New Take on the Old West in Tea Obreht’s Acclaimed Novel ‘Inland’
In novels about the American West, the landscape cuts a striking — and central — figure, from the sweeping plains of Texas to the rugged peaks of Montana. But Téa Obreht, who teaches in Hunter College’s MFA program, took a different tack for her second book Inland.
Set in the Arizona Territory as the 20th century approaches, Inland has been credited with reimagining the Western novel. “If the western is the tale that America tells about itself, then this is an attempt to write a new chapter in that story,” writes The Guardian.
Inland follows two characters: Lurie, an orphaned immigrant from Herzegovina, and Nora Lark, a hard-boiled frontierswoman living in the fictional Arizona town of Amargo with her husband and three sons. Their stories, told as two distinct threads, provide a new perspective of American frontier life.
Lurie’s story unfolds across time and space: On the run from marshals, he flees across territories lawless and wild. He finally falls in with a band of “cameleers” (camel wranglers) brought over as part of the military’s effort to find animals suited to the hot, dry southwest terrain. Their journey brings the immense Western frontier into sharp relief. Nora’s story, meanwhile, takes place over 24 hours. She’s left handling the severe drought affecting Amargo after her husband leaves to find water, but his prolonged absence splits the seams holding the family together, and unearths her deepest secrets.
Inland features an added layer: Both Lurie and Nora communicate with the dead in different ways. Lurie sees spirits lingering on earth and, if he touches them, accumulates their incessant desires. Nora, on the other hand, talks to her dead daughter, who lingers near the homestead. Although the spiritual elements border on magical realism, Obreht makes it seem more like a side effect of the region. As The New York Times observes, “In Obreht’s hands, this is an era that overflows with what the dead want, and with wants that lead to death.”
That Obreht was born in the former Yugoslavia makes her fully realized vision all the more compelling. Inland has received glowing reviews from The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, among others, and it’s clear why. Beyond the imaginative landscape, and the cast of beautifully drawn characters, her writing is incisive and evocative. “Because man is only man,” the cameleer George tells Lurie after two of their outfit get in a fight. “And God, in his infinite wisdom, made it so that to live, generally, is to wound another. And He made every man blind to his own weapons, and too short-living to do anything but guard jealously his own small, wasted way. And thus we go on.”
Obreht is one of a number of CUNY-affiliated novelists getting buzz lately, along with The Topeka School author Ben Lerner, who teaches at Brooklyn College, and Queens College’s Maaza Mengiste, who wrote The Shadow King.