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by Francesca Lia Block
Joanna Cotler, 2003
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jan 2nd 2004

Wasteland

Wasteland is a short novel for young adults about the forbidden love between a brother and sister, Lex and Marina.  She is sixteen and he is a little older.  Readers are likely to have a visceral reaction against such a theme, and author Francesca Lia Block tries to forestall potential disgust by engaging in an enigmatic memoir-style form from a variety of viewpoints.   It eventually becomes clear which entries are supposed to be by Marina, which less frequent ones are by Lex, and which are by a neutral narrator.   This multiperspectival approach presumably is intended to soften the moral judgments we might have about the perversity of the emotions, but its most striking effect is to confuse us.  Equally irksome are the trite images the author uses in an attempt to convey teen angst.  Marina writes, addressing her brother, "You were just a boy on a bed in a room, like a kaleidoscope is a tube full of bits of broken glass.  But the way I saw you was pieces refracting the light, shifting into an infinite universe of flowers and rainbows and insects and planets, magical dividing cells, pictures no one else knew."  Lex's entries are in italics, but they don't convey much about him, apart from his interest in the poetry of T.S. Eliot.  One might hope that reference to this poet of high culture would add to the moral depth of the book, especially with the full quotation of his poem "Marina," which starts with a line in Latin and uses obscure nautical terms such as "bowsprit" and "garboard." But in fact the use of Eliot simply makes the book seem more pretentious; insofar as the poet represents a sense of nihilism and disenchantment with the world, his function in the novel is more of a signpost than revelation.  What we don't get in the story is a deep sense of character or motivation.  The attraction between brother and sister is entirely mysterious, and their reaction to their feelings is inarticulate.  Block's use of the shocking theme of teen incest taking a nonjudgmental, nontherapeutic attitude is surprising and original, but ultimately her exploration of the topic is shallow and gratuitous. 

(I'd recommend Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden for a darker and far better crafted novel that dabbles in the erotics of sibling sexuality.)

 

© 2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.