The most infamous of such incidents occurred in July 1959, with a partial meltdown of a Sodium Reactor Experiment, but others followed over the decades, and contamination from SSFL can be traced even as far into our own time as the 2018 Woolsey Fire, which started at the site and sent contaminated material in every direction that the winds could carry it, including toward Malibu and the coastal communities to its north and south. This history is well documented in local news reporting from as early as 1979, when Warren Olney and Pete Noyes produced multiple segments for Los Angeles’s KNBC News, a probe that was then revived and expanded in 2015 by Joel Grover and Matthew Glasser, again for KNBC News; more recently, it drew additional attention thanks to the 2021 documentary film In the Dark of the Valley, produced for MSNBC Films by Nicolas Mimh, Brandon Scott Smith, and Derek Smith.
This week, Yxta Maya Murray, fiction writer and David P. Leonard Professor of Law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, released her novel God Went Like That, which both re-reports on the history presented (in compressed form) above and imagines the lives of a diverse cast of characters differently touched, but universally terrorized, by all the forms of corruption, collusion, and contamination that operations at SSFL made possible, indeed inevitable, since 1947. Murray’s first novel, Locas, was published in 1997, and in the more than 25 years since, she has devoted her prolific creative career to exploring Latinx life from a wide variety of angles, perspectives, and innovative formal approaches. In that context, God Went Like That reads like a culmination, and a watershed, in a mature career that is clearly hitting an exciting new stride.
Murray sets herself a daunting task in her new novel, one to which she proves more than equal—striking a delicate balance between, on the one hand, depicting the experiences of a multitude of characters who variously worked at SSFL or lived near it (or both), in the many decades when it freely went about the work that potentially poisoned them or someone they loved (or both); and, on the other hand, avoiding the impression of exploiting the suffering of real victims by indulging in the creation of fictive versions of that suffering. She accomplishes this primarily by framing her narrative in a manner that foregrounds and embraces moral ambiguity or undecidability. By inventing the figure of Reyna Rodriguez, a community involvement coordinator for California’s Environmental Protection Agency, Murray constructs a mediating subjectivity between herself as writer and the many distinct characters whose first-person testimonials of suffering Reyna collects as part of a state-sponsored oral history project—testimonials that comprise the (pained, beautiful) body of Murray’s novel. Reyna herself gets her say at both the novel’s opening and its closing, and her moral outrage and metaphysical exasperation color much of the reader’s experience of the text. But in the discrete “testimonial” chapters, rendered in distinctive voices, she recedes into a strategically silent if eloquent interlocution, serving mostly as the object rather than the subject of address. Instead, we get the lyrically radiant accounts of full if worryingly damaged lives, from characters including Carlos Mejia, Elisa Oumarou, Rudy Dimatibág, Viola Singer, and Carrie Mason.
Like In the Dark of the Valley, largely produced before but not released until after 2020, Murray is careful to situate her work in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic by setting Reyna’s collection of testimonies in late 2019 and early 2020, with one exceptional interview that she conducts via Zoom in May 2020 before submitting her report that June. This move allows Murray to scale her narrative to include the acts of contamination local to Simi Valley thanks to SSFL up to forms of environmental catastrophe at the regional, perhaps hemispheric, level (as represented by the Woolsey Fire) and the global shock of the pandemic. At the same time, the move also provides the additionally resonant frame of another outbreak of illness that contrasts with the one that principally concerns the book. COVID-19, after all, is not the “plague” at the heart of God Went Like That; cancer is. By making Reyna a childhood resident of Simi Valley, and making explicit both her diagnosis of “urinary-tract carcinoma,” which she survives, and her mother’s diagnosis of “lung cancer,” which she does not survive, Murray announces from the beginning how cancer will travel through the bodies of her characters, and the body of her text: it is everywhere, but is never everything, or even the only thing, even when, because of it, a life ceases.
Life, in Murray’s novel, especially but not only human life, lives in the textures and contours of the stories she invents and bodies forth with all of the resources of narrative, character, imagery, and figuration that she has at her capacious disposal. In addition to Reyna, she gives us 10 unique individuals and renders the distinctive voices of each with a lyric poet’s exactitude: five men and five women, of various racial, cultural, national, sexual, and class identities. These forms of identity intersect for each character in various ways, but they are all deeply interesting for the specificities of their interiors, their embodied and networked lives. Murray, to her credit, never shies away from using her considerable literary erudition in the service of her larger, primarily ethical project: beyond her characters’ numerous and well-placed references to figures as disparate as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Shakespeare, Molière, and Jean Genet, Murray’s novel in its overall form also productively invokes many-voiced, multi-storied classics from the past such as Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book, and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. And, as such an anchored California writer, her narrative also can’t help but invoke more local precursors in the genres of protest, naturalism, and new journalism, such as Frank Norris, John Steinbeck, and Joan Didion.
But beyond the rich literary dimensions through which Murray makes her text work and play, God Went Like That also accomplishes much through the array of disciplines and discourses that thread through it. These include, for example, a running account of the history of science that ranges from early attempts at navigation and cultivation through Marie Curie’s late-19th-century discoveries about radiation and the consequent investigations into treatments for cancer and technologies for nuclear destruction that led, in the aftermath of World War II, to the kinds of research that American businesses and the US government pursued at SSFL. Murray the law scholar also comes through; very few novels can boast a notes section at the end in which the writer breaks the fourth wall to provide readers with a roster of legal decisions that tie the lives of the fictional characters to the legal, political, and historical failures that destroyed so many others, that curtailed justice in so many tangible ways.
It is perhaps as a cultural history of the past century (Californian, American, global), however, that Murray’s achievement in God Went Like That resonates most evocatively. The oldest of her first-person subjects were born in the early 20th century, and the youngest have barely entered middle age in June 2020 when Reyna submits her report to Jenna Baylor, her EPA regional supervisor. The driving, humanizing force of Murray’s imagination is most alive and enlivening, for her characters and her readers, when she allows them and us the space to breathe and act freely, as full members of a world that nourishes with its beauty, with its art and music, even if at the same time it threatens with its violence, with its insatiable hunger for power and for death.
Ricardo L. Ortiz is professor of Latinx literature and culture in the English Department at Georgetown University, where he also serves as director of the Master’s Program in Engaged and Public Humanities. His most recent book, Latinx Literature Now: Between Evanescence and Event, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2019.