The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Her brother dies. And then she assumes his identity.

‘Dead in Long Beach, California,’ Venita Blackburn’s buzzy new novel, takes on the vagaries of grief (and possibly alien librarians)

4 min

Grief might be the most elusive human feeling. We tend to gauge it rather than grasp it, measuring it with metaphors that often just cower before its awful size and force. Our stock attempts to describe it reveal our indelible befuddlement: “the stages of grief,” “the grief process,” “the weight of grief.”

Unlike other emotions, grief doesn’t have a ready-made set of verbs that demystify its attributes. Anger rises, mounts. Depression engulfs, buries, smothers. Love conquers, blinds, clarifies, arouses. Grief simply is. We bear it and hopefully survive it, mice in its merciless paws.

Dead in Long Beach, California,” the debut novel by Venita Blackburn, channels grief’s staggering capacity. It centers on Coral, an anxious comic book author who finds her brother Jay dead by suicide in his apartment. After fainting from shock, she awakes and calls 911, attempting to begin the many public and private rituals of death. But hours after Jay has died, Coral grows possessive of her brother’s death, commandeering his phone and impersonating him to his friends and relatives, including his daughter. In a twisted way, Coral keeps him alive, but the ruse is fragile. She spends the story stuck in this frazzled and intrusive state, free falling through time as she reckons with loss, loneliness and guilt.

“Free falling through time” shouldn’t be taken literally, but Blackburn’s nonlinear and experimental storytelling, a signature of her many short stories, evokes time travel. The arch period-hopping of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” and the fragmented chronologies of David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” and Olga Ravn’s “The Employees” come to mind as the story slips through years and milieus. Blackburn isn’t interested in the systematicity, adventure or alienation of sci-fi, though. Her muse is dissociation, and the book’s latticework of flashbacks, news articles, text messages, fictional book chapters from Coral’s own work and fan fiction about said book allow her to map Coral’s fractured psyche.

The guides to this Coral-verse are a collective of possibly nonhuman librarians who have somehow ascended from Coral’s apocalyptic book-within-a-book to a ponderous omniscience. “We are responsible for telling this story, mostly because Coral cannot,” the narrators say. That’s not an especially compelling motive for such a forceful storytelling device, but Blackburn commits.

At its best, the authoritative and bizarre voice of the guides gives the book a playful quality that keeps it buoyant. They describe Coral’s actions, and human activity as a whole, with a bemused distance that allows Blackburn to place humor and whimsy alongside the sorrow. Many paragraphs begin with descriptions whose winkingly clinical language belies the freewheeling and funny words that follow. “In the Clinic for Excavating Repressed Memories in Search of Solutions of Current Crises, we are holiday-movie moms,” goes a typical passage. “We inspire Christmas-loving lesbians around the world with our archetypal feminine authority and achievable beauty.”

This flippancy loses appeal as the jokes, digressions and flashbacks begin to eclipse Coral. It’s hard to imagine her standing out in the librarians’ “registrar of all life with any evidence of record.” Blackburn packs in so much backstory that she crowds out the present; the stakes of Coral impersonating Jay grow hazy as the story totters along. She is clearly clinging to his memory, and implicitly risks alienating friends and family if she is found out, but the conflict is one-sided.

Coral often feels peripheral to the book’s formal pyrotechnics. Her passivity faintly contrasts with the agency of the gun-toting, unnamed hero of her own book, but Blackburn does not build on this polarity. The character is less a foil and more a shadow, visible only at fleeting angles.

Grief tends toward incoherence, but our stories about it still need some shape if they are to be affecting and compelling. “Dead in Long Beach, California” works as a moodboard, but beneath its stylish sentences and unorthodox structure, there’s more void than vision.

Stephen Kearse is a critic and author based in Washington. His latest novel is “Liquid Snakes.”

Dead in Long Beach, California

By Venita Blackburn

MCD. 226 pp. $27

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