Festival of Books: California as a novel backdrop

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“California Dreamin’” was a dream panel, because as moderator and L.A. Times book reviewer David Ulin pointed out, Hari Kunzru, Dana Spiotta and Steve Erickson are three of the best novelists working today.

The L.A. Times Festival of Books panelists also have recent novels that take place in California: Erickson’s ‘These Dreams of You,’ Kunzru’s ‘Gods Without Men’ and Spiotta’s ‘Stone Arabia.’ So each writer is ideally situated to reflect on real and mythic representations of the Golden State.


Kunzru’s novel is mostly set in the Mojave Desert, a place he described as a hinterland where people “test bombs, cook meth, and bury bodies,” but also as Ulin added, “a power spot” that draws dreams and UFOs.

PHOTOS: Festival of Books

What Kunzru found in his research for the book was that as a UFO culture arose in the Mojave, it represented a meeting of the aerospace industry and military testing with spiritualist and theosophical traditions. Yet now, “the angels had become spacemen.”

Spiotta also responded to the confluence of different landscapes and marginal lives in California in her book: “hope and disappointment together, beauty and the comedown.” Erickson sees his work influenced by California as “the place geographically and psychologically where the New World runs out ... and people are untethered.”

Ulin drew attention to the number of narrative connections between the novels. Erickson listed some of them: All three books are family dramas set against shifting landscapes, featuring people who go missing (mothers and children); all have obsessed or obsessive characters, centrality of music, fragmentation of time, and as Spiotta added, a 1970s Sunset Strip scene. FULL COVERAGE: Festival of Books

Spiotta also mentioned the occurrence of “magical thinking” in the works and the feeling that in Los Angeles, you can walk down the street and meet your hero. She connected this idea to the sense of synchronicity a writer experiences when everything in the world seems somehow connected to what you are writing, referred to by another panelist as the “aesthetic of coincidence.”

Los Angeles is imagined by all the authors as a blank slate of a city where reinvention is common and expected. This idea of flux contributes to a lack of obligation to resolve stories that take place here with only one ending –- or any definite ending at all.

The panelists discussed a certain freedom they feel to frustrate readers’ expectations so that the author and the reader can then make meaning together. Spiotta described how “a tension needs to exist at the end of the best novels.” For Erickson, “a novel keeps secrets from its own author” –- the writer needs to determine which secrets he will reveal to himself and which he’ll leave alone.

Kunzru joked that while the novel has been dying since about 1680, the genre’s ability to handle complexity is crucial today. Spiotta explained that novels are “a way of thinking together about our culture.”

Erickson speculated that perhaps its other ability to leave ideas and plots unresolved in a way we don’t see in film or television may be what makes literature a distinct and important part of culture. As Kunzru observed, “Life is not shaped like a three-act plot ... Something interestingly real and formless like life” is good to have in the mix.

Most important, as Ulin mentioned, reading “defines the terms of our empathy.” The more conspiracy there is between writer and reader -– in all genres, in all landscapes –- the more opportunities there will be for empathy.


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