I’m rather leery of novels written by poets, or books of poetry written by novelists. The two literary art forms are so perfectly counter-balanced, it’s very rare you find a writer who can do them both well. John Updike, Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates have all published books of poems of greater or lesser mediocrity, and Boris Pasternak and Elinor Wylie tried their hand at fiction with only modest success. So I abstained from reading Laura Kasischke’s novels, even though I’m a fan of her dark, visceral poetry—the stuff of dead animals and car accidents, and local legends of cheerleaders in cemeteries. Truth be told, knowing the dagger-like flashes of Kasischke’s poetry, I was rather frightened of what might be lurking behind the bulwark of her prose. Then I heard her read from her new novel, The Life Before Her Eyes, and decided to give the novelist Kasischke a whirl.
Based in part on the Columbine shootings, the book begins, in typical Kasischke fashion, with beautiful youth (two high school girls, one blonde and the other brunette) coming face-to-face with the death. Another student, Michael Patrick, has gone on a rampage and now he corners the two in the girls’ bathroom. He says he will only kill one of them. Which one, he asks, should he kill? The rest of the novel ripples out from this searing moment, both into the future and the past. In the future the blonde, Diana, is a mini-van driving, forty-year-old mother and wife who watches life serenely pass from her house in Maiden Lane. In the past, the year previous to the shooting, the two girls drift, thoughtless, supercilious and bored, about their town.
In spite of the intensely dramatic beginning, The Life Before Her Eyes is not meant to be a thriller, and it’s not written like one. Kasischke the poet is evident throughout, in the meandering, impressionistic narrative, in the stylized way she portrays the high school girls (they are not named—they are simply the blonde and the brunette—and they are always together) and in the beautifully written paragraphs, some of which could be prose poems in their own right. For example, this fragment from a chapter where the high school girls visit a German cemetery outside of town:
The girls park in the shade of the steeple, which is sharp and white with a dangerous-looking cross at the top, and they pass through the gate. Both are wearing shorts and summer tops with spaghetti straps. No bras. One of them wears her shorts low enough that the rose tattooed on her hip shows. They have dark eyeshadow on, and deep-mauve lipstick, and their skin is very white because they never go into the sun without sunscreen on. They’ve seen the effects of the sun on the faces of their mothers, and it won’t happen to them. Under the girls’ feet, the farmers and the German immigrants and their wives and children are bones and teeth in boxes.
Kasischke does not describe scenes—rather, she seems to feel her way through them intuitively, in a way that renders them poignantly original. This method—the poet’s way of seeing things—can be limiting, however, like a movie where the main character is simply followed around with a video camera. Like Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, The Life Before Her Eyes is a series of brilliant fragments, held together by common subject matter. But in this case the subject is of smaller scope than the Russian Revolution, and the reader is held in the novel, almost hypnotized, by the vague sense of unease in Diana’s too-perfect life. From the very beginning there are little things that aren’t quite right—a squirrel almost hit by the mini-van, problems with her daughter at her private Catholic school, teenagers swimming naked in the neighbor’s swimming pool. And, in a scene reminiscent of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, a cat appears in the house that looks just like their recently-dead pet Timmy. It all adds up to an ominous, almost hysterical feeling that something indeed is very wrong with Diana’s life. The point, though, isn’t to scare us, or even keep us in suspense about what is really going on—an attentive reader should be able to figure it out halfway through the novel—but to show that life is, in fact, strangely beautiful, and worthwhile, and significant. That’s something that doesn’t surface often in Kasischke’s poetry, and why I think I like her even better as a novelist.
There are, in fact, many reasons to love this book—for the beautiful writing, or the wonderfully vivid descriptions of everyday life in quiet neighborhoods of quiet towns, or the psychological exploration of the human mind coming to terms with death. Me, I loved it for the way Kasischke described the high school girls. They are not idealized—their waking thoughts are centered on boys and clothes—but neither are they marginalized, as writers so often marginalize the generation that follows theirs. The life before their eyes is still precious, still wonderful, both for itself and what it may become.
- Joel Van Valin