Living the Dream: The Life Before Her Eyes

Laura Kasischke’s The Life Before Her Eyes opens with a dilemma: What would you do if a gunman was pointing a semi-automatic rifle at you and your best friend and made you choose whom to shoot? What would you do if he made it clear that if you didn’t give him an answer he would shoot you both? The opening paragraph of Kisischke’s 2002 novel captures the immediacy and breathtaking horror of the life changing event just before it happens:

They’re in the girls’ rooms when they hear the first dot-dot-dot of semi-automatic gunfire. It sounds phony and far away, and they keep doing what they’re doing – brushing their hair, looking at their reflections in the mirror…Dot-dot-dot.

When Kasischke wrote the novel, the tragedy at Columbine had just taken place. She has said that she was made to think of adolescence and the lives that were lost. What would have happened had these kids survived the shooting? This question is at the heart of her book.

The story revolves around Diana, a rebellious teenage girl who comes from a divorced family and lives with her mother in an apartment in Briar Hill, Connecticut. Her best friend is a church-going, studious girl named Maureen. Kasischke plays with time, alternating between Diana and Maureen’s friendship and Diana’s present life 20 years after the incident in the bathroom.

Forty-year-old Diana has lost her bad-girl reputation and has since become an artist living in the suburbs in a big old house right up the street from where she lived as a girl. She now has the “perfect” life, married to a philosophy professor named Paul and mothering a doll-like daughter named Emma.

It becomes clear early on that something is seriously amiss with adult Diana. Subtle but eerie clues begin to materialize, making you wonder if she is crazy or under the influence of some outside force. Is she dreaming? Is she suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder? Is she dead? Which girl was shot? Did either survive? You begin to wonder all of these things as the story unfurls and clues are given little by little. It’s a puzzle in the surreal way that Lost is or Twin Peaks was. At the book’s end the answer is revealed — the big ‘ta-da’ moment you’ve waited for — but the perceptive reader will likely figure it out earlier on.

One of the creepiest hints that something is amiss in Diana’s life happens on page 23, and even though I read the book back when it first came out, I’ll never forget how the goose bumps rose on my forearms when reading it.

Diana is sitting in her mini-van waiting for Emma to leave school. She’s listening to a talk show shrink, Dr. Laura, try to help a caller who “was either an older boy or a woman with a very deep voice — a voice that sounded as if it were coming from the end of a long tunnel.” When Dr. Laura asks how she can help the caller, the caller replies, “I. . . I don’t need help.” Frustrated, Dr. Laura says, “Why are you calling my show?” Kasischke then writes:

There was a low grinding. Again, the sound of the cassette tape played backward or too loosely, followed by machine grinding, and then a voice, faster and unnaturally bright, said, “I am in hell.”

Kaisischke, who happens to be one of my favorite poets, fills her novels with rich, lyrical imagery. Word repetition and alliteration add a wistful feel to her prose and is quite musical to the ear. If you were reading a Kasischke novel and weren’t aware of her skill set, it wouldn’t be hard to guess her other area of expertise.

Despite having some corny metaphors (comparing the thin pages of an English literature anthology to “dead girls’ dreams”), her manipulation of language is clever and poignant. Her grotesque images of the natural world remind me of Sylvia Plath. She is a master of highlighting the splendor and tragedy working side-by-side in everyday life. In addition, the menacing tone of the book beautifully contrasts the “perfect” life that Diana leads. This opposing tension drives the story forward and keeps the reader turning the pages.

Vadim Perleman (director of the beautiful and devastating House of Sand and Fog) does a nice job of capturing this artistic contrast and putting it up on the screen. Kasiscke has called the 2007 film adaptation of the book a “very visual, very beautiful movie.” Opening with blurred flowers coming in and out of focus, the director then pans across the inside of a high school filled with dead students.

The film returns again and again to the scene of the dead students lining the hallways and classrooms. After a while, it gets to be a bit much and feels unjustified, as if the repetition of such horrific images is just there to milk the material for dramatic effect.

Despite said overwrought visuals, the dream-like quality of the cinematography does well translating the suspicion that Diana may be dreaming. In both the book and the film she has auditory as well as visual hallucinations.

A big difference between the book and film is that in the latter, Diana is aware of what she thinks is happening to her while in the book she is not. Onscreen, it is the 15th anniversary of the shooting and Diana believes she’s suffering from survivor’s guilt. But in the book she seems completely oblivious, blaming her twisted sense of reality on middle age and hormones, making you think she has repressed the memory of the shooting.

Evan Rachel Wood

Like the book, the movie switches between the realities of teenage and adult Diana. Evan Rachel Wood does an amazing job of playing teenage Diana, proving a fine natural quality as a rebellious teen. It’s a trait that can also be seen in Down in the Valley and Thirteen. Her flaxen-haired beauty and nervous blue eyes are traits that convey Diana’s duplicitous nature. She’s a flaky, salacious kid with an intelligent, grounded center.

When she loses her virginity to an uncaring local creep and winds up having an abortion, she feels tremendous blame that seems to fly in the face of her careless image. Her best friend Maureen, on the other hand, is her polar opposite. As portrayed by Eva Amurri, it’s a performance that reminds one of the young actress’ mother (Susan Sarandon) more than ever.

Uma Thurman plays adult Diana. Despite being jumpy and worn down, Diana maintains her long, flaxen hair and nervous eyes. Thurman is excellent as a seemingly level-headed woman who has overcome a rocky past and is dealing as best as she can with a present that is falling apart. This is very different from the Diana in Kasischke’s book, who is much cooler and slightly aloof.

The book and the film deal with the delicate concept of time and big themes like life, death, friendship, regret, and guilt. Some critics have gone as far as saying that the film is a right-wing affirmation and a female punishment-for-abortion analogy. I think it’s neither of those things, considering Kasischke’s original work. In fact, neither ever entered my mind as I read the book or as I watched the movie. Firstly, Diana is the only one punishing herself for the abortion since the regret haunts her later on and, secondly, the images both on the page and on the screen are far too beautiful and stirring to bring to mind something as ugly and orthodox as a political stance.

While Perelman’s adaptation is very good, it’s not nearly as good as the book it was based on. At the end of the movie, Perelman hits the viewer over the head with the answer to the questions posed in the film, while in the book, Kasiscke was much more subtle about answering the reader’s inquiries. As I left the theater, I heard the woman in front of me ask her husband, “So what exactly happened? I didn’t get it.”

Perhaps I understood it because I read the book before seeing the film and because Kasischke is such a clever and engaging writer. In any case, whether you “get it” or not, The Life Before Her Eyes is worth the read and the film experience, not to solve the puzzle, but to experience the beautiful and imaginative pieces presented to the reader and the viewer.