Beautifully Ruined: A Case for Re-visiting Kate Braverman’s Lithium for Medea
The last time I visited Venice Beach, I made one of my wildest teen fantasies come true.
At one of the many beachfront stores where bathing suits cost five times what they should, I bought myself a gold lamé string bikini. The day was overcast but warm enough to be mostly naked outdoors and so I wore my purchase out of the shop and onto the footpath. Sandalwood. Someone somewhere was burning Nag Champa incense. Leathery roller skaters rumbled along the pavement. I darted between them, hurrying past seated vendors selling hemp and cowrie shell jewelry. Stepping onto the sand, I padded toward the waves and walked along the water’s lip, collecting pelican feathers for Cholula, my green-eyed cat, my house panther.
A nasty breeze blew my bowl cut crooked. The clouds parted. I wondered if the 24-karat glare from my bikini was bothering any seagulls. I curled my toes. Moist earth sucked them. I thought of Rose, the cocaine-fueled protagonist of Lithium for Medea, the late Kate Braverman’s first novel. In one of the book’s later chapters, Rose has an epiphany about the wetness that I let lap and slurp at my feet. Rose arrives at the understanding that our ocean isn’t pacific. It’s a drunk monster hungry for red meat and drunks aren’t picky about where their food comes from.
“I realized if one stood on Venice Beach long enough the sea would be revealed absolutely. If one stood there long enough sooner or later everything would wash up on shore. The sea’s dead returned as rows of coughed up white bone. Old beer cans, pieces of galley ships and a strangled long-haired orange and white cat.”
Lithium for Medea was first published in 1979, the same year that Sex Pistol Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose in a Greenwich Village apartment. The slim book’s plot is G-string thin, beginning with blood, water, and bad news. It is narrated by Rose, a twenty-seven-year-old bohemian who repeatedly maintains that “a pine tree [her] age knows more.” Flowers must be watered, and Rose plans to soak in her tub, shoot some drugs into her arm. She’s preparing her bath, and a syringe, when her mother, Francine, calls; her father’s cancer has returned. This existential interruption sets the quasi-coming-of-age-story, which mostly takes place in a grimy version of Venice now ruined by gentrifiers, into motion.
Before trying her hand at writing a novel, Braverman had been in a rigidly monogamous relationship with another genre: poetry. Poet may be Braverman’s most fundamental identity, and her lyrical sensibilities, which tend toward the cannibalistically floral, embroider and enlace her prose. In her hands, cancer develops botanically, a “disease blowing like a red volcano in the center of [a] father’s throat. It [grows] like sagebrush and yucca, the natural vegetation of the Los Angeles basin.” During a 2006 conversation with Lisa Kunik, Braverman shared that Lithium for Medea grew out of fifteen poems sewn together with a rainbow of narrative thread. Despite her seamless stitching, the novel is more a study of place, hatred, despair, and love rather than an artful sequencing of scenes that build toward anything like a climax. “I exist to serve the page,” Braverman told Kunik, “but I reject traditional plot. It seems obsolete.”
A romantic, Braverman devoted herself to beauty for beauty’s sake. She found wonder in the “ragged fringe west of Los Angeles,” a place where the metropolis “is stopped dead by the sheer liquid cliffs of the sea.” Inspired by the Italian City of Love, developer Abbot Kinney transformed what had been brackish marshlands into the neighborhood that Rose calls home, Venice of America. The development debuted in 1905, and a 1910 advertisement for Ocean Park, a housing subdivision that included the site’s original canals, boasted that just about anyone could own a small slice of Italy; they were selling the “cheapest lots on the market.” Rose lurks in the now squalid version of this Mediterranean fantasy, and over the course of Lithium for Medea, she learns “how to strip a city naked.” Meanwhile, Braverman’s prose does the undressing.
Rose’s gaze sweeps across “the commercial buildings along Venice Boulevard and the patches of lawn in front of small stucco houses and forgotten between factory buildings…” She composes elegies for the “growing ruins,” musing that “for decades, the dirt has done as it pleases, pushing up what the winds brought, what a hand tossed.” Her rambling descriptions of seaside dilapidation charm all six senses. The corpse of what was seduces.
“Now the original houses of the Venice canals sag, paint peeling, reds a faded rust, yellows and blues bleached, a noncolor, not even suggesting pastel. There is a sense of abandonment. Deserted cars sit useless in weeds, looted, their vital organs gone. A shell of a canoe and a shell of a gutted speedboat stretch out like lovers in the field where two canals meet. Broken stuffed chairs rot under the sun. Old screens with wire mesh ripped lie in random stacks between houses.“
Rose fits perfectly into this habitat. She is a different type of California girl, one who broods, kills, and doesn’t seem to mind scarring her arms. While songs by the Beach Boys and David Lee Roth praise those of us who are happy to frolic along the sand, baring side boob in string bikinis, Rose is a “walking nervous breakdown,” a divorcee, and a drug addict. Her mother’s standard greeting is, “You look terrible.” During her childhood, Francine moved Rose to California for death’s sake, so that her father’s cancer could at least kill him in a sunny place. Los Angeles seemingly heals him, but he and Francine divorce. She re-establishes herself in Beverly Hills. He “lives a five-minute drive from Century City ” but spends most of Lithium for Medea in a hospital bed. Surgeons remove most of his throat, and he communicates by scribbling hopeless messages on a notepad.
The other men in Rose’s life are Gerald, her Trekkie ex-husband, Jason, her crude and abusive lover, and Picasso, Jason’s neglected orange and white cat. Rose lives in the Woman’s House, one of many Venice properties owned by Jason. In exchange for living there, Rose is expected to do two things, to make herself sexually available to Jason and to collect rent from his other tenants, a chore he loathes. Rose is Jason’s sex toy and his enforcer, and it is Jason who introduces her to cocaine, a drug so adored by Braverman that she only considered one pleasure superior to it: writing.
Jason’s world is reminiscent of scenes shot by Akira Kobayashi, a Japanese photographer who visited the California coast after reading Lawrence Lipton’s The Holy Barbarians, a chronicle of Venice beatnik life. Kobayashi became fascinated by Venice as a utopia turned dystopia, Abbot Kinney’s canals polluted and destroyed by the arrival of the railroad, the ascension of the automobile, and the discovery of oil. Kobayashi photographed bikers, surfers, hippies, and dropouts, creating black and white pictures of the people and geography that Braverman characterizes in nearly mystical language. His book P.O.P.: From Venice West to Malibu 1969-1974 is as much a museum filled with artifacts of a now dead place as Lithium for Medea is. I sometimes page through it, wondering if any of the surfers in it inspired Jason’s character.
When “dogs begin to bark,” Rose knows that “it is time to wait for Jason.” In addition to being Rose’s landlord, he is also a surfer, painter, and methamphetamine addict. A supposed valedictorian of Venice High, the subjects that artistically preoccupy him are “surfboards and rafts, tits and ass.” A stereotypical local, he says that he has always lived “by the sea…a beach brat.” He was born with salt in his eyes and “riding the crest of a wave.” He confides in Rose that while on an LSD trip, he once received an important message: to invest in real estate. He follows the drug’s advice and by 1969, “Jason [owns] a dozen houses and five apartment buildings on the streets closest to the sea.” When I do the math, calculating the value of these properties today, I want to weep. In the 1950s, my grandfather considered buying a bungalow in the same area. He worked in Santa Monica but to save a few hundred bucks, he chose to buy a tract home in Norwalk instead. Maybe if my grandfather had done acid, he would’ve made better real estate decisions.
Because Lithium for Medea is a Los Angeles book, driving is vital to its thin plot. This aspect of the novel recalls the work of another late Venice poet, Wanda Coleman. Her poem “I Live for My Car” expresses the attachment of so many Angelenos to our cars: “My car’s an absolute necessity in this city of cars/ where you come to know people best by the how they maneuver on the/ freeway…” Cars shuttle Rose up and down Pacific Coast Highway, taking her to Beverly Hills, to the Santa Monica mountains, to Century City, and to the high desert. It is from behind the wheel that Rose maps Los Angeles, giving it shape.
I turned onto Vermont Avenue. I was facing the blank brown backs of the hills. What am I doing? And the voice within me answered, You’re waiting, kid. That’s what you’re doing. Waiting. Don’t you understand yet? Los Angeles is the great waiting room of the world…
I parked my car. Everything seemed to be humming. The traffic on Vermont hummed…
From behind the wheel of my car, I can still see vestiges of the Venice that served as Braverman’s muse but it’s dying. It seems that Venice has always been ruinous. First, Kinney destroyed the marshlands. Then, his original canals were filled and paved, their names changed, erased. Then came the Beatniks who were followed by the hippies and most recently, John Lydon, whose Sex Pistol stage name was Johnny Rotten. The former bandmate of Sid Vicious, Lydon typifies those who are ruining Venice today, former punks, artists, and weirdos who replaced their anarchist values with red hats bearing a nationalist slogan, Make America Great Again.
Once described by the U.K. press “as the biggest threat to our youth since Hitler,” Lydon now lives just south of the new Venice, the squeaky-clean version that Braverman would likely find unrecognizable and embarrassing. “All the beach there used to be very, very hippie,” Lydon told the Los Angeles Times in 2011. “Very crime ridden too, in the past. Very druggy. But Johnny came along and kicked all that out. Yes, I showed them a thing or two about manners.” While some beach residents continue to complain about poor and unhoused people ruining their views, the median sale price of a home in Venice is $1.9 million, and that prevents me from having any sympathy for them. But Venice makes me hopeful. Given its propensity for ruin, the housing bubble will burst, and another beautiful cycle of destruction and decay will come.
Myriam Gurba is the editor-in-chief of Tasteful Rude. She is also the author of the memoir Mean, a New York Times editors’ choice. O, the Oprah Magazine, ranked Mean as one of the best LGBTQ books of all time and Publishers’ Weekly describes Gurba as having a voice like no other. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Paris Review, TIME.com, and the Believer. Gurba has been known to call shitty writers pendejas and has no qualms about it. Along with Roberto Lovato and David Bowles, she co-founded Dignidad Literaria, a grassroots literary organization that seeks to revolutionize publishing.