Carolyn Breedlove Novel
Book traces a life in suspension
Carolyn Breedlove’s novel “Spitting on Hegel,” the literary prizewinner in Critical Mass 7 and the subject of an exhibition at Artspace Shreveport, is a book that unfolds in the gaps. What I mean is that it traces a life in suspension: between past and future, certainly, but also between its protagonist and herself. Taking place in Los Angeles during the late 1970s, the narrative revolves around a character named Mina, an aspiring writer awash in revolutionary politics, working as a waitress on the Sunset Strip in the early days of punk. “She can feel something large butting against their underpinnings,” Breedlove writes of Mina, “tugging, testing them, like when the city of Los Angeles tried to pull down the Watts Towers as a hazard. Those proved too strong to fall; the joke was on authority, on prejudice.”
Let’s be honest: It’s tricky to write a novel about a writer. The act of writing, after all, is internal if not static; it doesn’t carry a lot of narrative charge. But Breedlove mitigates this by portraying a character who is not quite fully formed yet, a woman in the process of becoming, as it were. Writing is one mechanism of her development; music (or her immersion in the West Hollywood club scene) is another, as are politics and romantic life.
For Breedlove, the idea is to make a deep dive, an excavation – not of Mina as one thing, but rather as everything. At the same time, she has no intention of creating an everywoman; the novel is more specific in its concerns. “Mina is beginning to catch on,” she writes, “… that something more than music is happening … Sometimes it barely seems music is the point at all.” Breedlove is describing Mina’s burgeoning awareness, her coming to consciousness, which has as much to do with the times through which she is living as it does with her fears and fascinations, the expanding universe that is life.
In that sense, “Spitting on Hegel” recalls Rachel Kushner’s novel “The Flamethrowers,” which recreates, in a different city, the selfsame era: a moment when art and politics and identity were open to question, and one engaged with them in unexpected ways. At the same time, the book never loses sight of the mechanics of existence, the necessity of getting through the days. “It helps that so much of life is going through the motions,” Breedlove writes. It’s an essential lesson (or better yet, a survival strategy) with which Mina has to come to terms, even as her journey leads her to push those constraints, those boundaries, in favor of something else, some idea or experience, that might elevate her beyond the vicissitudes of the day-to-day. Here, we see the skill of the novel, and its abiding tension: How do we get to live the life we want? The answer, “Spitting on Hegel” means to tell us, may reside in those very gaps from which the narrative emerges, the spaces between in which, if we are lucky, we may ultimately find ourselves.
David L. Ulin is the author or editor of more than a dozen books, including “Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles,” which was long-listed for the PEN/Diamonstein- Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. The former book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times, he teaches at the University of Southern California.