The impossible choice
by Photograph by J. Adrian Wylie
I hate to do it, but I can't talk about Laura Kasischke's new novel, The Life before Her Eyes, without giving something important away the beginning. Two young women, inseparable best friends, juniors in high school, stand in the girls' bathroom at their school while outside a young maniac goes on a shooting spree. When he comes into the bathroom, he offers them a choice, one that none of us particularly sixteen-year-olds should ever have to face: "I'm going to kill one of you, so which one should it be?" In their terror they make a show of bravery, but when the gun is held to one girl's head, she whispers, "Kill her. Not me."
And thus begins the book, a novel that is structured like none other you've ever read. I guarantee it. But even though Kasischke is almost inventing a new way to tell a story, it is not hard to follow. We always understand what is happening. The life that flashes before the character's eyes is her own life, or rather it is possible versions of her own life.
In one version, two high school students blissfully ignorant or innocent, and achingly beautiful in their bliss get through their summer, flirting with the young men who can't take their eyes off them, exploring their hometown, talking endlessly about the smallest things. In the second life, which happens at exactly the same time as the first, the survivor is a woman at the beginning of middle age, trying to find a way to live with the terrible knowledge that she gained in that high school bathroom. The same names, even the same characters, reappear in both stories, both versions of the same life, and give the book an evocative, dreamy feel. At least they do until we remember that this dream is a nightmare.
Laura Kasischke's dark vision has been recognized before, but there is something different and new
in The Life before Her Eyes. One critic recently said something to the effect that Laura Kasischke is one of the premier "image makers" of our time. That critic was referring to her poetry, but there are moments of prose in this novel that will live on in any reader's imagination: empty chairs rocking on a porch, a little girl at a zoo, the beauty of young bodies almost every page has something that will not fade. What's new for Kasischke, I think, is that she seems to relish these fragile images, in a way that almost makes us forget the darkness from which they arise.
Laura Kasischke reads from her new novel at Shaman Drum Bookshop on Thursday, February 7, and at Nicola's Books on Tuesday, February 19.
[Originally published in February, 2002.]