Reviewed by Mark Schoenknecht
Landscape with Fragmented Figures, the latest novel from Michigan writer Jeff Vande Zande, is an astute and poignant glance into the life of a Midwestern art professor struggling to find meaning in a world of mounting adversity and disillusionment. As the novel begins, Ray Casper, the protagonist, is discouraged with his art and jilted by his longtime girlfriend Diane. He receives a phone call informing him his estranged father has died, and soon discovers his brother Sammy is unemployed and on the brink of dereliction. After Ray invites his down-and-out sibling to stay at his home in Bay City, Michigan, the brothers' proximity compels them to develop a closer relationship, and the reality frames of academic and working-class culture clash, creating a conflict that sets the rest of the narrative in motion and provides a base for Vande Zande's social and philosophical commentary.
Among the greatest strengths of Vande Zande's writing in Landscape with Fragmented Figures are the author's intimate knowledge of his subjects and careful attention to detail. After reading the brief biography of Vande Zande at the end of the book, some connections emerge that explain the author's vast knowledge of his material. Vande Zande lives in Midland, Michigan, less than 20 miles from the actual town of Bay City, where Ray resides. He teaches English at Delta College, which sounds eerily similar to the fictitious Dow College, where Ray is a professor. He grew up in a blue-collar family in the Midwest, much like the Ray. And, as evidenced by the novel, he's employed in the creation of art, just like his protagonist. To say that Landscape... is semiautobiographical would be a stretch. However, it's clear that Vande Zande is writing about what he knows and finds important, and the result is a genuineness and clarity that captivates the imagination and drives home the ideologies.
From the opening paragraph, the reader gets a sense of Vande Zande's poeticism and tone:
Ray listened to the low grumbling of thunder over the distant lake. He shivered. Above the headboard, the rain was like infant fingers tapping against the window. Leftover flashes of lightning lit the room. He closed his eyes and saw the storm over the blue-blackness of the bay. There would be no people. Everyone would have come in hours ago, tying off in harbors or pulling boats up onto trailers. The bay would be water and sky and water falling from the sky with great moments of light and the colossal sounds of the storm. If he tried to paint the scene, he'd botch it.As the pessimistic remark at the end of this passage suggests, Landscape... is deeply embedded with sadness and longing. But it's also a story about beauty, and the struggle for happiness we all face every day.
At the heart of Vande Zande's existential journey is a genuine concern for the human condition. All of his characters are strikingly human—people haunted by the past and uncertain of the future, lost in the vastness of their sorrow and clinging to fragments of hope. Every sentence is tight and packs a punch. Vande Zande is also careful to avoid sentimentality and melodrama, giving the story a flow that, despite the surprises, always feels natural. Landscape with Fragmented Figures is a novel for every person who has struggled to find meaning and value in existence. Written in a style that is engaging, intelligent, and never too lofty, it captures the pathos of contemporary middle-class despair, simultaneously illustrating the idea that sometimes it's the darkest moments in life that make us regain the ability to appreciate the joys we often take for granted.
About the author:
Mark Schoenknecht is an undergraduate student of English at Michigan State University. In addition to reviews, he writes short fiction and poetry, and has had a short story published in Fusion. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2011 Word Riot