Tag: Literature

Interviews

Planet of the Future

From Boom Winter 2013, Vol. 3, No. 4

The Boom interview: Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of California’s best-known and well-loved, living science fiction writers. A prolific writer, author of two trilogies and several other novels, he is one of the few science fiction novelists who still dares envision utopia—not the static and socially constrained utopias of Thomas More or Edward Bellamy, but dynamic, complex, multicultural societies that always have to struggle for and reflect on their own futures. Robinson earned a Ph.D. from UC San Diego, where he worked with the legendary postmodern literary scholar Fredric Jameson and wrote his dissertation on science fiction writer Philip K. Dick. He cares deeply about California and is actively involved with the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at UC Merced and the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at UC San Diego. Robinson is also a generous conversationalist. When not holed up at home in Davis, California, working on his next book, he can often be found out in the world these days talking about climate change and political change, and thinking out loud with scientists, activists, writers, and readers about the future. We spent a leisurely afternoon conversing with him at his garden writing table in Davis.

Kim Stanley Robinson at home. PHOTOGRAPH BY URSULA K. HEISE.

Boom: You write about other states, other countries, and other planets. Yet, you clearly identify yourself as a California writer. Why?

Robinson: I come from California. I grew up in an agricultural community: Orange County when there were orange groves. I lived in one of the first suburban intrusions into the orange groves. So right out my back yard, I could see nothing but orange trees. I loved to read, and my favorite book was Huckleberry Finn. I thought I could be Huckleberry Finn, and there was no evidence in front of my eyes that showed me things were any different from Missouri in the 1830s. I dressed as Huckleberry Finn, in cutoff blue jeans and a straw hat. I made my friends be Tom Sawyer and the other characters. But then in my teenage years, Orange County was transformed really rapidly. I read somewhere that five acres a day of orange groves were pulled out and turned into suburbia, every day for ten years. And so by the time I went off to college at UC San Diego, it was a completely different landscape. At that same time I started reading science fiction. New wave science fiction was what I dove into. Modernism was being expressed in science fiction, and it was extremely exciting. And it struck me that it was an accurate literature, that it was what my life felt like; so I thought science fiction was the literature of California. I still think California is a science fictional place. The desert has been terraformed. The whole water system is unnatural and artificial. This place shouldn’t look like it looks, so it all comes together for me. I’m a science fiction person, and I’m a Californian.

Boom: Is there a special brand of California science fiction?

Robinson: I think so. It began with people like Jack London and Upton Sinclair, and then the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society in the 1940s. This included Ray Bradbury, who moved with his parents to Los Angeles when he was young, like I did, both of us from Waukegan, Illinois, but him maybe twenty years earlier. Bradbury was always focused on what modernization was doing to human beings, to the nontechnological aspects of humanity. There was also Robert Heinlein, who was living in Los Angeles in the forties. Crazy Bob they called him when he was young. He was always a strange amalgam. And then there was Philip K. Dick in northern California, also Poul Anderson and Jack Vance, Frank Herbert, and in her childhood, Ursula Le Guin. It turns out that many of the most interesting science fiction writers were in California. There’s something strange and powerful about California, as a landscape and an idea, so the place may have inspired the literature.

Boom: Do you think that has to do with the national imaginary that associates California with the future?

Robinson: Yes, I think that’s right. It’s the westward motion. You see it in Robinson Jeffers: that world civilization just kept going west until it hit California, then it had to stop and figure things out. This is all a fairy tale, but it’s powerful. It is an imaginary. And then also you’ve got Hollywood. You can think of California as the Marilyn Monroe of places, beautiful but fragile, seeming a little dim or spacey, but brilliant in odd ways, funny, and, you know, endangered. Everybody pays attention to it. It’s too famous for its own good.

Boom: Your Three Californias trilogy lays out very different visions for California’s future. Which of the three Californias would you want to live in?

Robinson: Pacific Edge without a doubt. Pacific Edge was my first attempt to think about what would it be like if we reconfigured the landscape, the infrastructure, the social systems of California. I think eventually that’s where we’ll end up. It may be a five hundred year project. I thought of it as my utopian novel. But the famous problem of utopian novels as a genre is that they are cut off from history. They always somehow get a fresh start. I thought the interesting game to play would be to try to graft my utopia onto history and presume that we could trace the line from our current moment to the moment in the book. I don’t think I succeeded. I wish I had had the forethought to add about twenty pages of expository material on how they got to that society. Later I had a lot of dissatisfactions with Pacific Edge. You can’t have this gap in the history where the old man says, well, we did it, but never explains how. But every time I tried to think of the details it was like—well, Ernest Callenbach wrote Ecotopia, and then explained how they got to it in Ecotopia Emerging. And there’s not a single sentence in that prequel that you can believe. So, Pacific Edge was my attempt, a first attempt, and I think it’s still a nice vision of what Southern California could be. That coastal plain is so nice. From Santa Barbara to San Diego is the most gorgeous Mediterranean environment. And we’ve completely screwed it. To me now, it’s kind of a nightmare. When I go down there it creeps me out. I hope to spend more of my life in San Diego, which is one of my favorite places. But I’ll probably stick to west of the coast highway and stay on the beach as much as I can. I’ll deal, but we can do so much better.

An orange tree is pulled up in Orange County. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF ORANGE COUNTY ARCHIVES.

Boom: On the jacket of Pacific Edge it says you still love Orange County.

Robinson: Poor Orange County. Autopia, as I called it in The Gold Coast. The truth of the matter is I’ve spent hardly any time there since my parents moved away in 1991. I recently went to Newport Beach. Everything was the same, except the people. Instead of the people being all white, they were a mix of black and brown and white. That was beautiful to see, it looked like a world place, cosmopolitan in a way it hadn’t been. Do you love where you were when you were growing up? Well, yes—especially if you had good parents, a happy childhood, a beach. But I’ve found you can actually outlive nostalgia itself. I didn’t know you could do that, but I have.

Boom: Is California two states or more?

Robinson: I’ve lived half my life in the south and half in the north. I like thinking California is one place. It’s big. It’s various. It’s an entire country. It’s an entire planet.

Boom: In The Gold Coast, your dystopian novel in the California trilogy, and in your other dystopian novels, are you issuing a warning about where we’re headed?

Robinson: I am issuing a warning, yes. That’s one thing science fiction does. There are two sides of that coin, utopian and dystopian. The dystopian side is, if we continue, we will end up at this bad destination and we won’t like it. That’s worth doing sometimes. But I won’t do the apocalypse. That is not realist. It is more of a religious statement. I like disaster without apocalypse. Gold Coast is dystopian. And a lot of it has come true since it came out in 1988.

Boom: But, as you’ve said, all of California in some ways has been terraformed. It’s not natural in the way we usually conceive of natural. Are we as gods, as Steward Brand famously proclaimed, so we better get good at it?

Robinson: California is a terraformed space. I think we have accidentally become terraformers, but of course we are not gods. We don’t actually know enough about ecology, or even about bacteria, to do what we want to do here. We could make environmental changes that could do damage that we can’t recover from, so it’s dangerous. We’re more like the sorcerer’s apprentice. We can do amazing things on this planet, out of hubris, and partial ignorance, and yet we are without the powers to jerk the system back to health if we wreck it. If ocean acidification occurs, we don’t have a chance to shift that back. So we’ve accidentally cast ourselves into this role by our scientific successes, but we don’t have the power to do what we need to do, so we need to negotiate our situation with the environment. The idea that we’re living in the Anthropocene is correct. We are the biggest geological impact now; human beings are doing more to change the planet than any other force, from bedrock up to the top of the troposphere. Of course if you consider twenty million years and plate tectonics, we’re never going to match that kind of movement. It’s only in our own temporal scale that we look like lords of the Earth; when you consider a longer temporality, you suddenly realize we’re more like ants on the back of an elephant. By no means do we have godlike powers on this planet. We have a biological system we can mess up, a thin wrap on the planet’s surface, like cellophane wrapping a basketball. But there is so much we don’t know. You can do cosmology with more certainty than ecology.

The view from Mount Wanda, John Muir National Historic Site. PHOTOGRAPH BY WAYNE HSIEH.

Boom: Speaking of terraformed, the Delta, where you live here in Davis, is a great example of a terraformed landscape.

Robinson: It’s kind of great. It’s troubled, but I think it’s still beautiful. I like these human-slash-natural landscapes. I like terraformed landscapes. The Central Valley has been depopulated of its Serengeti’s worth of wild creatures, and that’s a disaster. But you could do amazing agriculture in the Central Valley and add wildlife corridors, where the two could coexist in a palimpsest, big agriculture and the Serengeti of North America, occupying the same space. And then it would be that much more interesting and beautiful. If you went out there to the edge of Davis now, you would see nothing in terms of animals. But if you went out there and it was filled with tule elk and all the rest of the animals and birds of the Central Valley biome, occasionally a bear would come down out of the hills; and, well, you couldn’t run alone out there, because of the predators. You’d have to run in a group. But humans are meant to run in groups. The solo thing is dangerous. So it would all come back to a more natural social existence. This is the angle of utopianism that I’ve been following. It’s a kind of natural-cultural amalgam, whereas utopian literature historically was mostly a social construct, and it was kind of urban. Utopia was thought of as a humanist space, but when you think of humans as part of a much larger set of life forms, then you get to a utopia that includes it all and is a process. I haven’t actually written the novel that would put all of this together, because each of my novels has been a different part of the puzzle and a different attempt at it. So I keep having an idea for the book yet to come. Seems like I might start another one like that sometime soon.

California is a terraformed space.

Boom: If your utopia is not humanist, what is it?

Robinson: I don’t think of myself as a humanist in the usual definition, but I’m definitely not a believer in deep ecology either. I don’t like the Ludditeism and antihumanism of deep ecology. I call myself a shallow ecologist. We’re completely part of the biosphere and networked with, and our health is dependent on it. But Gary Snyder among others has taught me that the nature-culture divide is a blurry, unnatural divide; we’re interpolated with the planet. The more we learn, the more we realize we’re “bubbles of earth.” But we’re also its self-consciousness. We’re its most articulate language speakers. We’re the ones who can mess things up really badly. But I can’t go with the part of the environmental movement that is antitechnological. We’re so technological. I’ve been thinking about this and trying to look at if from a different angle. Can we find a balance, a way of doing things by the use of science and technology and political cleverness, that we could get to permaculture?

Boom: Permaculture?

Robinson: I prefer that term to sustainability. Sustainability is a captured word, and sustainable development is a captured phrase, a kind of greenwashing. Now it means, we can keep on doing capitalism and get away with it. Permaculture on the other hand implies permanence, but also permutation—some kind of dynamic stability or robustness, by making really long-term health the goal.

Boom: Even with climate change?

Robinson: California could maybe handle sea level rise better than a lot of other places. Its coastline is not a drowned coastline like the East Coast, so although the Delta would be in big trouble, most of the California coastline is steep enough to take a lot of the projected sea level rise—although the beaches will be in trouble. Right here we’re about fifty feet above sea level. So the maximum sea level rise projected for the next couple centuries would remain a ways over there to the south.

Boom: So we can just adapt to climate change in California?

Robinson: No, that’s not right either. We are in a moment where we have to change, or we’ll get to a situation that is not even adaptable. Adaptation is a word like sustainability, because it suggests that we could cook the planet and it still might be OK. That isn’t true, and besides, we haven’t cooked it yet. So it’s time to act now and actually do mitigation. I’ve run into young environmental philosophers who say, “Be realistic, Stan. We’re headed for a five-degree rise in temperature; we have to adapt.” But this I think is a pseudo-realism. Think about mass extinction: how do you adapt to that? It would drive us down; we might not go extinct too, but we would suffer so badly. No. We need mitigation. We need to fight the political fight. We need a carbon tax; we need everything except giving up. To say we’ve lost the battle already is just another science fiction story. It’s saying that we will lose. But beyond 2013, nothing has happened yet. Path dependency is not the same as inevitability. People are way too chicken when faced with the supposed massive entrenchment of capitalism. It’s just a system of laws, and we change laws all the time.

The view from Skylab Crater on Mars. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF NASA.

Boom: Don’t we need both mitigation and adaptation? Even if we could stop emissions altogether right now, it will get hotter. We will have to do significant adaptation.

Robinson: That’s true to an extent. But it’s a later moment where we shift to adaptation, as opposed to mitigation. We need to mitigate now. We know how to do that: we decarbonize power generation and transport systems. But we haven’t put together a coherent political or ecological picture of what adaptation means. Right now it just means giving up. It’s saying economics trumps ecology. In biophysical terms, in terms of physical reality, that just isn’t the case.

Boom: Climate science has become an important part of your work, in your writing, and outside of your writing.

Robinson: I think the scientific community is going through a revolutionary moment. They already raised their hands and said we have to pay attention to climate change. And yet we haven’t changed very much. Now they have to take different strategies and renew the effort. I talk to them about this. I try to make them aware that they are already utopian actors by being scientists. And this notion that they have, that there has to be separation between what science does and what everything else does, is not quite true; it’s not the full story. They need to start thinking of themselves as political actors.

Boom: Political? Utopian? But haven’t science and business as usual also gone hand in hand?

Robinson: My story here is that from the very start science and capitalism were very tightly bound together, like conjoined twins, but were not at all the same, and indeed were even opposed systems of thinking and organization. They were born around the same time, yes; but if you regard them as identical, you’re making a very bad mistake. Capitalism’s effect on humanity is not at all what science’s effect is on humanity. If you say science is nothing but instrumentality and capitalism’s technical wing, then you’re saying we’re doomed. Those are the two most powerful social forces on the planet, and now it’s come to a situation of science versus capitalism. It’s a titanic battle. One is positive and the other negative. We need to do everything we can to create democratic, environmental, utopian science, because meanwhile there is this economic power structure that benefits the few, not very different from feudalism, while wrecking the biosphere. This is just a folk tale, of course, like a play with sock puppets, like Punch and Judy. But I think it describes the situation fairly well.

Boom: What about democracy?

Robinson: I think democracy is crucial, but it needs the power of science to prevail. Democracy can be bought. Capitalism can defeat democracy, unless there is democratic science and science for democracy. The big heavyweight that could actually defeat capitalism in this world is science. It’s the method that copes with the natural world and makes both the necessities and the toys, and makes the food for the seven billion. Democracy can get whipped if it doesn’t have this utopian practice of science backing it. Secularism, the rule of law—these are aspects of scientizing the social world. They are part and parcel with the scientific method. Once again, I’m just talking sock puppets, but this is the way I have been trying to explain it in my novels.

Boom: But one of the difficulties of science is that it’s not accessible to people without very specialized knowledge. It’s sometimes very difficult to see how you square science with democratic deliberation.

Robinson: Science is not esoteric compared to, say, law. Every scientific abstract is trying its best to be as clear and accessible as possible. Science as it was originally designed is supposed to work like this: I find something out about the world; I share it with you. You find out more; you share it with me. So in its pure state, it is an incredibly open and public procedure. You can’t do that with legal documents, you can’t do that with economics, and you can’t do that with a lot of postmodern criticism. Science is much more open and transparent than a lot of the disciplines we have. It gets complex because reality is complex. But I’m still convinced that we must seize on science as a way out of this mess. It’s a kind of quantified and experimental realism, or praxis.

Boom: You describe your science fiction as realist, but there are sometimes surrealist moments, like in 2312, when a depauperate Earth is repopulated by wild animals that are bred off planet and dropped gently from the sky in bubbles.

Robinson: That moment is like a painting, maybe a Magritte. It struck me like an image out of a dream. It doesn’t make sense in some ways, and yet it’s what we are talking about when we talk about rewilding. And I was thinking about habitat corridors, and how both humans and habitat could exist together, by the creation of corridors given to the animals, and so the image came from that, like a poem. When it did, I thought this is good. I don’t care if it makes sense or not; it’s so beautiful. So I wrote the scene. Novel writing is an irrational and emotional business. I’m mostly an analytical person, an English major, so it’s possible for me to overthink things. But the image is crucial, the story is crucial. So if you’re writing something that feels right, then skate fast over thin ice and fly with it! Then you can have your characters argue about it afterward, as people would if something like that were really to happen.

Boom: You spend a lot of time in the Sierra Nevada, but the mountains only make a brief appearance in your science fiction. Why is that?

Robinson: It’s been hard to find science fiction stories that would include the Sierra, although I’ve tried. There is a sense in which my Mars is entirely a Sierra Nevada space. And the actual range itself shows up in The Gold Coast and Pacific Edge and in Sixty Days and Counting. But in the future, I want to write about the Sierra Nevada much more extensively and in more detail. I know what it’s like up there, and I think it could be useful to share that knowledge. There’s been too much writing about the mountains as a dangerous place, a place for risk taking. What I want to do is more welcoming, a writing that says come back to the Sierra, use it as a space to ramble and look around. It’s not a place of death-defying stupidity, but actually a place to renew yourself, as a suburban or urban Californian especially. So, when I write about the Sierra Nevada directly, which I have not done yet at any length, I want to do it as nonfiction, some kind of not-yet-defined nature writing.

Boom: Is there a model for this kind of writing?

Robinson: Well, John Muir. Muir is good!

Boom: In Muir’s writing nature is often personified. Are you interested in that model? Or do you have a different idea of nature’s agency?

Robinson: I’ve read all of Muir now and studied his life. I would say he does not personify nature so much as worship it. His attitude is devotional, but he usually doesn’t define it as a totality; he speaks of particulars. One thing I’ve noticed about Muir is that his best writing is not his most famous writing. His best Sierra writing is in his early journals, and his first scientific articles, which were published in the New York Tribune and made him famous. These are awkward but quite beautiful articles. In them he is writing about why the landscape looks like it does. The Ice Age itself was a new idea at the time he wrote, and he was the one who applied Agassiz’s glacial theory to the sculpting of the Sierra. So this is his great writing, which is both scientific and devotional at the same time. Later, when he became a political figurehead and wrote The Mountains of California and his other famous books, those are like Victorian magazine articles. They are bland. They are not his best writing. So his reputation as a writer has suffered. But then at the very end of his life, E.H. Harriman hired a secretary to follow him around so that Muir could dictate his memoirs to him, and that again is great: The Story of My Boyhood and Youth. So we have great writing, then mediocre writing, and then really great talking.

Boom: You have two sons. If science fiction was your literature growing up, what is their literature?

Robinson: They and their friends seem to have an intense interest in fantasy literature as a kind of escape from their historical situation. They’re a little bit symptomatic. Young people of my generation liked science fiction because the future was going to be better. There seemed to be real opportunity. The world was your oyster, and the future was going to be amazing. That was quite powerful. Now, when you see what new science fiction has become for the young—it’s The Hunger Games, it’s dystopia—that’s a very powerful image of how they feel right now. They feel this: we’ve been pitted against each other, big forces are in control of our lives, and we’re going to be fighting for scraps. We’re going to be hungry. That is another dream, a surrealistic dream about capitalism, of how it feels to the young and how they’re responding. And then with Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, that’s wish fulfillment, where you get back out in the forest and ride on horses. It’s already interesting to imagine that, in the middle of their suburban lives looking at screens. Also, the good guys and the bad guys are easily distinguishable, and there are organized forces to fight the bad guys, who are an other and not you. It’s very simplistic. But these stories we love when we are young are always allegories of our wishes and dreams. So it’s very interesting. My own contribution, then, would be to keep on presenting an image of the future that is positive and achievable, and doesn’t take place five million years from now, or five million light years away, but is just Earth and the solar system in our own near future—something that people think might happen, a kind of realism. And I get my readers, and I see that many of them are young, although not all. Because I think people do continue to crave utopia.

The Sierra Nevada from Manzanar, California. PHOTOGRAPH BY JONATHAN PERCY.

Boom: Do you think there is something special California can contribute to this utopian project?

Robinson: I do. I think we’re a working utopian project in progress, between the landscape and the fact that California has an international culture, with all our many languages. It’s got the UC system and the Cal State system, the whole master plan, all the colleges together, and Silicon Valley, and Hollywood. It’s some kind of miraculous conjunction. But conjunctions don’t last for long. And history may pass us by eventually, but for now it’s a miraculous conjunction of all of these forces. So I love California. Often when I go abroad and I’m asked where I’m from, I say California rather than America. California is an integral space that I admire. And we’re doing amazing things politically. I like the way the state is trending more left than the rest of America. And San Francisco is the great city of the world. I love San Francisco. I think of myself as living in its provinces—and provincials, of course, are often the ones who are proudest of the capital. And many of my San Francisco friends exhibit a civic pride that is intense, and I think justified. So there’s something going on here in California. I do think it’s somewhat accidental; so to an extent, it’s pride in an accident, or maybe you could say in a collective, in our particular history. So there’s no one thing or one person or group that can say, ah, we did it! It just kind of happened to us, in that several generations kept bashing away, and here we are. But when you have that feeling and it goes on, and continues to win elections and create environmental regulations, the clean air, the clean water, saving the Sierra, saving the coast: it’s all kind of beautiful. Maybe the state itself is doing it. Maybe this landscape itself is doing it.

Notes

This interview was conducted by Jon Christensen, Jan Goggans, and Ursula K. Heise, and edited by Jon Christensen and Kim Stanley Robinson.

Photograph at top: The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. BY DANIEL PARKS.

Reviews

Dances with California

Brenda Hillman, Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire (Wesleyan University Press, 144pp, $22.95)

Reviewed by Elizabeth A. Logan

What might a seed utter while talking back to Monsanto?

What would the creative process of a squirrel writing a poem look and sound like?

Brenda Hillman’s Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire dances with seeds and squirrels and will inspire today’s “people moaning at gas pumps” and tomorrow’s ecopoets.

Hillman’s poems embrace the layered world of the everyday – of memories, violence, activism, and the encounters we share with other living species even including termites.  She captures topics running through today’s news cycles such as drones, healthcare reform, and “Facelessbook.” But the work also reveals elements of the foundations of her present, be they onion soup flakes, Camus or brothers playing chess at Christmas.

If your reading style is to skip around like the hummingbirds that fill Hillman’s verses, consider reading first the dedication and then “Ecopoetics Minifesto: A Draft for Angie.” Within these two sections, Hillman provides a helpful framing of the work’s themes and concerns.

Seasonal Works is a treasure of letters on fire, miniature photographs, and scientific and non-English phrases. Hillman challenges us to more intensive observation and action. Pick up a copy and wander out into California’s noisy landscapes with Hillman as a guide.

Image at top by Chris.

Articles

LA’s Thirsty Muse

by Sara V. Torres

Could a poetic form from the 13th century offer new ways to understand our 21st century conflicts over water? The sonnet may be perfectly suited to the task, a group of poets assert. Historically it has been the poetry of power imbalances: between Petrarch and Laura, Shakespeare and his patron, and Donne and his Three-Personed God. Its fourteen compact lines of verse strain to convey conflicting forces and desires that may, or may not, find resolution. What better creative form, then, to explore the history of guilt and guile, of conflict and cooperation surrounding Southern California’s water wars than the sonnet?

“Such an asymmetrical relationship exists between Los Angeles and the remote sources of its water,” writes Christian Reed, a Ph.D. candidate in English at UCLA, and one of the conveners of 14 poets who took up the challenge of writing sonnets during the LA Aqueduct centenary this fall. “LA and the Owens Valley have been locked in a dynamic dyadic relation since the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct one hundred years ago,” Reed writes. Working on the UCLA library’s collaborative Los Angeles Aqueduct Digital Platform, Reed invited  professional writers, artists, and students to create a traditional (or nontraditional) sonnet using archived images of the LA Aqueduct as inspiration.

Reed saw in the sonnet, the Italianate “little song,” an opportunity to bring together a community of writers and of readers who could re-envision the possibilities for inscribing LA’s past and imagining its future—in fourteen lines of iambic pentameter.

“Sierra Nevada Headwaters,” Mixed Media, 22″ x 30″, Valerie P. Cohen

Though most closely associated with the Renaissance, the sonnet form is uniquely suited to this modern endeavor. The tightly-structured sonnet form served as an inspiration for creative explorations in formal innovation and artistic experiment. Contributors to the LA Aqueduct sonnet cycle freely adapted the sonnet form, creating “overflowing” sonnets, prose poems, and even multimedia art. Artist Valerie P. Cohen, when invited to write a sonnet based on archival materials about the aqueduct, instead offered to paint a watercolor whose design is based on Mount Morrison, a 12,241-foot metamorphic peak whose runoff ends up in Los Angeles. The history she captures in her mixed-media painting, “Sierra Nevada Headwaters,” is both regional and personal; her father, John D. Mendenhall, made what may have been the first ascent of Mount Morrison in 1928.

In early December, surrounded by archival images and documents preserving the history of the aqueduct’s construction, the entire sonnet cycle was performed aloud in UCLA’s Library Special Collections. UCLA English professor Robert N. Watson, a specialist in the fields of Renaissance literature and ecocriticism, delivered a response to the cycle highlighting the verbal echoes and imaginative motifs that ran through the entire sequence and gave it thematic cohesion.

Like the sonnet form itself, the ongoing water conflicts in California may or may not find ultimate reconciliation. But the efforts to preserve water resources in California may well require the kinds of creative habits of mind, steeped in both tradition and innovation, familiar to poets. As Reed writes, the aqueduct sonnet cycle “opens a space in which meanings can seep, can saturate one another, can be soaked up by a larger audience and offers an invitation to readers that is something like the opposite of Mulholland’s famous line ‘There it is, take it.’ Rather, these sonnets say: ‘Here comes history, awareness, poetry: be taken by it.’”

And here is my own contribution to the sonnet cycle:

Headwaters
by Sara V. Torres

Long sweep of the desert wind across high mesa meadows,

blue-eyed juniper, lilac, sage, cactus scrub, cascara sagrada,

wide-armed mesquite, pale iris, primroses, piñones thick with needles,

resin-glistened rocks, lone enebro, sawabe dusted across cañon slopes,

sky-divided waters, white-blossomed yerba mansa,

crested quail, meadowlarks, beetles moving on the face of desert lakes.

Two iron-ringed arms reach out across the plains, full-veined,

Crushed limestone cut from the valley, desert-baked concrete, captures streams,

plunging deep across a land of water borders retraced in the earth,

of lost mines and rabbit borrows, hawks and unflinching old vaqueros;

Waters drawn towards sunset, towards pillars and light-bathed stars,

towards invisible cities beyond the somber mesa.

The ending: Frontinus runs dusty fingers through a street-well’s trickle

Plumbed Appia, Anio Novus, dammed Aniene above Subiaco,

His fixed gaze mingles with the Tiber among crumbling columns of stone.

We bring a bronze legend to this outstretched map of arid land,

and think on oar-dipped waves and scrolled papyrus,

our familiar genius at home among these abundant ruins.

Reviews

Reading for Liberalism

Reading for Liberalism: The Overland Monthly and the Writing of the Modern American West, by Stephen J. Mexal (University of Nebraska, 320pp, $65)

Reviewed by Sara V. Torres

Before there was Boom or Sunset, there was Overland Monthly. From 1868 to 1875 and from 1883 to 1935, this San Francisco-based regional periodical published writers such as Jack London, John Muir, Mark Twain, Ina Coolbrith, and Bret Harte, entertaining readers on both coasts with poetry, travelogues, short fiction, and political commentary. But the Overland Monthly aimed to do more than entertain—its early editors hoped it would help transform the social landscape of California itself by aiding in the state’s material development—a process they figured would ultimately expand the magazine’s own readership. The Overland Monthly often portrayed California as sophisticated and civilized—a far cry from its earlier reputation as a lawless, rough-and-tumble outpost—and thus contributed to the construction of some of the enduring, foundational, cultural myths of California. As Mexal writes, “The magazine’s auxiliary pose—dedicated to ‘development’ of both country and reader—meant that its literary output engaged certain master narratives about liberal selfhood and land use and then localized those narratives in California.” The Overland Monthly helped tame the cultural imaginary of the “wild West” by coloring California’s frontier land past with shades of romantic nostalgia. But, as Mexal’s incisive book points out, the magazine’s writers also engaged critically with discourses of wilderness and civilization at a decisive moment in California’s history as the state began to take the form we now recognize as home.

Illustration of Bessie Love and Douglas Fairbanks from the Overland Monthly.

Reviews

What We Are Reading

Birds of Paradise Lost, by Andrew Lam (Red Hen Press)

These short stories by Vietnamese-American essayist Andrew Lam open doors on unexpectedly intimate scenes, moving stories, told in surprising voices. In his nonfiction, Lam has plumbed the depths of his own experience as a refugee who came to the United States as a young boy and grew up gay in San Jose’s conservative Vietnamese émigré community. He has used his own hard-won insights to write widely and wisely about immigration, culture, politics, identity and so much more. His own voice is a true gift to California and the world. Here he brings to life other Vietnamese-American voices, their Californias, their worlds. Lam’s fiction weaves the pitch-perfect perceptiveness of his nonfiction, with slightly cracked characters all the more believable for their idiosyncrasies, and a touch of magical realism that may or may not be the result of living fully, simultaneously between worlds, with the past ever present.

Jon Christensen

Articles

The Master of Nasty

by Jonah Raskin

From Boom Winter 2012, Vol. 2, No. 4

A homage to Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler relished finding names for his quirky characters, including Philip Marlowe, the pipe-smoking, chess-playing private eye—a literary kinsman to Sam Spade, Dashiell Hammett’s solitary sleuth—whom I first met in the pages of fiction as a teenager and whom I have known more than fifty years. Sometimes the names are dead giveaways about the morality or immorality of the character, sometimes they’re opaque, but I’ve always found them intriguing and an open invitation to try to solve the mystery myself. In his first novel, The Big Sleep (1939) Chandler calls the bellicose gangster Eddie Mars, the smut peddler Arthur Gwynn Geiger, and the top cop Captain Cronjager. In The High Window (1942), Lois Magic is the femme fatale, Linda Conquest is a torch singer, and Leslie Murdoch is the effete son of a nasty heiress who has murdered her own husband and brainwashed Merle Davis (a wholesome girl from the Midwest and a victim of sexual assault) into thinking she’s guilty of the crime. Nice people, Marlowe observes wryly.

Born in Chicago in 1888, near the end of the Victorian era, raised in England among elite Edwardians, and transplanted to Los Angeles in 1913, Chandler saw California through the eyes of an English eccentric. A veteran of World War I who was wounded in action in France, and a child of Prohibition and Depression America, he recognized that crime was an industry in both boom and bust times, and a rich field for a writer. Then, too, as a displaced person and an alien in the Southern California world of cars and freeways, among phony and lonely people, he tapped into a vast reservoir of mass discontent. In his seven novels, all of them set in and around Los Angeles, he depicted the world as a vile place inhabited by loathsome people. A cynic, he envisioned no way to escape nastiness—certainly not by going to the movies, which, in his view, offered much the same trite boy-meets-girl story over and over again and trivialized psychological issues and social problems.

“Twenty-four hours a day somebody is running, somebody else is trying to catch him,” Chandler wrote of LA. He added that it was “a city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness.” Chandler loved and hated LA in much the same way that Balzac loved and hated mid-nineteenth-century Paris and F. Scott Fitzgerald loved and hated Jazz Age Manhattan. He learned a great deal about the craft of fiction by reading Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, too; then he created a style of his own that borrowed from the tabloid newspaper and the modernist poem, fusing The Daily News and The Waste Land.


PHOTO COURTESY OF NÉSTOR GALINA

To a large extent, Raymond Chandler has gone out of fashion, his novels and stories unread by the Facebook Generation, and the movies based on the books also unknown to twenty-somethings. On the cusp of the 125th anniversary of his birth, he’s a cult writer once again, as he was at the start of his career in the 1930s writing stories for Black Mask, the premier crime magazine of the day, founded by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. In the 1940s, British intellectuals such as J.B. Priestley, Hollywood directors such as Howard Hawks, and lovers of down-and-dirty fiction discovered him and turned his paperbacks into best sellers. Today, a whole new school of Southern California detective fiction has pushed Chandler to the sidelines. The newcomers include Walter Mosley, James Ellroy, and Michael Connelly, the creator of Los Angeles Police Department Detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch and criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller.

In the company of Bosch and Haller, Chandler’s Marlowe is an odd fellow. Granted, once upon a time he worked in the district attorney’s office, and he knows cops he can turn to for information—but Marlowe’s not a company man nor a cog in a law enforcement machine, and he’d never work for the LAPD, just as Sam Spade would never accept a job, however well paid, with the San Francisco Police Department. For Hammett and Chandler, cops belong to the criminal injustice system. They never solve mysteries or apprehend killers, blackmailers, or thieves, although they’re persistent and enduring and won’t simply up and disappear. In The Long Goodbye, Marlowe says of cops as a species, “No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.”

Nasty sex, nasty money, nasty murder, and nasty cops are the volatile ingredients Chandler mixed together to cook up books that could be called noir fiction, detective stories, murder mysteries, or a combination of all three. Marlowe the detective is deep in the world of crime, corruption, and venality, as he recognizes at the end of The Big Sleep: “Me. I was part of the nastiness now,” he exclaims. In the pages of the novels, Marlowe isn’t the virtuous character that Chandler described in his 1950 essay, “The Simple Art of Murder,” in which he wrote famously, “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Throughout the novels Marlowe is a tarnished knight and mean, too, though on the whole critics, readers, and biographers haven’t noticed this fact.

Nasty place

“Hardboiled” fiction and “mystery story” were the two main terms that Chandler himself used to describe his work. In his fiction there are always multiple murders, always the dogged detective who empathizes with the little man and the little woman who haven’t basked in Jazz Age glamour, haven’t enjoyed steady employment in the Depression, and who aren’t part of the California Dream. In the novels there’s always a dark, ominous atmosphere, even though his detective, Marlowe, operates in the sunny “have-a-nice-day” world promoted by the greater Los Angeles tourist industry.

It doesn’t really matter how the novels are labeled. They’re works of literature, as critics and reviewers such as Joyce Carol Oates and Carolyn See have pointed out, and if anyone tries to force them into a strict genre, they just won’t fit comfortably. Call them pulp fiction, too, if you will. They radiate real genius, especially the author’s uncanny ability to write crisp dialogue that leaps off the page and to conjure up Southern California’s mean streets, derelict office buildings, and transient hotels.


PHOTOGRAPH BY FRASER MUMMERY.

All creative writers, even Shakespeare, rely at times on literary formulae, Chandler pointed out. Writers of detective fiction were no exception. Moreover, they could also write truly original works that might change the world of fiction. Now and then, as Chandler recognized, a novel such as Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (1930), created its own space, exploding nice, neat literary categories. “Hammett took murder out of the Venetian vase,” Chandler wrote, “and dropped it into the alley.” The Big Sleep, too, exploded literary categories. As the contemporary novelist Paul Auster observed, “Raymond Chandler invented a new way of talking about America, and America has never looked the same to us since.”


PHOTOGRAPH BY STEFAN INSAM.

But Chandler had something more specific than America in mind. True, the titles of the novels don’t refer to exact geographical locations but rather to places, and to times, and to characters, as well, that could be found almost anywhere: the lady in the lake, the high window, the little sister, and the long goodbye. Much of the dramatic action occurs in a fictional town that Chandler calls “Bay City,” where the police are rough and the residents are rich. We know, however, that Bay City is based on Santa Monica, a place he knew intimately well because he lived there for years.

In an early story, the femme fatale leaves LA for New York, but neither Marlowe nor Chandler follow her there; she might as well have fallen off the face of the earth. New York isn’t on Chandler’s map of the United States. Los Angeles is nearly his whole universe, and his LA is the epicenter of the dark, soulless civilization he saw sprawling everywhere. In 1950, when he looked back at his own early work and at the pulp fiction published in Black Mask, he observed that it depicted “a world gone wrong, a world in which, long before the atom bomb, civilization had created the machinery for its own destruction, and was learning to use it with the moronic delight of a gangster trying out his first machine gun.”

Nasty world

As a long-time aficionado of Chandler’s hardboiled narra-tives who grew up reading his novels on the East Coast, I refused to allow Californians exclusive bragging rights to his work. As a lecturer in English in the 1980s, in a class I called “The Mysteries of College Composition,” my students read Chandler, Hammett, and James M. Cain. They also wrote their own murder mysteries, making up crimes and criminals. Then, in the 1990s, as a professor of communication studies, I taught a film noir class in which students viewed the cinematic versions of Chandler’s, Hammett’s, and Cain’s novels, as well as neo-noir classics such as Chinatown, Blade Runner, and Body Heat, which rekindled my love of the noir form. In fact, I read so much noir fiction and saw so many noir films that the world came to look like a noir movie with femme fatales, fall guys, corrupt cops, and big-time crime bosses. Noir helped save me from becoming a hopeless romantic and a starry-eyed idealist. Raised in a liberal-left East Coast family, I imbibed progressive ideas and values about the perfectibility of society and human beings. I needed a healthy dose of Chandler’s cynicism to balance my optimism, and I was delighted to learn that Dashiell Hammett, the author of The Maltese Falcon, with its cast of back-stabbing characters, had been a member of the American Communist Party. Knowing the venal nature of the world and wanting to change it were compatible.

I’ve been collecting Chandler’s books for nearly fifty years, but I only have one first edition. I prefer the cheap paperbacks with the lurid colors and the cartoon-like sketches of Philip Marlowe wearing a fedora and carrying a gun, or, as he calls it, “a gat.” In the 1990s Vintage republished the novels in their “Crime/Black Lizard” series, but those covers are too arty and elegant for my taste. More recently, the Library of America issued an essential two-volume set of Chandler’s complete works. Volume One includes early stories that were dress rehearsals for the novels, with catchy titles: “Red Wind,” “King in Yellow,” and “Trouble Is My Business.” In one novel after another, Chandler went out of his way to look for trouble, leading his narrator and existentialist antihero into labyrinths of nastiness from which there appears to be no escape—especially when he’s drugged and unconscious—or not until the proverbial last minute.

My two favorite Chandler novels, The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, were both made into Hollywood movies, the first directed by Howard Hawks, the second by Robert Altman. Both were changed substantially, the venality toned down. Those who have only seen the movies don’t realize that the novels paint indelible portraits of nasty California mobsters and nasty California monsters, most of them wealthy and white; the women, more often than men, play staring roles as consummate killers. Wealthy men, like General Sternwood in The Big Sleep, hire gunmen to do the dirty work while they live vicariously and die quietly. Women commit the crimes themselves, and they don’t get away with murder. Marlowe is often, though not always, a misogynist and a racist. Sometimes misogyny and racism are essential parts of his character and integral to the story, and sometimes he learns not to be a racist and a misogynist; he knows better.

Nasty people

Part of the pleasure of reading Chandler is watching him peel away the layers that surround seemingly virtuous characters. The plot is usually far too tangled for its own good, and at times it doesn’t matter who has killed whom. The bodies just pile up. Hawks and Humphrey Bogart once telegrammed Chandler to ask him if a character was murdered or if he committed suicide. Chandler wired back saying he didn’t know. Occasionally, Marlowe will explain who pulled the trigger and disposed of the corpse, but his explanations are the least entertaining aspects of his stories. The quirky characters—gangsters, movie stars, rich playboys, and playgirls—keep the reader turning pages.

Chandler maintains the suspense by moving his private eye or “peeper” as quickly and effortlessly as he can from luxurious mansions and swank swimming pools to smoky gambling dens, and by connecting the nasty rich to the nasty down-and-outers. Sexual tension mounts, sexual sparks fly, and Marlowe uses his wits more than his fists to fend off adversaries, whether they’re male or female. There are as many fictional Southern California doctors, and especially insidious psychiatrists, as there are crafty lawyers and brutal cops. That’s fitting, because Chandler was fascinated by the workings of the human mind—the deceptions, the lies, and the psychological warfare that takes place in poisonous marriages and in toxic families such as the Wades in The Long Goodbye, the Sternwoods in The Big Sleep, and the Murdocks in The High Window, who are covering up for an old, cold case of murder.


PHOTOGRAPH BY EMDOT.

Nasty thrills

The High Window, Chandler’s third novel, holds a special place on my shelf because it was published in 1942, the year I was born. I didn’t discover it until I was nineteen, and when I did I realized that the world that I saw all around me was the world according to Chandler. He invented it before I was old enough to recognize it.

At nineteen I was also reading Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, and James Joyce, intoxicated by Swan’s Way, The Magic Mountain, and Ulysses, but reading those books, which were assigned in literature classes at college, felt like entering distant cultures unlike my own.

With Chandler, I experienced something very different. Reading The High Window was like wandering in a world simultaneously familiar and strange. All of his novels were more than a tad shocking. The main characters belonged to nuclear families, but they didn’t behave like the well-behaved members of the families I knew. In The High Window, the innocent young girl is sexually molested by an older married man. In The Big Sleep, Marlowe tells the beautiful daughter of a wealthy client, “kissing is nice, but your father didn’t hire me to sleep with you,” a line that Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Watson never would have uttered. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple wouldn’t utter it, either.

In 1961, when I first read Chandler, the sexual revolution of the 1960s was yet to come. Pillow Talk, with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, was the movie of the year the year I graduated from high school, and, though it offered pillows and talk, the dialogue and the plot weren’t explicitly sexual. Chandler connected perverted sex to big money, organized crime, and patriarchal power, and when the sexual and political revolutions of the 1960s arrived, his novels reached rebels such as myself and my contemporaries who were eager for sordid details about old money and old men who, Chandler explains in The Long Goodbye, were “[a]ll Victorian dignity on the outside” and “inside…as ruthless as a Gestapo thug.”

The High Window exudes sexuality from beginning to end. The characters also offer a steady stream of cruel comments about one another, as when Leslie Murdock tells Marlowe, “My mother hates to spend money. She thinks money is part of her skin.” In another scene, Lois Magic, the novel’s blonde beauty, advises one of her admirers, “Sit down and rest your sex appeal.” There’s something of Mae West’s cheeky sexuality in Chandler’s novels, and, while some of the quips about sex are humorous, in the spirit of West, the sexual overtones and undertones can be plain hurtful. Marlowe, the protagonist, is as hurtful as anyone else. Of Merle, the silly, sweet, innocent girl in The High Window, who has been brainwashed into thinking she’s a killer, he says, “She will probably turn out to be one of these acid-faced virgins that sit behind little desks in public libraries and stamp dates in books.”

Marlowe can’t resist making snide comments about women, much as Chandler can’t help but make his women characters into far more seductive, dangerous, and often more lethal figures than his male characters (with the notable exception of Marlowe, the loner who never marries, who doesn’t have a wife, a family, or even a long-lasting friend in the wilderness of LA).

Mrs. Eileen Wade, one of the last major women characters that Chandler created, is as vicious as any other in his oeuvre, and in many ways she’s similar to Carmen Sternwood, one of the first female characters he created. They’re both man-killers, insanely jealous, possessive, and neurotic. Not the butler, but the wife, daughter, or sister is often the killer, though it’s the chauffer in an early story Chandler published in Black Mask.


PHOTOGRAPH BY COLLECT MOMENTS.

I stumbled on The High Window on my own and read it without the help or hindrance of literary critics and book reviewers. The cover of my copy of the novel sported a blurb by someone I had never heard of before, named Erle Stanley Gardner, who said, “Raymond Chandler is a star of the first magnitude.” The High Window introduced me to noir, that elastic term coined by French critics to describe Hollywood’s “B” movies that has been defined and redefined ever since the 1940s. Anita Monga, a well-versed film buff who regularly put on noir festivals at the Castro Theater in San Francisco while I was teaching noir, noted that noir films are often bleaker than gangster pictures, with no redemption at the end and with, as she put it, “an inner feeling of fatalism.” (Noir and gangster novels and films overlap. The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely both include big time mobsters.) Monga also observed that the first wave of noir films from the 1930s and 1940s were often filmed at night, with dark scenes, ominous shadows, and odd camera angles that made the characters look literally bent and twisted.

I became so enthralled with Marlowe on the screen and in print that I came to think of him as a real person. I was disappointed when I read one of Chandler’s letters (collected by biographer Frank MacShane) in which he insisted that Marlowe was a fictional character. “He is a creature of fantasy,” he wrote. In the 1990s, when I met real detectives in San Francisco, I was delighted to hear that they learned about detective work by reading Chandler and by investigating crimes as doggedly and as fearlessly as his character Marlowe does. Of course, none of the real detectives I met talked about cases as candidly as Marlowe; he breaches confidentiality at every opportunity, while they didn’t.

The High Window persuaded me that Chandler’s dark view of the world was as fascinating as any intellectual’s, including Karl Marx’s, and it turned me for a time into a kind of noirish Marxist. In the pages of film magazines, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one to appreciate noir as social criticism. Some of the grandest theorists and the most astute writers about noir, such as the director Paul Schrader and the American film critic Robert Warshow, pointed out that noir movies and books were eminently suited to present a subversive view of the bourgeois world and its dangerously seductive illusions.

The author himself seemed to think along Marxist lines, though he could also “crack wise”—to borrow one of his own expressions—in the manner of Groucho Marx. In The Big Sleep, a beautiful, sexy, rich, young white woman cracks wise with Marlowe. “I was beginning to think perhaps you worked in bed, like Marcel Proust,” she says. “Who’s he?” Marlowe asks. Proust, she tells him, is “a French writer, a connoisseur in degenerates.” Of course, Chandler knew about Proust and his work. He assumed that readers would get his inside joke about the highbrow author of In Search of Lost Time. He had a bookish chip on his shoulder and enjoyed taking shots at the big authors of his day who were acclaimed as the masters of something called literature. Chandler could be mean about fellow writers and about reviewers and critics.

There’s more overt social criticism in The Long Goodbye than in any other Chandler novel. A millionaire named Mr. Potter sounds like the Marx of Das Kapital when he says, “There’s a peculiar thing about money. In large quantities it tends to have a life of its own, even a conscience of its own. The power of money becomes very difficult to control.” Potter also echoes the American sociologist Thorstein Veblen when he explains, “You can’t have quality with mass production. You don’t want it because it lasts too long. So you substitute styling, which is a commercial swindle intended to produce artificial obsolescence. Mass production couldn’t sell its goods next year unless it made what it sold this year look unfashionable a year from now.”

Chandler clearly enjoyed hearing his own ideas emerge from the mouth of a millionaire. He also enjoyed the scene in which his district attorney, Bernie Ohls, tells Marlowe, “There ain’t no clean way to make a hundred million bucks . . . Big money is big power, and big power gets used wrong. It’s the system.” When Marlowe replies, “You sound like a Red,” Ohls quips, “I wouldn’t know. I ain’t been investigated yet.” Published in 1953, in the aftermath of the Hollywood Ten, and before Senator Joseph McCarthy was tarnished on TV, The Long Goodbye captures the tenor of the anti-Communist crusade that infected the film industry and Washington, D.C. Though Chandler was never questioned about his political affiliations, he called the hearings on Reds in the film industry “the Hollywood show in Washington,” and argued that “the Founding Fathers” did not intend that it be “conducted with microphones, flash bulbs, and moving picture cameras.” He understood the power of the media to shape public opinion and to make or to break politicians. Working in the film industry provided him with an intimate glimpse into the links between public relations and mass marketing. In Hollywood, Chandler saw the future of an America in which images would have the magical power to manufacture conformity.

Hollywood nasty

Working as a screenwriter in Hollywood turned Raymond Chandler into a cynic about the movie studios. “They do not like to deal with honest men,” he told his publisher, Alfred Knopf. Not surprisingly, he never cared for the cinematic versions of his novels. Hollywood cannibalized his plots, glamorized and sanitized his sinister women, and turned Marlowe, a lonely drunk and misogynist, into Marlowe the sentimental lover. Bogart filled the idealized Marlowe role admirably in Hawks’s version of The Big Sleep. Lauren Bacall was smart and sexy as the older, wiser, and more virtuous of the two rambunctious Sternwood sisters, and Hawks’s happy ending made for happy audiences and big box office revenues.

Chandler made significant contributions to two major motion pictures, Double Indemnity (1944) and Strangers on a Train (1951), but directors, Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock, rejected much of what he wrote, leaving him feeling bitter and resentful about making movies. His novels—The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, The High Window, Lady in the Lake, The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye, and Playback—were too harsh, too real, and too noir even for the studios that made noir films. Over the last few years, I’ve returned to those seven novels again and again as welcome and necessary antidotes to the kind of cheap, facile optimism that’s mass-produced in Hollywood—and elsewhere in AmericA&Mdash;and that usually makes me feel more depressed than the noirest of noir novels and films. I’ll take Marlowe over the current wave of detectives who have wives, girlfriends, husbands, and children, and who have a nice day even when it’s cold and gray outside. Chandler’s brand of California noir is so down and so dark that it’s positively inspiring and elevating, and as timeless, too, as Nathaniel West’s novel The Day of the Locust, published in 1939, the same year as The Big Sleep. At the conclusion of The High Window, Marlowe enjoys playing chess with himself—“beautiful cold remorseless chess, almost creepy in its silent implacability.” At the end of the day, he is always alone, always eager for a new case, and always sharpening his razor-sharp mind.

Reviews

The Invasion of Echo Park

by Hsuan L. Hsu

From Boom Fall 2012, Vol. 2, No. 3

LA rocks on

The Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse, Free Press, 224 pages

In late 2011, the Occupy movement quickly became one of the most visible and viable means of sheltering and sustaining people who have been displaced by the unemployment, foreclosures, and evictions resulting from offshoring and rampant financial speculation. Violent police raids on Occupy encampments throughout the country bear witness to how difficult and vital it is for disempowered groups to access and lay claim to living space in US cities. Brando Skyhorse’s first book of fiction, The Madonnas of Echo Park, covers two historical moments that underlie contemporary struggles over public space in and beyond Los Angeles: the withdrawal of jobs, tax revenue, and services from the inner city caused by suburbanization and “white flight” in the decades following World War II, and the return of real estate speculation and middle-class residents to urban centers in recent decades. In addition to dramatizing the lives of characters caught between languages and cultures, Madonnas is a story about how gentrification affects the Mexican/Mexican American community in the transitional neighborhood of Echo Park.

First developed by real estate investor Thomas Kelly in the 1880s, Echo Park (then called “Edendale”) was a center of the LA film industry during the silent era and a middle-class neighborhood in the early twentieth century. As many middle-class white residents relocated to the suburbs after World War II, Mexican Americans moved into the area’s affordable homes, becoming Echo Park’s majority, along with smaller populations of Chinese, Filipino, and Southeast Asian immigrants. Brando Skyhorse has an unusual relationship to the neighborhood’s ethnic and cultural diversity: abandoned by his Mexican father when he was three-years-old, he grew up believing he was the son of his mother’s Native American boyfriend, a man named Paul Skyhorse Johnson. In interviews, the author explains that even after learning of his true genealogy in his early teens he continued to hide his Mexican identity because his mother, who was Mexican, was passing as a Native American (he did not publicize his Mexican identity until after his mother’s death in 1998). Drawing on this personal history of “passing,” Skyhorse’s novel offers an engaging meditation on displacement and its effects on a complex cast of characters.


The Great Wall of Los Angeles by Judy Baca and SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center) commemorate Chavez Ravine and the division of the barrios with freeways. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF THE CITY PROJECT.

An author’s note establishes the connection between the author and his characters by narrating Skyhorse’s own (possibly fictionalized) encounter with a girl named Aurora Esperanza at a grade-school dance. When Aurora asks him to dance to the tune of Madonna’s “Borderline,” the young protagonist refuses, saying “You’re a Mexican,” and Aurora leaves the school in shame. In the stories that follow, Skyhorse attempts to make restitution for that moment of unwitting self-rejection by creating a diverse group of nine Mexican American narrators, each of them facing identity crises associated with the challenges of assimilation: middle-class jobs, learning English, college educations, stereotypes in Hollywood films, cross-racial dating, and the messages of popular singers like Madonna, Gwen Stefani, and Morrissey.

The identity confusion featured throughout The Madonnas of Echo Park is complicated by the fact that there is no “authentic” culture or neighborhood to which these characters can return. Skyhorse exposes the fantasy of an authentic Latino ‘hood by repeatedly referencing the video for Madonna’s “Borderline”:

… Madonna, dressed as a classic “Low Rider” chola in a forties-style hair bonnet, white wife-beater, long drape coat, and baggy pants that came up past her waist, had been kicked out of her gringo photographer boyfriend’s fancy loft for spray-painting a streak on his sports car. Out on “her” streets again, Madonna walks past El Guanaco and is welcomed into the arms of her cholas hanging outside, who realize she has not abandoned her chicas or her ‘hood. They walk into the Mercado, and after a selection at the jukebox, Madonna dances into the arms of her former boyfriend, a young Mexican guy who has pined for her throughout the video and represents the Mexican roots, the Mexican life she cannot turn her back on (p. 47).

The idea of “genuine Mexican roots,” it seems, can be co-opted by white artists (and in this case an Italian-American pop star) who identify ethnic minorities with exotic neighborhood cultures and then commodify those cultures. But when Mexican characters look to Madonna to teach them about the appeal of Echo Park’s street culture and the importance of roots, the notion of a pure ethnic identity seems naïve. Instead, the novel’s central scene—which ties together most of its ensemble cast—features Aurora and several other girls dressed up as Madonna (that is, as Madonna disguised as a chola) dancing to the tune of “Borderline” in front of El Guanaco market, where the street scenes of the video were actually shot. In the world of music videos and their fans, there seems to be no borderline between Echo Park and Hollywood, Mexican and gringo, a rock star and neighborhood girls dressing up as the “Madonnas” of Echo Park because their parents cannot afford other forms of entertainment. But on a more material level, Skyhorse frequently stresses the effects of neighborhoods and national borders: one of the girls dancing in front of the market is killed by a stray bullet; Aurora’s father is deported at the end of the first chapter; and a city bus driver, though acutely sensitive to the racial dynamics of the different neighborhoods traversed by his route, is pushed to extremes.

All of this makes The Madonnas of Echo Park a strange instance of the LA ensemble narrative—a genre of fiction that fantasizes about personal encounters that counteract the isolation of sprawl and suburbanization. In the films Grand Canyon (1991), Short Cuts (1993), Magnolia (1999), and Crash (2004), and in novels such as T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain (1995) and Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange (1997), characters from different racial and ethnic groups encounter one another despite the fact that the layout of LA and its suburbs and its history of “white flight” have substantively minimized such encounters. In the wake of the 1992 LA uprising, these stories often feature interpersonal meetings that cross boundaries and heal racial fissures: random encounters and car crashes teach characters that everyone is connected.

With its cast of nine first-person narrators who cross paths in the neighborhood of Echo Park, The Madonnas of Echo Park certainly reads like an ensemble narrative—but it refuses to close with an upbeat lesson about interconnectedness. Instead of assembling characters through significant coincidences, Madonnas shows how the characters, most of whom are Mexican American and many of whom are related by blood, become so disconnected that they can continually miss opportunities to recognize and communicate with one another. In the novel’s climactic scene, Aurora encounters her estranged father, her half-sister, her mother, her grand-uncle, and her estranged grandmother at the annual Lotus Festival without recognizing (or being recognized by) any of them.

By organizing his book around moments where subplots and characters’ lives intersect without the characters being aware of their mutual connections, Skyhorse evokes the social and emotional distances intervening among broken families, provisional erotic relationships, and an increasingly scattered community struggling to maintain a cultural foothold in the gentrifying neighborhoods of Echo Park.

Madonnas traces the attrition of cultural identity and community ties to the actual eviction of Mexican American families from affordable housing in Chavez Ravine in 1959. Aurora explains that “My first name comes from the last woman evicted from the ground that would become Dodger Stadium” (p. 150). Skyhorse bases the character of Aurora’s great-grandmother, Aurora Salazar, on Aurora Vargas, whose forcible eviction from Chavez Ravine is the subject of several iconic photographs (she was fined and jailed for disobeying the eviction order). Growing up in the aftermath of LA urban planners’ assault on black and brown neighborhoods, the younger Aurora has no direct knowledge of the dirt trails and rustic hillside community of Chavez Ravine. She says, “I didn’t know those hills; I didn’t know that woman. What I knew were tunneled-out highways that unfurled like streamers tossed off a balcony from atop Dodger Stadium and endless days of riding my bicycle through its saucer-tiered parking lots, flat and featureless …” (p. 152). In documenting the aftereffects of the evictions at Chavez Ravine and the division of the barrios by freeway construction, Madonnas extends the explorations of recent works such as Helena Maria Viramontes’s Their Dogs Came with Them, Heather Woodbury’s Tale of 2Cities, and historian Eric Avila’s Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight.

Most of Skyhorse’s book is set in the present, as gentrification gradually extends the earlier displacements epitomized by Chavez Ravine. As an anonymous flier titled “GENTRIFICATION” posted in an Echo Park laundromat explains, “People that grew up in echo park, had family and friends here, were forced out of there [sic] homes to welcome the new european invader. The Christopher and Christina Columbus of our time … The HIPSTER …” While boutiques, cafés, and other evidence of gentrification appear with gradually increasing frequency throughout the book, the chapter entitled “The Hustler” takes the measure of urban renewal by depicting a convict’s disoriented return to Echo Park after nearly twelve years in prison:

“Angustian Family Evicted from Home in Chavez Ravine, Los Angeles.” Los Angeles Times (May 9, 1959).COURTESY OF UCLA, SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, CHARLES E. YOUNG RESEARCH LIBRARY

On the starting tip of Sunset Boulevard (which is now called César Chavez Avenue—when did that happen?) I survey my territory—the new apartment buildings and stores, the fresh coats of paint on the doors and window frames on abandoned shops, new storefront signs in English covering the old sun-bleached Spanish ones[,] the odd presence of young bearded white men with coffee, not six-packs, on the street corners. Where are the Chicanos? Or the Chinos? (p. 113)

Freddy finds that a “white woman with short black hair and a tight T-shirt that somehow makes her look like a man” has moved into his lover’s home; notices a house being renovated “by some Mexican day-laborers”; is surprised to see graffiti in English in his ‘hood; and finally settles down to hustle a sucker at pool table. His mark—“a white guy in his thirties with thick Buddy Holly-style glasses, a short-sleeve shirt that changes color depending on what angle I look at it from, baggy black pants with a chain dangling from his right pocket, and spotless black ‘work’ shoes”(p. 120)—seems like a naïve hipster. But after Freddy wins some money and attempts a different hustle, the white man beats him up and takes his cash.

Overall, Madonnas does not take a one-sided stance against either cultural assimilation or gentrification. Aurora, too, feels disoriented upon returning to the neighborhood, “as if an antimatter explosion had detonated high above Echo Park, reconstructing decay into a glittering faux affluence, a Willy Wonka neutron bomb coating the landscape in radioactive smiley face yellows and Wellbutrin blues.” But she does not flee from the new condos, cafés, and boutiques although. she admits she feels lost, she concludes, “I guess it’s good for the neighborhood” (p. 189). After accidentally—and to her, miraculously—running into the singer Morrissey (who once said “I wish I was born Mexican”) at the Lotus Festival, Aurora decides to cast her lot with Echo Park. Popular culture and gentrification may have dislocated the cohesive Mexican American community, but Aurora believes it to be “a land rich with roots that grow, thrive, burn, are razed, heal, then grow again, deeper and stronger than before.” Only the reader knows—from assembling the threads of other chapters—that she has just walked past several family members without knowing it, and that her father is in the process of being deported at the very moment she thinks “This is the land we dream of, the land that belongs to us again” (p. 199). With such ironic dissonances filling the gaps between its chapters, The Madonnas of Echo Park records the promise of new forms of belonging as well as the loss that attends the violent uprooting of the old.

Interviews

Place, Poetry, and the Sunset Western Garden Book

by Louis Warren and Spring Warren
photographs by Spring Warren

From Boom Fall 2011, Vol. 1, No. 3

An interview with Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder’s poetry has explored Zen, nature, and labor for over fifty years, and in that time has profoundly shaped life and letters on the West Coast, in the United States, and even in Asia. Louis and Spring Warren recently sat down with Snyder at his house, Kitkiddizze, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, to talk about how he became a Californian and what the future holds for West Coast poetry.

LW: What does it mean to be a “California poet”?

Snyder: Well, that’s the question. It’s very difficult to talk about. Actually, there are four Californias, or five Californias even. You know, there is a split between the south and the north. And when I am traveling in the rest of the world, Europe or Asia, people ask me where I’m from, I say I’m from Northern California. I don’t say California, I say Northern California. They know right away what I mean.

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LW: You grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Now you consider yourself a Northern Californian. Why did you choose California? What made you decide to work from here rather than Oregon or Washington?

Snyder: Well, I was born in San Francisco, actually, but spent my childhood in the Pacific Northwest, near Seattle. My paternal grandparents were well settled into the Northwest from the time it was still a territory in Kitsap County on the west side of Puget Sound. Anyway, I don’t recall ever thinking there was a serious division between British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, or even Northern California. And to begin with, weather patterns and a lot of the ecology extend well south of the California-Oregon border. In fact, there’s a lot here in California that belongs to the Northwest. The gardening zone for this area here, for the whole Sierra Nevada foothills actually, is gardening zone number seven in the Sunset Garden Book, which is the same zone as the Rogue River Valley.

LW: In Oregon?

Gary: Yes—zone 7 goes up as far as Roseburg in southern Oregon.

SW: So maybe when you go overseas and people ask where you’re from, you should say zone 7.

Snyder: You know, I could say that in California, and most people don’t know what I’m talking about. You have to be a gardener to know the zones in the Sunset Garden Book. But they’re very good. They’re very subtle, too. I have fun arguing and talking about these things. I say California’s borders are extremely misdrawn and the two desert zones really belong with their own area… . There’s an idea I take from Kroeber’s work in California Indian anthropology. He uses the term “heartland” or “core California” for California Indian culture as based in the Great Central Valley and radiating south and north a certain distance and over to the coast.

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SW: So to your mind, “core California” is the Central Valley?

Snyder: Based in the Central Valley. Along the rivers. And over along the rivers all the way to the Bay. But of course, the Central Valley was a big marsh and it was full of waterfowl. Back before European contact, Indians didn’t really live in the Central Valley; they lived on the edges on the west side and on the edges of the east side. And if they lived on the west side, they made trips regularly over to the coast because they liked the taste of oysters. And if they lived on the edge of the foothills, they would come up higher to get away from the hot weather in the summer and also they could get yew wood for yew bows which were great trade items. So there’s all sorts of reasons to work these things out.

LW: How does the radicalism of San Francisco and Northern California fit in all this?

Snyder: The west side of the Pacific Coast, from British Columbia south to Big Sur, and possibly farther south, has had, for example, since the very early twentieth century, a number of Utopian socialist communities, has had a number of visionary and often left wing writers. It has had a number of very strong women writers.

LW: You’ve mentioned borders being misdrawn. It sounds like you feel they don’t match the complexities of land and culture?

Snyder: Oh yeah, straight lines with a ruler.

LW: What about the border with Mexico?

Snyder: That’s another one. The history of that tells you how clearly arbitrary it was… . And the same with the Canadian border. Because the west was occupied, settled, and began to be exploited far too rapidly for people to get much sense of where they were or what was going on or what were the right places to put things. And that’s why I would argue 400 to 500 years from now it will all be different. It won’t look the way it looks now. People will finally get around to trying to straighten it out.

SW: So what drew you to California? Was it San Francisco?

Snyder: The first visit I recall, I was down here staying with my aunt when I was nine years old for a month so that they could take me to see the World’s Fair.

LW: In San Francisco?

Snyder: On Treasure Island. I remember seeing the Chinese dive through burning hoops. They had the Chinese jugglers and acrobats that were quite memorable.

SW: So, after your childhood visit to San Francisco, when did you come to live there?

Snyder: My mother and father split when I was still in high school. He came down here sort of tentatively. He worked for the Veterans Administration. So he came down to try that job out and as it happened, he and my mother never got back together again. So he was living down here and then he remarried. She remained in Portland some years longer. But that gave me a foothold to come down here. And I think the first time I did that was when I was seventeen hitchhiking on my way back from New York to Portland, I curved around to go through San Francisco to see my father. I found it kind of a bizarre place.

SW: How so?

Snyder: [Laughs] Well, it is kind of bizarre, don’t you think? I touched base here, then I was going back to Indiana University to go to graduate school. I made my final decision there to quit graduate school in anthropology and linguistics and come down to Berkeley for graduate school, so then I made the trip back west. But I didn’t start at Berkeley for a year and a half. So, I got an apartment in North Beach and I worked on the docks. And while living and working in San Francisco at that time, right in North Beach, it was on Telegraph Lane, I met all kinds of people. I was writing some poetry already then, and thought that this is where I should make connections and figure out what’s going on in poetry. The Zen world was already getting started there. Alan Watts was giving talks on Zen out in Pacific Heights. It was 1952, ’53. It was a very lively place.

SW: What are you working on now?

Snyder: I’m working on an East West Transpacific Buddhist Memoir with a lot of, a certain amount of criticism and a certain amount of gossip in it. And then the other book I’m working on with a friend of mine who helped build this house in the summer of 1970, and he’s an architect now and he is also a neighbor, he and I are going to do a book together here on the building of this house.

SW: That sounds like a fantastic project. You built this house in 1970. How?

Snyder: We all camped out down in the meadow, had no electricity and no power tools… . It was like nineteenth century. Old Jimmy Coughlin, who died when he was 96, came over here one time and he watched us working and he looked at our tools and he said I’ve never seen anything like this in eighty years.

. . . .

LW: How would I know a West Coast poem?

Snyder: It’s not exactly loose, but the lines don’t all line up as much as they do on the East Coast. A lot of [writers] are women. Of course, they’ve got a lot of women on the East Coast, too. But it’s the content and the aesthetic approach to experience things different than it is, as Philip Whalen described his poetry, a graph of the mind moving. If you read, which you could easily do, especially if I Xeroxed it and mailed it to you, Leslie Scalapino’s introduction to Philip Whalen’s collected poetry… is a very good description of something that is basic to most West Coast poetry.

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LW: It’s not the same as Beat poetry?

Snyder: It’s different from Beat poetry, which I am constantly trying to explain to people because I am often still categorized as a beat writer. And I try to make the distinction between Beat as a historical phenomenon, which I was involved in, and as an aesthetic and a source of a kind of writing, which I am not involved in. Once I point that out, most people with half a brain see it. And so it’s simple in that light. Leslie Scalapino just recently died of pancreatic cancer. She was sixty-two. And we all feel very bad about that cause she still had a lot to do. She lived in Berkeley and was the author of six or seven books. And was not publicly famous anywhere except on the West Coast. But what a smart woman.

I would say that West Coast poetic aesthetics is more defined by a kind of empiricism, a presence in the moment, concreteness, physicality often, and does not rely on wit or fancy so much as East Coast poetry, which is characterized often by what I would call intellectual fancy, as distinct from imagination. Fancy and imagination are not the same thing, as T.S. Eliot said in one of his literary essays years ago. East Coast poetry is more internal or personal, more about me and my feelings and what is happening in my complex life, and human-centered. There’s an enormous amount of openness to the landscape and openness to the physical world in West Coast poetry, and it has been expanding itself that way. One of the first people, the first person that you could call a real West Coast poet is Robinson Jeffers. The second one is Kenneth Rexroth.

SW: And to your mind, what are the other influences in West Coast poetry?

Snyder: There’s a big influence from East Asia, too. I’m not the only one who reads classical Chinese, but a lot of people read it in translation and took it on, and it became a significant influence. Robert Sund is a very good example. Jane Hirshfield, now there’s a good example: a woman living in Marin County who wrote a book called Nine Gates, about poetry—prose book, prose essays—that is all derived from basically Japanese aesthetics. There’s a lot of very interesting people that are doing these things.

SW: Do you think that East Coast publishers take California seriously enough?

Snyder: Well, you know, that’s another thing that I’ve gotten over being surprised by, but there is an ignorant dismissal of the West Coast in a lot of the East Coast intelligentsia. There is an identification of it with materialism and sort of trivial attitudes. And then it’s almost as if they’re saying, “Oh yeah, and you’ve got a lot of brown people there, too. A lot of Asians.”

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LW: What new contributions are Asians making to West Coast Poetry?

Snyder: Right now I’m reading an anthology of Hmong poetry produced by the Hmong Writer’s Circle based in Fresno and Merced.

SW: How is it?

Snyder: It’s not like other West Coast poetry.

LW: But it is West Coast poetry, in a way?

Snyder: Yes. That’s what I’ve been thinking about. It is, well, it’s much more like Hispanic poetry. Which is to say it’s about their experience of trying to be in America and it’s about—a lot of it’s about things in Hmong culture that they’re still trying to connect with, and a lot of it is about their mother and father and grandmother, and a lot of it is personal pain about making the wrong communications, and a lot of it is very, very interesting because it’s like one poem, I was just reading this, it says well everybody in my neighborhood is a Hmong. And there’s a couple of shaman down the street that we can get but then there’s also some Christian Hmongs so we don’t know which to go to. And then my mother gets sick and she wants both. And a lot of sexism that they’re trying to fight, you know, find their way out of. And you know, many Hmong girls marry at thirteen or fourteen and some have their first babies and drop out of high school to start having babies. And so all of that is very much up there and in there. And so like it belongs to Central Valley culture, it really does.

LW: So is this a new strand in West Coast poetry then?

Snyder: Yeah, it’s going to be a book from Heyday Press. And I’m writing one of the back cover blurbs for it. It’s already in the works, you know? Pos Moua, who was a student at Davis, he is one of the editors of it. He was a student of mine, gosh, fifteen years ago now. The only Hmong I know who graduated from UC Davis in Creative Writing.

LW: Does this give you hope for California? Is this an optimistic story?

Snyder: You know, I don’t know. I mean, it’s all froth on the beach in a way. What will the next generation and the next generation of Hmong be writing like? It’s like the generations of Japanese Americans. Nisei [the first generation born in the US] don’t write poetry. Sansei [the children of the Nisei] write poetry about I’m Japanese and nobody likes me. Yonsei [the children of the Sansei] write about anything they damn please and [their children] the Gosei, they don’t write probably because they’re too little still. But, you know, my answer to all of that is, Guys, it’s okay to keep some recipes and know a few songs, but you better get used to where you are. And it isn’t the red, white, and blue. It’s California.

LW: And how should people get used to where they are? What are the kinds of things people need to know to inhabit a place?

Snyder: They need to know where the creek is and which direction it flows. They have to know their water. I mean, they can start with some kind of a sense of place and it doesn’t hurt to have a sense of the watershed as the sense of place that you connect with. It doesn’t matter if it’s urban or rural or what. And it helps, well first of all … it helps to know that you are in a Mediterranean climate. And that it’s normal for it to have six months of drought in the summer here. It’s not weird. And that it causes California to have a number of plants that are adapted to being wet in winter but can also survive drought in summer. Understanding that there is an ecological component and a climatic component here and that you should probably not try to have a watered lawn.

Listen to Gary Snyder read “Things to do around San Francisco”

The poem is an excerpt from Mountains and Rivers Without End. The voices on the recording are Gary Snyder, Louis Warren, and Spring Warren.

Things to do around San Francisco

Catch eels in the rocks below the Palace of the Legion of Honor.

Four in the morning—congee at Sam Wo.

Walk up and down Market, upstairs playing pool,

Turn on at Aquatic park—seagulls steal bait sardine

Going clear out to Oh’s to buy bulghur.

Howard Street Goodwill.

Not paying traffic tickets; stopping the phone.

Merry-go-round at the beach, the walk up to the cliff house, sea lions and tourists—the old washed-out road that goes on—

Play chess at Mechanics’

Dress up and go looking for work.

Seek out the Wu-t’ung trees at the park arboretum.

Suck in the sea air and hold it—miles of white walls—

sunset shoots back from somebody’s window high in the Piedmont hills

Get drunk all the time. Go someplace and score.

Walk in and walk out of the Asp

Hike up Tam

Keep quitting and starting at Berkeley

Watch the pike in the Steinhart Aquarium: he doesn’t move.

Sleeping with strangers

Keeping up on the news

Chanting sutras after sitting

Practice yr frailing on guitar

Get dropped off in the fog in the night

Fall in love 20 times

Get divorced

Keep moving—move out to the Sunset

Get lost—or

Get found.

Gary Snyder

Photography/ArtReviews

Walking East of West LA

by Lynell George
From Boom Summer 2011, Vol. 1, No. 2

The photography of Kevin McCollister

It’s the other point of entry, this eastern spine of downtown Los Angeles, along the Alameda corridor where Union Station thrums with passengers departing, arriving, connecting. And drifters, who hover somewhere in between coming and going. This is the juncture, the elusive middle space, that writer/photographer Kevin McCollister loses himself in. He has become eloquent in visually evoking the poetic hang-time of the destinationless.

Late on a Sunday afternoon, amid the flow of flip-flopped and sun-hatted weekend travelers, McCollister looks like he, too, could be coming or going. With quick, hard-to-read eyes and a taut, reserved energy, he blends into the ambience of anticipation, looking for something that’s not a train or taxi or a “score”—but something. He has arranged himself at one of the concourse’s small tables at the edge of the flow with an iced coffee and his two cameras, a Panasonic Lumix and his Canon D40, still zipped away in their soft black cases. His face relaxes in a greeting, not quite a smile, but welcoming and forthright.

He’s already working, scanning possibilities: the resigned mother with the hysterical six-year-old; the bent woman on a walker fed up with panhandler sob stories; the timid security guard she’s buttonholed who nods between his “yes ma’am”s. McCollister’s eyes finally pause on a man with a dramatic flounce of dyed blue-black hair and a wool scarf flung not-so-nonchalantly about his neck despite the eighty-degree heat. He’s holding court at a table with three other men—all of whom look like they’ve walked out of another era or circumstance. McCollister risks another surreptitious glance, but doesn’t make a move for either camera. Something’s missing, not quite right—the moment. “That one has a story,” he says. “If I wait long enough I’ll find him again.”

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Brian, 2010 © Kevin McCollister

What is a train station if not a point of departure? A gateway into stories. But you can’t buy a ticket to the places McCollister takes you. His Los Angeles is not the high-gloss of turquoise pools, movie stars, and mile-high, listing palm trees. Rather, it’s the city’s broken seekers, its mix-and-match architecture, its abandoned asphalt roads—the beauty in its lonelier, hidden contours.

While he is certainty documenting LA, his images evoke something chambered and contemplative, startling in their quietude.

His book and the blog that inspired it, East of West LA, elicit a Los Angeles that feels personal, like memory and fantasy fused, a Los Angeles that is private but not at all exclusive. “Kevin is seeing what’s not seen about LA,” says Brooks Roddan, who found the images compelling enough to publish in book form. “He’s seeing, I think, the differences between the perceptions of LA and the realities. The story is: there’s more here than you imagined, and what you imagined is not here at all.”

The blog, which McCollister launched five years ago, has built a small but loyal following (well over 100,000 visitors, and a steady hundred views a day). It wasn’t conceived as one of those photo-a-day exercises. And he has some rules: “No Rolls Royce convertibles. No swimming pools. They seem to be covered adequately. But,” he elaborates, “I don’t want to get too lofty about what I understand or don’t understand about LA. It’s much more of a model or muse to me than an object I’ve studied to enlighten anyone. If you’re an artist and you’re able to sketch somebody’s thumb, that doesn’t mean you understand their childhood.”

That thumb, in McCollister’s work, is an apt metaphor, full of clues. The fine particulars—an empty farmácia bathed in aqua fluorescence, a Hollywood Boulevard James Brown impersonator, wig slightly askew, flashing a set of ruined teeth—sketch a far more complex LA story of struggle, blind faith, and persistence. By isolating an object—a single, soft-lit doorway, late-night street musicians serenading empty sidewalks, a transient’s forlorn tent—McCollister “finds” LA by holding onto something we might gun past in a rage on the 110, or something we linger beside every day but see past. We observe Los Angeles through his prism, an LA edited down to an oblique gesture, to a wry, visual non sequitur. It’s an LA only seen in stop-motion, an LA that uncharacteristically can only be navigated, McCollister knows, with patience and by foot.

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Betty and Darla, 2008 © Kevin McCollister

A case in point: This stretch of the Alameda corridor just outside the station doors is a complex nexus. In the amber light, compositionally, it’s loose, messy, and full of possibilities. Downtown’s chessboard of skyscrapers gather to the west; the central jail looms northeast; and the old Pueblo de los Angeles, from whence this all sprang, is only a crosswalk away. This is one of those locations where the city’s standard operating definitions, east of the world’s imagination of Los Angeles, don’t quite work. “From here,” McCollister says, “I can walk to Boyle Heights or Lincoln Heights. Or maybe I’ll just walk up to Broadway, it just depends.”

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Old Woman Stares into Sun, 2011 © Kevin McCollister

When you step off into one of his images, you realize it isn’t that Los Angeles is mysterious; it’s been misread, its elegance and edginess elided from our imagination. The images, particularly those emptied out of humans, force a new reading. He knows he’s channeling ghosts—Fitzgerald, Chandler, even Bukowksi—a certain sort of discontent which writers have for so long attempted to express.

He cordons off Saturdays and Sundays for shooting, mornings before 10 a.m., evenings after 4 p.m., the off time from his full-time job as an administrative coordinator at the Writer’s Guild. “LA is tricky for photography because it’s so much sunlight, so much glare,” he says. He rarely photographs late at night, yet his images of an emptied-out LA convey a sort of nighthawk quality. What makes McCollister pause is not just the image, but what’s tethered to it: “Definitely a mood. Not adulterated too much. It’s just whatever emotional content [is there].” He admits that what speaks to him is often “pretty melancholy, pretty singular.”

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Woman Ordering Food, 2008 © Kevin McCollister

We reach Olvera Street, usually an explosion of tourist-geared sound and color. Today it’s overrun by television vans, heavy cables, and sun canopies—all quite contrary to what he’s after.

The quiet, unembellished city he seeks doesn’t always make itself known. “I may come back with nothing,” he warns me. “I can spend hours and hours and think I have something . . .” he says, letting the thought trail off. He makes a quick survey and the camera comes out, the small Lumix, bumping against his chest, ready.

He crosses another narrow street and into the busy courtyard at the old church—Nuestra Señora de Reina de Los Angeles—la Placita. People trade pleasantries with him, the regulars he’s come to know: men and women selling bottled water, wooden bracelets decorated with religious figures, simple rosaries. Still others, crouched on the sidewalk, ask for change. He pauses near a fountain at an altar crowded with votive candles, scattered prayers, and mementoes—a child’s shoe, a hazy sonogram, silver milagros. A woman, her black hair slated with gray, stands near the fountain. He sees a possibility, something in her face, the incline of her head. He raises the camera, then stops. “There’s this feeling,” he explains later, “that photographing someone praying might be just a little too distracting or intrusive.”

He presses on.

If you’d asked him twenty years ago, McCollister would have defined himself as a writer—a poet, primarily. He had come from elsewhere, winding from Cleveland to New Orleans, where he worked on a river boat, Delta Queen, then Boston, where he studied film and screenwriting at Harvard Extension. Photography hadn’t been on his radar. Neither was Los Angeles, which upon an early visit in the ’80s he had dismissed as crowded and unlivable.

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L.A. River, 2007 © Kevin McCollister

Just six years ago, when he set out on this endeavor, this little side project (“call it creative practicality”) was pure hobby, not vocation. His brother had married a woman from Taiwan and relocated. “She had a blog and I didn’t know what a blog was,” McCollister recalls. “I just wanted to have a dialogue with her and perhaps a half-dozen other people—just pictures of LA.” It was a simple plan. “I thought it was going to be [a] ‘This American Life’ thing where I would . . . talk with people, but it’s not that way at all. It just sort of mushroomed.”

He bought himself a hundred-dollar camera and set up his blog, christening it, with a wink, The Jimson Weed Gazette. He started posting, sometimes just text—lists, observations; or a combination of image and reflection. Over time, as he learned more about his camera and its potential, McCollister says, “[It] took on a life of its own without me even making a conscious decision.” He was writing less and less, he says. “The photos were just doing all the work.”

The poetry is still evident. The power of a single object, the oblique framing, the ratio of dark to light, and the elliptical situations in his photographs reveal his emotional awareness. Los Angeles isn’t just sunshine and excess. He has put his stamp on the place. The name-shift—East of West LA—was part of the project’s evolution, as was the blog’s initial brazen claim, now its tagline: I’m photographing LA—All of it.

That vow caught Brooks Roddan’s eye. Roddan was already familiar with McCollister’s writing through a mutual friend, the poet Micahel Lally, and had asked for some poems for a possible book. “The poems I’d responded to, the best poems, were all walking poems; a man walking through neighborhoods as if he was seeing LA for the first time,” Roddan says, “seeing things only a poet both aware and innocent could see.”

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Bryson, 2008 © Kevin McCollister

Time passed, and Roddan learned that McCollister had stopped writing poems and had refocused his energies. He began visiting the blog, stowing away the images in his head. Once they reconnected, Roddan had a different plan. “‘Kevin,’ I said, ‘I think your poems are now photographs and your photographs are now poems. Let’s do a book of your photographs.’”

Precisely what Roddan saw in the poems filtered directly into the images: an open-ended seeking. McCollister says, “I don’t usually have a plan, I just walk with the traffic lights—whichever one is green.” We wind over the hard, hot concrete through Mei Ling Way, past crowded souvenir shops, restaurants smelling of hot oil and scallions, gentrified art galleries side by side with retro furniture stores, and finally onto an empty courtyard on Chung King Road, canopied by hanging cherry-red paper lanterns.

The only business open at this in-between hour is a shop with a pulsing red neon sign announcing FONG’S ORIENTAL WORK OF ART. But what has enraptured McCollister isn’t the retro neon, or the curiously tangled name, or the gathered men playing cards near its front doors, or anything at all telegraphing Chinatown. Instead, he has installed himself before the shuttered doors of what looks to be a recently vacated business. Its cloudy window reveals nothing but scattered newspaper, trampled cardboard flats, and a chair and table shoved against a blank wall. The sight stops him cold.

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Old Man, Abandoned Building, 2008 © Kevin McCollister

He raises the Lumix, snaps once and then again. He keeps going. Finally, he shows me the image on the camera’s screen, and I see what he sees: not simply an abandoned table and chair, but something painterly, something out of the realm of Edward Hopper or Andrew Wyeth—a silvery hint of sunlight, a ghost trailing on the wall. There’s sadness there. The frame is full of questions. What do all these remnants mean? Was this the end of someone’s story?

It feels like something in that frame, and he’s relieved. “There are some nights where the sky is the limit, where I’ve taken four hundred or as little as ten. But of those four hundred there can be zero,” he says. In other words, he knows to be cautiously optimistic. It’s the waiting that’s nerve-racking—that drive home hovering between anticipation and result—the hope that he has captured what was conveyed. There’s a piece of mood that has to go with the image, some essence of LA escaping.

What the work seems to most skillfully convey about LA is that it can’t be both destination and dream—though we all struggle to make it so. These images, procured through patience, through slowing the city down, reveal that conundrum.

“LA has this real end-of-the-road feel to it,” McCollister reflects. “It’s such an undeniable destination point for so many types of people—rich, poor, talented, untalented. You come because you need something. And sometimes you have to wait a very long time. And sometimes the waiting can drive you crazy.”