IT WOULD BE a literary crime to give away too much about Liska Jacobs’s mesmerizing debut novel, Catalina. What happens over the course of these disquieting 240 pages is almost less important than the deeper questions the story investigates about the “terrible business” of having been born female, the vicissitudes of female desire, and, ultimately, how women choose to live. An accomplished short story writer, essayist, and native Californian, Jacobs deftly takes the plunge into the longer narrative format and surfaces with a complicated and often vicious take on internalized misogyny that explores, among other female pathologies, the intricate ways women cover up their childhood damage and the radical ways they expose their own fears.
At its heart, the book is a chilling odyssey of addictive descent that takes its cues from the lounge-chair depravity of Eve Babitz, the drug-addled bathwaters of Kate Braverman, and the icy despair of Joan Didion. If you are someone who likes your female narrators to have shark’s teeth (as I do) and to leave a trail of blood in the water, Catalina delivers plenty of uncomfortable things to digest.
The book opens with 32-year-old Elsa ordering a pitcher of bloody marys for breakfast in the five-star Santa Monica hotel where she has barricaded herself, Leaving Las Vegas–style, and sits wrapped in a poisoned womb of a “vibrantly white, wonderfully impersonal” hotel bathrobe.
“Let it begin,” Elsa whispers, and with a shoulder bag stuffed full of stolen opioids and anti-anxiety meds she summarily sets off on a frightening path of self-destruction that she barely seems to recognize as her own. Elsa, we come to learn, is in free fall, having fled New York City in disgrace with a generous severance package after being fired for seducing and genuinely falling in love with her married employer, a powerful curator at MoMA. The prodigal daughter of a divorced beauty salon owner from Bakersfield, Elsa, whose dangerous inclinations border on sociopathy, “climbed out” and reinvented herself as a member of Manhattan’s high-art elite. But now she has returned home to the “identity failure” that Southern California represents, believing that New York City is a “predator” that “had turned on [her].”
With no options and no idea what to do, she “takes pills to quiet the world,” plays in the sand with the children of strangers, and haphazardly procures anonymous sex under false names at neighboring hotels.
Grief-stricken, bereft, and bouncing off the walls, Elsa rejoins a crew of spiritually bankrupt old friends she knew at UCLA to take a sailing trip to Catalina Island in a misbegotten attempt to rekindle lost connections. The mutinous crew includes Elsa’s mooning ex-husband Robby; her oldest and best childhood friend Charly, who regardless of Elsa’s serial mistreatment of her over the years has remained “loyal to a fault, like a good soldier or a dog”; Charly’s boorish, alcoholic husband Jared; and Jared’s new friend Tom, the owner of the 52-foot sailboat and heir to a potato-chip fortune who sets his pernicious sights more on Elsa’s misery than on Elsa herself. “My first wife took pills,” Tom informs her the first time they are alone together. “[She was] hot as shit, but absolutely bonkers. […] She was a pill popper too — don’t think I haven’t noticed. I can hear them rattling around in your purse.”
The group lands on the unpopulated side of Catalina at Paradise Cove, but like most Angelenos hungry to experience a wilderness they barely change into their bathing suits before heading off to the artificial sands of Avalon Harbor, home of Natalie Wood’s mysterious drowning and Charlie Chaplin’s storied affairs.
“We are KINGS,” Jared drunkenly screams off the prow of the boat at one point, before passing out. “KINGS!” But this couldn’t be farther from the truth. What is more palpable is that they are the incarnation of unchecked privilege, and the only way to see each other is to cause each other harm.
While the characters seem to be drowning in their own shallow puddles at the beginning of the book, the depth steadily becomes more alarming with each turned page. More than anything, Catalina contends with “the open ocean” of the female psyche: how mothers undermine and disempower their daughters, and how women can be dishonest and annihilating, not only to men and other women but also to themselves. “It’s eating at me, still,” Elsa says. “Being so close [to the Pacific], I can imagine the swells in tune with my own heartbeat, and how being out there would be like looking at my true self.”
One of the most hypnotic parts of Catalina is the shipwreck of secrets at its center, which, combined with the unreliability of Elsa’s own memories of what lies buried, set up an ending that I imagine Paul Bowles might approve of. Jacobs’s prose has the effect of a stingray’s poisonous barb: it enters easily but is difficult to remove. Her writing moves with the rush of whipping rapids, often without so much as an adjective to weigh it down.
“Something I wish every man across America understood is how much fear accompanies women throughout our lives,” writes Hillary Rodham Clinton in What Happened, her recent autopsy of the disastrous 2016 election. “So many of us have been threatened or harmed. […] It’s difficult to convey what all this violence does to us. It adds up in our hearts and our nervous systems.”
Nowhere is this truer than in Jacobs’s fiction, where “pain is beauty” and the greatest desire anyone can have is merely to survive. Dangerous undercurrents that operate just below the surface of all women’s lives rise quickly from the depths in this unsettling and very relevant first novel. Whether we want to see what is left floating there is another story. It will be exciting to see which body of water Jacobs decides to sail on next.