Elaine puts on a new black dress and gets ready for her opening. She arrives an hour early, drinks wine alone and walks through the gallery, remembering the first show she ever put on. At this opening, they’re serving fancy cheeses and grapes that make Elaine think about the dying field workers in California who would have picked them—she thinks “knowing too much means that you can’t eat anything without tasting death.” Elaine remembers their Ritz crackers and the unprofessional mimeo-made catalogues from her first show.
The gallery opening initially proceeds with strong images, like Elaine’s black dress and the wine and cheese, but immediately starts reflecting on more serious themes in terms of the exploitation of workers in California. The exploited labor is part of the history, or the past of the wine, and Elaine’s choice to reflect on it shows how difficult it can be to cope with a present that is immersed in the past.
Elaine looks at the paintings in chronological order: the early paintings characterized by Charna as female symbolism, the paintings of Jon and Josef, Mrs. Smeath. She tries to see her childhood self in Mrs. Smeath’s eyes, and recognizes the paintings as an act of vengeance. She knows that Mrs. Smeath must have seen her as some hopeless “ragamuffin” with “feckless” parents, and took her in anyway, but she has chosen vengeance over mercy in her portrayal of Mrs. Smeath. At the same time, she knows that an eye for an eye leads to only more blindness.
Elaine looks back her own work and tries to escape her own perspective, at first thinking about how others characterize her work—often more ideologically than Elaine herself would—and then thinking about Mrs. Smeath specifically. By shifting her perspective in this way, Elaine can have empathy for this woman, and see her not as cruel but as almost kind. Though she sees her own portrayals as cruel and vengeful and knows that this vengeance is ultimately more destructive than good, this does not resolve the roots of her resentment. In the end, Elaine does seem to believe that cruelty is bad and breeds only more cruelty in others, but she does not come to a clear resolution, as she clearly needed to use her art to process the traumas of the past.
Elaine looks at a painting called Picoseconds she did of a landscape with her parents making lunch over a fire with their car in the background. Underneath the landscape, she painted the logos from old gas pumps—calling into question the reality of the landscape. Her next painting is called Three Muses; she painted Mrs. Finestein, Miss Stuart, and Mr. Banerji—not as they were to themselves, but as they inspired her.
These two paintings interact with people from Elaine’s past in different ways. In the first, she deals with the landscape where her parents were always the most comfortable, which was when they journeyed for her father’s research; however, her inclusion of these logos also makes that comfortable reality seem more like a fantasy of a time gone by. In her other painting, she also deals with shifts in perspective, as she painted her adult role models in a way that matched her childhood symbolization. In general, both of these paintings focus more on positive aspects of her past, and show that Elaine’s identity is built out of more than just conflict and cruelty—she also remembers her positive role models.
Elaine then looks at One Wing, the painting she made for her brother after his death—a triptych with a luna moth and World War II airplane flanking a man falling from the sky, holding a child’s wooden sword. The fourth painting, Cat’s Eye, is a self-portrait that represents half her head in the foreground, and three small figures in winter clothing walking in a mirror behind.
In One Wing, Elaine ties together different themes about her brother, from his childhood relationship to the war to his love of science. He falls much like women do, and this shows Elaine’s uncertainty as to whom to blame for his death. Her painting of herself, using the symbol of the cat’s eye marble (which both grounds her and lets her see clearly), ends up showing her obscured with her childhood friends, Cordelia, Grace, and Carol reflected in the mirror. It shows how fragmented her identity became because of this conflict, and how much of her psyche stayed trapped in that winter afternoon when she nearly drowned.
The last picture, Unified Field Theory, shows a woman dressed in black on a bridge—the Virgin of Lost Things, holding an oversized cat’s eye marble in her hands. Under the bridge, there looks to be galaxies of color—but there are roots and beetles; this is underground. Elaine drinks more wine, and feels tempted to burn her paintings—she cannot control them or tell them what to mean, and feels like “she is what is left over.”
The final painting Elaine describes unifies the novel’s symbols around the space where Elaine nearly died. Elaine’s painting combines symbols of rescue and clarity; the marbles represent a hidden beauty and the potential for secrets to be treasures, not just traumas, while the bridge is can be both a space of connection and of the risk of falling. The Virgin Mary is also significant, as she is both a savior and an aggrieved woman. Through these symbols, Elaine adds depth to the narrative of her life. Hope and despair can be symbolized in one image, and the passage of time leads to an accumulation of meaning rather than clarification. This leads Elaine to want to destroy her art, because the meaning her paintings take on will go far beyond her life. In the end, she sees her art as the most important distillation of her experiences, which makes her feel redundant or even useless.
Charna introduces Elaine to the people who arrive for the opening—although she feels drunk and uncomfortable, Elaine just pictures Cordelia arriving. Different women compliment her work as summing up an era, and Elaine tries to survive the evening. Cordelia does not come, and Elaine feels strange when she heads home alone. She goes back in a taxi and remembers her brother once saying “Cordelia has a tendency to exist.” She decides to make herself some coffee and leave the city early the next day, because there is just “too much old time there.” She also thinks that one should “never pray for justice, because you might get some.” She drinks her coffee and cries, feeling like she’s causing a scene, although no one is watching. She thinks “You’re dead, Cordelia,” and then hears or thinks the response “No I’m not.” To that, she repeats “Yes you are. You’re dead. Lie down.”
Elaine’s experience at the opening shows her continued discomfort in public spaces, as she does not like to be told what her work means. She also feels haunted by Cordelia, who never shows, and this is ultimately the novel’s grand anticlimax. In many ways, it felt as though the novel must be leading up to a reunion, as the flashbacks followed a linear and fairly Cordelia-centric path. Elaine wants to abandon Toronto, because she hopes that leaving the sites of the past will help her escape “old time,” though that seems unlikely. She sees Cordelia’s abandonment of her as somehow just, Elaine’s punishment perhaps for having cruelly abandoned Cordelia in the past. The closest she comes to a reunion with Cordelia is the drunken insistence that she is dead, though she imagines Cordelia’s voice talking back to her. This ambiguity on whether Cordelia is dead or alive hinges on Elaine’s memories. To some extent, it doesn’t matter whether Cordelia is alive, because she will die eventually—what matters are the scars she has left behind, and the second life she lives haunting Elaine.