Tuesday, May 08, 2012

California's Gods: Strange Platypus(es)

We've noticed lately a strange Californian dialectical twist: there, freeways take the definite article.  In other parts of the country one speaks of I 91 or 45 North.  In California, there's The 5, The 405, The 10.  Each of these freeways has its own quirks, a personality of sorts.  They aren't just stretches of pavement but presences, creatures that necessitate the definite article by their very individuality and uniqueness.  They are the angry gods to be worked, placated, feared, for without them life in California as we know it would cease.  Perhaps that's fitting for a land whose cities are named for saints and angels.  Mary may preside over the new pueblo of our lady of the angels, but the freeways slither like gigantic serpents through the waste places, malevolent spirits not yet trampled under foot.


Jessica Snell said...

This is just begging to be a sonnet, Jim! It even has the turn at the last third.

I've been thinking a lot about what you wrote about localism earlier in the year, because I recently finished a novel - the first novel I've ever set in my own stomping grounds (the L.A. basin and the Sierra Nevada). And the experience of writing it was so fun, largely due to the setting. I just enjoyed writing about the land I love so much. It's often a storge sort of a love, an affection born out of familiarity, but writing this novel made me come to realize that it's a real love, and I really grew to appreciate where I live as I wrote the book.

James said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James said...

It could be sonnetized. You know, I don't I've written a sonnet since 1999?

I think understanding regionalism is key for American authors. America presents fairly shallow soil for any literary germ to take root in. However, breaking it down into regions, you can find spots where the soil is deep enough to produce a Steinbeck, an O'Conner, or a Hawthorne. There is no "Great American Novel," only great American novelists.

I finished a novel of my own (set in rural southern Connecticut... surprise, surprise...) last year and have been working on the edits and the sequel. As you say, it enhances your appreciation for a place, but it also adds a layer of depth and a sense of rootedness to the work itself(even if that has to be teased out and exploited in multiple re-writes) that's pretty hard to fake.

I find most Californians relate to California in the way that fish relate to water. It's good to see people taking the water seriously (maybe because they've spent time on land or been tossed into the sea?)and finding that there's a love there that can be cultivated and developed.

Jessica Snell said...

Ooh, a Harrington novel in the pipeline - exciting times! Do you want to join Joi and I in our unofficial race to be the first published Torrey novelist? ;)

Anyway, more on subject: I like your theory about why there's no Great American Novel. I wonder if we're too geographically large for it to even be possible - or will there someday be a novelist who can actually (in some sort of quest/journey story?) be able to actually capture the feel of the whole giant beast?

Well, I may be a fish now, but I wasn't when I was first thrown in here. I wonder if that does make a difference? This wasn't the land of my childhood - it's almost the exact opposite of the land of my childhood. But it was the land of my adolescence.

James said...

I think you guys can get there first. I'll just ride in on your coat tales.

The only other thing I can think of, because countries like Russia are vast and "small" countries can still be very diverse, is that a Great Fill-In-The-Blank Novel is best judged by those outside the country of its origin. I don't know... Don't Tolstoy and Dostoyevski speak for Russia? maybe that's just an American's perspective and really I should be saying Gorky?

I think getting thrown in is key. Doesn't Fred say that many of the great CA authors aren't native Californians? I think CA is just so massive and its cultural influence so global (through film, tech, and the fact that it's the fifth largest economy in the world) that it's hard to grow up there and see it as a region, or a flavour, and not just "the way things are." My wife taught an online high school class that included material on the American Civil War and asked her students, who lived across the nation, if their state loyalty came first or their loyalty to America. Georgians, Idahoans, Texans, etc. all immeaditately asserted their primary or at least strong loyalty to their homestate. Her California students who were native Californians were puzzled by the idea that you could have state pride or loyalty at all.

vespreardens said...

I haven't lived outside of SoCal, so I can't really take an outside perspective very well, but I know that here our freeways are very much their own things. We spend a significant portion of our lives on them, much as someone native to the Amazon might spend much time on its river tributaries. We each have our memories of them, our opinions of them, and our relationships to them. Many of us anthropomorphise them or think of them, consciously or unconsciously, as having their own personalities.

They very much do become demigods of sorts. Their temperaments rule our lives, giving and taking away precious bits of time seemingly at whim. And to Californians, who do not know how to truly slow down, time is everything. But you will be more quickly forgiven for time lost to the anger of the freeway gods than time lost because your kid was being particularly fussy this morning. Because here, they area force of nature.

James said...

Well said; really well said. I'm sensing a short story here in the making...

becca said...

I wonder also, if we're loosing our local identities. With the increase in media prevalence, are we becoming more homogenous? Will that help or hurt the authors striving to write the GAN? Also, if we're as transient as it seems like we may be (or as transient as my life has been - which I realize may not be the norm) will we be in a better position or a worse one to capture America in novel-form?

On the comment about S's students, I understand not feeling loyalty to any particular state - meeting someone who has lived in the same place their whole life and has a hometown always feels odd to me. Maybe that's a bad sign. Maybe it is the transient ones that become anomos and thereby unable to speak clearly about any place in particular.

If you or Jess or Joi write the first Torrey novel, I can't wait to rush out and buy copies for everyone I know!

James said...

This is really the quandary of Odysseus. To see "the cities and the townships and learn the minds of distant men" means running the risk of losing yourself, of "going native" on the one hand, or simply becoming "Nobody" on the other; a mere wanderer. Odysseus' quest for home is a quest for identity and Homer answers firmly that identity can only be found by being in one's proper place within one's own community. So what about "the cities and the townships" and "the minds of distant men"? If we don't take the hint from Homer, Hesiod is pretty clear: they can all go hang.

This is a problem Tolkien understood and it under-girded his near-anarchist political beliefs. On the other hand, as "The Lord of the Rings" bears out, communities do not, cannot, and should not, exist in isolation. So what then?

If you follow Francois Hartog's reconstruction of how the Greeks handled "otherness" or look into Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings," the answer seems to be that there are two classes of people, each dependent on the other. The bulk of people do well when they are rooted, deeply rooted, in one spot and allowed to develop unmolested by the outside world. Lest, however, these plain Hobbit folk become bent and warped in there isolation, there must also be a small class that are willing to leave the community and have adventures -on the condition that they return with their alien wisdom and enrich the community. The community thus keeps a window open on the world and has a class of people from among its own ranks that can act as a buffer for outside contact; the adventurers gain the richness of seeing the world, but know that they always have one community that is especially their own to come back to. This isn't a situation without real frictions and tensions, as Tolkien shows us in the case of Frodo, but that's the way of all things on Middle Earth.

Now the problem we have in the 'States and, indeed, all over the world is that due to mass-culture, one particular culture is eating up the rest. To borrow from Tolkien: there is now no place in Middle Earth where Joy and California are not mixed. Having lived in Cali for twelve years and been back to New England and moved on to Texas, it's been depressing to watch the regional cultures of the United States slowly consumed by the sucking maw of California. It's not California's fault. No one's holding a gun to anyone else's head in this process. In the main, we're just good little lemmings and conform to what the Entertainment Industry tells us and the products that Cali places on offer are genuinely desirable.

So what does this mean for "The Great American Novel"? It means that the day may come when it's not that hard to write since the Unim will have absorbed all the E Pluribus.

All that to say that there is an danger in becoming a transient. The Transient has a hard time loving what is passed through and thus is more likely to do some violence to it or simply neglect it. As you put it, the transient risks becoming "anomos." The provincial, however, runs the risk of becoming a yokel or bigot. If we're to avoid producing both negatives, we need both kinds of people and we need them to dialog so that they can each benefit from what the other has. Maybe that's the key to the GAM: great regional visions of America by provincials can provide the balance for a great Untied States novel by someone who's stomped around enough to be merely "American."