Los Angeles residents: they really are different than you and me. If you've ever had to choose a surgeon to repair a botched rhinoplasty, and you settle on one because you did a visualization exercise in which one surgeon appeared as "light and the other man was a shadow" -- please take a vacation outside the Thirty Mile Zone for a little while. Same goes if you've come to believe that you have the ability to enter a Shoe Pavilion and "manifest" the shoes you want. Quakeland, the first grownups' novel by beloved Young Adult author Francesca Lia Block, contains characters who do both of these things. The fact that Block is able to render these women without irony, and with great compassion, means she's a bigger person than I will ever be. Either that, or she's been breathing a little too much smog herself.
Block has a generation of fans who have followed her work for over a decade. Her books for teenagers, including the Weetzie Bat series, are full of darkness and magic, references to sex and death, and altogether treat the young audience like they have some intelligence. (Which is probably why Weetzie Bat and her friends are so often banned from school libraries.) In the majority of Block's books, the characters live in a heightened world that resembles a fairy-tale, magical-realist Los Angeles, where dreams can come literally true, for good and for ill. Not so in Quakeland. Published by San Francisco's own small and risk-taking Manic D Press after her regular publisher declined it, this book will come as a big surprise to longtime Francesca Lia Block fans. It takes place in the real Los Angeles, where enlightenment and contentment are hard to come by -- even for someone who can shop psychically for nose job surgeons and strappy sandals.
The characters that inhabit Quakeland reside in Venice and Culver City, but they actually live on the astral plane. In the book's first half, the protagonist is Katrina, a depressed, lonely preschool teacher who idolizes her best friend Grace and her yoga teacher Kali. Both of those women appear centered, loving, and model-beautiful, whereas Katrina is often a chubby, needy mess. "Vitamin Z" -- Zoloft -- makes her life somewhat tolerable. But then she meets a man named Jasper in her Contact Dance class, and her fragile world falls apart.
Contact is an improvised style of modern dance that allows for lots of soulful eye contact, rolling around on the floor, and sweaty, emotional embraces with strangers of all genders. One can understand why Katrina, so hungry for true connection, would seek out such a class. And one can also understand how she could mistake a sexy dance partner for a decent guy. In her characterization of Jasper, Block excels at fleshing out a certain California archetype: the Enlightened Asshole. Jasper, like all con artists and cult leaders, has a knack for locating, and then destroying, the woman in the room with the least self esteem.
Katrina, as her name suggests, is haunted by disasters. She dreams of the asian tsunami, the 9-11 attacks,and the London bombings before they happen. But no amount of Vitamin Z, yoga, past life regression, or mind-altering sex with Jasper can make her happy. Especially when Jasper's every word, every action, seems calculated to make her feel like garbage. "Tell me you need me," he says to her during sex. "Tell me like you mean it." The following day, he says:
"You scared me when we were making love before."
"What? I scared you?"
"You sounded so needy."
"You told me to say I needed you."
"Yes, but you said it so convincingly."
Soon, Katrina gets some tragic news from her best friend Grace, and has to confront what she will do if the one person who she really does need, more than anyone, goes away.
The second half of the book changes things up. There is a monologue from the ever-watchful city of Los Angeles itself. Then we meet Angeli, the single mom and spiritual seeker who was the author of the book's first half. Although far more stable than Katrina, Angeli makes her own series of boneheaded moves with inappropriate men, including going to bed with a guy she meets at a Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meeting. This was the point where I wanted to shake her by the shoulders and yell, "How exactly did you imagine that this was all going to END WELL!?"
Throughout the book, the spectre of war, death, and world disaster are always lurking just offstage. On the subject of the 9-11 attacks, Katrina tells us: "Kali said that many psychics mentally visited the actual site, the ruins of the twin buildings, after it happened and comforted and guided all the desolate souls who weren't able to leave it yet. It was like handing them a cell phone to make the last call, a piece of paper and a pen to write the last note, Kali said. Some resolution. Psychic triage. I don't know how to do that. All I have is the vision, the apocalypse." The characters are so upset by the evening news that it seems unsporting to point out: hey, that bombing/flood/plane crash didn't actually happen to you -- but it did just ruin the lives of some other people. How about, instead of performing a dance for World Peace on an "astrologically important day," or doing "psychic triage," you actually go and ease your worried soul by HELPING the people who are actually suffering?
Since this book is such a departure from the usual Francesca Lia Block universe and stable of characters, I can't help but speculate on her reasons for writing it. Is Quakeland a roman à clef? Is Block trying to settle some old scores with this tale of strong sad women undone, over and over again, by pathological narcissists? There's no way to know, and it shouldn't matter. As maddening as the book sometimes is (and I had to restrain myself from throwing it across the room when the words "yoni" and "lingam" were used one too many times), Block has captured something incredibly uncomfortable, and which is rarely shown so fully in fiction. That feeling, one that can't be shaken with altars and rituals and sweat lodge chants, that without true love and connection, one's life has been wasted.
It made me sad for Katrina, and exasperated, that she would think her problem is that she's not trying hard enough to be enlightened, magical, and psychic -- when her real problem is a simple one: a no-good boyfriend. I kept wanting her to leave yoga class behind and go settle down with a nice plumber, or accountant, anyone who lives with his feet planted on the ground instead of floating three feet above it. But maybe that's too much to ask: this is Quakeland, after all. Even the plumbers probably have gurus, and spec scripts in development. This book annoyed me. It also kept me awake at night. To my mind, that makes it a success.