A Fragmentary History of California ~ California

After his mother’s death in 2014, Ashton Politanoff began consulting the digital archives of the public library of Redondo Beach, California, the south Los Angeles beach town where she had lived. (Politanoff, a professor, still resides there.) The resulting findings, extracted from local newspapers — photos, advertisements, incidents of violence, recipes, industrial disasters, and other ephemera — include Politanoff’s debut, You will like it here, a sort of non-fiction collage that seeks out the seeds of contemporary catastrophe deep within a surreal regional history. “I was most drawn to the years 1911-1918,” he notes in the introduction, “during this period I saw a city come to life and recognized an era oddly similar to our own.” Politanoff has modified this selection and placed dramatic effect above historical accuracy. These fragments of the archive appear at about one entry per page and read like Lydia Davis’s microfictions or Susan Howe’s poetic reclamations: cryptic, grimly comical, self-contained. Neither novel nor social history, the book deals in part with the tensions that exist between such categories. Here the myth of California is torn from the headlines. As always, reality flees from its own reporting.

A similar impulse fusing artificiality and documentary has long precedent in American literature. A cohort of American modernists, assimilating romantic zeal for vernacular and local eccentricity, used documentary narrative to capture what they saw as American history. Poetic works like those of William Carlos Williams In American grain (1925) and Charles Reznikoffs Transcript (1934–79) and ambitious fiction like that of John Dos Passos United States of America Trilogy (1930–36) used the fabric of American everyday life—its conversations, newspapers, song lyrics, crimes, passions, figureheads, and products—to construct intricate national panoramas whose veracity lay in the grim truth of each work’s supporting material. These works often articulated the delusions inherent in American myth, depicting the dehumanizing effects of its economic system and the devastating power of the cheap, commercial language of the market. Her moral force resides in these attentions, a network of sympathy that criss-crosses systems slick with hegemonic residues.

You will like it here is less explicitly diagnostic: it is more of an atmospheric than an analytical work. Hints of abundance and prophecy cling to the assembled bricolage, and the reader must comb through, arrange, connect, decode, or ignore as he pleases. In its staccato pattern, the book can be read almost musically, as an accumulation of rhythms and motifs. It draws on its considerable white space to establish a narrative cadence. What lies between each account—that field of emptiness, a sort of reset—is essential to the experience. These miniature dramas don’t want to coalesce, although their brevity and sharpness quickly create an atmosphere. All of this bears a certain resemblance to the lyrical fragment novel – works like those of Carole Maso Ava or Jenny Offils weather– which embed contemporary and historical truths into an otherwise fictional structure. Politanoff’s book goes even further into the supposedly true, wresting the spirit of fiction from the realm of fact.

The format is the same for each entry: a headline (“Fruit shortage”), followed by a brief accompanying text (“The truck was coming down Granat when the wheel broke. Peaches, oranges, and melons flew in all directions”). These entries vary widely in tone and content, although they often hinge on an act of human folly. Politanoff’s collage is one of chaos – orchestrating the catastrophes of a culture on the brink of disaster. An embattled California is plagued by early 20th century technologies, interpersonal conflicts, superfluous information and the climatic revolt of the country itself. Something almost diabolical begins to ooze out of the text, a hint of the apocalypse. It is this sense of destruction that compels the reader to make the leap from the regional to the contemporary and universal. The threatened idyll of Southern California acts as a historical synecdoche for a country that is being dragged down by World War I, the Great Depression and the devastation of the Spanish flu. what else it may be You will like it here is representative of another age-old genre: the American origin story.

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