Saturday, April 24, 2021

ELADATL- East Los Angeles Dirgible Air Transport Lines by Sesshu Foster and Arturo Romo


“It all starts on Bunker HIll. Some people say we emerged from the 22nd Street tunnel to the stairs, ascending Angel’s Flight to the top of the hill, a bunch of us with Elote Girl with cornsilk in her long dusty hair and her sack of corn that she sells steaming with mayonnaise on the street corner. That’s not really true... not in the literal sense (what is?), that’s pure reductionism, but that’s what I’m going with because, because- anyway, yeah- we need a simple gesture at the beginning- especially for things that seem to have no beginning or end.” 

Most who have read his previous novel, Atomik Aztex, would probably agree that its author, Sesshu Foster, an inter-culturalist if there ever was one, must surely rank amongst the more adventurous, some might say outlandish, novelists at work today. As narratively elusive as he is  geographically centered, Foster's writing is hard to pin down, though what one can definitely say he’s as invested in the present as he is in the past and future. His sentences, like pesky promiscuous electrons, jump from  subject to subject, era to era, and, when it comes to montage, scene to scene. At the same time,  he remains focused,  in spirit if not in actuality, on his home turf of East Los Angeles. In ELADATL, published by City Lights, it’s Alhambra accompanied by forays into Lincoln Heights and points beyond.  At the same time,  Foster treats his particular locale pretty much as the center of the universe, like a macrocosmic version of the way S. Dalí thinks about Perpignan train station. Though Foster’s title might stand for East Los Angeles Dirgirble Air Transport Line, the  phonetic implication is that the company  has connections Nahuatl in origin, perhaps to the extent that it even now is creating enough oxygen to enable hot-air lift-off. What emerges is an alternative history dancing from the distant past, to the present, with its images derived from  popular culture, into the future; in other words,  a radical revision of the world, based upon, but no crazier than, the world we presently inhabit. 

Foster's collaborator here is Arturo Romo, an artist whose enfolding imagination is the perfect foil for Foster.  From different generations they join forces here to convert the underlying wasteland that comprises industrial SoCal into a wonderland,  splitting the difference between utopia, dystopia and apocalyptica. Their shared  notion of a lighter-than-air movement, undetectable and insurrectionist,  pits zeppelinist against dirgiblist, embedded in a  narrative rooted in the grassroots of  technological angst and political marginalisation.  Lighter-than-air might also be a metaphor for Foster’s writing and Romo’s art work, not to mention their political perspective,  which, to misquote Lenin, aspires to be as radical as reality (I was about to write sur-reality, but that would land me in the same soup as eurosplainer Dr Barnswallow in ELADATL’s opening chapter). They accomplish this by avoiding any Tinseltown ideology and representations, from which point they can work to undermine what amounts to the historical burden long facing various communities. As with Aztex, ELADATL  is  an act of recovery, an updraft of  lost memories, as humorous as it is serious. Moreover, one can  read the book as an homage to the absent and misrepresented, most predominant of which is the influential writer Oscar Zeta Acosta, around whose ghost dances a cast of strangers and malcontents, whether living or reincarnated, from Elmer Fudd to Lee Harvey Oswald. The result is an artifact that, despite the presence of various malignant forces, can’t help but offer more than a glimmer of hope. That is, if you can “attune your cellular vibrations to the frequency of Star Beings” and “the merciless winds of the human heart,” in which case you’ll be elevated  in more ways than one. 

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Hold That Backstory: Two novels by John Rector

Cold Kiss 

Already Gone

“‘Take it easy, I don’t know anything,’ is a line that never

works in detective novels...”

                                        Dick Gallup, “close your eyes,” from Shiny Pencils...

Recently, while recovering from a bout of sciatica, I found myself  binging on two novels by John Rector, a writer I’d heard about but had never read. Both novels, Already Gone (2011) and Cold Kiss (2010), his first novel,  were as diverting as they were intriguing. It occurred to me while reading them that noir writers have a tendency to withhold the backstories of their main characters until fairly late in their novels. This is what  Rector does to some effect in both novels. But, then, so did the likes of David Goodis, Jim Thompson and Dorothy B. Hughes. It’s a technique that gives all of their  work added tension and their main characters an added amount of ambiguity and mystery. I suppose the technique goes right back to the origins of Black Mask writing, and maybe to others who base their  narratives as much, if not more, on character as on plot. 

I’m sure I’m not the first person to point this out, but, sciatica not withstanding, it had never occurred to me before. In Rector’s Cold Kiss, one has little if any idea what  trauma informs Nate’s actions and thoughts. There are hints, revealed in pieces  to his girlfriend Sarah. Something about killing his brother who, as a teenager, he had been in charge of, then something else about  a road accident, and detention. Clearly Sarah knows a bit, though not all  of Nate's backstory. Certainly  she knows  more than the reader does. Likewise, Already Gone, in which the couple, Jake and Diane, seem to know very little, if anything, about each other’s past, Again, one gradually hears about Jake's violent teenage days, his relationship with his father and their relationship to Gabby,  a local crime boss. This even though Jake has written a book that supposedly tells all, though, in fact, it only skirts around the subject of his past. But enough to find Jake gainful employment. At the same time, neither Jake nor the reader, knows  much about Diane's past, a forewarning if nothing else that there is trouble on the horizon. 

The temptation is for an author to reveal any pertinent backstory in a book’s early chapters, and so establish a clear-cut motivation and narrative pathway. However, withholding the backstory means any such motivation will become part of the overall mystery.  Although there is nothing inherently wrong in revealing the backstory early on, it can, when it comes to a character’s psychology, seem overly formulaic. The implication being that a particular event or situation can  explain everything, which should be rarely the case, ir only because such events often explain only part of the story. There are, after all, choices made that are necessarily contingent, as well as choices based on free will, though that difference is often blurred, and can sometimes be mistaken for one another. 

Narratives by the likes of  Rector might appear straightforward when it comes to linearity and forward  momentum, but by withholding the backstory, the reader is made to fill in, or speculate upon, the spaces, intervening as the information gradually becomes apparent. It's, for me, what makes the two novels by Rector interesting. The fact that the  reader doesn’t know exactly what  motivates Nate and Jake works to free up Rector's narrative, giving it the space in which to operate without the baggage that comes with flashbacks and explanations. This as opposed to plot driven novelists. Even James Ellroy, who readily and mostly effectively broadcasts his backstories whenever and wherever possible, sometimes  even expanding on them previous novels.  

Though it might appear simplistic, even basic, when it comes to a novel's momentum, it is often a more subtle and complex technique than it seems. It means that not only are the peripheral characters kept in the dark, but so is the reader, which not only creates tension and movement, but the need for one to continue reading. It also tends to place those inhabiting the novel and those reading it on something approaching equal footing. Not contributing to the creation of an unreliable narrator or protagonist, but establishing the integrity of such characters while building a conflict zone that connects a character's past, present and future.

 I’m not sure this technique is all that unusual. On the other hand, it makes Rector something of an old school writer, the technique a variation on Marcel Duhamel’s advice to Chester HImes when the latter began writing novels for Gallimard’s Serie Noire imprint, which is to say, avoid too much introspection and allow the dialogue to carry the narrative forward. The lesson from reading such writers as Rector, with all its psychological ambiguity, might be a version of that cry heard in countless films about newspapermen. But not “Hold the front page,” but  “Hold the backstory.” Ranking up there with that Mamet rule regarding screenwriting, applicable not only to chapter deliberations and scene shifts, but, as far as I’m concerned, to social gatherings of most varieties, which is arrive late and leave early. But, as usual, I am veering off-piste. Suffice it to say that reading Rector is an effective antidote to modern life, whether suffering from sciatica or not.