Reading Images

An image can be something we feel invited to walk around, view from different angles like a sculpture. Something has been carved out so that each view of it is equal to any other. No single perspective has the last word. No matter how powerful images are, their reception may still be unclear, and that uncertainty can prove creative. In creative writing, the audience or reader needs to feel actively involved in the construction of meaning. In Margaret Atwood's story 'Death by Landscape' the central character, Lois, has accumulated a collection of paintings over many years:

They are pictures of convoluted tree trunks on an island of pink wave-smoothed stone, with more islands behind; of a lake with rough, bright sparsely wooded cliffs; of a vivid river-shore with a tangle of bush and two beached canoes, one red, one grey; of a yellow autumn woods with the ice-blue gleam of a pond half-seen through the interlaced branches.

The paintings have increased in market value, but

She bought them because she wanted them. She wanted something that was in them, although she could not have said at the time [of buying them] what it was. It was not peace: she does not find them peaceful in the least. Looking at them fills her with a wordless unease. Despite the fact that there are no people in them or even animals, it's as if there is something, or someone, looking back out.

In the narrative that follows, Atwood shows us a scene where Lois and her friend Lucy, girls in their teens, make an excursion to an island during a summer camp expedition in the Canadian wilderness. During this episode Lucy unaccountably vanishes without trace. Her disappearance leaves no evidence behind and no explanation. Only through her collection of paintings can Lois find any way of accommodating her loss or making it real. Atwood makes the point that these are not 'landscape paintings in the old, tidy, European sense. mountain in the background, a golden evening sky'. Instead they are images of wilderness, neither of possession nor of control but rather dispossession.

There are no backgrounds to these paintings, no vistas, only a great deal of foreground that goes back and back, endlessly, involving you in its twists and turns of tree and branch and rock. No matter how far back in you go, there will be more. And the trees themselves are hardly trees; they are currents of energy, charged with violent colour.

Everyone has to be somewhere, and this is where Lucy is. She is in Lois's apartment, in the holes that open inwards on the wall, not like windows but like doors. She is here. She is entirely alive.

The observer (of the wilderness, of the paintings) herself becomes lost in all those foregrounds. holes that open inwards. like doors'. The passage above ends with the final sentence of the story, completing the mystery while keeping it open.

'Death by Landscape' serves several purposes. One might be to render an impression of the Canadian bush country of Atwood's childhood: this is a place that draws you in and yet resists your every attempt at perspective or understanding. But the story, far from being an essay on wilderness, childhood, landscape art, perspective or its opposite, actually demonstrates its point—which is that images control us; they have power. Artists and writers invent or discover images that will 'involve' us, which might start off as mere objects in a scene (a tree, a lake), yet are delivered in such a way that they become 'doors'. An image is an object with a hinge, and works by opening. Through them, like Lois with her paintings, we might recover an access to lost worlds, find what is still alive there—ourselves, others. 'She [Lucy] is entirely alive.' As a short story the fictional framework itself leaves this generous conclusion ajar, but do we accept it? We walk through, look around, think again about Lois's 'wordless unease'. What fits with what? What is the truth?

The whole point of images is their drama: the way they provoke our active, imaginative involvement. Both writers and readers become participants. Atwood and Pinter invite us to be Lois, Richard or Sarah in a process dominated by images. Things in the world surrounding these characters are highlighted for us as problematic, potentially illuminating, ultimately confounding but compulsive—the subject both of our attention and theirs.

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