A YOUNG MAN of wealth and creative inclination moves to a new neighborhood, where he finds the time and space to pursue his art — we know this one. Soon developers are nosing around, property values are skyrocketing, and the natives are in a state of protest. The narrative of gentrification — of capitalist expansion — is a classic tale of woe: stasis is illusory and happiness fleeting; the wolf is always at the door. In his newest novel, Mount Terminus, David Grand treads this familiar ground with the gauzy vernacular of fairy tales. The neighborhood in question is a mountain villa up the road from what will soon be Hollywood; the development is of the storied Los Angeles Aqueduct, completed in 1913; and the young man, Joseph Rosenbloom — "Bloom" — is a brilliant film artist in the early days of that industry. Grand's second novel, The Disappearing Body, was a brass knuckles noir set in the Depression era; this, his third, establishes a hazier, more mythological approach in the very first sentence: "No one knew where the spring on Mount Terminus originated."
Origin stories and mythmaking are at the heart of this book, and they are all the more resonant because their material consequences — the California water crisis, for one — are still with us today. Bloom has come to Mount Terminus with his father, Jacob, a poor Jewish immigrant who made a fortune as an inventor in New York. Following his wife's death, Jacob and his young son retreat westward to Jacob's mountain aerie, where the former drinks away his heartache and the latter explores their beautiful villa, discovering the tragic tale of its origin: sent to govern the western reaches of the continent as punishment, the Spanish colonist Don Fernando Miguel Estrella seized the indigenous people and their mountain spring:
The land afterward was cleared by oxen, the fallen trees stripped of their bark and cut for lumber that would be used in the construction of the villa, in which the women would live as servants, on whose property their daughters terraced the mountain for orange and lemon groves, where they could see to the east from the peak of Mount Terminus their sons raising swine in the valley below.
Pregnant with mystery, these early passages impart a pulsing sense of something impending. Because Bloom is young and his father taciturn, they unspool slowly, with Grand patiently rendering a halting, child's-eye view of the world. When Bloom travels with Jacob to the sea, where (he'll learn only later) his father gives up his substantial rights to the land and water around Mount Terminus, the trip is conveyed like a dreamed remembrance of youth, all bright colors and towering figures. At the edge of the beach stood "a blinding structure, tall and long and molten white. Illuminated by the morning sun, it appeared to Bloom a mirage, as liquid and formless as the sea."
The stories of where things originate come to have a recursive quality, repeating backwards upon themselves — no one knew where the spring on Mount Terminus originated, but in his prose Grand is constantly digging toward it. Jacob tells Bloom the story of glass, which, he says, was discovered by ancient soda traders after they dropped their wares onto a sand beach and, subsequently, "an unknown, translucent liquid flowed." It's a marvelous metaphor for what's happening throughout the book: the transmogrification of the desert sand into something so different as to be unrecognizable.
The agent of that change will be water, and the object of it will be Los Angeles — prior to the Aqueduct a "torpid, suppurating, stunted little slum," as Marc Reisner put it in Cadillac Desert, his epic history of water management in the American West. The actual plan involved the diversion of the Owens River, 250 miles east of LA, drying up the agricultural Owens Valley and condemning its farmers to hardship. (Their ancestors, like their fictional counterparts in Mount Terminus, weren't blameless; Reisner writes that in the late 1800s white settlers, confronted with the native Paiute people, forced the last of their dwindling local population to drown in Owens Lake.) Grand, like William Faulkner in his short story "The Bear," regards the subjugation of people and the exploitation of land as interrelated sins.
Jacob cedes the land to his older son, Bloom's half-brother, Simon. If Bloom is purely an artist, Simon is another kind of visionary: a businessman whose great goal is to see the film industry flourish, the valleys watered, and the deserts bloom (as it were). The farmers whose water is threatened aren't pleased, but Simon is messianic. "That is my Promised Land," he says to Bloom, looking down from Mount Terminus, "and today I refuse to allow God or anyone else to keep it from me."
At this point, Grand has given himself any number of rich themes to work with: urban development; the displacement of native peoples; the mysteries of art versus the demands of commerce; Chinatown-style water wars; fraternal tensions echoing the Old Testament — and also East of Eden, and set against the California landscape to boot. But Mount Terminus loses its epic flavor as it turns out to be — you could say it devolves into — a mere love story, and a lackluster one at that. The better part of the book (in both senses) unfolds languorously, as a series of unearthings and digressions; but once the romantic plot is introduced, tensions of land and family recede into the background, supplanted by a sprint to the finish with two lovers between whom Bloom flips and flops — neither of them developed enough as a character to allow us to understand, let alone share, his attraction. At first, even poor Bloom himself doesn't know if he's interested. His mentor, a man named Gottlieb, shoehorns the romantic plot into the book as he forces it onto Bloom, because he's convinced that true art is impossible if its creator hasn't known love. Talk about your compulsory heterosexuality!
So Bloom falls in love with a woman named Isabella, before she leaves to go document the horrors of World War I (he soon comes to think she's dead). Events in these last chapters, called "Love" and "Paradise," unfold as a series of conveniences that highlight the book's weaknesses. One is its treatment of women, who exist either to move Bloom from point A to point B, or just for reasons of nookie. They crop up as objects of visual, sexual, and narrative ease: Bloom is introduced to a succession of characters and told to simply sit and contemplate each; in a friendly gesture, the first also fellates him. Mourning his late wife, Jacob creates a topiary garden of female figures on Mount Terminus and converses with their silent selves. Also silent — because she's actually mute — is Bloom's servant Roya, who points him toward secret areas in the villa and, at one point, initiates a sexual encounter for no obvious reason.
Heartsick over Isabella's apparent death, Bloom escapes to a Pacific island and there meets another woman, Estella, who soothes his grief by having sex with him while encouraging him to imagine that she's Isabella. Her own motivations — her own desires, more to the point — are murky, and ultimately irrelevant. Bloom returns to Estella whenever he starts to forget about Isabella, until Isabella herself returns — surprise! — at which point Bloom stops visiting Estella, until he and Isabella fall apart, at which point he returns to Estella for good. She never seems to mind.
There's also a vein of female treachery and instability in Grand's book — another, though more unfortunate echo of East of Eden (and of Eden). Jacob's wife, Rachel, went mad after her twin sister, Leah, seduced Jacob — he couldn't tell the two apart, you see — and became pregnant by him (with Simon). Mirroring this mishegas, Isabella betrays Bloom and becomes pregnant by Simon, who, Bloom realizes, will want to keep the child. The climactic scene is later set in motion when Bloom's accountant falls haplessly in love with "man-eating Marianne Merriweather," who demands so much money he's forced to embezzle Bloom's.
The male characters, by contrast, are flamboyant and inventive — rich with quirk and initiative, with one notable exception: Bloom himself. Part of the reason the romantic encounters strain belief is that Bloom remains so blandly virginal. He's introduced to us as a boy who can't yet understand his father's sad secrets; and even as an adult he remains guileless, a sort of Forrest Gump figure, ambling through history without learning very much. After young Bloom's tryst with Roya, feeling confident, he goes forthwith to his aviary. It's a happy scene — who wouldn't want to get a hand job and then go hang out with some birds? — but Bloom's unflagging passivity throughout the encounter marks him as a bit of an idiot. And he never does wise up. In more dire times, Simon arranges to take Bloom's inheritance; someone warns him that Simon's "appetites will devour us." Bloom doesn't seem to mind. When he suspects that Simon and Isabella are having an affair he lets out a "primal roar," then decides not to take the issue up with them at all.
If Bloom isn't a reliable chronicler of the internal, he's at least good for the external: as an artist, he's acutely attuned to the striking physical elements of his surroundings. Grand provides lush descriptions of water flowing through brand new aqueducts, the train to California "warmed with the scent of orange blossoms and the stench of industry," and the ghosts that Bloom detects amid the silences of Mount Terminus. The industry is not the only thing that's cinematic in this book.
When the diversion of the water is complete — when the "Mount Terminus subdivision" has opened — Bloom looks down from the mountain to the new metropolis and its swarms of people:
The entire basin, it appeared to Bloom, grew more and more green and colorful by the day, and it continued to phosphoresce at night, a shade of violet, or was it lavender, and the stars, he could have sworn, had begun to dim. On nights that held a chill in the air, a scrim of smoke blanketed the pale blue light, and if the current of wind swept in from the ocean, it could lift the sweet smell of burning wood as high as Mount Terminus's peak. They were there. Always there. Their cars roaming the streets. Their trams crating them back and forth to and from the heart of the city. An occasional siren crying a sorrowful wail.
This is the realization of Simon's dream, but for Bloom it signals "the end of silence" in his life. When it all comes crashing down — literally, in an incident recalling the Saint Francis Dam disaster of 1928 — Bloom is inspired to make a decision he seemed headed toward regardless: to strike out for a new, less settled frontier. Yet the incident itself is so random it feels like some kind of deus ex machina, akin to the frogs falling from the sky in the movie Magnolia. There's no particular problem it solves. It merely crystallizes something for Bloom, with a minimum of dramatic tension or resolution — just a downhill slide, like water rushing through an aqueduct, to the end of the book.