In the Heart of the Valley of Love
Five-foot, three-inch Francie is dwarfed by the huge bird of paradise plant in her front yard. A miniature version is the official flower of Los Angeles, but Francie prefers the more monstrous bird of paradise: “I did not find these plants paradisical, but to me they would have made a more fitting choice for an official flower than the smaller, prettier variety, because they looked the way I saw Los Angeles—surprising and violent, full of hidden savage beauties.” In her second novel, Cynthia Kadohata sees Southern California of the future in just such brilliantly brutal terms. Her vision of Los Angeles in 2052 is a nightmare of urban decay, a city whose physical and social structures have disintegrated. For those who, like Francie, know where and how to look, it is also a savagely beautiful valley of love.
Like Kadohata’s 1989 literary debut, The Floating World, In the Heart of the Valley of Love is a coming-of-age story, though Francie, its nineteen-year-old narrator, manages to mature during a barbarous age that calls itself the Dark Century. Traffic lights still gleam, but they are routinely ignored in a city where rioting is commonplace. About half of the populace is illiterate. The air is toxic, the streets are violent, and shopping malls are boarded up. While 70 percent of women under forty are afflicted with cervical cancer, almost everyone is vulnerable to some malady. Francie’s parents died, of lung cancer, when she was thirteen years old, and she herself has a common, innocuous skin disease. The wonder is how exhilarating Kadohata’s fiction is, for both narrator and reader. “I felt strangely enthralled with the brutality of the world I had to face,” says Francie.
Kadohata’s futuristic vision of urban decay and social dysfunction has more in common with sinister cinematic fantasies such as Alien Nation (1988), Blade Runner (1982), Escape from New York (1981), and Mad Max (1979) than with more literary models. In her 2052, the fortunate few barricade themselves in “richtowns,” and everyone totes either guns or mace. The police are corrupt and capricious, and people are daily disappearing into secret gulags spread across the California desert. In setting her novel beyond the lifetime of many current readers, Kadohata is interpreting the present, dramatizing it through extrapolation. In her rendition of the United States, nonwhites constitute more than half of the population, 8 percent of eligible voters go to the polls, and an ambitious chain of freeways remains unfinished, for want of funds. It takes the mail as long to arrive in twenty-first century California as in twentieth century Italy.
Much of this is plausible, though not inspired, prophecy. In contrast to futurologists who plot inexorable progress through the blessings of technology, Kadohata posits a future in which things have ceased to work—employees as well as gadgets. It is a time of mass privation, in which unremitting drought has made “water creds” more precious than official currency. Although men have walked on Mars, back in 2000, Neiman Marcus could not stay in business. Despite current confidence that faxes, modems, and bullet trains will soon link and transmute us all, Kadohata projects a retro-tech world in which people still drive internal combustion automobiles and pound out sentences on primitive typewriters. Under such circumstances, the reader shares Francie’s scorn for “chirps”—those who feign a sanguine fervor incommensurate with the dismal truth. She reports that Thanksgiving has become more important than Christmas, “because the fact that there was less and less to be thankful for made one all the more thankful for what there was.”
The future is another country, but not to Francie, who has lived there all her life. As narrator and a native of that grave new world, she rightly does not dwell on what makes 2052 remarkable; to do so would be as incongruous as if William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar delivered a soliloquy on ancient Roman housing. Francie incidentally notes that McDonald’s has ceased serving real burgers and that the tallest building in Los Angeles is the Natsumi Hotel, but for the most part Kadohata avoids explicit disquisition on the differences between 1992 and 2052. She places her characters in a particularly bleak setting in order to test them and to dramatize the power of love.
The daughter of a Japanese mother and a black-Chinese father, Francie, who was conceived beside the rice pots of Chu’s Chinese Soul Food Restaurant, typifies the increasingly hybrid and non-European population of the Untied States. Eclipse of the ethnic stock that founded and dominated the country has even begotten a kind of inverted Ku Klux Klan, the Anti-Aryan Association, or AAA. Born in Chicago, Francie moved in with her Auntie Annie in seedy Hollywood when both her parents died five years ago. Also...
(The entire section is 2016 words.)