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Jewish Journal

Kate Braverman—Alive, Well, ‘Frantic’

by Robert David Jaffee

February 2, 2006 | 7:00 pm

"Frantic Transmissions to and From Los Angeles: An Accidental Memoir," by Kate Braverman (Graywolf, $15).

"Did I say that my work has been translated into Turkish? Apparently, it will be read in Istanbul, but not in Los Angeles."

Yes, Kate Braverman did say that in a telephone conversation from her new home in San Francisco. On more than one occasion, in fact, she mentioned this, digressing, ranting, in as polite a rant as possible, that she is merely "referenced" in Los Angeles, where she grew up and lived much of her adult life. The references have even taken on a funereal character.

Despite apparently being characterized by the Los Angeles Times a year or so ago as "the late, legendary Kate Braverman," despite coincidentally bearing the same last name as the deceased character in Sidney Lumet's film, "Bye Bye, Braverman," Kate Braverman, 55, author of the underground classic, "Lithium for Medea," three other novels, countless anthologized short stories and now a new "accidental memoir" titled, "Frantic Transmissions to and from Los Angeles," is anything but dead. "Frantic Transmissions" has just been published by Graywolf Press, a small, literary press in Minnesota, which awarded her its first-ever nonfiction prize for this latest effort.

A defiant, unabashed feminist, Braverman calls herself "an experimental writer. "I'm interested in genre-demolition," she says. To her, genres are "vestiges of a patrician and patriarchal order ... I practice all forms, all genres. I like to subvert form."

In "Frantic Transmissions," she has adhered to this subversive strategy. Though billed as a memoir, the book contains chapters written from the point of view of an uncle, an aunt, a real estate agent selling Braverman's house, and, most daringly, in the collective voice of three women who meet at the Santa Monica Pier. Is this fiction? Nonfiction? Essay? Short story?

Braverman has written in all of these forms in the past, as well as poetry. Her prose has a lyrical quality. Often described as hallucinatory, her words seem to come out of a dream or a drug-induced, psychotic break. Filled with bizarre incongruities, sentences attack other sentences, words attack other words. She has been compared ad nauseam to Joan Didion, but she has made her own mark as a Jew from the streets, a woman who says she comes from the "projects of Sepulveda Boulevard."

While she has also written about barrio Latinos, Braverman has written a good deal about Jews on the margins, poor, blue-collar Jews, druggies, hookers, divorcees who inhabit the city of Los Angeles.

"When men create disturbing chaos, accumulate excesses with extreme abandon, they are absolved, receive a metaphorical purple heart." However, "should a woman dare to risk deviation, she is locked into an institution."

Her first novel, "Lithium for Medea," which depicts the struggles of a substance-abusing, traumatized woman living in Los Angeles, was published in 1979 by Harper & Row, but she says "it was at a time when Harper & Row ceased to exist. It became a division of a ski company or a car company or a baby-mitten factory."

She decries the increasing corporatization and globalization of entertainment monoliths, yet one of her short stories, "Science of Navigation," about a teenage Jewish girl, traveling from one L.A. foster home to another, will be published by the Tribune-owned Los Angeles Times in the inaugural issue of its new Sunday magazine, West.

If her novels haven't received as much attention as she would like, she has won an O. Henry award, a Carver award and twice been selected for the Best American Short Stories collection.

Still, she hasn't gotten the recognition from the literary establishment accorded her Jewish male predecessors, men like Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, all of whom have influenced her.

"I learned dialogue from Roth," she says. "I learned interior, intellectual monologue from Bellow, and genre-demolition from Mailer."

Despite the Jewish themes in her work, including two chapters in "Frantic Transmissions" about her typically dysfunctional Jewish family, she says that she "has never been invited to a Jewish conference, never been nominated for an award by a Jewish organization or a Jewish grant-funding source."

And, she says, "This is the first interview I've ever done with Jewish media.... I'm not coming out of the closet, I've been out of the closet for 28 years" as a Jew.

She says that the last Jewish woman who experimented boldly with prose was Erica Jong, in her 1973 debut novel, "Fear of Flying."

"Every 30 years or so, there is a work that dares to present a Jewish woman who is divorced, has economic problems and lives a post-historical life.... I want to be recognized as the splendid mutation that I am."

She also wants to be recognized as an Angeleno. Part of the charm of "Frantic Transmissions" is her evolution throughout the book from one who flees Los Angeles -- describing it in the classic dystopian terms we have known since the days of Nathanael West -- to one who immigrates to the Northeast where she bonds with the land and open forests in the Allegheny Mountains, only to learn that there is no there, there in rural New York.

The author, who early in the memoir writes of Los Angeles as a "city of subtraction and ash" with cancerous radiation coming down from a sun that sets "in oranges brutally metallic and chiseled with inhuman translucence," ends up yearning for "incandescent, neon-infested boulevards with ersatz glittering invitations ... (rather) than the pinched lips of neighbors who just encountered a verbal architecture they suspect isn't orthodox."

Which begs the question -- why didn't Braverman and her husband, a genetic engineer and futurist, move back to Los Angeles?

"I didn't exist as a literary being in Los Angeles," she says, pointing out again her "posthumous life" in the Southland, based on an L.A. Times reference worthy of Mark Twain or Bob Hope, a mistake that she says occurred in the past year or so.

Braverman, the renegade scribe, who taught writing privately in Los Angeles for nine years while also teaching at Cal State Los Angeles as well as UCLA for two decades, now lives in the Bay Area. But she says that Los Angeles has been "the main character" in all of her novels and most of her short stories. She would like to be read in Los Angeles, and she "would like to be read by Jews."

"I put Jewish bag handlers, taxi drivers and hookers on the page as well as the people who design the planes," she said.

Kate Braverman will talk and sign books on Thursday, Feb. 23, 7 p.m. at Dutton's Brentwood, 11975 San Vicente Blvd., (310) 476-6263; on Friday, Feb. 24, 7 p.m. at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 659-3684; on Saturday, Feb. 25, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. at UCLA, Bunche Hall, room 1209B; and on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 4 p.m. at Claremont College, 1021 N. Dartmouth Ave.

 

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