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Posted November 28, 2009
Posted February 21, 2009
Jeff Vande Zande writes novels that creep up on the reader like a hint of a gloaming breeze on a stagnant summer evening. He understands the arid plain on which we walk, looking for some meaning or reason to keep living while refusing to remove our blinders. And just when his carefully constructed characters begin to resemble so closely those people around us to the point of wondering where the story is going, he has the gift to turn each of his Midwest 'tropes' into people of pulsating flesh and blood who just happen to lead each other, at times without knowledge of purpose, into levels of growth that drive them indelibly into our psyches.
LANDSCAPE WITH FRAGMENTED FIGURES (the thoughtful title is not fully appreciated until the closing pages of this beautifully constructed, sensitive novel) deals with the terrain of Michigan and Ohio and those folks who live too far from the seas that connect this country to the world to see too far beyond their own disappointing lives. Ray Casper differed from his abusive father and was jolted by the death by cancer mother enough to move away from home and its factory existence atmosphere to pursue a career as an artist: and from this point the story could be interpreted as a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Failure. Ray has a brother Sammy whose life seemed predestined to copy his father's image of drunken ignorance of hope in the future. Ray has been following a line of failed relationships and even worse, failed inspirations as a painter and has just been deserted by Diane, the fellow artist lover who can no longer tolerate his inability to cope with his self absorption and loss of a sense of being alive, when Sammy calls and tearfully informs him of his estranged father's death. The two brothers, polar opposites in many ways, reunite and out of obligation, Ray invites Sammy to move into his Michigan home in hopes of repairing his alcoholic aimless brother. The differences between the minds of the two brothers drive both in directions of ever more sad situations, until through a series of events which include the return of pregnant Diane to the fold and a line of tragedies ultimately bring Ray back into the realm of seeing the world with the gifted eye of a painter.
That is the brief outline of where this complex novel travels. What makes Vande Zande's writing so rich is his ability to explore the psyches of his characters while simultaneously educating the reader about art and about filial and life partner love and forgiveness. Phrases that color the pages follow: 'The sky is a giant canvas, the fireworks just a kind of temporary paint. Fugitive colors'; 'I haven't had a vision in a long time. I had a gimmick for awhile, which pretended to be a vision....But I'm starting to feel that's not enough...My art is vapid.'; 'You can't adopt somebody else's subconscious or their way to the subconscious. When it works, it's big. But it seldom works.'; 'Art cannot come from that which is not in the world.'; 'Mix visual with emotion and end up with art.'; 'You capture the truth about individuals you're painting, but then in that truth there is also universal truth...'. But even these brief quotations from Vande Zande's writing focus on only one aspect of this multilayered novel.
In the end each reader will find personal paths to better understanding no