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Other Book Reviews:

Lightning Field
- Dana Spiotta

It's a Free Country
- Danny Goldberg

Some of the Parts
- T Cooper

Palladio
- Jonathon Dee

The White
- Deborah Larsen
Into the Buzzsaw
- Kristina Borjesson

Atonement
- Ian McEwan

The Black Veil
- Rick Moody

Tempting Faith DiNapoli
- Lisa Gabriele

Godspeed
- Lynn Breedlove

Africa Speaks
- Mark Goldblatt

The Shape of a Pocket
- John Berger

Media Unlimited
- Todd Gitlin

Carter Beats the Devil
- Glen David Gold

Somebody's Gotta Tell It!
-
Jack Newfield
Violence, Nudity, Adult Content
- Vince Passaro

Perpetual War For Perpetual Peace
- Gore Vidal
The War Against Cliche
- Martin Amis
Look at Me
- Jennifer Egan

Them: Adventures With Extremists
- Jon Ronson

Tishomingo Blues
- Elmore Leonard

Letters to a Young Contrarian - Christopher Hitchens
With Love and Squalor -
Kip Kotzen and Thomas Beller
Shanghai Baby -
Wei Hui
Shop Talk -
Philip Roth

Halls of Fame -
John D'Agata
This is Not a Novel -
David Markson
My Name is Red -
Orhan Pamuk
The Corrections -
Jonathan Franzen
Nickel and Dimed On (Not) Getting By in America -
Barbara Ehrenreich
Spreading Misandry
P. Nathanson and K. Young

LIGHTNING FIELD
by DANA SPIOTTA
A non-review by J Stefan-Cole

The 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 feel real.

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 imbalance.

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 Betty Friedan?)

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

 



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