Kate Braverman could be a character in a Kate Braverman story. After what she has
called
a “squalid adolescence” in Los Angeles—her father gambled and her mother
struggled with mental illness, as the San Francisco Chronicle recounted—she ran poetry workshops in the nineteen-seventies and
eighties that helped grow the city’s literary scene, attracting the
likes of Janet Fitch (the author of “White Oleander”) and the punk
singer Exene Cervenka. Braverman wrote books with such titles as
“Lithium for Medea” (her début, from 1979) and “Frantic Transmissions to
and from Los Angeles.” She has spoken of wrestling with cocaine
addiction before switching to heroin; now sixty-eight, she says she
eschews most substances, including alcohol, any more than eight hundred
calories of food per day, and medication for her bipolar disorder. She
wears floor-length black skirts, swirling black coats, and black
stiletto boots; the San Francisco Chronicle once described her vibe as
“Morticia Addams gone gypsy.” After she moved to San Francisco, she
would chide L.A. for refusing to acknowledge her artistic super-stardom.
She says,
“I have the most literary stature, certainly, of any woman in Southern
California.” She says,
“L.A. can still claim me as the splendid mutation that crawled out from
the stucco slums of Sepulveda.”

For a mutation, Braverman has won a lot of establishment awards: an O.
Henry, a Graywolf Press nonfiction prize, and an Isherwood fellowship.
And yet, she is right to suspect that her star could have risen higher.
Though Joan Didion praised “Lithium for Medea” when it published,
Braverman’s experimentalism never quite connected with readers the way
the work of her peers William T. Vollmann and Kathy Acker did. Her
books, twelve in all, sail on Spanish winds—she has cited the poets
Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz as influences—and her own musical excesses
thrive in the Los Angeles–themed writing of Aimee Bender and Francesca
Lia Block. Still, she remains an outsider, little known except among a
modest circle of followers.

Braverman’s latest collection of short fiction is called “A Good Day for
Seppuku.” Seppuku refers to the ritual suicide of Japanese samurai by
disembowelment, and the suite of eight stories is as lurid and visceral
as its title promises. Crammed with feverish, hallucinatory imagery—a
“glutinous” swimming pool, “smears of curry and iodine” in a sky that
“looks like a massacre”—these are gynocentric tales of angsty adolescent
girls, anomic wives, adult women with difficult mothers, and elderly
women with lost daughters. Braverman’s feminism can be hot and
oleaginous, like the burning oil of medieval punishment, as when a
domestic helpmate transforms into a witchy Medea figure to exact
vengeance on her husband. But elsewhere the book’s politics, gender or
otherwise, seem threaded with a gentle mysticism. Abandoned by any force
resembling a plot, women stand, in meadows or on beaches, and tilt their
faces upward. There is a privileging of what one character calls “the
inexpressible, the preliterate, the region of magic chants and herbs.”
With that elevation comes a poetic correlative: images before ideas,
lush language before shaped story lines.

To read Braverman now is to feel belated, but also hopeful. She is the
same writer she was when the counterculture was ascendant, when punk
music spilled over into poetry, when the literary tarot seemed to favor
her, although the full anointing never came. Her stories function as
unintentional time capsules, skeptical of technology when they can’t
sidestep it entirely, apprehensive of, rather than mesmerized by, mass
culture. They don’t “resonate.” They don’t comment on the Trump era, as
all things must. Instead, they exude a palpable and evocative pastness,
a beckoning vinyl scent. If fame did not find Braverman when the moment
was right, perhaps it will make amends now that the moment is wrong.

As if honoring the idea of second chances, repetition plays a crucial
role in this collection. Two female frenemies meet for their customary
afternoon at the wharf. An estranged daughter returns home to her
family’s farm. A wife is unable to leave her husband. On a linguistic
level, too, Braverman collects talismanic echoes: feathers, flowers,
sunsets, the color turquoise, the words “terminal” and “peripheral.” Bob
Dylan comes up now and again (despite the occasional citation of
“millennials” or iPhones, the author owes her cultural touchstones to
the hippie era), and several of the stories feature descriptions that
could pass for Dylan song lyrics: “I wander corridors that end in
cul-de-sacs where I sit alone in alcoves. / Loudspeakers announce
destinations like Madrid, Prague and Tokyo.”

The story containing those sentences, “O’Hare,” is the book’s strongest,
a witty riff on alienation and belonging. It puns on “terminal” ’s dual
meaning as a station of air travel and a stage in illness. The
first-person narrator, a thirteen-year-old girl, is attending a summer
camp for wealthy Jewish teen-agers; when the Kafkaesque experience ends,
she must decide whether she will continue to live with her cartoonishly
soulless mother and stepfather in Beverly Hills. The mother drinks and
negs; the stepfather is a toothy record producer whose hand, reaching
out “as if by a mechanical extending device . . . elongates dangerously . . . I
think of the trunks of elephants and ivory tusks, swamps, cemeteries and
poaching.” The alternative is a laconic, anarchic father who grows
marijuana in the Allegheny Mountains. Desperate to postpone her
decision, the camper fantasizes about O’Hare’s airy waiting area—the
last stop, she imagines, before the living death that lies in store for
her, no matter what she chooses.

Braverman’s external locales have long revealed internal states. In
“Lithium for Medea,” a character observes that a “lemon tree pushed
blooms, blooms like poisoned tongues. The sun stalled, a pus yellow and
hot, hot enough to make a sane man hang himself.” Many of the new book’s
settings are similarly malevolent, or infused with garish sickliness;
conversely, spiritual salvation in the form of a maple forest “stretches
for hundreds of miles in all directions like a secret undiscovered
inland sea.” Braverman pressurizes psychic landscapes into heated fields
of organic matter, glowing or rotting. She can also make the physical
world eloquent about relationships between characters. When she trains
her eye on human interaction, what’s lost in nuance is regained in
psychological force. In the story “What the Lilies Know,” a mother and
daughter “speak as if with flags the way people do at sea when
conditions are mutable, possibilities limited and primitive. They
choreograph pieces of cloth. The planet is compressed into a basket of
fabrics. They wave at each other with rags.”

Relatively lax when it comes to structure and pacing, Braverman works
best at the line level, amping up images with emotional charge. She is
pessimistic, and not especially insightfully so, about kids today. (A
teacher mourns that “few of her students want to read,” instead spending
“afternoons in computer chat rooms, employing aliases.”) Such
get-off-my-lawn-ism is embarrassing but not disfiguring, another rub of
“wrongness” that may even shore up Braverman’s mystique. Her biggest
quibble with young people appears to be their substitution of empty
visuals for meaningful or true ones. The English teacher—she feels
partially autobiographical, or at least aspirational—collects
summer-vacation essays at the start of every school year: the papers
teem with “listless landscapes like postcards selected at random in
convenience stores . . . They’re merely views without fragrance or the
possibility of vertigo.” This is a bit of an ars poetica in negative
space. Braverman excels at flooding readers in images that throb with
menace or pleasure, as if descriptive language were a vein into which
our most primal fears and desires could be injected.

A certain type of enveloping aesthetic experience can approximate drug
use. It’s a Carly Rae Jepsen song, candy-colored harmonies making your
synapses glitter with dopamine. It’s a bite of the most decadent
chocolate fudge. This is the over-saturated, psychedelic, sensual thrust
of Braverman’s heightened prose, where a woman can recount that “a
spider walked across my back in 9 distinct bites.” Of course, the
aesthetic of the high, of the sugar rush, can grow monotonous when not
relieved by more complex sensations—the type of responses provoked by,
say, fully fleshed out characters, or a deep sensitivity to time and
place. Seppuku is not, as a rule, good for you, even if it happens to be
a good day for it. One might argue that 2018 is an especially
inopportune time for Braverman’s eviscerations, except that the book’s
estrangement from the present lends it an alien richness. One lesson of
this author’s career is that she is as unbeholden to the moment as the
moment is to her. The day’s preferences aside, she knows how to drive in
the knife.