Lithium for Medea, by Kate Braverman
An odd, passionate, and almost-perfect novel, written in a gush of negative ecstasy that echoes Allen Ginsberg’s best work in but prose form, probably by intent. Author Kate Braverman is herself a poet, I’d guess more poet than novelist, and the book would be perhaps perfect if she had held back just a little bit more. The imagery sometimes–regularly–tries too hard and is superficially impressive but, you occasionally realize, not meaningful. This is a small cavil.
The protagonist is pathetic despite her skill at logging sensation; her choices in men seem to be driven by an urge to punish herself, or perhaps by a dedication to the extravagant premises with which they front themselves. One, whom she marries and then sensibly leaves, is brilliantly devoted to self-delusion and eventually goes nuts; one guides her into a cocaine addiction and is constantly gaslighting her. There is a number of one-night stands that are brushed off in half-phrases. The real story is in her relationship with her intense and untrustworthy mother and her stolid but feckless father; the parents are divorced but still dedicated to each other in a deeply odd way, and the core of the story involves the mother’s dragging the protagonist through the father’s battle against throat cancer. Spoiler alert: he makes it, and the protagonist does not exactly transcend her self-doubts, but packs them away and drives east to nowhere. The mother, Francine, is the true central character in my analysis.
The novel espouses the usual white intellectual’s views of 1979 Los Angeles as a sunblasted sump of rotting hopes, but the descriptions are superb when they’re not overdone.
I’m glad I read it now; had I read it when I was young it would have ruined my own writing style for years. Think of it as an extended prose poem, emotionally violent though never with a threat of poverty to distract the protagonist from her incessant self-regard. This sounds like a condemnation but it’s not: this is almost a great novel. Pretty damn close in fact. Read it and you’ll see.