Cliche and cataclysm

Whenever California burns or shakes or collapses in mudslides, a cavalcade of familiar noir-isms comes along for the ride. Social critics wax nihilistic about impermanence as a permanent state of mind. Inevitably, Joan Didion quotes blow in like the Santa Anas themselves, offering up heavy doses of the line about the winds forcing an acceptance of “a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.” Inevitably, references will be made to Nathaniel West’s “The Day of the Locust,” to Raymond Chandler’s “Red Wind,” even to Steely Dan lyrics.

This hip mix of dread and sang-froid, especially when it comes to natural disasters, is crucial to our regional literary and cinematic identity. In hard times, New Englanders may have their flinty stoicism, Southerners their gothic rhapsody and Midwesterners their sandbags. But when it comes to the way we appear to respond to apocalyptic tragedy, citizens of the Golden State seem marked by a grim nonchalance. As bad as things get, we never entirely let go of the idea that a Californian watches his house burn down while standing in his driveway in a pair of Ray-Bans, drinking gin and humming a Doors song.

Such caliginous images are not just a mythology we impart to the outside world, they’re integral to the cliches that remind us why we live here. In the same way that New York City dwellers wear the hassles of their daily lives as a badge of honor, Californians like to view their proximity to impending disaster as a direct reflection of their toughness; evidence that they’re more interesting, more glamorous than everyone else -- and the closer they live to the precarious edge, the more quintessentially Californian they are.


Of course, this form of interestingness comes at a price, most notably the price of real estate. And the fact that the most at-risk property in the region is also the most expensive makes our apocalypse narratives that much more enticing. “There were no streetlights . . . that was one of the attractions,” writes T. Coraghessan Boyle in “The Tortilla Curtain,” a novel in which the craggy topography of canyon life obscures the view of unpleasant social realities (though not for long). “The rural feel, the sense that you were somehow separated from the city and wedded to the mountains . . . there were even stars, a cluster here and there fighting through the wash of light pollution.”

This “rural feel,” authentic enough to include wild animals and hemp sandals yet not so extreme as to involve excessively long airport commutes, is, to many people, the whole point of living in California. The West Coast analog to the sprawling (and rent-controlled) Manhattan apartment with a river for a view and Thomas Pynchon for a neighbor, a house among steep banks of chaparral is what we think about when we think about making it big.

But while New Yorkers compensate for their cramped quarters and ubiquitous vermin with constant announcements about the inferiority of everywhere else, Californians defend their turf with a curious inversion of that method. We use the sure and certain knowledge of impending disaster as a dramatic device. For all the reasons to be here, the best one is that it can seem close to Eden, and for the sake of paradise, we not only accept the cataclysm on the horizon, we embrace it.

It is, of course, unlikely that everyone -- make that anyone -- whose homes were destroyed or threatened this week was able to distract themselves from the tragedy with Heideggerian thoughts about the inevitable hopelessness of existence. We may have a literature and a mythology of cool detachment, but, in real life, people are crying and falling apart and searching in vain for their pets just as they would anywhere.

And, of course, it’s never just cul-de-sac McMansions and designer homes in Malibu that get in on the calamity. As the week ended, there were nearly 2,000 homes (mountain cabins and suburban ranchettes, mobile homes and landmark castles) destroyed, 79 people injured and at least seven people killed, including four migrants who apparently died while crossing the border. It has been Armageddon-like, and not exactly in a way that demands a Jim Morrison soundtrack.

Didion called Los Angeles weather “the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse.” Chandler, for his part, described windy Santa Ana nights when “meek little wives feel the edge of a carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.” This is sexy stuff, but it’s also what we use to deny our own role in the mess.

Yes, Mother Nature is mercurial, and yes, the winds that blow in from the desert have certain otherworldly qualities. But to become over-reliant on our disaster mythology, as poetic as it is, is to carry on a heedless romance with California rather than the respectful, mature relationship that ought to develop at some point in the love affair.

Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” But in order to live here, we also need cliches.