Reviewed by Lauren Siddall
Longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Susan Perly’s second novel Death Valley chronicles a photojournalist’s journey across the Nevada desert. Vivienne Pink, a Canadian photographer who specializes in war photography, left her hometown of Toronto as a teenager to travel to Saigon with an older photojournalist to help him cover the Vietnam War. When we meet her in Death Valley, she is in her 50s and is having trouble in her marriage. To give herself and her husband, writer Johnny Coma, a calmer life, she has agreed to stop photographing war conflict zones. Taking time off from photography does not last long, however, and Vivienne soon assigns herself a new project.
When the novel opens, Vivienne has just five days to complete her latest assignment: photographing servicemen who are about to deploy to Iraq for combat. While working to complete her assignment in Las Vegas, Vivienne is forced to confront a man who used to abuse her. Accompanied by her husband, her friend (a former CIA agent), and her brother-in-law, Vivienne plans a trip to Death Valley in search for the perfect photograph, adventure and revenge. When they run into a young soldier on his way to combat, they decide to journey into the Nevada desert, past nuclear test sites and old film locations.
Death Valley is a difficult book to read. It amalgamates genre (combining science fiction, western, history, and spy novel) to the point at which the concept of genre is almost unrecognizable, and the chapters are short and choppy.
Perly writes Death Valley in a style that falls somewhere between that of American novelist Thomas Pynchon and director Quentin Tarantino, as she writes her protagonist into an absurdist quest that borrows from Twin Peaks and Alice in Wonderland – while also providing a brief history of America’s nuclear legacy. In fact, Alice and her friends actually make a cameo in Vivienne’s hallucinogenic adventure, including a very high caterpillar that asks Vivienne and company, “Anybody got a doobie for the Dude? I hear there’s some fierce Purple Haze coming out of Bogota.” As bizarre as this scene seems, it pales in comparison with the multitudes of other outlandish vignettes in the novel.
With this in mind, the novel seems as though it lacks focus at times as it takes the reader on a wild, drug-induced adventure. Yet while the novel seems unfocused, it also has moments in which Perly’s prose is hyper-focused. She describes smells and colours with such vibrancy and detail that the landscapes she sketches transform, for the reader, into scenes as clear as photographs. For example, she describes the earth from her plane seat as “a blue tumour in space.”
To string the menagerie of genres together, Perly weaves a common thread throughout the text: an underlying melancholic tone. This tone helps to balance out the absurdity of the narrative and makes it more relatable.
Death Valley also becomes more relatable when the reader takes into account potential autobiographical readings of the novel. Perly is a former journalist and war correspondent for the CBC. She reported on the wars in Guatemala, El Salvador and Chiapas in the 1980s, as well as the Iran-Iraq War – a similar history to her protagonist. Moreover, Perly is married to a writer, just like Vivienne.
In fact, in an interview with Open Book, Perly marks the similarities between Vivienne and herself, saying, “We’re both storytellers. Vivienne tells with light, I tell them with words. We’re both city women, used to being noticers, making up stories about the multitude of people we observe in a day.”
Vivienne has been described by the Toronto Star as a “photojournalist who has seen too much.” Due to their incredibly similar history, it is fair to assume that Perly feels that she has also seen too much – a feeling shared by many individuals who have been in such close quarters with extreme violence. By writing pieces of herself into the protagonist, Perly has removed some of the theatricality of the novel and brought it to a place of connectivity.
By transporting the novel from the realm of the fictional to the realm of the real, Perly transforms Death Valley from a bizarre novel into a dialogue about the human psyche when overexposed to scenes of terror. Thus, the seemingly unfocused dialogue can be read as a function of over-proximity to violence for an extended period of time.
Further, the novel becomes a commentary about the state of the world in which atomic bombs and wars have become commonplace. Thus, the absurdity of the world Perly describes is in fact a lament for the absurdity of the world we live in – a world that has played host to cold wars, world wars and too many other tragedies to count.
Wolsak & Wynn | 312 pages | $22.00 | paper | ISBN# 978-1928088103