-connecting stories in a plot that constitutes a novel
-the point of characters’ intersections as starting point instead of climax
(Disclaimer: my reading of this text and copied quotations below are from an Advanced Reader’s Copy, and have possibly changed in the officially published version.)
The novel-in-stories The Madonnas of Echo Park (2010) is dedicated to the culture that its author Brando Skyhorse only later discovered was part of his own heritage, a culture that, as a child not knowing he was part Hispanic, he’d attempted to distance himself from. Appropriate to this heritage, the connecting thread of these disparate stories, told from the point of view of first-, second- and third-generation Mexican Americans, has an appropriately Catholic aesthetic, but one that leaves room for secular spirituality.
Skyhorse brings memoir to this collection of fiction by including an autobiographical introduction with the arc and heft of a short story–in this case, the story of how he came to write this novel-in-stories. The “Author’s Note” tells how he rejected a girl during a junior high dance party:
“You are a Mexican,” I said, loud enough for the entire class this time. “I can’t dance with you.”
This is the Note’s climax, this moment of shame that will haunt the narrator for years to come; the girl, Aurora, never returns to school after this day.
The Note is itself a great lesson in how to pull off a piece of creative nonfiction; Skyhorse baits us with a moment of shame and then delivers, ingratiating himself to the reader by revealing this thing most readers will instantly feel they would never have wanted aired about themselves. By being forthcoming about his own undesirable traits, he taps into readers’ own shameful moments rather than invoking their judgment about his.
As a springboard for the novel itself, the Note is interesting in that the episode it describes only appears in the character Aurora’s narrative in passing (in the second story “The Blossoms of Los Feliz,” from Aurora’s mother’s perspective):
Aurora couldn’t face her classmates because of this and some incident at school that she started telling me about, then stopped when she told me I’d gotten the details wrong (someone called her “a dirty Mexican”).
While Skyhorse opened with a brutally honest confession, the novel itself might seem to let him off the hook; the real reason Aurora doesn’t return to school is something other than this incident at school. The “this” in the above passage, rather than the autobiographical school incident, is what the novel is concerned with and as such, it provides the connective tissue between the disparate stories. The “this” that links all of these stories’ first-person narrators is the drive-by shooting of a young girl outside a bodega that Aurora and her mother were present for; the corner had become a tourist attraction for mothers and daughters after it appeared in Madonna’s “Borderline” video (pictured above), which in the Note is the song Aurora has asked the author to dance to when he refuses her. The young victim of the shooting becomes known as “Baby Madonna.”
The novel’s interlinked stories offer an impressive, intricate narrative that enables it to be classified as a novel, though its connections and plot are much subtler than most. The movement of a stray bullet like the one that struck Baby Madonna, the random way it ricochets, mirrors this novel’s narrative structure: the story ricochets from one character to another, but everything it strikes is part of the same whole. Such a structure might imply that these characters’ separate stories are leading to a climactic moment in which their lives intersect (as with the structure of Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See), but this point of intersection isn’t what the momentum of the narrative is building toward. Rather, the novel offers us the point where they all intersect and let’s see where/how all their trajectories ricocheted after/as a result of that. The novel’s structure is essentially: Here is ground zero; let’s see where the shrapnel flew. Published in the years between novels-in-stories taking the Pulitzer (Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge in 2009 and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad in 2011), it’s interesting to see how this particular model for a novel-in-stories compares, one in which the tension largely resides in figuring out how the characters’ trajectories trace back to Ground Zero, in this case the corner of the Baby Madonna shooting.
Aside from connections to the shooting, all narrators are implicitly included in the “we” the first story/chapter opens with:
We slipped into this country like thieves, onto the land that once was ours.
This quote refers not only to this portion of southern California that used to be Mexico, but to the specific Mexican neighborhood of Chavez Ravine, bulldozed to build Dodger Stadium (a fact that rears its head in some form in pretty much all of the stories), and driving its residents to the nearby neighborhood of Echo Park. Not incidentally, Aurora is named for the last woman to be dragged from Chavez Ravine before it was destroyed. Not incidentally, all the disparate narrators lead back to her, revealing themselves to be members of family units that overlap like Vinn diagrams.
Each story, while enriched by the larger context of the novel as a whole, could stand on its own as a story, meaning each has threads of chronic and acute tension that intersect for the climax.
The first, “Bienvenidos,” is that of Aurora’s father, Hector, who was brought over as a baby and doesn’t have U.S. citizenship. His acute tension is that the fancy Hollywood restaurant where he worked for years has closed, so now he tries to work as a trabajador despite little experience, and one day when his friend is killed on the job at a construction site, he’s bribed into getting rid of the sledgehammer that killed him. Hector’s chronic tension is that he ruined his family by cheating, and had a falling out with his daughter Aurora, who never respected his work. Thinking that his lies have gotten him nowhere in life, he decides to turn himself in at the Echo Park Lotus Blossom festival and is deported.
“The Blossoms of Los Feliz” is from the point of view of Aurora’s mother, Felicia, who worked as a cleaning lady for rich people in the Hollywood Hills. After the shooting, there was a picture in the paper of Felicia and Aurora taken right before the girl was shot that caused a dispute about if Aurora should have been the one to get shot. In the wake of this attention, Aurora became sullen and distant, and Felicia lost her job but was then hired on by an eccentric hermit named Mrs. Calhoun who’s married to a gay man. She and Mrs. Calhoun form a bond for both having unfaithful husbands, but eventually Felicia’s let go for cheaper help at the husband’s behest, and Mrs. Calhoun drowns herself in the pool.
“Our Lady of the Lost Angels” is told from the point of view of Aurora’s grandmother, Felicia’s mother, who got her family evicted from her uncle’s for refusing to have sex with him, then went into a convent, where she was married off to a much older man and gave Felicia away because he wasn’t interested in a daughter. She gets a strong vibe from seeing the picture in the paper about the Baby Madonna shooting that, unbeknownst to her, shows her daughter and granddaughter. She visits the corner of the shooting and has a vision of the Virgin Mary, who tells her she’s cold because she has no love and that another messenger will come to her when she’s ready. Now the narrator can never get warm.
“Rules of the Road” is told from the point of view of Efren, a bus driver who Felicia flirted with in “The Blossoms of Los Feliz” who was rude to her when she wouldn’t go on a date with him. It gradually becomes clear that Efren is giving the circuitous account of a particular incident in which he hit and killed someone with his bus. He first tells of his past, how he fled a gang family and always follows the rules, eventually describing how he kicked a Mexican kid off his bus one day for breaking them (though another, black, kid was probably equally responsible for starting the conflict), and then the kid chased the bus, and when Efren suddenly had to swerve to avoid a truck running a red light, he hit the kid. The truck didn’t stop, so it looked like Efren hit the kid on purpose, though he swears he didn’t. After he hit the kid, he drove off route and a guy got on the bus and even though Efren told him the bus was out of service, he insisted until Efren told him he’d take him where he needed to go.
“Yo Soy el Army” is told from the point of view of Efren’s estranged brother Manny, Jr., who stayed in the gang family, though he’s retired now. The acute tension is his son Juan’s getting ready to leave for basic training and Manny’s trying (and ultimately failing) to find the words to tell him not to go. The chronic tension describes how Manny came to be married to his now-dead wife and came to terms with Juan’s relationship with an Asian girl that he always imagined Juan would marry, though Juan’s instead just married a Mexican girl, Angie. Juan gives Manny a letter to give to Angie in case he dies overseas.
In “The Hustler,” Freddy Blas, adamantly American, has just been released from prison. He tells us his story, how he first learned to con working in a taco truck, and how he was sent away for his longest stint in the course of actually trying to work a straight job valet parking after accidentally stomping an accelerator and maiming one of his fellow drivers. In the present, he returns to his girl Cristina’s house in Echo Park (this is the woman Hector cheated on Felicia with in “Bienvenidos” and Angie’s mother from “Yo Soy el Army”), but a neighbor tells him she died a few years ago. He goes to a bar and hustles up some money in a pool game, but bets it all a cheap trick that his mark doesn’t take too well–he beats Freddy up and doesn’t pay him. Freddy passes out in an alley and wakes up with a bus sitting in front of him that he talks his way on to even though the driver (Efren from “Rules of the Road”) tells him it’s out of service.
The bulk of “Cool Kids” is backstory, told from the point of view of Angie. She describes her teenage friendship with Duchess, a headstrong fashionista who had pride in the neighborhood while Angie wanted nothing but to get away. Before their high school graduation, they have a fight about Angie’s getting a job at a clothing store in a better part of town; she wears an ugly dress from it to the graduation, where she meets Duchess’s current boyfriend, Juan, who hits on her. Duchess and Angie drift apart, but when Duchess is stabbed at the bank where she works in their neighborhood, Juan and Angie agree to get married after scattering her ashes. In the present, a letter has just appeared at Angie’s back door from Juan, the letter he wrote her in case he died, in which he finishes the story she never let him about falling in love with her the day he saw her in the ugly dress at her graduation. Angie is pregnant.
The final story, “La Luz y la Tierra,” is from the point of view of Aurora, returning to Echo Park as an unemployed thirty-year-old. When she goes to her mother’s house to help her clean, she accidentally lets the dog Blackjack out, and has to go on a pilgrimage to track him down that reunites her with a few childhood landmarks and acquaintances, first to her mother’s boyfriend Vince’s, then to Lorenzo’s furniture store, then, delivering a chair for Lorenzo, to the Coat Queen, an old lady who has hundreds of coats, none of which will keep her warm (which we recognize as Aurora’s maternal grandmother from “Our Lady of the Lost Angels”). Aurora gives the Coat Queen her own coat, prompting her to get rid of the rest of her coats because she’s finally warm. Aurora finds the dog but loses him when he’s forcibly taken by “the Lord,” a neighborhood bum rumored to be clairvoyant. It turns out the Lord is working for her mother, and returns the dog to her, at which point she gives the dog to Aurora because she’s moving. The acute tension here is Aurora’s chase after the dog, while the chronic tension is her sense that she doesn’t belong in this much-changed neighborhood anymore. In the climactic moment, immediately after Aurora shows her mettle fighting the Lord for the dog, she sees her idol Morissey mouth “You belong,” the exact opposite of the sentiment voiced to her by the Lord and his goons.
The plot model for both the novel as a whole and the individual stories is the concept uttered overtly by more than one character: “The Lord works in mysterious ways.” Even non-Catholics can appreciate the catharsis of such a philosophy, and Skyhorse ensures altogether non-religious people can too by offering us narratives in which something bad happens for a good reason, the quintessential example being when Aurora sees Morissey and receives her confirmation that she does belong only after going through the arduous struggle of tracking down the dog; if the dog hadn’t literally dragged her through the mud to that particular point, she would not have seen him. Skyhorse also provides a secular flavor by creating a human character called “the Lord.”
It seems then that the larger purpose of revealing the connection between the individual stories would be to show how one bad event in one led to a good event in another, but on this front, Skyhorse doesn’t quite deliver. Figuring out how each of the characters connects to the Baby Madonna shooting isn’t enough to keep us turning pages, nor is waiting vaguely to ascertain the ripple effect of a negative event early on. The immediate narrative hook Skyhorse employs to this end, the overarching plot he packs his individual accounts into, is where the book’s more patently Catholic aesthetic comes in. In the third story, Felicia’s mother has a vision of the Virgin Mary who tells her:
‘Another messenger will come to you. You will give them something that means everything to you without question or expectation. Then I will come and find you.’
The expectation is set up here that the stories are potentially unfolding with the specific purpose of illuminating the path of this particular messenger, that everything might be leading to the moment this messenger comes. The final story seems like it’s going to deliver on this promise. Aurora’s story is a classic hero’s-journey narrative, but the book’s apparent destination, the reunion with her real grandmother, is merely a pit stop on the destination of Aurora’s journey, recapturing the dog. In this way Skyhorse’s plot threads intersect obliquely, in a way that’s satisfying while remaining true to the messiness of real life.
I still have a lot of unanswered questions about the connections between the stories, though the more I think about them, the more I wonder if such questions are precisely the point. My first issue with the overarching plot is that the Virgin Mary tells Felicia’s mother she has to give the messenger something that means something to her, but it’s Aurora who gives her her coat. This might be why the Coat Queen gets rid of all the other coats despite telling Aurora that the coat she gave her “didn’t work”; if it didn’t work, why is she getting rid of the rest of the coats?
This structure of connected stories implicitly sets up a question: what critical event(s) are all these narrative trajectories having some sort of critical influence on? In the final story, Aurora not only meets her grandmother, unbeknownst to her, she also meets her father, unbeknownst to her. So to me it seemed like events from all the intervening stories were conspiring to put Aurora in these unknown relatives’ paths. But I was disappointed in that nothing momentous actually happened as a result of these path-crossings. I was waiting for Hector to somehow be redeemed for making the morally right choice in the first story despite its grave cost, waiting to see that it was a good thing he did make the right choice, because unbeknownst to him his real daughter was watching him at the critical moment of decision…or something. But I can glean no concrete outcome, no map that Hector’s deportation becomes a critical part of in causing X outcome.
What we do get through the stories is what happened to Hector’s lost daughters, referenced on the second page of his, the first story:
And my daughters, they are both lost to me, somewhere in the blinding California sunshine.
The novel as a whole is giving us the story of what happened to both of his daughters after he lost them, but this is largely obfuscated by the fact that Aurora is the only one who appears in “Bienvenidos.” The major clue that Angie is Hector’s comes in “The Hustler,” when Freddy is talking about Angie’s mother:
…Cristina told me she’d never stop loving me, unlike the asshole who knocked her up, some cabrón named Hector.
It turns out Angie and Aurora are both Hector’s daughters, though personally I hadn’t realized Angie was Hector’s when I finished the book and didn’t realize it until I was writing this; if I hadn’t thought so much about it, it never would have occurred to me. Aurora has an encounter with Angie at the same festival where she sees her father without knowing it; Angie’s daughter’s balloon string snags in a knot on Aurora’s wrist, and Aurora helps untangle it while she and Angie converse about the changing neighborhood. As soon as Angie walks off, the balloon string tangles again, causing Angie to yell at her daughter in a moment that nicely undermines the scene’s potential sentimentality. The scene seems to be of much more symbolic than plot consequence, showing the knots our lives are tied in with others, with and without us knowing it, but it has much more power realizing that these two strangers are sisters and will never have any idea.
But the roles of “Rules of the Road” and “The Hustler” in the overarching narrative are still fuzzy to me. It’s hard to pin down what larger purpose the character’s tragedy is supposed to serve in the scope of the larger narrative. Aurora’s story, being the final one, is where the relevance of the previous stories must be realized, and Efren and the Hustler do appear there:
A blast of air from a passing bus, carrying one man sitting in the back, lifts the star off my hand. Follow me, the star seems to say, as it corkscrew whips in the air, fluttering like a phosphorescent butterfly down the street until it plops into the waters of Echo Park Lake.
Aurora is in between stops on her journey to find the dog here, and I’m looking for this passing bus to have some sort of direct influence on this journey, like if Aurora felt compelled to follow the sticker the bus’s exhaust tore from her hand, and because she followed it she wound up somewhere she wouldn’t have otherwise. But the passing bus has no direct bearing on her path; she merely notices it and continues on exactly as she would have if it had never passed. It would be different if the bus could somehow have played a role, however small, in her path crossing with her long lost half-sister or father, but it doesn’t. Perhaps it seemed too coincidental to have Angie’s path cross with her half sister’s by the influence of her own stepfather, but I’m still left wondering why it’s so important the Hustler get on this particular bus.
On the whole, for me, the individual stories offer more satisfaction than the whole they’re a part of. The arc of Efren’s was one of my favorites, as he reveals himself to be a quintessential unreliable narrator. The biggest direct link causally between Hector’s story and anyone else’s is with Efren’s, in that the truck Hector is being driven by his white bosses in is the truck that causes Efren to swerve and hit the kid he kicked off his bus. As Efren reveals himself to be unreliable, much of what he offers turning out to be misleading, the reader realizes how he will appear to the authorities he’s giving this account to. His unreliability will make it seem like he’s lying about the truck he swerved to miss, of which there’s no evidence. It is, ironically, Efren’s lying that makes the fact that he’s telling the truth about this seemingly invisible truck so tragic–the reader can see that he’s telling the truth about this one aspect, that there really was a truck he had to swerve around, because we saw this actually happen in the first story, and we can also see how it’s not going to look like he’s telling the truth to anyone else who doesn’t have the inside information that we have–specifically, to the authorities in whose hands his fate rests. My issue with this particular aspect of the plot is that it’s not Hector’s climactic decision to do right that affects the outcome and/or reader’s perception of Efren’s story, but rather something Hector really has no control of; it was his choice to get in the truck with the white bosses, but the stakes weren’t that high in the moment he made that particular choice (it was not yet, at that point, a difficult choice, or even regarded by Hector as a choice at all). The Lord didn’t work in mysterious ways to produce a positive outcome from the negative of Hector’s deportation, but instead made more negatives from negatives. Which is, yes, true to life, and only problematic in light of the novel’s promise to provide us a more concrete map of the mysterious ways the Lord is working in.
Still, though it doesn’t quite deliver on that promise, the novel does illuminate a network of connections and consequences I could accept as true to life. But while I could go with the magical realist/spiritual element of the Virgin Mary’s messenger linking the stories, there were a few plot twists that stretched believability in a more problematic way. The description of the Hustler’s accidental accelerator-stomping that got him twelve years in jail was one such instance; Angie’s daughter’s balloon string snagging on Aurora’s wrist was another. The most egregious was the death of Duchess:
The chola grabbed a letter opener from the manager’s desk and tried to slice his check open. The blade missed and gouged Duchess’s jugular vein. She was killed “instantly,” I was told.
Almost equally unbelievable is that Angie doesn’t give Juan the time of day until this happens, when she and Duchess were no longer really friends at that point. It’s also unclear whether the letter from Juan she reads is supposed to indicate that he actually died, or if Manny gave her the letter prematurely, as he’s worried he’ll do when Juan gives him the letter in the first place.
A few years ago I heard the short story writer Steven Schwartz give a talk analyzing the plot of The Great Gatsby; he pointed out how improbable its plot is, the major coincidence tying it together of the woman Daisy hits being her husband’s mistress. But he said we accept that, because the emotional reaction to that improbability rings true: were Daisy to do such a thing, it makes emotional sense that Gatsby would take the fall for her and that she would turn around and go back to the husband who was cheating on her with that mistress in the first place, choosing class over love. That assessment also stands for Skyhorse’s novel, I think, where it is precisely the implausible events that tie the plot together. The plot itself is at times, in those improbable twists, similar to a telenovela, which is referenced throughout (and makes sense–Skyhorse has said he believes Sandra Cisneros’ “Woman Hollering Creek,” which makes much use of telenovelas, should be required reading):
Is the neighborhood’s miracle worker a destitute hermit who has a satellite dish hookup to his tin can of a house in the middle of a barren field so he can watch telenovelas?
The subtlety of the connections between the individual narratives and the lack of neatness with which they tie together seem to imply that even when blood relations are lost to you, your connection to them still exists, even if you aren’t conscious or cognizant of it. There’s the moment Aurora comes, unbeknownst to her, very physically close to her father, which she’s sensing without even realizing it, though enough concrete clues are provided that the reader does:
I walk across the street in a daze to the now deserted construction site, where I hear a radio play an old Spanish ranchera. The workers are gone. How long had I been in the Coat Queen’s house? The song drifts above a barley sea of weeds, dead brush, and garbage, an unfamiliar melody paired with a recognizable voice. I can’t place it, though. There’s a plaintive loss I feel whenever I walk past a construction site, or a kitchen in a restaurant, and overhear one of those ancient Spanish songs playing through a pair of cheap transistor radio speakers. The pain in the balladeers’ voices in those songs; it’s like picking up an emergency broadcast from a world that exists only in my peripheral vision.
Soon thereafter she literally sees her father without knowing it:
A trabajador around my father’s age wanders around in a circle carrying a large yellow mallet. Vince is walking hand in hand with a woman who could be my mother save for the confidence and poise she stands with.
The next day she’ll realize that woman was in fact her mother, though she still won’t have a clue about her father or half-sister. But that’s okay, because the reader gets the satisfaction of knowing all the things she doesn’t, gets to be omniscient, like the Lord, which is precisely the pleasure a novel offers.