by DANA SPIOTTA
A non-review by J Stefan-Cole
glue that holds Dana Spiotta's novel, LIGHTENING FIELD;
Scribner, 2001, together is the city of Los Angeles, and
if you harbor an irrational dislike of the place (I do,
but, I mean, really, it's just a city with people in it),
then you might find grounds to love or hate the book. A
mention of Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles in connection
with it brought me to LIGHTNING FIELD, but, alas, there
is none of the noir shadings of Philip Marlow's LA. This
is modern tinsel town; movies as meaningful, male massage
therapists with names like Beryl who offer "Tactile
Hue Therapy" and "Spiritual Exfoliation"
(try getting a New York trainer to trot that out with your
push-ups), breast augmentation, the ever present Hollywood
Hills and restaurants with names like Vanity and Vexation,
Food Baroque and Dead Animals and Single Malts. It's a place,
the author suggests, where people pay others to make them
The book is packed with smart musings and observations,
but pithy bits in a novel should work their way out organically,
not sit alone like ferreted out chunks of insight by characters
that are really without exception thoroughly un-likable
if not hard to believe. The one character we are meant to
care about is too sketchily drawn to satisfy. This is Michael,
a sweet guy who breaks down in his last year of college.
He offers the book's title when over a family dinner, after
having swallowed his father's entire stash of cocaine, he
irrelevantly talks about the field of lightning rods, an
installation located (for real) in New Mexico. This is meant
to be the beginning of the out of sync ramblings of a kid
losing touch. I have no idea what connection there is to
signify it as the book's title.
It took me a long time to get a handle on the shape of
the story, to understand that Mina, and not her sleek, minimalist
restaurateur friend, Lorene, is the protagonist. It is Mina's
brother who breaks down and who is meant as the vehicle
to bring some humanity to her character. But it happens
in a vacuum. Michael's illness allows Mina the insight that
showing kindness, being more self-giving and caring of others
might just lead to a better life. I think we are meant to
conclude that kindness is good for the person employing
it, not that it could cure a person with a serious mental
The trouble is, Mina is so self-indulgently shallow, vain
and unkind that I found her catharsis tough to swallow.
This is a woman who compares her every emotion to a character
in a movie, who takes her cues of reality from celluloid
moments. Some samples: Her friend Lorene regarding Mina's
new $200 Cashmere stockings, "Wow. Cashmere cable knit,
no less. Very sort of Ali MacGraw-ish." Mina on Lorene,
"Her hair was black and combed sleek and shiny at shoulder
length...Cyd Charisse meets young Joan Crawford." Of
Mina, "Her secret desire to be Doris Day and normal
came over her." About a pair of shoes Mina might buy,
"Something Betty Grable-ish, something look-back-and-over-the-shoulder-ish."
About Scott, a sincere guy she picks up in bar and beds,
"That he was not winking at gestures, not imitating
a fifties movie or displaying anything but complete earnestness."
(Scott is not from LA.)
Naturally, Mina's cleanly handsome husband, David, is a
screen writer. And guess what, he's sleeping with his agent.
He finds comfort in her large, fleshy folds, even when she
binds his wrists to the bed. Sex scenes abound and they
are not without heat, but ultimately they become hermetically
sealed events. There is no way to get around feeling like
it's dark outside even while reading on a bright summer
day. There is no nutritional value to sex. The book stimulates
intellectually with its bleak awareness, but without offering
release from a windowless place; just isolated selves squeezed
back in on their own emptiness to the point of looking at
oneself erotically on film in the hope of finding a human
soul hidden on tape. Like Mina sleeping with David's oldest
and best friend, Max, whose kick is to video her day after
day to until they arrive at her fondling her clitoris before
the camera. "All that mattered was his filming her,
and she had just begun to understand this. Mina had just
begun to locate her need to be filmed. Locate it as a female
affliction, even. She had always had the sneaking feeling
she was being watched at all times. It was sort of like
believing God watched, except Mina didn't believe in God."
(Well, yah, if that's where God is looking. I don't know
who would quake more at this sentiment, Pat Robertson or
There are characters who sort of wander through the book,
each with their own LA story that don't necessarily help
move things along. There is Lisa, Lorene's cleaning lady.
Another heavy set woman, here with a nasty husband, Mark,
and a pair of adored five year old twins. Lisa has given
up on her husband, she has chosen her children instead,
and between that and a hope-scraping poverty, the husband
is pushed out. She is a blob of a person, inert and smothering,
and she obsesses over child abduction, scans the internet
for amber alert situations just to read about them. Unfortunately,
her character's quick take focus on child abuse, cookie
eating and pleasure in cleaning up after strangers has no
solid fit in the book. Just another LA moment? Unless Lisa
is meant to be more real than the over-privileged, photograph-thin
Mina and Lorene, or the delusional Michael? Lorene actually
asks Lisa one day as she cleans the floor, "So what
occupies you, if not some performance of yourself?"
By the time we get to Mina'a moment of decency--it happens
in New York City, by the way--it's hard to take in. Having
found her filament of grace she'll mosey on back to her
West Coast bungalow. She even misses LA after running off
with Lorene to track down Michael who has let himself out
of the psyche ward. Did I mention that he and Lorene had
been lovers? That when she visited him (one time only)in
the asylum she wore a peach chiffon dress with no underwear?
Well, let's cut poor Lorene some slack for occasional inappropriateness,
she is really lost. Mina is a philosopher by comparison.
Lorene owns Pleasure Model Enterprises (see the above-mentioned
restaurants, they're all hers), and her idea of perfection
is exemplified by her perfect C-cup implants. Lorene's epiphany
is that she fears her life is based on something profoundly
silly, like appearances. Thankfully for the LA restaurant
scene, her moment of sad self-wisdom is short-lived. Here
is her response when Mina reveals that her dad's first assistant
director seduced her when she was fifteen, "'All those
stories are the same, Lorene says. 'Anyway, finding out
everyone is weak and human happens sooner or later, anyway.
It just seems a shame we can't get any comfort out of knowing
we are mostly all this way.'" Time to shoot the messenger?
Slurping a coke in a diner somewhere on the road east of
LA, Mina reflects aloud to Lorene regarding her home town,
"Mud slides don't count. Disasters, fires, unusual
weather systems don't count. Earthquakes don't count. They
are just random, a kind of meaningless natural hysteria.
Earthquakes, when you grow up in California, they are like
an E-ticket ride at Disneyland, a joke, a way to make the
nonnatives come forth and identify themselves." It's
hard not wonder what Mina would think of the event of two
hijacked air planes cutting down tall buildings in a single
bound. Would that be real enough?
For all that, for a city and a state, palm trees and too
much sunshine as culprit, the book is a decent read. The
iconoclasm is pure. It's just the conclusions that ring
a bit flat. Spiotta's wry observations are the key, often
droll, cruelly acute, worth sitting with in a hot tub while
sipping an icy Zima, over a Malibu sunset. Don't forget
the colonic first.
©October, 2002 J Stefan-Cole