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Know the West

Climate change is the ultimate neo-noir subject

The novel ‘Something New Under the Sun’ treats a smoke-filled Los Angeles as its own genre.

 

We all know the fires are coming, but we’ll pretend otherwise for as long as we can. By the time you read this, the sky above Los Angeles will most likely be bad again: dark, acrid, laden with soot. But right now, as of this writing, it’s early June, and the air is clear. In LA, denial has its own season. For now, it lasts from November until July.

In Something New Under the Sun, the latest novel by the writer Alexandra Kleeman, this uneasy balance has been further disrupted by the acceleration of climate change. Now, the hills of California are on fire all year long. A biblical drought has run the state dry, so its denizens drink WAT-R, a hyper-commodified substitute. The haves, meanwhile, keep bottles of genuine water from exotic and ever-diminishing ice shelves stashed away in their mansions in the hills. In Kleeman’s world, the personal is political is ecological. Individual despair, systemic corruption and eco-apocalypse all threaten, and denial persists unabated.

Patrick Hamlin, the book’s protagonist, is a writer with one good novel to his name. He arrives in LA believing that he will creatively consult on its film adaptation. Instead, he ends up a production assistant, watching helplessly as his magnum opus, a moody rumination on place and loss, is turned into a schlocky horror movie. After Hamlin clashes with the film’s mercurial vedette, Cassidy Carter, the two form an uneasy truce, teaming up to investigate a conspiracy involving two purported film producers and a host of mysterious “Memodyne” clinics cropping up across the city — there’s a strange new malady going around, and young and old alike are losing their memory. (Must be something in the WAT-R. ...)

Kleeman entwines the threads of several established LA genres. In one sense, Something New Under the Sun is a frontier tale for the end of the Anthropocene. Patrick has gone west, as many have done before him, chasing a dream that will dissolve — quite literally — into smoke. The first few chapters are a funny, if clichéd, send-up of Hollywood. (Cassidy is a former child star most recently known for assaulting a paparazzo with a used tampon.) As Patrick and Cassidy embark on a series of investigative forays to marginal warehouses across LA, the novel becomes California neo-noir, tipping its hat to Raymond Chandler and Thomas Pynchon. Patrick is one of the genre’s less-compelling guides: Philip Marlowe if you replaced his grit with petulance, or Doc Sportello minus the loopy charm. But his neurasthenic passivity is an unsurprising response to a world whose ills include not just greed and corruption but a world-historical catastrophe. Kleeman shows how climate change is the ultimate noir subject: Human action and inaction tragically combine to produce a fate as sure as an incoming asteroid.

By the historian Mike Davis’ count, LA had been destroyed 138 times in literature and film by 1998. But Patrick and Cassidy’s LA isn’t (yet) the backdrop to all-out apocalypse — it’s just a world in which everything is several degrees shittier. This is no longer the stuff of science fiction: We have all already had to get used to a reality that is worse than it was, though we still have so much more to lose. “There was no bottom to land on,” Cassidy thinks, “just gradations of badness that felt more like home the longer she dwelt in them.”

But Patrick and Cassidy’s LA isn’t (yet) the backdrop to all-out apocalypse — it’s just a world in which everything is several degrees shittier. 

This inexorable slouch toward disaster lowers the stakes of the conspiracy, which comes off as an unsurprising, if nefarious, byproduct of a world with widening inequality and ever-diminishing resources, rather than something in possession of its own propulsive energy. Patrick and Cassidy eventually solve the mystery, but it doesn’t matter. In the novel’s third act, Hollywood and the petty malfeasance of human beings fall away, replaced by a series of existential journeys into the unknown. Kleeman has hinted at scenes of interpersonal resolution — a romance, a reunion — throughout; now, she forecloses on them. The narrative pulls away from its tight focus on individual characters; instead, there is a recapitulation of the beginning of life on earth, a memory of a kidnapping, a walk into the desert. This third-act upending of both genre and conventional narrative structure elevates the novel into something much stranger and more transcendent than is obvious at the outset. It is here that Kleeman really shines.

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This dissolution recalls a scene that occurs much earlier in the novel. As Patrick waits in the lobby of a Memodyne clinic, his mind oscillates rapidly between two dark suspicions: “the ominous feeling he’s been having all week that nobody is in charge, alternating with the fearful certainty that the ones in charge are not on my side.” Which of these is more terrifying: that our overlords are evil, or that they’re asleep at the wheel? What’s worse — a vengeful god, or no god at all?  

Piper French is an independent reporter and critic living in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in The New Republic, Los Angeles Review of Books and The Appeal.

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