Death in the West
Photo (partial) found on Images of Route 66 by Jackie & Mike Smith
Between novels and screenplays for such cult films as Two-Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Voyager, Rudy Wurlitzer has built a body of work around the precept of “deliberate strategies bent on demolishing prescribed conventions of story telling, conventions which, for the most part, assume that omniscient narratives are more comfortably accessible and authentic if arranged in linear progressions, insisting on a beginning, middle, and satisfying conclusion, instead of a spontaneous process or non-process.” (“This Long Century”)
In Wurlitzer’s syncopations we get everything Jack Kerouac told us he represented as a free-form stylist yet failed to deliver upon in the long analysis. Wurlitzer, for instance, describes his writing (particularly with reference to Nog) as “a journey that consists of circular or cyclical chords that much like a manic jazz improviser exist furiously and exuberantly inside the present moment, establishing in their flow invented rhythms and unexplained shadows, illuminations that exist only to revolve endlessly around themselves.”
Not only is Wurlitzer’s work a total refutation of traditional forms but, in many regards, it is a refutation of modern life as we conceive it. When I was studying Eastern religions as a teen in the ‘70s, one particular Hindu phrase struck me and stays with me to this day: “All is maya”… all is illusion. This is the lens through which Nog, Flats, and Quake must be viewed.
“I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals, or would directly sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation,” Albert Einstein wrote. “I cannot do this in spite of the fact that mechanistic causality has, to a certain extent, been placed in doubt by modern science. My religiosity consists in a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we, with our weak and transitory understanding, can comprehend of reality.” (The Human Side, Princeton University Press, May 1981)
In Wurlitzer’s fictional universe, a personal God does not exist and human understanding of existence is transitory, at best. Forget the collective whole, Wurlitzer seems to say, that’s a human construct like a personal God, a joke, only the individual spirit matters but how can the individual peacefully co-exist in societies structured around the biological and moral imperatives of the human being as a social animal?
Quake is centered entirely on the paradox raised in the preceding paragraph. The nameless narrator has no back story whatsoever, no family to account for, no friends or even acquaintances except for those brief encounters he has during a post-quake death march at the hands of a feral citizen militia. (“For all I know,” one of the unlucky survivors quips, “these people are the Knights of Columbus or a bowling league.”)
“People get confused and hysterical when confronted with such a calamity,” says Orville, one of the redneck militia gunmen in Quake. “It’s hard for them to know who to trust, who’s looking after them and who isn’t. They need a firm hand to guide them until everything calms down. We all have to start from the beginning now and discover who we are and what we’re made of.”
Orville’s mission statement flies in the face of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny that settled the western frontier and the every-man-for-himself conservatism and rugged individualism that marked the rousing western tales of Louis L’Amour and countless other myth makers about the American Dream and the promise of the west.
If humans are intrinsically interdependent upon one another, as Orville and others in Quake suggest, then the individual truly has no role in modern society and perhaps never has except in lip service and in brief outlaw glimpses in the arts whenever someone steps forward and boldly opts to draw outside the lines of the coloring book.
In Quake, the west as both a concept and a physical place is dead.
Human beings, in Wurlitzer’s world, are more than Pavlovian in this grotesque landscape that even Nathanael West would recoil at; the conditioned responses of many of his characters make them seem more like petulant children and less like the responsible adults they proclaim themselves to be.
“Well, I’m hungry,” an overfed quake refugee complains while being held captive by the militia and kept away from storehouses of food in abandoned grocery stores and restaurants. “I don’t remember the last time I ate. I don’t remember anything. I can barely remember what kind of job I had, who my wife was, what sports my kid played, where the fuck I even used to live. You’re goddamn right I’m hungry. They should throw us something. That’s what this country is all about, putting stuff into you. They deny you that and you know the worst has happened.”
Quake is, and remains, one of the greatest novels ever composed about Los Angeles and death in the west.