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“Dead in Long Beach, California”

“Dead in Long Beach, California”

Venita Blackburn’s Dead in Long Beach, California works beautifully—it’s a memorable debut novel—though by most definitions it’s not a very good novel. That’s because by most definitions it’s not a novel at all: it’s an essay in fragments about alienation disguised as a postmodern novella about a science fiction writer’s very bad week. A writer named Coral finds her brother Jay dead in his apartment, apparently by suicide. She takes his unlocked phone, reads his text messages, and, over the course of eight realistic days in present-day Southern California, impersonates him, sending messages to his girlfriend and daughter Khadija as if he were still alive.

This strand of the novel follows Coral, who is accomplishing nothing of note and reflecting on her failure to figure things out. She walks and drives through or near Long Beach, distraught, distracted, sometimes dissociated. She attends a comic convention where fans come to celebrate her dystopian novel, wildfire. She thinks back to her childhood with Jay in Compton and how she and Jay worked to raise Khadija. And – to her own surprise – Khadija’s mother, Naima, who has now fallen into alcohol and drug abuse.

Another type of novelist (Virginia Woolf is the obvious, unfair comparison) could make half or a whole novel out of Coral’s states of mind. Blackburn doesn’t try: Coral’s journey from denial to acceptance, and her helpless choices in between, are instead conveyed to us through a nameless, detached “we,” a collective narrator who uses the book’s events as a jumping-off point for aphorisms about human life, commodity culture, and capitalism. Some aphorisms seem to draw on the late anthropologist David Graeber’s theory that debt is the engine of civilization, perhaps even the root of all evil.

Others say the postmodern condition has made us all sick. “We” name the spaces through which Coral moves not (or not only) as animal shelters, courtrooms, houses, hotels, etc., but as various (capitalized) clinics. “In the clinic for hair-raising disguises that conceal all signs of frailty, loneliness, and terror, we go bowling.” “In the clinic for dying while knowingly participating in an ill-conceived cultural trend and becoming martyrs to the revolution, we confess our latest horror to the nearest living being, a being of no consequence. … The being is a dog.”

While we’re not conjuring up any spooky clinics, sometimes “we” generalize about Coral, sometimes about families, sometimes about all of modern life: “During this time, the species mixed chemicals with synthetic fibers to create a low-cost product that looked like a natural substance and ultimately had devastating effects on the environment.” “We” are less interested in Coral as an individual than as a way to learn about how people function.

Who are “we”? Maybe “we” are robots, or aliens, or (as in Fredrik Pohl’s Man Plus) future AIs that want to understand their designers well enough to save themselves. Maybe “we” are instead characters from wildfire, whose thinly sketched, gun-toting protagonist (named __________ – yes, that’s a space) collects debts for the nation, which is also a monopoly corporation. How did the nation get that way? Neither Blackburn nor Coral say, though they do let us know that “Red Autumn” – apparently a bioweapon gone wrong – caused the mass casualties that destroyed our own society. “Red Autumn did not hum with purpose, knowledge, or destiny. It was the emptying of a species”; in its wake, “dying seemed no different than being born.”

Excerpts from Wildfire—also phrased in a cold, collective voice—appear between sections of Coral’s narrative. “To the best of our knowledge and belief, we can safely say that ________ approached her profession with a perfect understanding of its mundanity. … As long as more than one person walked upright, one would eventually owe the other.” Later, we read excerpts from erotic fanfiction about the novel, along with online comments on that fanfiction.

Until the end Dead in Long Beach, Californiaeverything except Jay’s death and perhaps Khadija’s needs feels like a kind of fiction that threatens to melt like snow in the light of reality. Not that there’s much snow in Long Beach or in Compton: Blackburn’s story pretends to be a novel about Southern California, or a neighborhood novel, or a realistic novel about two generations of a black family, just as it pretends to be a character study centered on a distant and grief-stricken Coral. Despite its beautiful resolution, the book functions as none of these things.

Instead, it shines as an essay mixed with a plot-light novella: a wiry structure onto which to hang detached observations about what capital does to us, about how what we owe each other (honesty, loyalty, passion) becomes debts we think we can’t repay. As they watch Coral try and fail to keep tabs on Khadija, as they watch fans recognize themselves in the alienated ___________, Blackburn’s detached narrators ask what it feels like to stand outside all the illusions we fallible humans construct for ourselves, even as they – eventually, carefully – guide Coral back to minimal human connection.

With these tactics – aphorism, long perspective, distance from all characters, cold eyes on bodies, capital and landscape – Blackburn follows a science fiction flick. Her accumulation of fragments, her concluding paragraphs and her back-and-forth technique will remind old sci-fi heroes of JG Ballard (1930-2009), who combined his own hard, cold gazes on grief, capital and concrete with The atrocity exhibition (1970). In the opening pages, Ballard’s protagonist joins a “wounded men’s union” to practice “simulating wounds”; for him, the idea of ​​World War III has become “the expression of his psyche’s failure to accept the fact of its own consciousness and its revolt against the present continuum of time and space.” Meanwhile, “strange twins,” “couriers from his own subconscious… drive through the endless suburbs,” whose “concrete landscape of underpasses and overpasses” reflects an inner geometry of alienation and pain.

Yet Blackburn has not copied Ballard directly, any more than she has copied Woolf (or Michael Cunningham or John Lanchester, to name other Dalloway homages). Instead, she has relocated his dissociations, his questions, his mini-essays, and his personas to new spaces where she proves they belong: the commercial void of Blackburn’s Long Beach, the close-knit Compton of Coral’s childhood, and the world of the counterfactual, non-realist imagination itself. Coral may end up back in Jay’s apartment after visiting an animal shelter (a symbol of organic being), but she belongs not there, but at the science-fiction convention, where (as Coral tells herself ruefully) she “was loved in a way she felt nowhere else in the world.”•

Join Blackburn on July 25 at 5 p.m. Pacific Time as he sits down with CBC anchor John Freeman and a special guest to discuss Dead in Long Beach, California. Register for the Zoom call Here.

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Portrait photo by Stephanie Burt

Stephanie Burt is a literary critic, professor and poet. Her latest collection is We are mermaids.