NEVER GET INVOLVED with a project.
These words, which really ought to be offered as advice to any writer thinking of doing the tango with Hollywood, do not appear in Alexandra Kleeman’s new novel, Something New Under the Sun, but the story does kick off with a scenario that sets up anxious — and familiar — expectations. Patrick Hamlin has arrived in Los Angeles to see his own book, Elsinore Lane, turned into a movie. Somewhat improbably, he’s accepted a job as a production assistant on the set, which means he’ll be a lackey, ferrying around the film’s erratic star, one Cassidy Carter (best known for her five-season turn in a show called Kassi Keene: Kid Detective), as well as taking shit from smarmy producers. It’s the kind of arrangement that might strike dread in the heart of anyone who’s ever had a book optioned, or anyone who’s ever read a book about a writer’s encounter with the movies — from Budd Schulberg’s The Disenchanted (1950), to Robert Stone’s Children of Light (1986), to Don Carpenter’s underrated Turnaround (1981), to name three of my own favorites.
Kleeman sets up the scenario with precision: there’s Cassidy’s obligatory freakout in a drugstore, captured on a bystander’s iPhone; there’s Patrick’s fancy dinner with his producers — a particularly slippery couple, named Jay Arvid and Brenda Billington — and his sparring with his fellow PAs, an endearingly dopey pair he nicknames “Horseshoe” and “the Arm.” Patrick himself is a type: mildly pompous, eager to please, a little put-upon by the — ahem — rather stringent changes that have been imposed upon his novel by the script. If we are prepared to see the air let out of Patrick’s tires a little bit — maybe more than a little bit — well, that’s largely because a million other books and movies and TV shows about Hollywood have led us to expect as much. Kleeman’s eye is deft enough, her senses of satire and proportion sufficiently stropped, that I wouldn’t have minded if that’s what she did. Her descriptions of Cassidy’s filmography (which includes Camp Do-What-Ya-Wanna, a sort of reverse–Lord of the Flies in which a summer camp becomes an agrarian commune, and Happy Birthday, Miss Teen President!, in which a vegan teenager ascends to the Oval Office by way of an obscure constitutional loophole) and of Patrick’s bibliography (e.g., an “epic novella” of George Washington’s Delaware crossing, told from 50 different points of view) are plausibly funny — or rather, are just implausible enough to be funny — and her ear for the cinephilic bickering of the PAs and the greasy reassurances of the producers are likewise on point. It’s tempting, at the beginning of the novel, to relax, to settle in for the ride that will lead Patrick Hamlin toward his inevitable comeuppance.
Tempting, but impossible. From the beginning, there are signs that this is a very different sort of novel from the typical writer-in-Hollywood satire, one that verges on dark fantasy. Patrick’s wife and daughter, for example, have remained on the East Coast, taking refuge at a retreat (or is it a commune? maybe a cult?) called Earthbridge. As Patrick ferries his way around the scrubby fringes of Los Angeles, we come to understand that California’s habitual drought has given rise to a substance called WAT-R, which (as you would expect) is a synthetic hydration aid that now sits in tanks, bottles, and pods around the state. There is also a brief apparition, which troubles us only a little in the early going: a green van, which Patrick spies one afternoon in the city’s far-flung exurbs, filled with oddly pliant-seeming people dressed likewise in green. It’s the sort of thing that troubles Patrick only a little, too. (Are they prisoners? Residents of some sort of facility?) But it’s the sort of disruption we increasingly accept as just another aspect of modern life, the creepingly dystopic stuff that might spatter our Instagram feeds. What is it they’re selling me? Oh, never mind, thinks Patrick — and perhaps think we. “I’m just a little dehydrated, that’s all,” Patrick tells his nine-year-old daughter, Nora, as he blinks this vision away, pressing his cell phone to his ear. “And California’s not what I expected it to be. Everyone out here’s a little crazy. You get the sense that what’s in their head is more real to them than what’s out there in the world.”
Kleeman’s great skill, and this novel’s abiding triumph, is how seamlessly she blends the horrific with the mundanely troubling, the ridiculous — or the impossible — with the ordinarily absurd. For a time, the novel seems to occupy a space contiguous with Todd Haynes’s indelible 1995 eco-nightmare Safe, or with Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985): the ambient toxins of the world pressing themselves inexorably homeward while Patrick and Cassidy remain barely insulated, hardly immune, but not yet touched by the world raging outside, a world of wildfires, scarcity, and, uh, Random-Onset Acute Dementia (“My mom sent me an article about it,” one of the PAs notes, of this new disease). For a while we can imagine, too, that what’s coming is a kind of neo-neo-noir narrative about water scarcity, a kind of Chinatown meets Barton Fink in which Patrick’s hopeless self-absorption (for, of course, his diagnosis of Californians applies most keenly to himself) is shattered as be begins to figure out what’s going on with the enigmatic production (for example, why are the producers still meeting with new financiers even after principal photography has commenced? why do the ledgers show incoming money but no outgoing payments to vendors?), and with the enveloping water (or WAT-R) crisis that surrounds it.
Kleeman’s unraveling of this plot is satisfying enough, but she’s no more interested in writing a noir than she is a conventional Hollywood satire. What is really happening here — what Kleeman has ultimately in mind — should be kept under wraps to some extent, but it’s worth noting that the world she describes, despite its occasional exaggerations, remains a canny mirror of our own. One cannot help but feel the pressure of anti-vaccine sentiments behind Cassidy’s initial disclosure that she refuses to drink WAT-R — that she has, in fact, insisted upon being paid for her performance in Elsinore Lane in actual bottled water, which is expensive and increasingly rare; and, likewise, the baroque and proliferous fan theories that spread across message boards concerning the plot holes and hidden meanings in Kassi Keene: Kid Detective evoke nothing so much as QAnon.
But there is another strand, however. The Los Angeles in which Something New Under the Sun is largely set is not, as you might anticipate, the green or ocean worlds of Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, nor the gloss of the Strip, nor even the eastern enclaves of Highland Park or Silver Lake. These places are never even really glimpsed in the novel. Instead, the story seems to unfold along the fringes of the 210, in the deep Valley, in West Covina, around Hacienda Heights: in short, in all those desert places, those non-places, that have the ambivalent advantage of feeling like everywhere and nowhere at once. Unlike the more verdant glimpses we receive of Earthbridge, the familiar New England landscape of tall trees and low stone walls, this California feels torrid and unbordered, a half-step (at most) from scorched earth. Kleeman is a sharp stylist, and her evocations of that world are characteristically deft:
Where the fire has already passed, the ground is burning. Small licks of flame rise from the blackened earth, flickering like birthday candles in the dark. An orange color creeps through the black, fading in and out of brightness with a pulsing rhythm. The low, earthbound fire moves like liquid across the terrain — some bright, alien liquid climbing hills and tree trunks, flowing upward from the burly base of a coyote bush to hug its slender branches, heating the small, tough, delicately toothed leaves until they bloom with flame.
Los Angeles, and Hollywood too for that matter, has always pushed outward, reaching into the natural world that surrounds it. Cities do this, cities of the American West especially, stretching their economic promise into the encompassing deserts until that promise becomes unsustainable, or until those deserts begin to push back. Kleeman makes one smart nod toward Hollywood’s unique destructive capacities in the form of a character’s passing thought (“She doesn’t want to invite a lecture on the unsustainability of the film industry, the relationship between celluloid and peak oil…”), but in the end her novel belongs far more to the desert than it does to the movies, which after all are just another of humanity’s vain and transient fancies.
As the plot hurtled toward its conclusion, I found myself thinking less and less of Patrick Hamlin’s hapless literary and cinematic predecessors — alas, poor Barton Fink, or Manley Halliday — and more, instead, of the protagonist in Paul Bowles’s matchless short story “A Distant Episode.” In Bowles’s tale, a linguist goes foraging not into Hollywood but into the Moroccan Sahara, and his fate, while perhaps more grisly than Patrick’s, feels similarly proportionate. Both figures are desperately seeking something (in one particularly telling moment, Patrick blows off an invitation to join his wife and child at Earthbridge by noting that “he doesn’t want to give up a nothing that could become something glamorous for a nothing that’s certain to remain so”), but where Patrick goes voyaging into the amnesia capital of the world in the shabby hope of becoming someone, Bowles’s Professor treks into the desert hoping to make contact with the regional tribes and their uncharted dialects. Each character might ultimately be better served by abandoning his errand, but if there’s one thing that unites both narratives, it’s the sense that it ultimately might not matter whether we opt out of our projects: our own secret arrogance might be enough to do us in.
And if it isn’t, there is that other project from which we cannot opt out: that of the earth becoming desert, the burning world that is swiftly superseding the world of capitalism. The merciless biome was here long before we were, and it will remain — maybe, if our predations aren’t enough to destroy even that — long after we’ve gone.
Matthew Specktor is the author, most recently, of the memoir Always Crashing in The Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California, forthcoming in July 2021 from Tin House Books. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Paris Review, and many other periodicals.