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Book Review: “Something New Under the Sun”, by Alexandra Kleeman

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NEW UNDER THE SUN
By Alexandra Kleeman

Something is burning in “Something New Under the Sun”, in the distance, at the limit of line of sight. The earth is on fire, silently but permanently, its state relayed from time to time in the measured tones of the weather. “The winds are weak today and the fires are burning on the spot,” we are told in a neutral tone. It’s “terrible, really,” thinks Patrick Hamlin, a writer “in his early forties with poor physical shape and three books that no one on this coast ever finds out about,” who has come to Los Angeles to find out. her first- and last-chance, a film adaptation of her novel starring a once-bankable teenage star, now tragic in the tabloids. “But it’s not much of an emergency,” he decides, “if you can get around it. “

What is an emergency? This is one of the questions posed, with cool and elegant calm, by Alexandra Kleeman’s new novel, “Something New Under the Sun,” an unlikely amalgamation of climate horror story, satire of the movie industry and mystery made for television. His dreamy Los Angeles is a waking nightmare whose outlines are drawn in casual asides. Kleeman’s dystopia unfolds slowly, normalcy curdling in the boil. Protesters disrupt traffic on Route 10. Droughts have depleted water supplies. And always, elsewhere, the fire: “Somewhere beyond sight, the brush burns in the daylight, scraps of orange flame dulled by the sunlight,” writes Kleeman. “The sound of little life running away from fire, rushing for more fire elsewhere.”

The emergency varieties – ecological, psychological, familial, medical – are the half-hidden subject of Kleeman’s novel, burning on the outskirts of what begins as a modestly detached rollick through Hollywood and its empty promises. (It’s not easy to ride with detachment, but this kind of oxymoronic pirouette is a specialty of Kleeman; one of Patrick’s other books is a “new epic,” for example.) Patrick has left his wife and wife. girl on the east coast to come west. and seeks fortune by finishing as a production assistant (“C’est pas un boulot de gosse?” asks his wife wisely) on a film which no longer looks much like his book, whose director disappears, the entire installation of which , he thinks, “seems rickety, temporary, like it’s not designed to last.” Meanwhile, the threat inevitably creeps in. Never leave fires burning unattended.

In Kleeman’s possibly present-day Los Angeles, droughts have depleted water supplies. (Nowadays, 85% of California experienced “extreme drought” in July, and experts call the current water scarcity in the West “Existential problem”.) Water has been replaced by WAT-R, a commercial substitute that comes in a rainbow of flavors and sub-brands (WAT-R Extra, WAT-R Energy Surge, WAT-R Wildly Wet) , an improvement over the natural element like as long as you don’t mind the ice floating in it, or the thin blue film that builds up at the top. “My buddy who’s in science told me it happens because WAT-R is a little more ‘social’ than the old stuff,” says one character. “It’s the same as water, just a little more.”

Cassidy Carter, the film’s bratty diva star, won’t touch the stuff. Few others can afford such costly scruples. Real water has become a luxury few can afford; Patrick, like the other PA assistants, happily drinks all the WAT-R the production provides, and he washes himself up overnight at the motel where he’s staying. As the opening of the book widens, it’s WAT-R, WAT-R everywhere: in front of houses in disadvantaged neighborhoods, WAT-R modules block the sidewalk, waiting to be filled. by tankers visiting once a week.

Spoilers are hard to avoid when describing “Something New Under the Sun,” although the above leaves out large expanses of intrigue, especially the experience of Patrick’s fragile wife, Alison, and her precocious daughter, Nora, who retreated to a camp in upstate New York that looks a lot like a cult: a township called Earthbridge where every day begins with public mourning for the species and environmental features that perished, led by a couple who “worked at HBO”. (Kleeman’s debut novel, “Too Can Have a Body Like Mine,” published in 2015, also sent a main character into the cult.) Alison, whose panic over the devastation Patrick considers pathological, is the moral center of the novel. But it is a center apart, a continent. The energy and action are all fueled by Patrick and Cassidy’s squad of detectives, scouring Los Angeles investigating the silliness of the movie they both rely on to be successful, the artificial WAT-R with its slight taste. marshmallow and the mysterious armada of green medical vans whose vigilance seems increasingly required.

It’s a wacky comedy set in a sci-fi hellish landscape, a loaded parable with an antique layout and a cool effect. But the balance is wavering. Kleeman, who is often compared to postmodern writers like Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, can spin a nice sentence, but she can seem overly fond of the funhouse-mirror refractions between reality, surreality, and any dimension in between them exists on television. and in the cinema. (One of the reasons Cassidy Carter is proving effective are the lessons she learned from her hit TV show, “Kassi Keane: Kid Detective,” whose obsessive fans haunt online forums to conduct their own. parallel investigation, closely reading the series of clues to a menacing and vaguely defined “Big Reveal.”) “Something New Under the Sun” is more traced than “You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine,” which struggled Under the weight of his thoughtful absence, but by satirizing the fleeting pop culture, he ultimately bowed to their same gravity.His storylines and original villains are as practical as those of Scooby Doo.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. Parody requires fidelity, at least to some extent. But Kleeman seems to lose interest in the mysterious plan in the end, anyway. Which only makes sense: Solving environmental crimes doesn’t eliminate environmental crimes, and the novel rushes towards a dissolution that feels both unsatisfactory and appropriate. It is a story of ghosts not of the past but of the near future, a story of ghosts as a wake-up call, difficult to leave in the realm of fiction. In July, 60 fires raged across the western United States, incinerating hundreds of thousands of acres in Oregon, Idaho, Arizona and California; the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection maintains a website on “hot fires of interest,” such as climate gossip. Of the The 20 biggest wildfires in California since recording began, 17 have been so since 2000, and six were in 2020 alone. This is not to discuss the record temperatures across the region as the reservoirs are emptying. We live, as Governor Jay Inslee of Washington recently said, in a “Permanent emergency”. Good luck getting around that.


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