She Bop

Well, the brake light thing was nothing serious; merely an internal computer malfunction of some sort, so the internal computer had to be reset, which took longer than I would have liked, but I love my dealership and I love my car, and sitting there gave me the opportunity to finish reading the amazing Ivy Pochoda novel, Wonder Valley.

Scan

He is almost beautiful–running with the San Gabriels over one shoulder, the rise of the Hollywood Freeway over the other. He is shirtless, the hint of swimmer’s muscle rippling below his tanned skin, his arms pumping in a one-two rhythm in sync with the beat of his feet. There is a chance you envy him.

Seven a.m. and traffic is already jammed through downtown, ground to a standstill as cars attempt to cross five lanes, moving in increments so small their progress is nearly invisible. They merge in jerks and starts from the Pasadena Freeway onto the Hollywood or the Santa Ana. But he is flowing freely, reverse commuting through the stalled vehicles.

The drivers watch from behind their steering wheels, distracted from toggling between radio stations, fixing their makeup in the rearview, talking to friends back east for whom the day is fully formed. They left home early, hoping to avoid the bumper to bumper, the inevitable slowdown of their mornings. They’ve mastered their mathematical calculations–the distance x rate x time of the trip to work. Yet they are stuck. In this city of drivers, he is a rebuke.

When I was watching the Joan Didion documentary, I was stuck by something that was said about Ms. Didion’s work; that she wrote beautiful sentences about terrible things. It was a terrific quote, and as I was currently savoring Ms. Pochoda’s stunningly brilliant novel, particularly apt: because that is what Wonder Valley is;  beautiful writing about terrible things.

The prose is spare, like James M. Cain’s and Megan Abbott’s; each word chosen with care for its evocative power with an economy of writing that it so much more difficult to do than being overly florid. The novel is complexly structured as well; bouncing around in time between something awful that happened in 2006 and how the ripples from that event are affecting 2010, the current day. She juggles timelines and points of view effortlessly, and changes the rhythm of her words accordingly so that each point of view has a distinctive voice and view point; you can tell by tone and sentence structure what point of view you are seeing the story from without having to know the character.

That is some seriously mad skill.

There were parts of this novel that reminded me of my favorite James M, Cain novel (Serenade); and having been to Palm Springs and that area, she captures the bleak beauty of the desolation of that sun-blasted arid area. Her characters are fully formed, damaged, lost, trying to cope with issues of guilt and damage with varying degrees of success and failure, yet these deeply flawed people are heroic in their simplicity, their desire to move on and affect change in their lives they are somehow powerless to achieve; the shadows of guilt are too long and have consequence. They are so brilliantly drawn and developed that you want them to succeed; whether it’s Britt’s struggle with her own self-destruction; Ren’s attempts to move past a crime he committed when he was twelve; James’ being trapped in a life not of his own design because of a mistake; Blake’s dark desire for vengeance. Their lives cross and intersect on a Los Angeles traffic jam. This is a difficult style of story to pull off; dating back to The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder; which was a Pulitzer Prize award winning novel about a group of people who died in a bridge collapse, and how their interrelated lives all brought them together on the bridge that fateful day. The lazy way to do this kind of story is, of course, the Arthur Hailey formula (Airport, Hotel), but the way Pochoda has done it is worthy of Wilder, maybe even surpasses his own novel which created the trope. She also explores class in how each of the characters have dealt with their own guilt–and only Ren was actually punished by the system, of course; people of color are always punished by our system, while the wealthy white lawyer, the daughter of privilege, even the white son of the cult leader live in prisons of their own mind and guilt–and even those mental prisons are colored by their own levels of privilege.

It’s not an easy read, but it is a book to be read and savored and cherished.

I’d not read her first novel, Visitation Street, but it’s definitely moved closed to the top of the pile. I would be very surprised if Wonder Valley doesn’t make Best of lists and award shortlists. It’s simply extraordinary writing and story-telling.

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