With MLA pushed back into January, and the green vistas of spring-term leave looming, I’ve had a little time to read books that have been lying around for a while. Starting with a Christmas gift from my Marin in-laws of a few winters ago, Richard Rodriguez’s memoir and meditation Brown (2002).
It’s an engaging story about California, Stanford, and racial & cultural mixing — “Brown bleeds through the straight line, unstaunchable,” he writes on the first page. But what intrigues me about the book is its experimental, allusive, free-wheeling style. He’s a memoirist, not a researcher, though there are lots of facts to be gleaned, but he’s happy to skip logical steps and make elliptical moves. He circles around his chosen topics, so that racial mixing rubs up against the idea of California, Mexico merges with the American West, San Francisco with the Pacific.
The dilemma of California remains as Edmund Wilson described it. We have built right up to the edge of the sea. It is also that the soil and the air promote contesting legends. The earth in California is finite, animate, unreliable — the earth quakes, burns, slides into the sea. But the air is temperate — light and vast — a stepping-off place, and we have only recently discovered how.
It reminds me that the best thing about writing is that you can invent for yourself the best ways to do it.