Best L.A. Novel Ever: Janet Fitch's White Oleander vs. Kate Braverman's Lithium for Medea, Round 1
L.A. Weekly is determining the best L.A. novel ever by holding a tournament featuring 32 of our favorites in head-to-head matchups, until there's only one novel standing. For further reading check out:
At first glance, this would appear to be no contest. One book is that literary rarity, a massively popular novel (a New York Times bestseller, an Oprah's Book Club selection and the basis of a semi-faithful film adaptation starring Michelle Pfeiffer) that's also critically acclaimed for its daring and style, while the other book remains relatively obscure and has only fitfully been in print since it first came out in 1979, despite being championed by such prescient early fans as Joan Didion and John Rechy.
But the connections and shared virtues between Janet Fitch's breakthrough second book, 1999's White Oleander, and Kate Braverman's debut novel, Lithium for Medea (currently available on Seven Stories Press), are considerable and many, even if each writer ultimately splits off in strikingly different directions. Fitch used to attend Braverman's fiction-and-poetry workshops, and much of the latter's intensely searing, balefully unsentimental worldview permeates the former's rich descriptive style. The very first sentences of White Oleander sound like they could have come straight out of Lithium (along with a likely intended nod to Raymond Chandler's "Red Wind"): "The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves."
Although Braverman has often insisted that L.A.'s literary scene is more culturally diverse and relevant than New York's, she's always had a fiercely ambivalent attitude toward this city. Born in Philadelphia but raised mainly in various parts of West L.A., Braverman portrays her hometown in Lithium for Medea as an anti-paradise: "the deformed sun dissolving above me and spitting sick orange blood on the pavement." Later, she concludes, "I realized that if these blocks and cement gouges were the alphabet of the future, then we lived at the edge of history. Los Angeles sits white and half dead ... a rented city ... Los Angeles is the great waiting room of the world."
Her existential complaint wouldn't really mean much if Braverman wasn't also a superb and lavish stylist, blending acutely poetic imagery with stubbornly non-clichéd, rhythmically punchy prose. Rose, the narrator of Lithium, sees the world with the same caustically incisive alienation as Esther Greenwood, the heroine of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, only the setting here is the decaying, druggy and pre-gentrified Venice Beach of the late 1970s.
Rose is a lot hipper and wilder than Esther ever was, although she's mortified that her onetime college sweetheart has morphed into a lazy slug who does nothing but watch Star Trek all day, in the lotus position, no less: "What had I done? I had married a neurasthenic borderline psychotic and suffered the added indignity of having him leave me. My God, I had married a Trekkie."
Her mom is an overachieving shrew whose favorite greeting to Rose is "You look terrible." Her bourbon-swilling, rambling, gambling father is dying of cancer in the hospital, and she's so desperate to get laid that she picks up a sailor on the docks and gives him head in her car, only to be struck once again by a terminal feeling of dread as she drives away, the taste of the man still in her mouth like "clams and sawdust."
Soon she's fallen in love with Jason, a sadistic artist type who gets her hooked on cocaine. Whether Braverman's describing Rose being whipped with a birch rod for the first time by Jason ("licking the red lines in my skin, sliding his tongue, a red moth, across the flesh grooves ... and I was tumbling, falling through soft pockets of luminous air") or the blinding euphoria Rose feels when she shoots up coke ("I was white under a white skull of sky in my own season. It was a kind of permanent childhood Christmas"), her prose is vibrant and palpable.
Braverman is anything but a minimalist. Her writing is wildly passionate and often gathers steadily building momentum until it soars into fanciful heights as Rose conjures an early childhood memory or the oncoming rush of sensations when she first gets wasted. Braverman's passion and intensity, though, can sometimes be her biggest enemy. She does such a great job of creating an obviously autobiographical heroine, one with such a penetrating and unforgiving vision, that the other characters pale in comparison. Apart from Rose's father, who imparts some boozy, no-nonsense advice, most of the other characters come across as somewhat cartoonish and foolish (although Braverman's deadpan and acidic summaries of the Trekkie husband's favorite Star Trek plots are wickedly brilliant).
With White Oleander, Janet Fitch does a much better job of giving her supporting characters fuller complexity and breadth, even as her story mainly centers on the travails of young Astrid Magnussen, who's shuttled from one increasingly bizarre foster home to another while her poet mother, Ingrid, is in prison for murdering a lover. At times, the self-absorbed Ingrid almost recalls the melodramatic presence of the real-life Braverman. When Astrid laments that her mother doesn't pay enough attention to her, it's possible to imagine the former workshop student tugging at the distracted teacher's cape: "Whenever she turned her steep focus to me, I felt the warmth that flowers must feel when they bloom through the snow, under the first concentrated rays of the sun."
There are also echoes of Rose's horse-racing-fanatic father when Ingrid's doomed lover, Barry, takes mother and daughter to the track, where mom bets on a winning horse named Medea's Pride. Fitch would probably be the first to credit Braverman's influence on her evocative prose, even as she's too restless to focus solely on her own presumably (but less obviously) autobiographical narrator. If anything, Astrid doesn't mind that's she's overshadowed by her flamboyant poet mom. At one point, she's almost got Ingrid convinced not to act out on a vicious plan of revenge on the unsuspecting Barry, but ultimately Astrid fails because she can't cast "a strong enough spell, I wasn't a word spinner like her."
But, of course, Fitch is very much a masterful word spinner, more succinct than Braverman but supremely inventive in her own way, as Astrid describes an old photo of her mother: "That beautiful girl, she was a universe, bearer of these words that rang like gongs, that tumbled like flutes made of human bones."
If, at times, the seemingly never-ending series of sexual and violent disasters Astrid endures as she's bounced from one foster home to the next start to seem a little improbable, Fitch's prose remains wonderfully descriptive and continues to beguile over the novel's 469 pages.
In the end, though, the mentor gets the nod over the pupil, in part because Braverman's floridly expressive, shamelessly and emotionally eviscerating style was such an astonishing shock in the late '70s, when a more restrained and austere Raymond Carver-like minimalism was in favor. Poetic Sylvia Plath types just weren't supposed to write about giving head to strangers and mainlining hard drugs.
Equally important, Braverman's love/hate attitude toward her old hometown has engendered numerous morbidly beautiful descriptions of L.A. that are just as uncannily definitive as Raymond Chandler's rueful reflections of Hollywood.
Describing long-vanished parts of Venice, she writes, "Here the city stops its white cement sprawl, its hunger to engulf the whole earth under tons of trucked-in concrete. Here in the lap of the blind blue-eyed Pacific, Los Angeles is stopped dead by the sheer liquid cliffs of the sea ... There's a certain pull, an inexplicable force, some as yet uncharted form of gravity. The toes change, growing invisible sharp claws designed to dig in and fight the slide into pale blue listless waves."
Winner: Lithium for Medea
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