IN the months before the 1992 Los Angeles riots, I lived in an Echo Park bungalow complex called Sunset Villas. There were about a dozen units, modest one-bedrooms with hardwood floors and red tile roofs that faced each other across a concrete courtyard, making our private lives somewhat public. That’s the way we wanted it. We were Jewish from San Diego, white from Florida, black from Detroit, brown from Costa Rica. We were men and women, gay and straight and bisexual, working class and middle class. I wouldn’t say we’d sought each other out in a self-conscious attempt at “diversity,” but difference clearly was at the heart of our desire. When the riots’ flames erupted across the city, we saw the negation of our desire, or perhaps its perfection; if the violence proclaimed the permanence of difference, then maybe we lived in a world of desire without end.
Nearly 15 years later, Los Angeles is a city of immigrant marches, black-brown violence, gentrification tension and arguments over the movie “Crash.” This is a landscape born of desire and contradicted by difference.
Chris Abani brings us plenty of contradicted desire in his third novel, “The Virgin of Flames,” at once a passionate ode to the city and an exasperating muddle. Abani’s growing literary presence makes this book the most anticipated L.A.-set novel in recent memory. His 2004 breakout, “GraceLand,” won critical superlatives and a PEN/Hemingway Award; last summer, Publishers Weekly anointed him a “Young Turk With a Pen” among a hip global lit cohort that included Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri and Jonathan Safran Foer. Abani’s renaissance-like persona -- novelist, poet, academic, even jazz saxophonist -- comes with a compelling biography. As a young man, he was imprisoned three times in his native Nigeria for producing literary works deemed threats to national security.
Miraculously surviving a death sentence (his compatriot and fellow writer Ken Saro-Wiwa did not), Abani has lived in London, New York and for the last half-dozen years in Southern California, where he teaches in the creative writing program at UC Riverside. In many ways, then, he is the quintessential Southern Californian. He is here, and he just got here. He arrived with plenty of history -- much of it steeped in tragedy -- and his prose is kinetic in a place that stakes everything on a brighter future. Generations of Californians have indulged this notion even as we know that the future will always be deferred due to disasters both natural and of our own making.
“The Virgin of Flames” immerses us in a Los Angeles that has received only increments of mainstream literary representation. This is the marginal city: the Eastside, by the L.A. River (“losing faith with every inch traveled”), among working-class immigrants and scraggly alternative types of various origins. Standing smack between these groups is a 36-year-old muralist named Black, who is the son of a Nigerian father and a mother from El Salvador. Black is confused about his identity -- his gender and sexual orientation in particular. His friends include Iggy, a Jewish tattoo artist and owner of the hipster cafe where Black rents a room, and a butcher named Bomboy, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide with questionable legal status in this country. Rounding out the cast is Black’s object of desire, a Mexican transsexual stripper named Sweet Girl. Black’s other fetish is the Virgin Mary, especially in the guises of Guadalupe and Fatima.
The long and short of the story is that Black is obsessed with painting a grand mural of the Virgin, which he does, and there is a revelatory dalliance with Sweet Girl along the way. This is not a novel long or strong on plot, and what little there is often teeters on the edge of involuntary parody. Read the jacket blurb and you’ll immediately ask yourself whether “The Virgin of Flames” is a farce or some kind of multicultural picaresque. It’s neither, and that’s a problem. Abani leaves the proceedings rather humorless -- largely because Black’s moping confusion accounts for most of the point of view.
That’s a shame, because L.A. is so much the farce: No city has had as great a distance between its myths and its actualities. The only formal element here that relieves some of the dreariness is a modest leavening of magical realism. Black is pursued by the archangel Gabriel, who flutters about in the form of a pigeon trying to steer him toward the light. Abani also takes Los Angeles’ torrential El Nino rains and Santa Ana wind-stoked wildfires to expressionistic extremes, culminating in a moment reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson’s surreal coup in “Magnolia.” Abani also invokes a clever magical real-within-the-real: An apparition of the Virgin is really Black cross-dressing in Iggy’s wedding dress on the roof of the cafe. This draws thousands of faithful who fervently believe it is the real thing.
What is most moving here is Abani’s earnest love poem to this particular Los Angeles, which finds its fullest expression in “the cacophony of colors and shapes in the huge pinata stores on Olympic, near Central; and the man pulling the purple wooden life-size donkey mounted on wheels down Cesar Chavez.... In the occasional clip-clop of horses pulling a brilliant white bridal carriage that resisted the dust and dirt everywhere, and the line of cars following slowly in awe. It was in the solo of an unemployed saxophonist in Sunny’s Cafe down at Leimert Park playing for tips.”
Romantic, yes, but without the condescension that the “other” L.A. typically receives in “liberal” representations (such as, say, “Crash”), because Abani’s sensibility approaches the subject on more of a horizontal trajectory. He gravitates to outsiders in L.A. because he is one. His newcomer status is clearly stamped on the text, although not always for the better, as in the uncritical recitations of booster-like slogans about the Los Angeles that “never tired of reinventing itself.”
All of this makes for a strange tension, a dissonance between simplistic dichotomies and the ambiguous renderings that Abani wants to paint for us in much the same way that Black paints his post-colonial, post-Sept. 11 Madonna. At times, Black comes across as the New Angeleno Man, a being of diffuse identity imbued not with superficial multiculturalism but with a more human wistfulness. “With an Igbo father and Salvadoran mother,” Abani writes, “Black never felt he was much of either. It was a curious feeling, like being a bird, he thought, swaying on a wire somewhere, breaking for the sky when night and rain came, except for him it never felt like flight, more like falling; falling and drowning in cold, cold water. When he felt the water rise, he would morph.”
Yet irritatingly, most of Black’s existential crisis is represented by alternately fetishizing virgins and whores. And for all the dead-on cultural hybridity, the character of Bomboy comes across as disturbingly one-dimensional, offering little more than a string of old-world cliches.
Ultimately, “The Virgin of Flames” cannot fulfill the massive task of representing the transformation of Los Angeles into the astonishing and troubled amalgam of peoples it has become. Nor is this necessarily Abani’s goal; he is, after all, concerned as much with Black’s psychic landscape as with the social geography of L.A. How the novel is read, I suspect, will have much to do with readers’ places in the city, their relationships with whoever their “others” happen to be.
Still, the book feels unfinished or, taken on its own terms, melancholy, evanescent, like the public murals of L.A. -- from the crudest tag to Siqueiros on Olvera Street -- ever appearing and disappearing: representations elided by the powerful who seek to wipe out dangerous difference.
Abani’s novel joins a growing literature on the new city -- books as stylistically and thematically divergent as Sesshu Foster’s “Atomik Aztex” and Nina Revoyr’s “Southland,” both of which take on the emergent Los Angeles and endeavor to unearth erased histories. That remains the indispensable project for this city -- not to burn its history but to render it and, in the process, to face our difference once and for all. *