March 2009

Jacquelyn Davis


La Medusa by Vanessa Place

La Medusa and the sprawlish, sweltering city of Los Angeles are both shifty terrains for recurring exploration, and the brave minds of both those who inhabit and delve into these parallel universes are not short of a challenge. Much like the mythological horror and fascination of Medusa herself, this novel carries the weight of its fate -- to be loved by those who relate to its labyrinthine thread of excess and perhaps despised by those who fail to comprehend and revere the beauty and sheer force of such a charming, deadly siren. The Gorgon Medusa is also commonly associated with female rage and maliciousness, but who is say whether or not Los Angeles possesses the spirit of such a venomous persona, or if this city and its migrant souls are just misunderstood?

An innovative take on typography, littered with visual stimulants (not just a catchy HOLLYWOOD sign and white trash redemption bumper stickers, but much more), uncharted geographies, filmic directives (FADE IN:), geometric voids, literary references (Joan Didion noted, "The city burning is Los Angeles' deepest image of itself"), phrenological definitions (Cingulate Sulcus: Implicated in spontaneous emotion; induction site for amygdala, involved with pain "affect" [pain as perception of sensory upset]; separates cingulate gyrus, involved in emotional behavior, learning, memory, and the automatic nervous system, from the frontal gyrus, involved in voluntary movement, personality, insight, and judgment), playful emoticons ♥, unsolved equations, infinities π, concrete poetry, conditional ad libs (If so, ______), and islands of embedded sensualism (I live for love, which lives for this -- kiss. ~ Hic Jacet Narcissus), pallets of psychologically ambiguous ink blots, unfinished scientific charts, practical questions with fantastical answers, unnerving rows of floating ellipses, right-justified free verse, bilingual imperative lists (Pas lacher plu sou nous / Do not deluge us with rain) or Things You Will Need, revised mythologies, flirtations (I'm yours, you've got me baby, so put your arms around me, call me baby), fairy tale interludes:

Once upon a time called Now,
              a beautiful woman floated above a choppy holographic sea;   she had a hole in her bright belly from which two children fell, one continued falling, down to   the blue, and salt water suffused his nose and mouth and sand sprinkled through his golden hair   like broken bits of light, and the child laughed as he sank to the bed of dancing weeds he was   born to spread, and the other child did not laugh but smiled quietly as she turned perfectly pink   and daringly disappeared..................................................................................................................

La Medusa is an assemblage like no other -- a semi-fictional collage of poetic tangents momentarily touching, occasionally difficult to push through. As is life for most in Southern California's La La Land. To really read is sometimes to be a dedicated, mental athlete; we can thank Place for this unpredictable, literary training leading some to a euphoric finish line of both meaningful yet justifiably askew impressions of the beast America -- both its now-present illusions and the histories it harbors. Place's remix of THE HISTORY CHANNEL (In 1934, after F.D.R.'s well-publicized trip to Cap-Haïtian, American troops withdrew from the island, leaving behind an automated telephone system, better highways, and modern sanitation¹) with veritable, digressing footnotes contrasting one take on history from another expresses that even history has been manipulated, stretched and spread for centuries, that documentation is relative, that the urgency of a political moment becomes complicated with time and experience, that an era's coordinates are often displayed via subversive means -- yet, "Every epic begins with a look in the mirror."

There is a sense that every little thing in La Medusa is cosmically linked -- for better or worse. The novel's omnipresent perspective is linked to the motivations of La Medusa's characters is linked to the situations they find themselves in is linked to a reader's response. Is there are a correlation between the phrenological anatomies and the literary content of each sub-section -- or are these sections only a metaphor for the city's overlapping inscapes? This is difficult to answer. Place allows room for the imagination by sometimes excluding specific images, choosing to write, more or less, "insert image X here," instead of inserting the actual image in question. What is gained by the absence of an actual image? Place's preference to include actual images vs. contextualizing the possibility of image insertions reminds us: there is a fine line between black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight -- that this blurred middle ground encompasses Los Angeles, and that one misleading direction can, in a way, lead one just as easily to Skid Row as it can to Bel Air.

Some of La Medusa's characters are more gripping than others. Among them: a precocious nine year old saxophonist, an ice cream vendor, an all-seeing corpse, an "entertainment" worker, potty-mouthed thugs and tricksters, one-track-mind truckers, their promiscuous wives In the Pink and their secret lovers. The steamy interludes between Rocki and Stella provide us with a peep hole into one of many under-the-radar affairs that buzz their way into the groin of America ("Rocki kisses Stella. She loves Stella. She love the width of Stella, her length, her depth, and the beat of her hummingbird heart. How Stella sips the sky and sinks underneath dizzies Rocki with delight. Rocki takes her hand and circles Stella's breast, then lauds the nipple with a deep pinch"). As cultural critic and historian Norman Klein observed: Los Angeles is America. In summation, Place has not only written an innovative fiction about America's entertainment nexus, but she examines an entire country in our new century transitioning, akin to Robert Altman's Short Cuts or James Joyce's Ulysses from our previous one.

La Medusa by Vanessa Place
The University of Alabama Press
ISBN: 1573661457
488 pages