Book Review: “Death by Landscape” by Elvia Wilk



By Elvia Wilk

Landscapes invite contemplation. Natural or built, eerie or spectacular, they’re spaces to project ourselves into. What if I lived there in the woods? What kind of person would I be if I lived by that seaside? What if I leaped off this cliff?

Elvia Wilk’s “Death by Landscapeinspires the same kind of rangy feelings. This book of essays — divided into four sections: “Plants,” “Planets,” “Bleed” and an epilogue — takes its title from a Margaret Atwood short story. The premise: Two teenagers go for a hike. One steps off the path and disappears forever. The other is left obsessed with landscapes. She sees her lost friend in them, only in the form of a tree. “If you take the narrator’s conclusion at face value,” Wilk writes, “the death at the center of ‘Death by Landscape’ is not a death at all. It’s a transition, a twin becoming of girl and tree.” The first essay proceeds from there, a wide-ranging study of works by Amitav Ghosh, Tom LeClair, Anne Richter, Kathe Koja, Mark Fisher, HP Lovecraft, Erik Davis, Jeff VanderMeer, Han Kang, Daisy Hildyard and Steven Shaviro.

It’s a whirlwind tour of thought that develops into a philosophy of ecosystems fiction, and the notion that we might alter the centrality of the human in storytelling to find other, more profound conclusions. Wilk, the author of the 2019 novel “Oval,” and a contributing editor at the monthly journal e-flux, argues that only this kind of perspective shift “can adequately portray the ecological dependencies that have led the world to environmental cataclysm, the interconnectedness that neoliberal capitalism and its pervasive story forms continue to violently deny.”

As to her own place, Wilk writes, “Where do I situate myself in this book of essays about the importance of ecosystems beyond the human, in a book about what the world might look like without finite selves at all?” This is, she adds, “a book about becoming what you study, about what it feels like to embed in the landscape.” I’m not sure it’s entirely true: Wilk’s first-person perspective is pervasive amid all the disparate references. The tangible sense of questing is relatable, but as a result, at times the book has the feel of something in progress.

“This Compost” proposes a model for creating art via the porousness of the body—physical and otherwise—as set against the more traditionally understood, normative modes of reproduction. (Not for nothing did Wilk coin the term “the erotics of rot.”) “Working and loving this way may be very disgusting. It may also be very intoxicating.” True enough. But I wish Wilk had gone a bit further. What might this look like for you? And how might that change your life? If this is the landscape, where are you in it?

The strongest of the book’s sections, “Bleed,” introduces some reporting — on art, vampire LARPs, Wilk’s first novel and virtual reality. It is also the portion that feels most alive. You can feel her trying on ideas that don’t get muddled in a thicket of references. The essay about PTSD and Christian mysticism is a particular standout, and I enjoyed Wilk’s vivid account of attending a live-action role-play for the first time.

In any role-playing game, you embody a character with its own separate wants and desires — but you do so as yourself. Among role-playing gamers, the moments the two — character and player — happen to merge together are called “bleed.” I think it’s a useful concept for thinking about “Death By Landscape.” Fundamentally, it’s a book about the collision between Wilk as a writer and Wilk as a character. Like all of us. And in the end, it’s up to you to figure out whom you prefer.

Bijan Stephen is the host and executive producer of the podcast “Eclipsed.”

DEATH BY LANDSCAPE, by Elvia Wilk | 320 pp. | Soft Skull | Paper, $16.95

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