MAY 3, 2020
IN AN ESSAY that I’ve loved for years, Mike Davis, writing about fires in Southern California (the 2007 fires, but it’s easy to lose track), writes that “just as one shouldn’t read Daphne du Maurier to understand the workings of nature in Cornwall, one shouldn’t read Chandler to fathom the phenomenology of weather and combustion in Southern California.” He’s specifically thinking about the liminal regions of Californian development and agriculture, places where the incompatible infrastructures of pseudo-suburbs and avocado orchards attempt to overlap, places Sam See and I knew intimately.
You don’t need to know anything about Bakersfield, California, to read Sam’s work and fathom it, no more than I would ever think that knowledge of eastern San Diego county would offer any insight into how or what I think or write. We are not weather, and such phenomenology does not apply. But it’s also the case that as I read the beautifully constructed hybrid volume, Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies, a text that enacts Sam’s theories of time in its own dialogues across parts, I returned often to the false and foundational myths I shared with Sam about place. I returned, too, to how those myths informed a long-running, largely epistolary conversation we shared about modernism and form that was at times exhilarating, banal, naïve, irreverent, and earnest, and that always interwove personal narratives — from graduate student exam angst to unfolding family tragedies and grief — with literary interpretation.
You owe me an orange soda.
However dubious my logic, I wanted to think about Bakersfield when I thought with Sam for this project. When we first started working together on modernist poetry in those fragile and delirious collaborations graduate students can enact under the shared and inflated pressures of field examinations, we also wove into our discussions a shared knowledge of the landscapes of non-coastal California. These images appealed for how they didn’t appear in the reading we loved to debate, images of convenience stores on arid street corners, dusty afternoons, or what it’s like to know what you mean when you talk about places like Tehachapi. The landscapes around Bakersfield and other outposts in the California foothills became alternate geographies for the modernist maps we were drawing.
In his 2011 novel, What You See in the Dark, Manuel Muñoz deploys his characteristic intersubjective narration across a set of characters united by their occupation of midcentury Bakersfield, which itself refuses to unify under their separate gazes. One such view is understood to be Janet Leigh’s, the novel’s unnamed actress who visits briefly during the filming of Psycho. “The Actress leaned forward and there it was,” we learn, as the character’s car descends out of the Grapevine beyond the town of Gorman, “the long green Valley flanked on the west by the low coastal hills, over on the east by the towering Sierra, the place she had been born in, had come from, maybe was destined to return to. ‘Majestic, isn’t it?’ she said. ‘Gorgeous, really.’”
Muñoz juxtaposes the actress’s romanticized, nostalgic image of the region with those who live there, including those who comment on the effect of the landscape on their experience and those who refuse to grant it that agency. Teresa Garza, whose murder drifts the novel toward an uncommitted encounter with noir, seeks to elude the gaze of gossip and narrative intrusion. (“She liked thinking of herself this way, as if it were one of those winter mornings when the Bakersfield streets clutched the fog deep into the asphalt and her own steps dissolved into all that white without a sound. What could people possibly know about her now?”) Although the novel describes her determined refusal to leave Bakersfield despite having the means and motives to do so, the cause of her commitment to the place remains opaque, a secret that can’t be shared and can’t be made available to the incursions of narrative knowledge.
I will buy you an orange soda, but only if you stop telling me that I’m ready to take the test.
P.S. Who drinks orange soda?
It’s Arlene, a hinge character who bridges the stories of the actress and Teresa in the novel, who seems to have the strongest sense of what the unglamorous setting can harbor when approached by the competing genres of cinematic horror and novelistic noir. When Psycho eventually does come to cinemas in town, “She had to stop herself from thinking that Bakersfield wasn’t a place that spelled anything out in cracked letters.” We know she’s wrong, and suspect that she knows too. Like Teresa and the actress, part of Arlene’s function as a character in the novel is to harbor an inconvenient and at times unruly attachment to the place, no matter how swift her denials.
The flawed Arlene is the novel’s triumph, approaching the paradoxes of genre that necessarily attend her understanding of place, and displacing some of the contradictions she finds into subtle temporal hesitations. Often she moves into memory at what seem like the narratively wrong times. This happens when, after a tense encounter with the actress in the diner where she works, Arlene is suddenly nine years old and listening to her mother tell a story on the farmhouse porch:
Arlene had listened to her mother’s voice and closed her eyes to picture the scene. Her mother was remembering the story terribly, leaving out all the details. Arlene saw herself cold and hungry. Her mother’s voice said “woods,” but they lived in Bakersfield, California, and there were no woods to be found. There were orchards, but they didn’t look like anything in the torn pages of the book of fairy tales from which her mother was trying to remember the story, a dense gathering of trees so gigantic that only the trunks appeared on the page. Arlene knew those trees, having memorized them as she stared at the pages of the fairy-tale book. Orchards had order to them, trees in straight lines in every direction, underbrush cleared out incessantly. She was cold, but in the book of fairy tales, that meant snow, which didn’t fall in Bakersfield. There was only fog and light rain that lasted for days.
When Arlene remembers this scene, she tells the story but very quickly shuts down the telling. She substitutes for the tale badly told the childish instinct for juxtaposition that revisits her when she considers the relationship of her inland city to the Hitchcockian pronouncement of the Psycho poster. Her experience seems to make her unfit for either fairy tale or the artsy slasher, yet she continues. She also makes it clear that although snow doesn’t fall in Bakersfield everyone knows the fog.
Who likes orange soda? You’ll pay for that one, honey. You’ll pay dearly. (Approximately 75 cents.)
Now to actually read the poetry you’ve prepared.
I saved more than 100 pages of shared correspondence from the exam preparations I undertook with Sam, and this decision was less sentimental than practical. Having a record of the conversation proved a useful study aid in the final days before the test. Reading these letters alongside Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies, especially when they return, as they always did, to Beckett and Eliot, is an overwhelming reminder of the consistency of thought that Sam sustained across his projects. Reading them alongside the volume prepared with such care by Chris Looby and Michael North is also very simply fun, because of the sheer amount of time we spent projecting their voices in our preparations. Just the number of times we pretended to know what Michael North would say about a specific author (almost as many times as we pretended not to know anything about what we were reading ourselves) is an absurdity that became a kind of genre.
Couldn’t think of anything clearer to say about Frost on the drive here, which suggests a problem. Would you teach me about him? If I bring you a Tropicana Twister, perhaps? All I remember is the sentence-line, the natural speech, both of which are “prosaic” carryovers from Wordsworth and (you want to shoot me) Bobby Brown.
My friendship with Sam was largely a failed one. It may be that I’ve always been too socially distant. It’s also a point of happiness to know that in that past milieu he had greater, faster friends. Instead what we had were letters (I call them letters, they were emails), and two primary intensities of correspondence. The first I’ve been alluding to and accessing at its fringes. The second, almost as long, took place throughout 2012, and is a chronicle of grief and transition (we had both lost parents, we had both moved into the academy in the improbable year of 2009 and were still confronting the loneliness of that luck). Not improbable was that this chronicle could not in principle follow the narrative impulses that tried to constrain it, that Sam in particular insisted that memory must never be pulled into redemption or recuperation. Also not improbable was that much of what we considered so personal could be thought only with Stein or Beckett (again), or Hughes or Dewey or Lawrence. They had not been my immediate present for some time but Sam made them so again. We also talked again about Tehachapi, and Bakersfield, and argued about how much of Highway 8 should be aesthetically considered “the Cormac McCarthy route” of a prospective road trip.
Back when I thought that this piece would originate as a spoken tribute I felt a quandary of form. I wanted to write a letter, because it was the way in which I could think with what I supposed was the most clarity about Sam’s work. It was the way, after all, that I had almost always encountered it, and when Sam helped me, for example, with a Dreiser essay in 2012 we defaulted to an epistolary narrative to work on it. Reading his work now feels like an urgent reminder of the temporality he understood better than anyone, and becomes what he calls in Queer Natures, Queer Mythologies a form of ritual repetition.
But in the end I also wondered whether something that had puzzled us so many years ago, in our first correspondence, might be better suited, even though we were puzzled largely because it had never occurred to us to worry about it much: the dramatic monologue. This is where the last letters of the first conversation ended, in long discussions of fussy things like deixis and fuzzy things like the “you” of the monologue and how it can relate to the conversation form without crossing over. I’d rather have the conversation, but instead there’s something else. I would call it lonely but you’d never stand for that.
Kate Marshall is associate professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, where she is also faculty in the History and Philosophy of Science. She is the author of the award-winning Corridor: Media Architectures in American Fiction (2013) and her second book, A Poetics of the Outside: Mediation, Exteriority, and Twenty-First Century Narrative, is under contract with the University of Chicago Press.