Reinventing the Southern California Novel: Marisa Silver’s The God of War

The God of War, says novelist Marisa Silver, is “another kind of California narrative, one that does not end in glamorous reinvention, but has to do more with one kind of social and economic reality. Sometimes there are no reinventions possible. There is just hanging on, making due.”

The bleak moral and socio-economic climate that colors the early years of the 21st century has rendered millions of people figuratively and literally impotent. The world market for sexual disorder pharmacotherapy drugs indicated for erectile dysfunction is currently estimated at $3 billion and expected to increase to $6.6 billion by 2012. In the same vein, the market for psychotherapeutic drugs such as Prozac, Zoloft, and Ritalin is a $37 billion market annually and revenues are projected to grow more than 50 percent by 2010. Modern man, it would appear by pharmacology alone, has arrived at some kind of collective dead-end road, a dark and scary cul-de-sac where no reinvention — no turning back and no moving forward — is possible. Our only option is to just hang on and make due while we struggle to read the road map in the darkening light.

Laurel, the strong-willed matriarch at the center of Silver’s sad and stirring family drama and putative coming-of-age tale, does not cling to modern medicine, in particular any therapy that might allay the effects of her six-year-old son’s severe developmental disability. Today there are words for the kind of child Malcolm is, labels and therapeutic regimens and even drugs. But in 1978, the year of the novel’s events, and in the remote corner of California where the story unfolds, science, Silver says in the voice of her narrator, Ares Ramirez, “had not caught up to us, and diagnoses of abnormal behavior, when they were made at all, ran to generalities. My brother was simply ‘backward,’ as if he were a sweater someone had put on wrong.”

The God of War, Silver’s second novel after No Direction Home (2006), is a heart-wrenching parable for the rudderless modern world cloaked as an L.A. novel. The author has taken many of the vital ingredients of a regional novel and composed an L.A. tale that is not set in Los Angeles proper but many miles to the east instead, at the edge of the desolate Salton Sea, a devastating wasteland that would have held tremendous appeal to T.S. Eliot.

One notable hallmark of the L.A. novel is the theme of life moving inexorably downward toward destruction. An uneasy sense of looming disaster hovers over Silver’s slim narrative, as sure as the bullet that takes struggling actress Gloria Beatty’s life in Horace McCoy’s stark They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, as certain and calculating as the deadly riot mob in the climax of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. But Silver does not carry the hard-bitten cynicism of McCoy and West or even Raymond Chandler, inarguably the dean of the Southern California regional novel. If Silver leans on any of the past masters of the genre it is upon the existential resignation of Joan Didion, whose Maria Wyeth in Play It as It Lays demonstrates, as one analyst put it, “courage in the face of nothingness”.

“Although I have read West, Chandler, and Didion over the years, I would hardly call myself an expert on the California novel,” says Silver, who surrendered a career in Hollywood as a successful writer-director to enroll in grad school to become a short story writer. “Perhaps the work of these and other California writers affects me at a subconscious level, although I did not consciously think about other California novels while at work. I am sure that like so many works of fiction, my own fits into certain paradigms. But when I am writing, I try very hard to think only of my characters and the situations I invent for them, to try to be as true to their fictional reality as I can be. I do not step outside the process to think about how my work does or does not fit into any kind of literary lineage. While certain aspects of my novel may seem to respond or, as you note, continue the themes and textures of the Southern California novel, this was certainly not on my mind during the process.”

Silver’s process has produced an emotionally complex novel that hits all the right notes for a regional text while virtually reinventing the playbook by injecting a pathos that will undoubtedly elicit tears from the most jaded of readers.

Silver’s narrator, Ares Ramirez — named for the Greek god of war — is looking back in these pages on his 12-year-old self, living with his mother, Laurel, and his younger brother Malcolm, in a trailer adjacent to the Salton Sea, an inland saline lake covering a surface area of approximately 376 square miles, the largest inland body of water in California in the middle of the Southern California desert. At childhood’s end, Ares bears the dual burdens of his single mother’s unconventional choices in life and his own unspoken grief, “shadowed by an old mongrel guilt” that he is responsible for Malcolm’s profound mental disability.

As a 12-year-old, Ares is also battling for personal identity and waging a war between responsibility to self and to others. While Laurel works as a massage therapist in nearby Palm Springs, Ares is left to help his brother face the real world of neighborhood bullies, dentist appointments, conflicts at school, and the ramifications of the six-year-old’s increasingly violent behavior. Ares sees his brother’s damaged brain as “a sea of nothingness…. His entire existence narrowed in on the time and physical space of one second.” Malcolm’s only nod to the physical world around him is his deep affinity for the sea birds that flock to the Salton Sea, making the lake a crown jewel of avian biodiversity.

Laurel has effectively conscripted or “boxed” Ares into the task of taking care of his younger brother. She has simply chosen to ignore the implications of Malcolm’s disability and arrogantly sees the boy’s attributes as strengths. Ares narrates that Laurel regards her damaged child “as if Malcolm’s critical faculties were so sophisticated that he had judged the culture and found it unworthy of his participation.” She believes that “labels are for boxes so people don’t have to look inside them” and dismisses the notion that “being normal is something to strive for”. Laurel’s love for her boys (born of different fathers) is fierce and intense but when coupled with blind, boundless optimism, her actions are, in the words of the author, “careless and ultimately destructive”.

“Laurel comes from a fundamentalist Christian background,” Silver tells PopMatters, “and has grown up surrounded by ideas of redemption and reclamation all her life, so she has very strong feelings about the issue, and her attraction to the desert is very much a reaction to those notions. She loves it for what it is: dry, desolate, unclaimed. She loves her boy for who he is. For better or worse, she finds Malcolm’s ‘imperfections’ worthy and beautiful. She’s a mistrusting and defiant character, and somewhat misguided by her own personal value system. Her love for her son, which is powerful, like her love for her home, ends up being both wonderful and damaging.”

For Ares, the central dilemma presented to the young man in the novel is thus: does he embrace his mother’s ethos, her values about land and people, or does he reject all of it and become his own man out of the clay he has been left to mold with? Entered into this mix is Kevin, a 15-year-old veteran of juvenile detention facilities, foster son of the school librarian. Ares befriends and feels “mesmerized by Kevin, by the evident power of his apathy”. As the distant narrator looking back on Kevin, Ares cannot “easily point to any value except that he happened to be alive for a time through no fault or talent of his own”. One does not need schooling in Lit 101 to realize that Kevin will play an instrumental role in bringing about the violent and tragic episode that is hinted at in the first, sparse chapter of The God of War. Kevin and Laurel notwithstanding, there are no good guys or bad guys in Silver’s remarkable novel, simply a mosaic of confused earth-bound wanderers with no direction home. In this manner, too, the author embraces hallmarks of the L.A. novel while also rejecting or reinventing them.

“I write characters from the inside out,” Silver asserts, “so Laurel may, in the end, represent a certain type of character, but my intention was not to make her a type but rather a fully realized, contradictory being. We, each of us, exhibit behavior that adheres to type, but I believe we are also so wildly inconsistent that our actions will always make us more complex and inscrutable and less able to be seen as representative of anyone but ourselves. Laurel is a product of her time, to be sure, a post-Vietnam, post-hippie-era wanderer. But I hope I have created a character of sufficient complexity that she defies labels, just as she would want Malcolm to defy them. She may share traits with a kind of California character, but I think these characters exist everywhere in the country. Anywhere there is a grid to step outside of, we might find a lot of people like Laurel. But if we look closely at them, they might remind us of other kinds of characters, too.”

Salton Sea (Photo by Jeff T. Alu)

The collapse of traditional cultural standards is at the heart of almost every Southern California novel. Instead of serving as a setting for the regenerative possibilities of America, Southern California, in the literature of West, Cain, McCoy, Scott Fitzgerald, and Ross MacDonald, became the antithesis of El Dorado: the anti-myth, “that of the dream running out along the California shore”. Landscape is always weighted with meaning in the Southern California novel. In Robert Parker’s detective novel A Savage Place, his Boston-based private eye travels to Los Angeles for a case:

I don’t know anything like it for sprawl, for the idiosyncratic mix of homes and businesses and shopping malls. There was no center, no fixed point for taking bearings. It ambled and sprawled and disarrayed all over the peculiar landscape — garish and fascinating and imprecise and silly, smelling richly of bougainvillea and engine emissions, full of trees and grass and flowers and neon and pretense. And off to the northeast, beyond the Hollywood Hills, above the smog and far from Disneyland were the mountains with snow on their peaks. I wondered if there was a leopard frozen up there somewhere.

Consider Parker’s No Fixed Point rule while reading Silver’s description of the hamlet of Bombay Beach near the Salton Sea:

The desert would briefly come alive with color before the summer heat and sun fired it into an old, faded Polaroid. Bombay Beach, where we lived, lay in the distance, not a town really, but a satellite of the nominally larger Niland to the south and east. I thought of our community, crosshatched by a handful of dirt and gravel streets, as an asteroid, a piece of something larger that had been cast off and that orbited at a constant, bereft distance from its source … [Laurel] said Bombay Beach was a good place to hide out … Bombay Beach, like all half-attempts at towns nearby, was a place for people who had a provisional relationship to the world.

Hiding out. A familiar theme from Chandler’s California narratives, people fleeing from shadowy pasts in shadowy small towns for the opportunity the West purportedly provides for a little emotional duck and cover.

“Bombay Beach and [neighboring] Slab City are both interesting places to me, not only because of how they look but because of the people who choose to live in them,” Silver explains. “In writing the book, I focused less on the deficits of these places than on thinking of the relationship each of my characters has to this unforgiving, yet powerful, landscape. Laurel, of course, loves the castoff, the untended, which cleaves to unlikely places. And she finds a kind of refuge in a place which is devoid of the strictures and formulations of society relative to where she grew up. In the empty expanse of the desert, she finds a place to hide out.”

Ares informs the reader that in Bombay Beach “Laurel conjured a life for us out of nothing” and “we eschewed rules that conflicted with our privacy and Laurel’s convictions that society had little to offer us.”

Throughout the novel, Ares’ bicycle provides his only freedom and the only momentary respites from his growing insolence toward his great responsibilities to his brother and his mother in that blighted expanse. The boy’s bicycle gives him the illusion of freedom, of mobility, of control over his frenetic and confusing life: “I rode my bike day and night, whenever and wherever I pleased. There was nothing more exhilarating than the feeling of swinging my leg over the seat and making those first few turns of the pedals until my wheels seemed to glide above the ground.” In Didion’s Play It as It Lays, Maria receives the same temporary transcendence by the many thousands of miles she logs on her Corvette in similar pointless journeys, hers on the L.A. freeway system:

She drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and just as a riverman feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking, so Maria lay at night in the still of Beverly Hills and saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy miles an hour…. Again and again she returned to an intricate stretch just south of the interchange where successful passage from the Hollywood onto the Harbor required a diagonal move across four lanes of traffic. On the afternoon she finally did it without once braking or once losing the beat on the radio she was exhilarated, and that night she slept dreamlessly.

Silver’s evocative description of Slab City and its aesthetic clutter, a metaphor for the lack of aesthetic control, evokes not only Leonard Gardner’s despairing California boxing novel Fat City but also detective novelist and L.A. social observer Chandler at his best:

…we reached Slab City, the decommissioned base where snowbirds in RVs stayed every winter and other people lived year round in renegade homes built out of corrugated metal or trailers, all constructed atop the forsaken concrete foundations of barracks that no longer existed…. We rode past the bar and a sign advertising a community talent show, past the trailer that served as the church and the one that belonged to the unofficial mayor, who also ran the local shortwave radio broadcast. A sitting area had been set up outside his trailer with a handful of mismatched lawn chairs, a plastic table, and some browning potted palms. Empty plastic water jugs were scattered about, some reconceived as planters or dog bowls. Slab City’s residents had to bring in their own water and get rid of their own garbage because Slab City wasn’t really a city. It was a place for people who liked to get away with things.

Compare and contrast Silver’s Slab City with Chandler’s Downtown People from The High Window:

In and around the old houses there are flyblown restaurants and Italian fruit stands and cheap apartment houses and little candy stores where you can buy even nastier things than their candy. And there are ratty hotels where nobody except people named Smith and Jones sign the register and where the night clerk is half watchdog and half pander.

Out of the apartment houses come women who should be young but have faces like stale beer; men with pulled-down hats and quick eyes that look the street over behind the cupped hand that shields the match flame; worn intellectuals with cigarette coughs and no money in the bank; fly cops with granite faces and unwavering eyes; cokies and coke peddlers; people who look like nothing in particular and know it, and once in a while even men that actually go to work. But they come out early, when the wide cracked sidewalks are empty and still have dew on them.

One final “compare and contrast” will hopefully conclude the argument that Silver is tilling on fertile ground and in the process is reinventing and reinvigorating the Southern California novel. In Nathanael West’s classic The Day of the Locust, protagonist Tod Hackett, an artist by schooling and trade, climbs a Hollywood canyon and observes the eclectic design of the homes that “outlined the tops of the ugly, humpbacked hills”:

But not even the soft wash of dusk could help the houses. Only dynamite would be of any use against the Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages, and every possible combination of these styles that lined the slopes of the canyon.

Silver encounters the same maddening aesthetic clutter in the Slab City Bar, where a local talent show and a major incident occurs in The God of War. The bar is described as a “semi-permanent structure decorated with a reckless combination of objects. Wagon wheels were nailed to the wall as well as old movie posters. A fake stuffed King Kong hung from one corner holding a Barbie doll in his hairy fist. Giant Chinese fans decorated the walls behind the bar.” Even Silver’s description of the topography of poor Malcolm’s mind reads like a physical description of Southern California: “I thought about how he must experience life as a smashed mirror, a collection of fractured pieces that never fit together to make a perfect whole. There was this, and that, and the other thing, and all the separate shards didn’t really have anything to do with one another, not even the central fact that they were in my brother’s brain.”

Finally, there is the Salton Sea itself, as strong and vivid a character as Ares, Laurel, Malcolm, and the doomed juvenile delinquent Kevin:

“My sea,” she sighed, shading her eyes against the lowering sun. She possessed the sea as if it were another of the half-orphaned children she had collected around her like Malcolm and me, the crippled fragments of the earth she had decided to keep close while rejecting all the rest. For the sea was castoff, too. Some sixty years before, travelers crossed the desert looking for a new home. They wanted the land to be wet and arable, like the places in the east they lived in before drought and blight made them uninhabitable. Those pilgrims vowed to reclaim the desert as though it had been something else in the first place: an Eden of lush, generous plants and fruits, a place where people were meant to thrive. Determined, they tried to redirect a river, but the river broke loose and flooded, the water rushing down to this place, filling it up, creating a new sea and scuttling their plans. Laurel rarely spoke about her own past, or the farm in Indiana where she was raised. I knew only a little about my grandparents, whom she left when she was eighteen, and what they did to her. But she talked about the history of the sea as if it were her own, and in that way its story became mine, those early settlers my distant relatives, their exploits my legacy.

“I chose to write about the Salton Sea, Slab City, and Bombay Beach because they are places whose histories captivated me,” Silver reflects. “The sea itself, as I write about in the book, is the result of human error, the desire on the part of early California settlers to irrigate the desert. I was certainly intrigued by the wonderful hubris of these settlers whose efforts to divert the Colorado River to create the irrigation they needed failed (until they succeeded) and created a sea. The effort is certainly redolent of a certain kind of California optimism, but of course, the story of America is based on such optimistic if sometimes foolhardy efforts. The story of California, sometimes seen as so distinct from that of other parts of the country, is really just the last stop on a continuum as pioneers pushed westward with their hopes and dreams and confronted a place that had to be re-worked to suit these dreams.”

Silver’s The God of War is, simply put, a stunning meditation on heartbreak and history, of choices made and the seismic consequences of those choices. In the foreword to Archer in Jeopardy, Southern California crime novelist Ross MacDonald wrote: “The dead require us to remember and to write about them. We reinvent them and ourselves out of memory and dream.”

Dedicated to the memory of Jacqueline McAtee, 1942-2008.