A Fragmentary History of California

A Fragmentary History of California

Ashton Politanoff’s fascinating You’ll Like it Here, a hybrid book on the Golden State in the 20th century, looks at the novelistic details of everyday life.

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In the wake of his mother’s death in 2014, Ashton Politanoff began consulting the digital archive at the public library of Redondo Beach, Calif., the coastal city in southern Los Angeles where she’d lived. (Politanoff, a professor, still resides there.) The resultant findings, gleaned from local newspapers—photographs, advertisements, instances of violence, recipes, industrial disasters, and other ephemera—comprise Politanoff’s debut, You’ll Like It Here, a sort of nonfiction collage that locates the seeds of contemporary catastrophe deep within a surreal regional history. “I felt most drawn to the years from 1911 through 1918,” he notes in the introduction, “during which time I saw a town come to life and recognized an era strangely analogous to our own.” Politanoff has modified these selections, prizing dramatic effect over historical accuracy. Appearing at the rate of about one entry per page, these fragments of the archive read like the microfictions of Lydia Davis or the poetic reclamations of Susan Howe: cryptic, grimly funny, self-contained. Neither novel nor social history, the book is partly about the tensions that exist between such categories. Here the myth of California is wrung from the headlines. As ever, reality flees its own reporting.

A similar impulse, one that fuses artifice and documentary, has a long precedent in American letters. Having absorbed the Romantic fervor for vernacular speech and local eccentricity, a cohort of American modernists used documentary narrative to capture what they conceived of as the American story. Poetic works like William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain (1925) and Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony (1934–79), and ambitious fictions like John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy (1930–36), used the texture of everyday American life—its conversations, newspapers, song lyrics, crimes, passions, figureheads, and products—to create intricate national panoramas whose verisimilitude resided in the gritty truth of each work’s supporting material. These works often articulated the delusions inherent to the American myth, depicting the dehumanizing effects of its economic system and the withering potency of the market’s cheap, commercial language. Their moral power adheres in these attentions, a network of sympathy rippling outward through systems slick with hegemonic residue.

You’ll Like It Here is less explicitly diagnostic: It is a work of ambience rather than analysis. Hints of plenitude and prophecy cling to the assembled bricolage, and the reader is left to comb, order, connect, decode, or disregard what she will. In its staccato patterning, the book can almost be read musically, as an accretion of rhythms and motifs. It relies on its considerable white space to establish a narrative cadence. What lies between each report—that field of blankness, a kind of reset—is essential to the experience. These miniature dramas refuse to coalesce, though their brevity and piquancy quickly establish an atmosphere. It all bears some resemblance to the lyrical fragment novel—works like Carole Maso’s Ava or Jenny Offil’s Weather—which embed contemporary and historical verities within an otherwise fictional structure. Politanoff’s book leans even further into the purportedly true, wresting the spirit of fiction from the domain of fact.

The format is the same for every entry: a headline (“Fruit Shortage”) followed by a short accompanying text (“The truck was coming down Garnet when the wheel broke. Peaches, oranges, and cantaloupes flew in every direction”). These entries vary wildly in tone and content, though they often hinge on an act of human folly. Politanoff’s collage is one of chaos—orchestrating the calamities of a culture on the brink of catastrophe. An embattled California is beset by early-20th-century technologies, interpersonal conflicts, superfluous information, and the climatic revolt of the land itself. Something almost diabolical begins to well from the text, an intimation of apocalypse. It is this sense of destruction that compels the reader to make the leap from the regional to the contemporary and the universal. The threatened idyll of Southern California acts as a historical synecdoche for a country staring down the barrel of the First World War, the Great Depression, and the ravages of the Spanish flu. Whatever else it may be, You’ll Like It Here is representative of another age-old genre: the American origin story.

Having been repurposed from newspapers, the book’s entries retain reportage’s economy of language. Politanoff uses this abbreviation to his advantage. Bereft of descriptive artifice, the selections strike with the compacted force of parables, reduced to a biblical severity. There are missives on authority (“Obey”), swindling (“Bad Paper Used on Businessmen”), rebellion (“Crystal Ball Rebellion”), covetousness and strife (“Ball of Fire”). The threat of violence is constant and often serves as a form of resolution, as in “Embroiled,” an account of a city butcher’s business dispute: “I’ll cut your heart out, said Mr. McFutcheon.” Despite the use of surnames, the book’s figures attain a mythic dimension, less individuals than representations of particular human qualities. They blunder into death and misadventure like actors unaware that they’ve been cast in a great tragedy. If there is any kind of judgment here, it is distant and nearly Job-like in its inscrutability.

There is a glorious weirdness that undergirds many of the entries, akin to the haunted photographs of Clarence John Laughlin or the cracked Americana of David Lynch. Politanoff has an eye for the uncanny detail that marbles the surface of American life with menace or whimsy. “Tea Time” is a comic grotesque in which a blind man with miraculous hearing fools onlookers into believing he can see: “Which eye do you think I can see out of? he asked a skeptic. The left one of course, was the reply. The blind man opened his penknife and tapped the left eye with the little blade. It made a sound like tea time.” In “Bird Steals,” a seagull flies away with an angler’s hook and line, creating a weightless image of surreality: “Slingerland watched his rod dangling in the sky.” “Strange Illumination” observes an inexplicable phosphorescence in the ocean, “a flickering red appearance” that paints the cresting waves with fire. (“The source of this phenomenon remains unknown.”) In “Accrual,” the bodies of horses wash in from the sea. These violent fissures allow the psychic seepage of American life to pool amid the book’s more prosaic entries. Taken together, they suggest the value of the uncanny in the formation of California.

Politanoff displays a preoccupation with the afterlife of the Wild West, how its raucous, vigilante freedoms have been imprinted upon and distorted by prosperity. Crime is everywhere in the book, and if it is sometimes senseless or arbitrary, it is just as often a conscious act of rebellion against the established order. Many of the book’s entries act out the tension between the law and its transgression. Officers investigate disturbances and deliver ultimatums; fortune tellers are arrested (“They looked at the judge with shadowed eyes, already well aware of his verdict”); a chemist is confused for a bomb maker; a woman refuses to put out her Turkish cigarette and is escorted to the city jail. One such rebel, Eddie Slack, is accosted after refusing to stand for the national anthem:

Several men seized Slack and escorted him out the door. They kept carrying him until they reached the pier and then proceeded to pummel him. A woman produced a flag from her purse and Slack was forced onto his knees and he kissed the flag. When the officers arrived, Slack sought their protection. You must respect the Stars and Stripes, he was told.

Here the requirement for submission approaches the violent theatricality of fascism. Mere adherence to the law is not enough; offenders must be humiliated as examples. Throughout the book, Politanoff alludes to what was lost in the development of this parochial disposition. Eccentricity and imagination are crushed or assimilated into the products of sun-kissed industriousness. The postcard quality of Southern California has always been sustained by these ubiquitous and banal cruelties. They are sometimes challenged by figures in the book, albeit unsuccessfully. “I demand fair play,” a woman writes to the police in “Message to the Authorities,” though the reader—and likely she herself—knows how unlikely she is to receive it.

You’ll Like It Here asks the reader to consider what is newsworthy in American life. The book’s construction—Politanoff’s curation and modification of purported fact—comes to complicate the very idea of “the news” itself, serving as a sort of cracked mirror. The tremendous narrative power of headlines to shape sentiment is not unlike the persuasive influence a novelist wields over his readers. With its illusion of comprehensiveness, its pleasing sequence of causes and effects, the news has played no small part in the establishment of America as both an idea and a seductive fantasy. Like a fiction, the West, too, is an experiment in enforced continuity. Politanoff’s book rediscovers our present anxieties—epidemics, environmental catastrophes, state violence—in an eerily recognizable historical account. A disquieting sensation emerges that we’ve somehow been here before—or, worse, that we’ve never really left. Here change is mimicked, when it can’t be deferred. Call it the eternal recurrence of California.

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