Dorothea Tanning is not primarily known as a novelist; her main claim to fame is as an artist, one of the original generation of surrealists who managed to keep her work fresher, develop her ideas further, and continue working for much longer than many of her peers. After initially making a splash in the 1930s, she kept producing artwork into the 1990s; if you hurry, you can still catch the excellent exhibition of her work at the Tate Modern.
In parallel with her artistic career, she had a less widely-appreciated literary career, and once her paintings and sculptures stopped flowing she spent the last decade or two of her life concentrating on poetry and prose, with an emphasis on the former. Chasm, her sole novel, came out in 2004, but it had a long germination, being as it is an expansion and extensive revision of the earlier short story Abyss, which originally appeared in 1949 before appearing in a revised version in 1977.
The Arizona desert which had such a great aesthetic impact on Tanning herself when she and Max Ernst went to live there provides the setting of the novel. Deep in the desert lies the mansion called Windcote, a bizarre architectural excess built by Raoul Meridian, a powerful, patriarchal manipulator with a fetish for women’s hair and a “laboratory” in which he constructs his personal homegrown brand of fetish equipment. Meridian has, over his lifetime, embroiled himself in the life of multiple generations of what you could call the “Destina dynasty” – a line of women all called Destina, ever since in the 1680s a forefather declared that all daughters of the line would be called “Destina”. There are currently two Destinas at Windcote; the elderly Baroness and a small child, looked after by her governess Nelly.
The tedium of life at Windcote is about to be disrupted; over the course of a weekend Meridian expects to greet various guests, among which are Albert Exodus and his fiancée, Nadine Coussay. In a decidedly Rocky Horror Show move, Nadine is 100% fine with coming up to the lab to see what’s on the slab (implication: her, with various sex toys of Meridian’s design interfacing with various parts of her anatomy), which leaves Albert at a bit of a loose end. Rattling about the house, he has a little tea party with Destina, with whom he gains a creepy fixation even as he falls out of love with Nadine, and who shows him various gruesome trophies brought to her by a “friend” out there in the desert.
Albert becomes fixated on the idea that Destina’s friend is, in fact, a mountain lion, and persuades Nadine to give Meridian’s hand-crafted dildos a miss, just this evening, so that they can go creeping into the desert chasm where Destina meets with the lion and see the lion. The two of them should watch out – bad things happen in the desert at night, particularly to a pair of individuals who aren’t communicating well with each other. Meanwhile, back in the house, Nelly finally gets Meridian alone…
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