change so thoroughly they become entirely unrecognizable. Human characters, on the other hand, outside of science fiction, can’t do this. The point is not trivial. One of the reasons the role of Macbeth is so difficult to play is that the Macbeth of Act V is an entirely different person from the Macbeth of Act I. This is a flaw. A conflicted soul is interesting, but one purely evil is not. Yet Shakespeare wrote them both into one man. As Orson Welles put it in Richard Marienstras’s Conversations with Orson Wells:

The Macbeth who is the victim of Lady Macbeth is not the one who then becomes king. No actor has ever been able to play both parts equally well. The actor must be brutally simple and completely natural to play the first part, and extremely cerebral to play the second part. In other words, Laurence Olivier would have to play the first part, and John Gielgud the second.

Landscape, unlike a character, works best when it changes dramatically over time. It reads as more true that way. A place can change entirely, and within a human lifetime in a way a human being really can’t. We can talk all we like about the “character” of a place changing, but what if the place itself changes to much that to call it the same place is to be merely cartographically correct, but to miss everything that matters?

Vanessa Veselka’s Zazen, a novel of terror and gentrification, is largely about this kind of change. The main character, a geologist named Della, grew up in one Portland, Oregon, and lives in another Portland entirely, one transformed by time. The run-down vegan joint where she works at the book’s opening, Rise Up Singing, sports appalling walls painted in “red, pink, and purple” — “It was like being inside a placenta.” Rats who die inside are provided burial at a crowded popsicle-stick graveyard out back, smelling of “rotten yogurt and urine.”

Then, toward the book’s end, the place is sold as the neighborhood moves upscale; not only the name of the place but the nature of the place is transformed:

The sign over the door said RISE in fatigued metal and there was a new mural, a big social realism piece with a remodeled house in the center and a thick red line over the top that turns into dashes then disappears into an endless sunlight.

A new patio covers the rat graveyard, the menus are objets d’art, and meat is proudly served on the plates. Most of the people Della knows leave town. As a customer puts it, “Canada is just not far enough. Mostly Mexico. A bunch to Thailand. Some to Bali.”

In Zazen, as in your own hometown, big-box stores spring up overnight in blackberry fields. Likewise, the square where Della’s mom brought her along to political rallies has been renewed and renewed to the point of erasure. “I had come here as a kid when it was still called Redbird Square,” she tells us. Now the plaza is:

paved with manufactured rock carved to look like flagstones. I thought they were real at first but then I saw the gutters between stones were too even to be actual masonry and that they weren’t real and never had been, just like all of this.

It’s now become one of those places James Howard Kunstler called the geography of nowhere. It’s professional, anonymous, the past’s mass grave. “No one’s called it Redbird Square for years. They renamed it after the bank that paid for all the fake rock.” If the city’s people are moving away and not only the land but the names of the land are new, how can the city be said to be a single character? It isn’t changed, it’s replaced.

The skeptic might stroke his chin and reply, “Well, we just have to expand our idea of what a character is.” This is sophistry. At that point, why bother using the word “character” at all? As human beings, our touchpoint for character will always be the human body, the human mind, and the scale of human time.

(William Burroughs’s later novels, Cities of the Red Night, for example, have a weirdly frequent tendency to features characters whose heads are sewn onto other characters’ bodies. But Burroughs doesn’t write characters any more than John Bunyan did. Let’s predicate that the rule I’m prescribing does not apply to allegory if we may and simply move along . . . )

Human beings in the real world may not have as much of a sense of self as we imagine they do, but landscapes most certainly don’t. Not only do landscapes evolve, they’re never the same to begin with: each character, each creature in a story will inhabit a different landscape, one only they see, shaped by all they’ve seen before.

Landscape or Character? Greg Bethmann’s photo “Off With Their Heads.”

Characters carry an enormous number of landscapes inside of themselves, and are always sharing, comparing, and mixing them. Take the wandering souls who people Tiphanie Yanique’s novella The International Shop of Coffins. Simon Peter, born in Ghana and now a longtime resident of Charlotte Amalie, attended school in England for only a handful of years, and yet continues, decades later, to affect a British accent. In his off hours, he lingers in a coffin emporium precisely because it reminds him of the West African carpentry shop where he worked as a boy. When the coffin shop’s owner, Corban (a “pure French-Trinidadian” who’s trained himself to mimic the native accent of St. Thomas), installs a window in the shop, Simon Peter falls a little out of love with the place. Already he’s nostalgic for the old shop, the darker, more meditative place. He misses the old landscape. Another lost place becomes a part of his person.

Might we consider place to be not so much a character as it is a series of changing perceptions, either the characters’ perceptions, or those of the narrator’s? Take the character of Gita Manachandi, nicknamed “Juicy,” in the same novella. Born into a traditional Desi family from Bombay, one who “imagined her growing up to be somebody’s wife,” Gita, in the relative freedom of St. Thomas, feels torn between two ways of looking at the world, between two places, and two places in time.

Her friend Leslie drags her out to a club, Vibe. Early on, it’s fascinating:

It was a masquerade. They were pretty. They were desirable. Everyone was supposed to know it. When you dance make sure you’re not next to a girl who can dance better than you. Make sure you make eye contact with a good-looking guy, but let him come over to you. Dance even when you’re tired. Dance even if you’re sweaty and tired.

Those of us who’ve done our club time can relate to the arc: nervousness, absorption, dissolution. A few hours into the night: “The dance floor was wild. Women had their skirts hoisted up and men had their hands in the air.” It’s hot, then, as it must, it cools. “People were leaving. The lights would go on soon and no one could look good under those lights . . . The dancehall looked like a sad, dirty place.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson described this same phenomenon in Nature. Place changes as our perceptions change, as we change. “Go out of the house to see the moon, and it’s mere tinsel; it will not please as when its light shines upon your necessary journey.”

Because all characters carry several landscapes inside themselves, one place can only be apprehended in comparison with another. This place isn’t like where I used to live in the following ways. Or this place isn’t like the way it used to be.

Because our perception of landscape exists as perpetual dialectic, it’s always in motion, subject to action. It’s the actions of the club goers at Vibe when they promenade, dance, then shuffle off (and the action of Juicy’s perception) that creates not only the place but the contrast between places. It’s the action of stones being laid in the patio outside Rise in Zazen that abolishes the rat graveyard and makes one place into another.

I noticed the same kind of thing in Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. In the passage below, Robert Grainier, a railroad worker in Idaho early last century, brings his sweetheart to visit the patch of land he’s purchased “on a short bluff above the Moya.” Every phrase is an action:

He’d bought it from young Flenwood Fry, who had wanted an automobile and who eventually got one by selling many small parcels of land to other young people. He told her he’d try some gardening here. The nicest place for a cabin lay just down a path from a sparsely overgrown knoll he could easily level by moving around the stones it was composed of. He could clear a bigger area cutting logs for a cabin, and pulling at stumps wouldn’t be urgent, as he’d just garden among them, to start . . .

He explains all this to Gladys by way of proposing. A few years later, that same patch of land is wiped out by a wildfire: “He rounded a bend to hear the roar of the conflagration see the fire a half mile ahead like a black-and-red curtain dropped from a night sky. Even from this distance, the heat of it stopped him.”

He acts, and is acted upon, by landscape. He transforms the place, then nature transforms the place, and it changes into something unrecognizable. “He marveled at how many shoots and flowers had sprouted already from the general death.” All is temporary. “A mustard-tinted fog of pine pollen drifted through the valley when the wind came up. If he didn’t yank this crop of new ones, his clearing would return to forest.” He is how the landscape makes itself, and in the process the landscape makes the man he’ll be.

We’re all trapped in human bodies and the body remains our first metaphor. It’s also our best. Tiphanie Yanique might have expended any number of static paragraphs to describe the size of Gasparee, a Trinidadian vacation spot. Instead we get two sentences, one understated, one entirely composed of action: “It was a small island. He had to jog five or so laps on the developed half just to get a workout.”

So, my suggestion: “Landscape is action.” Landscape is the action our past performs inside us. Landscape is composed of events in motion. And the best way to describe that action is through, in fact, action.

In Zazen, Della reflects on the arts district around her. Landscape here is both real and temporary. One place will entirely become another. Meanwhile, people huddle, flick their lighters. All the while the future is in motion:

Abandoned cars parked along the frontage road with people crouched inside. Every now and then a lighter flared and car windows flashed like fireflies on the banks. On our side of the river were dancehalls and lit windows flickering like a net of stars. But it wasn’t going to stay like that. The whole area was about to get a huge development grant. We were only there because we were cheaper than security. And look, an arts district! A cobbled bohemia between the packed earth and the leathered sole of the descending boot, a chapel of freedom.

The speaker, too is changing, and the speaker is a part of the landscape she describes. To another observer, Della is landscape, is nothing but.

What kind of place is the lost island of Atlantis now? And what was it called by the people who lived there? Like most isolated indigens, they probably just called it The World. Each generation did, and each was describing a different place.

And now? Are they characters, or landscape? •

Feature image courtesy of Frederico Galarraga via Flickr (Creative Commons). Article photo courtesy of Greg Bethmann.


John Cotter’s first novel Under the Small Lights appeared in 2010 from Miami University Press. A founding editor at the review site Open Letters Monthly, John’s published critical work in Sculpture, Bookforum, and The The Poetry Foundation. Say hi at John [at] JohnCotter [dot] net.