Vanessa Place is just a wee bit more ambitious than most local writers/dreamers/soothsayers. Her first novel, Dies: A Sentence (2005, Les Figues Press), used the curiously arty musings of two soldier-amputees on the night before a big battle as the launching point for a dizzyingly nonstop series of rambling digressions and shaggy-dog stories, each one pebbled with densely poetic imagery — and all of it confided breathlessly in one long, unbroken sentence. In lesser hands, this would have been a mere gimmick, but Place masterfully wove references to Yugoslavian history, bread pudding, boot fetishes, God, lust, “sarcophagi and sarsaparilla . . . and genuine cowboys with mirrored eyes” into a cumulatively engrossing, if not exactly linear, novel/sentence. (How was she able to do this? With a lot of commas, and by letting her narrator hog the conversation.) Place is up to even grander schemes in her new novel, La Medusa (University of Alabama Press), in which the titular heroine is played by a seemingly sentient version of Los Angeles while the perceptions of disparate characters (husband-&-wife truckers, a pushcart vendor, a young girl — even a corpse!) are portrayed through dramatic Faulkneresque/Joycean shifts of tone and style. She's anything but a minimalist, and there are some distracting bits of cutesy, lazy-minded wordplay scattered into her generally free-flowing streams of consciousness, but on the whole La Medusa is an impressively inventive achievement. The writer-lawyer's prose is not for the impatient or faint-hearted, but more intellectually adventurous folks would do well to heed her advice in Dies and “give us your ear, that darling shell, that wax cup into which I've poured my consolation.” Place takes part in a discussion with writers Veronica Gonzalez and Janet Sarbanes titled “Cali Cali: Three Lives From L.A.,” moderated by USC's Brighde Mullins.

Thu., March 19, 7 p.m., 2009

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