Alas, This Angelic Land, the new novel by Aris Janigian, has yet to be reviewed by the LA Times, which is a shame as the book's putative tie-in “occasion” has come and gone, if not disappeared. The so-called LA Riots, Uprising, Civil Disturbance, whatever, twenty years ago, is the three-day and lifetimes-of-reflection ago-inducing event for a serious, exciting, elegantly written novel about immigrants from, yup, Beirut, Lebanon, who'd imagined perhaps some kind of new life only to find, of course, that their new is new only in its own complications on the dread story of community, hope and violence.
DJ Waldie, the Scribe of Lakewood, California, writes enthusiastically over at Los Angeles Review of Books about the Fresno-born Janigian, an eclectic and experienced writer in multiple genres. Waldie's imprimatur should help sales, and maybe get the book the attention it deserves. By the way, Waldie's own Holy Land, a great little book indeed, was optioned by James Franco. Hey, Jimbo, please send a big check to Aris J. immediately if you want another book that would make a great script.
Still, I admit I was not, frankly (or Franco), at all prepared for This Angelic Land. Janigian's earlier novels, Riverbig and Bloodvine, are terrific, sure, if much less ambitious. They seem to me a variety of “first novels.” Riverbig is about another fictionalized autobiographical-seeming Armenian-American from, yes, the agricultural Central Valley, a guy trying to reconcile the Genocide. It turns out to be a mystery of sorts, with history and cultural conflict and class analysis and mobsters. But with This Angelic Land, Janigian the author finds, works and totally hits out of the ballpark all expectation of those same themes with his mature, careful prose-stylist voice in a combination of Beat poetic and ecstatic realist and historically confident everyday political layering of the moments before, during, and after the violence and catharsis that was (and is) the social earthquake of April 1992.
The story is told by a distant yet emotionally intimate voice, an authorial persona whose observations about the putative main character, his brother, give the story urgency, and earn our trust. This point of view gambit is so important, with the brother documentary film maker Eric Deridian explaining to us–we soon guess why–what he has learned of both the recent and long-ago moments in the life of his younger brother Adam, a single guy who runs a club in Little Armenia, is ripped off by his partner, takes home a troubled woman the night of the verdict, maintains strong friendships with mentoring artist father-types and struggles with despair as a kind of LA Everyman. His is only one, if the the singular compelling story among the interconnected (as it must be) compelling life stories, case studies for this “a day in the life” (and death) of the city on fire and under fire.
|City of angels, demons, Armenians|
This is one beautiful, ambitious, surprising book, which keeps the reader engaged, provoked through a variety of straightforward yet somehow mysteriously seductive narrative techniques, from the obvious if essential TV reporters at the scene to long conversations with Adam's philosopher king old dude buddies, to his own journals, with sly and grim humor, too, especially from the old country parents an grandparents, who find themselves in a sectarian, racialized, class-ridden New World.
Not out yet (but soon) and available for pre-order is Elsewhere, California, by Dana Johnson, author of the previous collection, short stories, called Break Any Woman Down, which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. In Elsewhere we read the life of, Avery, a young African-American girl who appeared in two stories from that celebrated collection. This, then, is a first novel, a coming-of-age book, but with a twist. Its simultaneous struggle to justify, explain, make sense of the adult Avery is the parallel story, and one whose theme of course happily corresponds to both the political moment, civic anniversary-wise, and my own blogging needs on a Sunday morning! Indeed. “cultural confusion,” or, more politically, struggle, is a familiar trope, but in the adult graphic artist who makes collages and objects and looks for herself and finds in her own relationship to the city and its other inhabitants we find more loss, and pain and wisdom and ironies a-plenty.
|Elswhere. It's near West Covina|
Avery, who is beautiful (see author photo, above!), talented, insecure and married to a loving, pushy, rich older man–an immigrant himself, because this is Los Angeles where, if you have the scratch you can be anybody–comes from a middle-class black family who leaves South LA for West Covina. Complications ensue. So, yes, the well-told struggle for a young black girl to try to figure out other people's racism and class prejudice. But there's also her effort to figure out her confused parents, and to see in action the generational journey from the American South, in this case Tennessee. So, yes, teenage Black English descriptions of 1970's pop culture, sexuality, the Dodgers, “Soul Train,” David Bowie. All is fair game, and none of it is fair, this making of a worldview. It forms the aesthetics, politics, personality of the adult Avery, whose show at a trendy mid-town art gallery is the ostensible celebratory occasion for all of this reflection, refraction, revision and, finally, reaffirmation, much like, it turns out, her art. Yet this is not a feel-good novel. It is too honest and rich and, in places cruel and complicated for that. It's out in early June. Get a copy.
|Cover art by Mark Vallen|
Programming Note: I'll host readings by three terrific writers on Wednesday night in celebration of the newest Santa Monica Review. Reading will be contributors Michelle Chihara, Jonathan Cohen and Dwight Yates. The event is free, with refreshments and camaraderie organized by the UC Irvine bookstore. Humanities Instructional Building HIB 135. 5 PM. See you there!
Elsewhere, California, Dana Johnson, Counterpoint, 304 ppp, $15.95
This Angelic Land, Aris Janigian, West of West, 234 pp, $18.95
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio, on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.