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Book review: “Death by Landscape” by Elvia Wilk

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DEATH BY LANDSCAPE

By Elvia Wilk


The landscapes invite contemplation. Natural or built, strange or spectacular, these are spaces in which we project ourselves. What if I lived out there in the woods? What kind of person would I be if I lived by the sea? What if I jumped off that cliff?

“Death by Landscape” by Elvia Wilkinspires the same kind of distant feelings. This book of essays – divided into four sections: ‘Plants’, ‘Planets’, ‘Bleed’ and an epilogue – takes its title from a short story by Margaret Atwood. The principle: Two teenagers go on a hike. One step from path and disappears forever. The other remains obsessed with landscapes. She sees her lost friend there, 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 no death at all. It’s a transition, a twin becoming of the girl and the tree. The first essay starts from there, an in-depth study of the works of 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 of thought that turns into a fictional philosophy of ecosystems, and the notion that we could alter the centrality of the human in the storytelling to find other, deeper conclusions. Wilk, the author of the 2019 novel “Oval” and editor of the monthly e-flux, says that only this kind of shift in perspective “can adequately portray the ecological dependencies that have led the world to environmental cataclysm. , the interdependence that neoliberal capitalism and its pervasive narrative forms continue to violently deny.

As for his own place, writes Wilk, “where do I fit in this book of essays on the importance of ecosystems beyond the human, in a book about what the world might look like without me finished at all?” It is, she adds, “a book about becoming what you study, about what it feels like to be integrated into the landscape”. I’m not sure that’s entirely true: Wilk’s first-person perspective is ubiquitous among all the disparate references. The tangible sense of the quest is relatable, but as a result the book sometimes has the feel of something in progress.

“This Compost” offers a model of artistic creation via the porosity of the body – physical and otherwise – compared to more traditionally understood normative modes of reproduction. (There’s a reason Wilk coined the term “rot erotica” for nothing.) “Working and loving this way can be very disgusting. It can also be very intoxicating. Fairly true. But I wish Wilk had gone a little further. What might that look like for you? And how could it change your life? If this is the landscape, where are you?

The strongest of the book’s sections, “Bleed”, features feature stories – about art, vampire LARPs, Wilk’s first novel, and virtual reality. This is also the part that seems most alive. You can feel her trying out ideas that don’t get confused in a thicket of references. The essay on PTSD and Christian mysticism is particularly noteworthy, and I enjoyed Wilk’s vivid account of witnessing a live roleplay for the first time.

In any role-playing game, you play as a character with their own wants and desires, but you do it as yourself. Among role-playing gamers, the times when the two – character and player – merge are called “bleeding out”. I think it’s a useful concept to think about “Death By Landscape”. Basically, it’s a book about the collision between Wilk as a writer and Wilk as a character. As we all. And in the end, it’s up to you to decide which you prefer.


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


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