Book Review: Home Within a Landscape
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
A deeply philosophical novel about a teacher born in Russia but asked to represent the US on the world stage
Home Within a Landscape imagines an alternate United States in which introverted thinkers are recognized for their efforts at solving political problems. What if that happened more often in real life? Would the world be better off?
Nicholas, who has been a journalist and a teacher of language and literature, is friends with Marcus, an entrepreneur who is a generation younger. What they have in common is their birthplace in Russia. They spend time together at Marcus’s house in the Virginia mountains.
The novel’s dystopia resembles the real United States in so many ways. The nation has polarized, and to address this, politicians hope to revitalize popular belief in a “social compact.” The government will consider Constitutional amendments to get money out of political campaigns and to abolish the Electoral College.
Home Within a Landscape consists of philosophical musings that weave into these characters’ political situations. For example, in rural Lordsville, the small, upstart enterprise of electric cars production named “Wheelhorse” anticipates a small contract with the U.S. Post Office. This is not just about one automaker; it’s part of a larger question facing humanity. How will the nation absorb new technology like self-driving cars? Technology gives people great power, and power leads to war.
The question resonates: “Does humanity need it, or can we do without?”
Here’s another big question. The legal abstraction that corporations are people has infused enormous amounts of money into U.S. politics. What are the implications? If one asks, “who is governing society?” the answer might come back: “no one.”
Nicholas is put on an Education Commission to discuss declining enrollment in liberal arts departments. Eventually, the U.S. President, David Burns, takes note of his work and invites him for a private chat. President Burns has chosen Nicholas as the perfect envoy to send to the Vatican to join a constructive dialogue about racism, recently initiated by King William of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Although Nicholas’s “notion of the Catholic Church was less than minimal,” President Burns prefers to send this nearly unknown man for the job. Burns fears that he himself, as president, looks too much like a “white American,” while Nicholas, who was born in Russia, seems somehow less American and therefore appears more neutral and thus a better diplomatic candidate.
“Now, tell me,” the President says to Nicholas, “is there in your contemplation any room for the problem of racism?” That is a key question, since Nicholas is already designated to go to the Vatican to discuss the topic.
Meanwhile, the artificial intelligence innovator Melvin Reed has died by suicide, and his widow wants Nicholas to read the 14-part philosophical missives he left behind. The exploration of these brief, dense texts will intrigue readers who enjoy the examination of journals and letters left behind in archives.
A significant challenge of this novel is that the dialogue tends to sound more like academic philosophy than naturalistic, modern conversation. Characters often speak like this: “Isn’t it the same old shameful fairy tale? A dense method, I would say, to match sublimity with money. You will definitely get money, but sublimity will turn out to be one more expensive tool for amusement. Tell me that such economic model is not what led to a blind alley, and what we are trying to remedy.” It can take some effort to work through exactly what crisis the nation is facing, though these fictional Americans obviously understand it well, since they have polarized over it.
My favorite chapter pays homage to the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Nicholas attends a recitation, and afterward he meets the actress and her husband. This is a convincing presentation of the power of literature to seize the imagination and a charming engagement with Dickinson’s poetry which casts light in a time of political stress.
Home Within a Landscape offers us the chance to reflect on who we are when we write philosophy. It questions how we can use the ideas taught in liberal arts colleges to tackle real political problems and become better people. As Nicholas faces unsolved tensions that are larger than he can comprehend, he grows into the role, and so can we.
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Genre: Literary Fiction / Philosophical / Political
Print Length: 332 pages
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