Susan Perly’s first novel since 2001’s Love Street, Death Valley is a postmodern escapade through America’s nuclear playground. The setting is 2006, in the midst of George W. Bush’s divisive war on terror. The novel follows photojournalist Vivienne Pink, “sniper of light, hunter of subjects,” as she travels from Toronto to Nevada to photograph soldiers before they deploy to Iraq.
Vivienne herself is a veteran of sorts, having plied her trade in Vietnam at the unlikely age of 15, snapping pictures of self-immolating monks. Though married, she seduces the men she photographs, treating her camera as though it were part of her physical body – a “third breast, a third lung.” This imagery foreshadows an atomic event that brings Vivienne face-to-face with the macabre effects of nuclear mutation.
The photography project is abruptly abandoned when Vivienne decides to venture from Las Vegas to Death Valley, alongside her husband Johnny (a writer), her friend Val (a former government spy), and Johnny’s lunatic brother Danny, who wears a bird suit and speaks in political riddles. In an out-of-left-field twist, it is revealed that Danny’s ex-wife is responsible for a horrific event in Vivienne’s past, and the novel, for a time, transforms into a revenge story – this in addition to being part conspiracy thriller, part hardboiled noir, and part surrealist critique of America’s obsession with nuclear weapons.
Literary mash-ups can soar when done well, but reading Death Valley is like trying to navigate through someone else’s dream: the interior logic is vaguely recognizable but ultimately bewildering. The plot pulls too far in too many directions, such that readers may be left disoriented. Perhaps that is Perly’s intention, but there’s something to be said for narrative cohesion.
The prose style, however, is strikingly vivid. The earth is “a blue tumour in space”; a nuclear explosion is a “suppurating sky wound” that sounds like “the confined squeals of a thousand pigs tied to barbed wire.” At their best, Perly’s images read like the verbal equivalents of Dalí paintings.
Admirers of classic noir or spy films of the 1940s and ’50s will enjoy Death Valley, assuming they can handle some off-kilter storytelling, but others may find themselves bogged down by Perly’s kaleidoscopic plot.