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The traditional task of the writer in California has been to write about what it means to be human in a place advertised as paradise. Disappointment has always been the theme. The literature to come will begin with a different expectation.

March 29, 2010
by Richard Rodriguez
Image source: Mark Peterson/Redux

Though John Steinbeck was not, in my opinion, the best California writer of the last century, The Grapes of Wrath remains California’s greatest novel. The native son imagined California from the outside, as a foreigner might; imagined wanting California desperately; imagined California as a remedy for the trial of the nation.

Otherwise, I might think of John Milton when I think of California and the writer’s task. Milton devised that, after the Fall, the temperature in San Diego would remain at 75 degrees, but Adam and Eve’s relationship to a perfect winter day would be changed to one of goose bumps.

The traditional task of the writer in California has been to write about what it means to be human in a place advertised as paradise. Not the Buckeye or the Empire, not the Can-do or the Show-me, California is the Postlapsarian State. Disappointment has always been the theme of California.

For example, my own.

I cannot afford to live here. I mean I do live here—I rent two large rooms, two stories above California Street. My light comes from the south. But if I had to move, I could not afford to live here anymore.

In San Francisco, small Victorians, small rooms, steep stairs, are selling for three or four million and are repainted to resemble Bavarian cuckoo clocks—browns and creams and the mute greens tending to blue. That is my mood. If I owned one of the Victorians, I would no doubt choose another comparison. It is like living on a street of cuckoo clocks—and all the cuckoos are on cell phones—I won’t say striking 13; nevertheless a version of postmodernity I had not anticipated. Only well-to-do futurists and stuffed T-shirts can afford to live in this 19th-century neighborhood.

My complaint with my city is that I am middle-aged.

The sidewalks in my neighborhood are uncannily empty save for Mexican laborers and Mexican nannies and Mexican caregivers, and women wearing baseball hats who walk with the exaggerated vigor of wounded pride (as do I). The streets are in disrepair; the city has no money; really, the streets have never been worse. And the city can no longer afford to maintain the park across the street. The park has never looked worse—the hedges are falling to ruin; are not trimmed; the grass is not watered. Can you imagine Adam and Eve grousing about run-down Eden?

California has been the occasion for disappointment since the 1850s, since men wrote home from the gold fields, from Auburn, from Tulare or Sonora, from tree stumps and tent-hotels.

I have no doubt I will prevail here, but you may not think my thicker skin is the proper reformation of an Ohio son. The men here are rough, they grunt and growl and guard their plates with their arms. Now I reach past my neighbor, and grunt, too, and shove, too, and I would cuss just for the pleasure of saying something out loud. I don’t believe I have said more than ten words since I came to this place. I realize any oath I might devise would pale next to the colorful flannel they run up here…

And yet the streets are clogged with pickups and delivery vans, cable vans, and the vans of construction workers—certain evidence of prosperity. Crews of men, recently from old countries, work to reconstruct the houses of futurists—houses that were reconstructed not two years ago. One cannot drive down any street without having to go around the pickups and the vans, without muttering under one’s breath at the temporary “No Parking” signs that paper every street, because everyone knows the only reason for the “No Parking” permits is to enable construction workers to drive to work.

Men from every corner of the world converged on the gold fields in the 1850s, prompting Karl Marx to proclaim the creation of a global society in California, a society unprecedented in the world up to that time. The gold parliament was an achievement of necessity as much as of greed.

Kevin Starr, the preeminent historian of California from the 1850s to the end of the 20th century, has described California as a chronology of proper names: Stanford. Atherton. Giannini. Disney.

Disappointment was arrival. Letters went out to the world, diaries, newspaper reports, warnings, laments, together with personal effects—eyeglasses, pen nibs, broken-backed Bibles—wrapped in soiled canvas. The stolen claim. Or the fortune squandered. (Lottie, dear, I have wasted our dream…) The trusting disposition. The false friend. The fog-shrouded wharf. The Spaniard Marquis, etc. The ring, the brooch, the opium den, etc.

Narratives of disappointment flowed eastward, like an auguring smoke, or bumped back over rutted trails, as coffins bump or buckboards slow, to meet the stories of the desolations of the prairie life, rolled over those, flowed back to the Atlantic shore, where the raw line separating the North and South was beginning to fester.

Nineteenth-century California rewarded only a few of its brotherhood, but it rewarded them as deliriously as an ancient king in an ancient myth would reward. The dream of a lucky chance encouraged a mass migration, toward “el norte” or “gold mountain,” or from across the plains of America.

For, as much as California’s story was a story of proper names or of luck or election, California was also a story of mass—mass migrations, unmarked graves, missing persons, accident. By the time he reaches the 1990s in his great work, Kevin Starr seems to sense an influential shift: The list of singular makers of California gives way to forces of unmaking—to gangs, earthquakes, riots, floods, propositions, stalled traffic.

Disappointment is a fine literary theme—”universal”—as the young high school English teacher, himself disappointed, was fond to say, and it wears like leather.

Disappointment continued to be mined in California’s literature throughout the 20th century. Joan Didion gave us domestic broken-dreamers, not so much driven as driving. In the great Didion essays of the sixties, the dystopian mother abandons her daughter on the median of the San Bernardino freeway; dirty dishes pile up in the sink; the hot wind blows from the desert.

Mike Davis gives us the California Club version of the broken dream—paper evidence that a deal was cut. The water, the electricity, the coastline—everything can be bought or sold in the Promised Land, and has been.

California’s most influential prose has turned out to be that of mystery writers, more in line with John Milton, who regard Eden as only an occasion for temptation and fall. For example, the 18-year-old cheerleader from Sioux City returns her engagement ring, a poor-grade sapphire she got from a boy named Herbert (not after the president); cashes in her scholarship to the teacher’s college; buys a ticket to L.A., enjoins herself to become the new, the next—Whaddaya think?—Jean Harlow. But she ends up a manicurist in Van Nuys; she ends up the blue, blonde Jane Doe-of-the-month in the North Hollywood morgue. It requires a private investigator who is broke, dyspeptic, alcoholic, but also something of a Puritan, to want to incriminate California. The golden.

One of my favorite California essays is a disappointment essay—F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up”—an incautious memoir, meticulous, snide.

What an unenviable prospect, though, to be forced to listen to the same lament—the Hollywood screenwriter’s lament—at one o’clock in the morning in the Polo Lounge. I once suffered a very long evening thus, listening to a young man complain, in breath that smelled of boiled eggs for lunch, about the difficulty of being a “serious” writer in a town that idolized Spielberg. It was Spielberg that year; I imagine it still is Spielberg.

Francis Scott Fitzgerald at one o’clock in the morning: “I saw that the novel, which at my maturity was the strongest and supplest medium for conveying thought and emotion from one human being to another, was becoming subordinated to a mechanical and communal art that, whether in the hands of Hollywood merchants or Russian idealists, was capable of reflecting only the tritest thought, the most obvious emotion.”

Many decades after Fitzgerald cracked up, I saw with my own eyes a still orbiting fragment of his legend. I saw Sheilah Graham, a tarnished blond in a black cocktail dress. She floated from table to table at Mr. Chow’s restaurant, myopic, bending at the waist to kiss the air behind the ears of revelers. As a public sinner, she was something of a disappointment.

What Fitzgerald was too aureate to imagine was that unfastidious merchants of Hollywood—the ham-fisted, the thick-fingered, the steak-minded—nevertheless could pay somebody (scale) to develop the screenwriter’s complaint into a script—a picture about a pretty-boy screenwriter who ends up floating face-down in a swimming pool on Sunset Boulevard.

The question is: Does California have anything left to say to America, or to the world, or even to itself, beyond disappointment? True, a vast literature is forming upon the Dewey-decimal coast. Vietnamese-Californian, Japanese-Californian, Pakistani-Californian, Hispanics, all sorts, including my own. The question many people legitimately ask about this literature is whether our voices describe more than a hyphenated state.

My first literary recognition of California came from reading William Saroyan, because Saroyan described the world I recognized. It was as simple as that. Armenian Fresno was related to my Sacramento. It was as simple as that—the extreme Valley heat (outlanders swore they never could stand it, or the flatness either, or the alfalfa green); also the taste of water from a garden hose—the realization that California, that any life, that my life, therefore, was potentially the stuff of literature.

Here is the quote from Saroyan that I typed and pasted on the inside of my bedroom door, a manifesto:

Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.

That was Saroyan’s “advice to a young writer.” I took the advice at a time when I had no expectation of being a writer or any desire or sense of obligation. (It comes to me only now, as I type this, that Saroyan’s advice has nothing to do with writing; it is advice for any mortal, sentient being.)

It would be another two decades before I came upon the words that made me think I had a story to tell—the opening words of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior:

“You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you.”

The mother’s prohibition to her daughter reminded me of my own mother’s warning about spreading “family secrets.” In the face of all California’s fame for blatancy—in the face of pervasive light, ingenuousness, glass and aluminum housing, bikinis, billboards—Mrs. Hong recommended concealment. Her shrine is a published book.

About this time, Aram Saroyan, William Saroyan’s son, published a bitter memoir of his father’s last years.

William Saroyan was not on any syllabus I ever saw at Stanford or Berkeley, nor, incidentally, was Steinbeck. Stanford, Berkeley—these were schools established in the 19th century by professors from the Ivy League who had come west, like Peace Corps volunteers, to evangelize California for the Atlantic Enlightenment. So perhaps it was not surprising that, even in the 1960s and ’70s, very little attention was paid to California in any university course, despite the fact that California in those years was at the center of the national imagination. The only California novel assigned in any course I took, either in college or graduate school, was Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust, probably because it fulfilled some East Coast expectation that California would come to doom.

And speaking of doom, the editor from Time magazine wanted an essay on California because it was a season (this was 10 years ago) when the national newsweeklies were hitting the stands with titles like “Is the Golden State Tarnished?”

The Time editor wanted 750 words worth of tarnish: “It would be nice if you could give us a Joan Didion essay.”

“What’s that?” I said.

“You know,” she said. “Sardonic.”

I unfold and refold that fraying Time story whenever I go to lunch with a California writer, handy to pull out if the conversation turns to New York. When the conversation inevitably turns to New York.

It is not sardonicism, sardony; it is the flat Valley pitch. And it is precision.

Anyway, California is getting too old to play the unhappy child or even the sardonic—too rich, too glued, too Angelica Huston walking substantially down some steps into the garden, to play the exuberant, the naïf. And California has grown children of her own. Two of the most interesting cities in North America are California daughters. Las Vegas, the open-throttled city, mimics California’s youth, when land was cheap and cities were built in opposition to nature. Tijuana wants so little, she terrifies us for needing so much.

And: New York, truly, I am sorry to say, is not New York anymore. I say this having once been the boy who strained—the antenna on our roof raked through the starlight—to catch any shred of conversation from New York. I watched James Baldwin interviewed by David Suskind. I watched Norman Mailer chafing at America on the Dick Cavett Show. New York was a conversation. I guess I am stuck there. Buckley and Galbraith, Yale and Harvard, W. H. Auden, and Hermione Gingold.

Unread copies of the New Yorker slip and slide on the opposite end of my couch—damn slippery things—opposite to the end of the couch where I read. Still, every once in a while there’s an essential article. I stopped my subscription to the New York Review of Books some years ago. When I was in college, in graduate school, and for many years after, NYRB fed my ravenous appetite for Oxbridge-Manhattan conversation. But then… what? I got too old; the conversation got too old. And surely the world must be larger than New York and London. Even now, I could pick up right where I left off: SWM seeks SWF, for argument’s sake.

On an April day in 1970, I saw Dwight MacDonald. We both were stranded on a concrete island in the middle of Broadway. He was an old man in a raincoat in the rain. I was a student. The rain was glorious, tall, immoderate. Everything was glorious. Broadway. No, I did not dare congratulate MacDonald for his bravery as a public intellectual, the best of his kind, and for whom the rain, that day, at least from the look of him, was just one more goddamned thing. Then the light changed.

Because Irving Kristol correctly predicted the light would change; that the intellectual center of America would shift from the shores of the Hudson to the Potomac.

For the writer, the problem of the absence of New York is the problem of the absence of a critical center, where opinion can be trusted to support talent or call down the falsely reasoned text. Washington think tanks are too far gone in the thrall to political power to provide that center. In the absence of critical structures, where does the young writer from California, or any writer, present himself for review; to what city does he apply for notice and contest? Nowadays, it is not Norman Mailer or James Baldwin who converse on television, it is Dr. Bill Frist or Harry Reid, and it is poor.

I was once interviewed on C-Span during the Los Angeles Times Book Festival. Five minutes max, the producer promised. Put this in your ear. Look over there. 5… 4… 3… 2… I was standing on a crowded plaza at UCLA between two stalls, one for African-American books, another for Latino books. I said to my interviewer, who was in Washington, D.C., which was inside an electronic button, which was inside my ear, that I regretted these two neighboring book booths represented so little understanding of what California is becoming.

The earphone remained as neutral as a can opener.

…I mean California’s destiny is marriage. All the races of the world…

Two-second delay. Obviously I have wasted… the earphone asked if I was going to attend The Great Debate.

I’m sorry?

“Our viewers are going to watch a debate between California and New York,” the earphone enthused (a brightening of tone).

(California would be “represented” by Ms. Ariana Huffington; New York by Mr. Pete Hamill.)

You’d do better to stage a conversation between Duluth and El Paso.

The earphone paused for an awful moment (c.f. Bishop Proudie’s wife, Barchester Towers, suspecting sarcasm) before leaping from my ear.

Americans have been promised—by God, by the Constitution of the United States, by Edna Ferber—that we shall enjoy liberty to pursue happiness. The pursuit constitutes what we have come to call the American Dream.

Americans feel disappointment so keenly because our optimism is so large and is so often insisted upon by historians. And so often justified by history. The stock market measures optimism. If you don’t feel optimistic there must be something wrong with you. There are pills for disappointment.

The California Dream was a codicil to the American Dream, an opening. Internal immigrants sought from California at least a softer winter, a wider sky, at least a thousand miles’ distance between themselves and whatever dissatisfaction they felt with “home.”

Midwestern California, the California of internal immigrants, was everywhere apparent when I was growing up, in the nervous impulse to build and to live in a house that had never been lived in or died in; where the old lady never spilled milk, the dog never bit, the bully never lurked behind the elm tree; where widows and discomfited children never stared at the moon through runny glass, or listened to the wind at night. This California was created by newcomers from Illinois and Nebraska, and it shaped my life. This was California as America’s America.

Simultaneous with Midwestern California was the California of Maxine Hong Kingston and William Saroyan, and my Mexican mother and father and my Indian relatives, a California of private family secrets, yes, unorthodox ingredients, turmeric, cilantro, Santa Maria Purisima; but also some surpassing relief at having found in California a blind from tragedy. The relief California offered immigrants from other countries was comparable to the imagined restoration of the Joads. Ours was a California far removed from the drama of Midwestern disappointment, from the all-new, and why-am-I-not-happy?, though we lived next door to it, to Nebraska and Illinois.

Thus, in my lifetime, I experienced two Californias concurrently. I discovered (because I was attuned to) a sort of hybrid of these two Californias in the writings of John Muir. Muir was born in Scotland; he moved with his family to Wisconsin when he was 11. Muir saw California with a Midwesterner’s delight in the refulgence of it—he called California “the grand side of the mountain.” Yet I recognized in John Muir as well the quiet, grateful voice of the immigrant from overseas. Muir sailed into California. He first saw the coastline, as if through Pacific eyes; he saw immediately the implication of the coastline: California (and America) is finite.

When I grew up in the 1950s, freeways offered freedom from implication. California was neurotically rebuilding itself as an ever-rangier-house in a further-flung subdivision. As a loyal son of California, I believed in all this, in the “new” and the other “e-z” adjectives real estate agents employed to lure Midwesterners. And though the advertisement the real estate developer placed in the Midwestern newspaper was not a bluff, too many people believed, too many people came. The traffic on the freeway has slowed from Jetsons, to “Now what?” to Sig-alert.

What is obsolete now in California is the future. For a century and a half Americans spoke of California as the future when they wanted to escape inevitability. Now the future attaches consequences and promises constriction. Technocrats in Sacramento warn of a future that is overwhelmed by students, pollution, immigrants, cars, fluorocarbons, old people. Or the future is diminished—water quality, soil quality, air quality, education quality, highway quality, life quality. There are not enough doctors for the state’s emergency rooms, not enough blue parking spaces outside, not enough oil, not enough natural gas, not enough electricity. More blackouts, more brownouts, too many air-conditioners, too few houses, frogs on the verge of extinction, a fugitive middle class. A state without a white center. To the rest of the nation California now represents what the nation fears to become.

The brilliance of Midwestern California, the California that is founded upon discontent (and the reason why so much technological innovation springs from the West Coast), is that having confronted the finitude of the coastline, technologists in Silicon Valley have shrunk the needed commodity—the future (thousands of miles of Zen pathway)—to the size of a fleck of gold dust, to a microchip.

A few months ago, I went to have dinner in Menlo Park, where I met a young man who wore a linen jacket of the very blackest label and the scent of the winner’s circle. He owns, very firmly owns, I imagine, on sheaves of legal-sized hardcopy, electronic portals (virtual) through which the most ephemeral chatter and the finest thoughts of humankind pass as undifferentiated “content.” (I imagine Ensor’s painting of Christ’s Entry Into Brussels at the Getty.)

When I answered the young man’s uninterested inquiry by identifying myself as a writer, his only response was to recommend I consign every published sentence I now guard with copyright onto the Web and give it away. No one owns an idea in this age, was his advice (and all of a sudden he sounded like someone one would have met on a riverboat). Except his idea, of course.

The young man’s fortune comes, not from the “content” his technology conveys or conveys a quester toward, but rather from the means of conveyance—or, no, not even that. A sort of dock, is it? For swan boats. He will make more money by, at intervals, changing some aspect of conveyance or by padlocking the old portal (I imagine the Suez Canal) so that people have to pay to modify their means of access. He is set on weaning the minds of youth from the snares of merchandisers (“middlemen” he quaintly calls them). Young people are conveyed to the belief they should obtain intellectual property without paying for it, and without packaging. Packaging is sentimentality.

The young man is content to disassemble, by making “free,” all intellectual property and factories of intellectual properties (recording studios, for example, or publishing houses), and all clearinghouses of intellectual properties (such as New York, such as Los Angeles), in order that he can charge more for his arch or his gondola or his Victorian bathing machine.

The technologist now publishes to the world that place is over. California used to be the summation of the expansionist dream; now we foretell constriction. The future has been condensed to the head of a pin. Not Go West, not even Go Home. Rather, stay at home. Run in place. You are still connected, whether you are in the air or on a train or never leave Wisconsin. The great invention, rather, the refinement, of Silicon Valley is portability.

For a long season, California was the most important purveyor of narrative to the world. Hollywood was filled with stories in the last century, stories bought and sold—more stories than anyone could listen to or use. When other lures to California were exhausted or quieted down, Hollywood became its own narrative, became the golden dream; people wanted, literally, “to get into the pictures.”

But in a California where place is irrelevant, narrative is finished. California is finished. (Narrative “takes place.”) And whereas narrative used to take precedence, the argument in Hollywood now is not about the truth of a narrative, or even the salability of a narrative, but about which product format is going to pay off.

Toward the end of dinner, the optimistic young man from Silicon Valley, having imbibed a liter or so of Napa Valley pish-posh ’69, got around to his detestation of the congestion of California. In the end, it would appear, he has to live in a real body, in real space and in real time, and buckled into his hundred-thousand-dollar funk: “Traffic is a bitch every fucking morning.”

…When you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.

I, too, was an optimist. Well, I took Saroyan’s pronouncement for optimism. Like many children of immigrant parents, Saroyan and I grew up among shadows, grotesque shadows thrown from a grandmother’s stories, stories that might show us up as foreigners if they ever saw the light of day. How could the Saroyan boy not be beguiled in the direction of games and sunlight. And then limelight. And then Paris.

I saw him once, in a bookstore in San Francisco, a bookstore made of wood, now long gone. He dressed like a stage bohemian; he wore a walrus moustache, and a fedora hat, and his cashmere coat rested upon his shoulders. He threw back his head to bellow, by which gesture he represented mirth. He was entirely admirable and theatrical. Saroyan’s literary persona remained that of a carefree bon vivant, at ease with the world and delighted by it, tasting, breathing, laughing like hell. He’d never be a Princeton man—but so what?

The legend: William Saroyan of Fresno, California, and Paris, France, was haunted by the early promise of himself. Critics withheld from the middle-aged man the praise they had once lavished on the youth. He was the same man. What gives? He became dark-minded and spiteful and stingy and mistrustful of friends and family and agents and stockbrokers and the IRS. The world smelled spoiled to him. He felt passed over by the world that mattered, the small, glittering, passing world.

The last time I was in Fresno, about a year ago, I gave a luncheon address at the African-American Cultural Center to a roomful of journalists from ethnic newspapers and radio and television stations, called, altogether, “New California Media.” (The Pakistani radio station in San Diego. The Iranian television station in L.A. The Oaxacan. The Mandarin.) Everyone in the room spoke interestedly of a California that was crowded with voices, most of which they could not translate but they knew implicated them. No one knew what I was asking, when I asked where Saroyan had lived.

The question for the night is the question of content, I think, not conveyance. A new generation of writers in California will not speak of separate neighborhoods, certainly not of brown hills and dairy cows, or the taste of water from a hose, or the sound of train whistles at night. Nor will they dote on New York, as I doted on New York. Oh, maybe they will, why deny them that? Perhaps New York will be Shanghai.

In the time of your life, live, was Saroyan’s advice. I believe the difference between the literature of California’s past and the literature to come will be the difference of expectation. There are children growing up in California today who take it as a given that the 101 North, the 405 South, and the 10 East are unavailable after two in the afternoon.

Richard Rodriguez, an editor at Pacific News Service and a regular commentator for PBS’s News-Hour, is the author of Brown: The Last Discovery of America, Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father, and Hunger for Memory. He was a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Berkeley in 1974.

From the January February 2006 Chinafornia issue of California.

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