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September/October 2020
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Grand Canyon, by Vita Sackville-West (1942)

FDR assassinated. Europe and Britain conquered by the Nazis. The U.S.A. signatory to the Treaty of Berlin, leaving North America temporarily at peace with the mighty Axis powers. Such is the febrile, tenuous, dangerous landscape into which Vita Sackville-West slowly immerses her readers. At first, hovering omnisciently among the guests at a ritzy lodge on the rim of the Grand Canyon, we seem to be enjoying a kind of Grand Hotel ensemble drama: elegant, witty, bittersweet. Sackville-West's admirably sensitive Shavian prose dissects personalities and geo-social forces with a scalpel.

Our primary focus: two unmarried middle-aged folks, Helen Temple and Lester Dale, who strike up a cautious, curious friendship amidst the debutantes, Euro-exiles, and soldiers. But gradually Sackville-West inserts clues to the grim reality, until finally the Nazi bombs begin to fall. Many guests, including Dale and Temple, escape down the canyon's Bright Angel Trail. Safe at the bottom, they listen to radio broadcasts that detail a Wellsian War of the Air presented with realpolitik savvy. But a mysterious transmogrification is also underway. Blind men suddenly see. No meals are necessary. A fighter pilot crashes, Ballard-fashion, from high above, but emerges from his wreck unscathed. It's a bardo condition resonant with the liminality of the "organized madness" of war.

Bloomsbury icon, author of thirteen novels and much poetry, inspiration for the character of Orlando in the novel of the same name by her boon companion Virginia Woolf, Sackville-West is arguably best-remembered for, of all things, her gardening achievements. But this supernal uchronic tale remains essential reading for any era.

Paul Di Filippo

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