Bookforum | Feb/Mar 2006
 
     
 

Beginning with the publication in 1979 of her startling debut, Lithium for Medea, Kate Braverman has produced a daring body of work that strips bare the myth of glitzy Los Angeles to expose its decidedly unglamorous underbelly. Like the dystopian fiction of Nathanael West and John Fante, Braverman's short stories and novels dramatize the plight of outcasts straddling fault lines, one step from ruin. What distinguishes Braverman is her emphatically feminist sensibility: She gives voice to a predominantly female cast of characters—divorcées and their drug-addled daughters, Mexican émigrés and whores—who brazenly defy convention.

Now, in her memoir Frantic Transmissions to and from Los Angeles, Braverman returns to the landscape of her native city after having abandoned it more than a decade ago. Following the Rodney King riots and the 1994 Northridge earthquake, she headed for New York's Allegheny Mountains, settling into a 150-year-old farmhouse with her husband and teenage daughter. The seven-month arctic winters and forced isolation occasion her reminiscences, a lively assemblage of twelve essays that rove fitfully from topic to topic, coast to coast. Braverman bakes pies, spots deer, and observes the changing hues of autumn leaves ("wines, brandies, and clarets . . . clearly a forest for alcoholics"), but also recalls the sun-scorched stucco tenements of her impoverished childhood and ruminates on the "architecture of consumption" found in LA shopping malls. The book's more formally experimental writings include a posthumous "interview" with Marilyn Monroe, whose frequent non sequiturs produce a perverse, poetic effect.

In the context of such narrative innovation, however, it is disappointing that Braverman revisits previously trodden terrain. In one of the most transporting essays, she fastidiously inventories the enigmatic attributes shared by women who leave Los Angeles: "They are often drawn to smoke. They are not afraid of fire. They consume two or three packages of cigarettes a day. They have red lacquers applied to their fingernails. They inhale Temple Ball opium from antique glass and cloisonné pipes once used by concubines." Here, and in a dozen other sections, she has recycled prose from her last novel, The Incantation of Frida K. ("Vanished women are drawn to smoke. They are not afraid of fire. They consume two or three packages of cigarettes a day. They wear a variety of vermillion lacquers on their fingernails. They smoke opium from antique ivory and cloisonné pipes once used by the concubines of warlords.") While longtime fans may be wearied by déjà vu, readers new to her work will remain blissfully unaware of such transgressions.

 
     
     
 
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FRANTIC TRANSMISSIONS TO AND FROM LOS ANGELES: AN ACCIDENTAL MEMOIR BY KATE BRAVERMAN, INTRODUCTION BY ROBERT POLITO. SAINT PAUL, MN: GRAYWOLF PRESS. 180 PAGES. $15. BUY NOW