An Edited Life

A new novel by Alix Ohlin

Robin is an extrovert and makes friends easily. A gifted pianist, she studies at Juilliard and walks out of a concert tour in Scandinavia without a word of goodbye to anyone. After abandoning music, she buys a property in the Laurentians, north of Montreal, which she fences into a compound for wolves. She stores derelict pianos in her barn and plays them from time to time. She roils with feelings that she usually does not confide to anyone until long after they have passed. The voice of tough love in Dual Citizens, Robin has a habit of abandoning situations and people, although she usually comes through when needed most.

Lark, Robin’s older sister, is an introvert. She so seldom speaks at school that teachers are surprised that she is even in the room. She describes herself as a hoarder of bits and pieces of information. A born worrywart, she nonetheless puts herself through university and turns herself into a professional film editor. Along the way, she has sexual liaisons that do not seem to move her very much — one with a burly redhead, another with an MIT student who sells drugs on the side. Lark cries easily and longs to have a child. Robin tells her, “You always think you have no power in any given situation. That’s your problem.” Robin’s accusation is off the mark: it’s not always clear when Lark is editing out her worries and when she is creating a montage of her life for aesthetic effect. As a first-­person narrator, she has more than her share of power.

Lark and Robin dislike their mother, Marianne, a vain woman who leaves the girls to raise themselves. Although she contributes little to their upbringing and nothing to their education, Marianne pretends that her two children suck her dry. With Marianne as a mother, it is a wonder that Lark longs to have a baby, but so she does. As a novel about the lengths to which Lark will go to have a child — ultimately she convinces Robin to act as a surrogate — Dual Citizens fits snugly alongside recent entries in the vexed annals of maternity, such as Sheila Heti’s Motherhood and Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty.

While the surface story of Dual Citizens is about motherhood, the intellectual substance is, fascinatingly, about editing. As a child, Lark sneaks into theatres to watch movies. At college, she studies films by Tarkovsky, Deren, Eisenstein, Akerman, and Hitchcock. She is particularly smitten with Abbas Kiarostami’s Close‑Up, which blends actual footage with re-enactments of people playing themselves. Lark starts to make short films. Her first efforts, gauche yet earnest, are “not really films so much as very short experiments with light and sound.” She films her roommate’s aged cat, especially its rheumy eyes and the stiff texture of its fur. She shoots footage of Robin pretending to be their mother and of Robin carrying lit flashlights in her pocket as if she were Marie Curie, who put radioactive elements in the pockets of her lab coat because they glowed like fairy lights.

For another project, Lark films a women’s track team: “I wanted to capture the strength and grace of these athletes, the exactitude of their movements.” While the film depicts runners, its true subject is concentration. She wants to show their faces, “furrowed and intense, cheeks flattened and rippling, teeth bared, stripped of all self-consciousness. In retrospect, I see that I was trying to capture the same concentration I’d observed on Robin’s face when she was playing the piano.” Concentration, as when Robin plays the piano or women run laps, is a form of devotion. In the same vein, Lark makes a film of her summertime lover, Brian, as he drives. It features close-ups of his ear, his hands on the wheel, the dashboard; in its tight focus, it is a precedent for Lark’s filming of her actressy mother, who confides to the camera “as if it were the audience she’d been waiting for all her life.” The camera helps Lark take the measure of people she loves; it helps her figure out how she wants to be in their company.

“To be an editor,” Lark remarks, “is to systematize. To stitch and cut. To observe and connect, layering one idea on the next. I was good at it.” Throughout the novel, she wonders whether editing means cutting away or joining up images. In film, a cut at just the right moment can create drama. “Editing was the art of heightened reaction,” Lark observes. In everyday usage, it refers to condensing content, correcting errors, cutting superfluities, straightening storylines, shifting emphasis, converting raw material into a coherent creation. Editors have to know where to subtract and where to add. They have to keep proportion between an overall story and its local detail. They have to improve weaknesses without infringing too far on the creative vision of the novelist or filmmaker. Editors work in the background — tactful, unsung, anonymous.

As editor-­narrator, Lark often feels that she is surrounded by a membrane that separates her from people. Characters hustle through her life like extras in a film: a piano teacher, roommates, a film professor, an eccentric documentarian, a landlady. All are sacrificed to Lark’s ruthless editing, which is regulated by her emotional limitations.

From one point of view, Dual Citizens is a series of missed opportunities. The novel offers asides without following through on their possibilities. “Our society is so plastic,” writes Lark’s burly lover, “even language itself is plastic.” The proposition may or may not be valid, but no proof or elaboration is provided. Robin’s musical talent is compared to “a tidal force,” but she never says anything noteworthy about music and plays basic repertory such as Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words — hardly enough to get her into Juilliard. Throughout the novel, Lark makes casual observations about fear. She admires a film about “monks [who] lived without fear.” In the company of a wolf, her fear gradually wanes. The title of Dual Citizens might have been Fearless, but the topic of fear is not presented consistently enough to make that title entirely apt. The actual title promises reflection on civic duty and divided allegiances. Yet that promise is never fulfilled. Although Lark and Robin both have Canadian and American passports because of their fathers, citizenship is used metaphorically to refer to motherhood, as when Lark wonders if her daughter retains some trace of her “origins inside Robin’s body, her citizenship there.” A better title would have been Never Let Me Go, though it was already taken.

From another point of view, Dual Citizens is about the haphazardness of life, in which patterns sometimes appear after the fact, much as Lark rearranges images to draw out expressions and meanings. One of the epigraphs in the novel is by Walter Murch: “Editing — even on a more ‘normal’ film — is not so much a putting together as it is a discovery of a path.” Lark’s path is a shady one, overgrown and invisible at some points. People and events flow past her in a montage of what she calls “my particular and error-­filled life choices.” Dual Citizens is not a Bildungsroman : Lark persists with her life choices without learning from her errors. Hers is an edited life, even as it unfolds.

The novel ends with Lark filming her daughter and Robin as they play in the mud. Pointing a camera is Lark’s way of joining in and expressing affection. Life is beyond her, glimpsed most fully through images that she will study later to figure out what she was supposed to feel.