“What she needs is a little est,” my wife Jenny said of Rose, heroine of Kate Braverman’s first novel, Lithium For Medea (Harper 251 pp, $9.95). Jenny is hardly more sympathetic to est than she is to whomever thought up our current gas shortage, but Rose fairly cries out for some “take responsibility for your own life” brainwashing: as one follows her through the Desert of Los Angeles, it’s impossible not to imagine her drooping.
Lithium often seems like one long complaint. The characters blame others for the hollowness of their lives and the fatedness of their defeats, and they can’t always summon the energy even to do that. Rose and her creepy lover mostly shoot cocaine. Rose’s father is dying of cancer. Successful in Hollywood, Rose’s mother batters her daughter over the head with guilt. Abandoned by her mother, she wants Rose to understand that Rose’s sufferings are nothing in comparison.
In a careful, measured tone, Rose thinks it all over. The novel doesn’t read like a fake, but the angst and the anguish have a received, unthreatening quality, as if this is the sort of thing a young woman is supposed to write these days, and thus need not be artistically justified.
For all that, I wouldn’t take up space to slam a first novel by an unknown writer if I didn’t think the book was worth reading. There are a lot of people as dully defeated as Rose (why do you think Werner Erhard has gone as far as he has?), and as Lithium moves on, its world of banal claustrophobia takes shape. Incidents and accusations, planted early, begin to cut harder as they’re repeated. Signs of life appear in the writing, first in Rose’s crosscut recollections of her long-gone husband Gerald, and then in her letters to a cousin, committed to a mental hospital, about their common grandmother. She is still living. Rose’s mother considers her dead.
Gerald was a Berkeley graduate student who descended into a form of madness familiar to anyone who has spent much time in a university: the insanity of sequential fixed ideas, of answers. Rose remembers Gerald’s mind dissolving into a search for truth through physics, mathematics, psychology; she remembers it finally settling on Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Gerald becomes a Trekkie.
Writing about the Star Trek phenomenon is common currency, but none of it, as far as I know, has ever faced up to the horror that must lie behind a belief that the Enterprise is Destiny. That is, someone has to live with these people.
“It’s a metaphor,” Gerald would say.
“But we’ve seen this one before. At least three times.”
“Five times,” Gerald corrected, sitting in the lotus position, transfixed.
Gerald claimed each new viewing revealed another aspect of the ship’s functioning or Star Fleet Command. Gerald wasn’t concerned with the plots. He was interested in the details at the edges.
“This is a poem about humanity” Gerald said, staring at the screen.
“But we’ve seen this show five times.”
“The man of knowledge is a patient man,” Gerald said, dismissing me.
As this story, scattered throughout Lithium, moves on, you realize that it is Gerald who would have by now turned himself in to est; Rose’s form of self-affirmation is self-loathing, and it is too strong for anyone or anything to take it over and run its course for her.
Rose comes alive when she talks about her husband—perhaps because this is one part of her life that is behind her—and she comes alive when she pursues that part of her life that her mother has tried to deny her: her grandmother.
There isn’t much I can say about this without giving away the best part of the novel. But when Rose finally tracks her grandmother down and meets her, Braverman achieves both the terror and the affection that everything else in her book has kept at a distance. For Rose the meeting is, in its way, one more failure; it’s a piece of writing to shake you. Few will come away certain that they would have had the nerve to go as far into a secret as brutal as the one Rose’s grandmother holds—is. From this point on, its Rose’s surrender to life that seems less than real, and that may have been the idea Braverman was aiming at all along.
Rolling Stone, June 28, 1979