Friday, December 01, 2006

In the Image

I was so captivated by Dara Horn's The World to Come that I ordered her first book, In the Image (2002) the second I finished reading it.

Like The World to Come, In the Image is a thematic book, spanning generations and continents, with each character linked to the other by coincidence, family, or shared experience. One of the characters, Bill Landsmann, an elderly gentleman from Vienna, a Jewish man, "who should be dead" has a vast collection of slides - and the reader is treated to a description of his collection. But more than an art history lesson, Horn focuses on the issue of images - a concept of visual representation that deserves some further thought.

Deep into my own master's program in art history, I was having a discussion with my sister about art, and she interrupted me to say, "Why do you keep calling everything 'images'?" And I laughed and told her it was a snooty technicality - that, for example, if I were in class talking about, say, The Mona Lisa, and there was a slide of the Mona Lisa, what I was referring to was actually an image of the Mona Lisa, not THE Mona Lisa, the work of art. ("Work" of art, by the way, is beset by it's own set of snooty technicalities - ie. what is the "work"? The end product, the art? Or the process of creation?) Furthermore, even the actual Mona Lisa, the one hanging in the Louvre, is itself an image of an actual woman (well, you know, supposedly. Ok, say I'm talking about C├ęzanne's Mont Sainte-Victoire...).

Horn rather brilliantly returns to the inherent questions regarding the definition of the "image" and also inserts another aspect of the image's misleading qualities - that it presents a moment, and what comes before and what comes after may or may not be available. Her characters are stuck in images, or rather, images are stuck in her characters. Bill Landsmann is practically ruled by his collection of images, his stake in their cataloguing and controlled viewing is tied to his own carefully constructed memory of events. Other characters are also haunted by the image of moments that have changed or altered their lives, but to the point that they loose sight of the complexity of events that lead to these single moments. Therefore the falsified simplicity of the image occasionally leads characters to remain "stuck" in the image, unable to emotionally move beyond that moment.

Another theme of In the Image is the story of Job, from the Hebrew Bible. As Horn says in an interview in the back of the paperback:
What intrigued me most, though, was what I saw as the ultimate question of the book of Job. The book asks the question that so many people ask themselves: Why do bad things happen to good people? But as I read the book again and again, I decided that this question was mis-leading. To me, the central question of the Book of Job isn't that common questions - which, after all, can't really be answered and isn't answered at all in the book of Job - but rather: Are people "good" to begin with, or are they shaped by their experiences? What makes "bad things" important isn't whether they happen to you or to someone else because that's not your decision. What makes them important is the part that's your decision: what you do with them once they've happened.

Horn easily moves her narrative between time and space - some characters exist in the turn of the century in Manhattan, others in pre-WWII Amsterdam, others in WWI in the trenches, still others in today's New York and New Jersey. But Horn also allows her characters to live in dreams and fantasies; she's an innovative writer that even alters her narrative style to recall ancient Jewish texts:
19. And the father of William Landsmann also heeded not the cry of his wife, and he allowed her to perish, 20. and thus did William Landsmann's mother perish when William Landsmann was a young boy, 21. but William Landsmann did not curse God. 22. And William Landsmann was uprooted from his native land, and uprooted again, 23. And upon reaching the land of New Jersey, William Landsmann's father took his life, leaving William Landsmann alone, with neither mother nor father.

I find Horn's book (alas! There are only two!) so inspiring - she makes me want to pull out my dusty Bible and rethink parables, she makes me want to sign up for a class at a synagog, she makes me, yes... want to be a better person.

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