Why do Los Angeles's storytellers keep dreaming of the apocalypse?
Whether in fiction or film, from The Day of the Locust to Crash to last year's Barbarian Nurseries, narratives seeking to capture the spirit of that sprawling city always seem to fall into the same pattern. Like an LAPD surveillance helicopter's spotlight, these stories zoom from the Valley to Long Beach, lighting occasionally on select characters in different folds of the social fabric. And the moment the light hits one of these poor souls, you know they'll meet a bad end: scene by scene, act by act, these fantasies of Los Angeles always move towards a central cataclysm, some ultimate, cleansing orgy of violence. (See Mike Davies's 1998 book Ecology of Fear, which is now more pertinent than ever, for a trenchant exploration of the bizarre fixation on imagining LA destroyed.)
The literature of a city that always has space for more people, cars, and stuff, now includes The Loom of Ruin, Sam McPheeters's debut novel. The action revolves around Trang Yang, a pyrotechnically angry Vietnamese immigrant who, through a complicated string of misfortunes and injustices, becomes exempt from the law. The owner of a number of service stations throughout LA, Yang screams, beats, and shoots his way through the novel as the rest of the book's main characters—Chevron corporate functionaries, federal and private investigators, cashiers young and old—variously cajole, spy on, cower from, or try to make unlikely peace with him. In the tradition of LA destruction porn from Independence Day to The Last Days of the Late, Great State of California, each of The Loom of Ruin's figures is placed on the path to ruin within pages of our introduction to them. McPheeters successfully mimics and mocks the tropes of b-movie catastrophes, but this satire ultimately fails to expand on them.
The novel has an ambitious narrative vision, and McPheeters's cutting humor provides a sturdy frame for the story. Even with its insistence on darkness, this is a very funny book. McPheeters became a novelist after a decades-long career as an influential hardcore singer and zine author, and this book has its best moments when he applies a punk-inspired critique to the indignities of life in a corporate-driven society. For instance, a city-funded poetry slam celebrating diversity ends up saddled with the hilariously ill-advised name "isLAm." A scene in which two contemptuous and clever supermarket workers score a petty goal against a condescending manager reverberates with the satisfying ring of justice.
But The Loom of Ruin's writing tics can distract the reader. This is arguably a result of McPheeters's broader project—to produce a work that plays on the language and structure of a disaster movie. And insofar as he seeks to echo the ham-fisted conventions of that genre, he gets his point across. In a passage in which Chad, a detective, lustily eyes Chevron operative April, McPheeters deadpans: "He wanted to French kiss her." And every chapter ends with a form of the "To Be Continued" trope. Consider the three final lines from a set of consecutive sections:
"Neither woman had ever held a job as delightfully cushy as these. They intended to keep them."
"'We wait.' Trang looked out across his dominion and scowled. 'Sooner or
later, they make mistake.'"
"'We'll meet again, bitch!' Linsday laughed. 'When?'"
I think a cliffhanger or two is fine, but the novel has 109 chapters and an equal number of such endings.
The fact that McPheeters never allows his chapters to go on for more than a couple pages keeps the book rolling along at a fun and steady clip, but it also means that many characters go about their business with all but their most superficial motivations unexplored. Trang, for instance, comes with an interesting and outlandish back-story, but we spend so little time with him (or with any character, for that matter), that his portrayal lacks emotional heft. Since Trang is supposedly driven by feeling—anger is his raison d'etre—this might seem odd, but the book is so quick-moving and cold that his anger registers as the engine of the plot, rather than an authorial oversight.
The author's sketched characters and the book's language recall a noir narrative, in which all elements of the story are set to work solely to advance the plot. And the plot does work: the overlapping characters, cars, and explosions bring a sweeping and fittingly cinematic vision to McPheeters's LA story. But his focus on getting everyone to the calamity on time detracts from the novel. While McPheeters's glee for destruction can be infectious, and his commitment to weaving a compelling yarn is laudable (particularly for a first-time novelist), this satire would benefit from more humane characterizations. Without people to care about, there is little tragedy or comedy to Loom of Ruin's catastrophe; it's just sprawl.
Sam Biederman lives in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in publications including n+1, Salon, and the Nation.