R.I.P. Carolyn See

The writer Carolyn See has died.

I didn't think that such a death would hit me hard. I'm not a huge fan of See's work, I never knew her, though I did meet her once. I think that one reason is because it feels like the passing of an era.

If there a California school of fiction that has emerged in recent decades, See would epitomize it. Along with people like TC Boyle, Aimee Bender, Steve Erickson, and so many others have written work that could be described in some ways as magical realist, but they're doing different things with it than what Marquez and Borges were doing. It has a certain multicultural flavor, as one would expect from a place that is so shaped by a confluence of cultures, there is often a self consciously intellectual and literary aspect to it.There are a number of books that inspired this, but there are so many people producing work in this vein now that it feel like a school of its own.

See lived in California for much of her life and more than just living there she wrote about and was interested in the place and the culture. She worked to encourage people in Los Angeles and deflated obnoxious East coast types who didn't think LA had a culture.

I was living in California when See's last novel There Will Never Be Another You was released and I got a crash course in who she was and what she meant. Having moved to LA I didn't appreciate her initially but it was through reading that book and her earlier novel Golden Days that I came to regard her with awe. She was able to write domestic, interior stories that also opened up onto global events and larger ideas. They were about things. They were able to bridge decades and changing times, they were fantastic and wild and yet about the present.

Quite frankly in some ways she was one of those writers I had been searching for my entire life. That was what I felt upon reading her. Work that seemed to take place, 20 minutes into the future.

Perhaps one reason that her death has hit me is that it's not simply the death of a writer and critic, but it feels like the end of an era. See was born in Pasadena in 1934, and I've seen the photos, but I can barely conceive of what the region must have looked like then. She went onto get a PhD, she married and got divorced. She taught. She was a book critic - back in the days when newspapers had book critics and paid for such work. She watched Los Angeles change, bridging the prewar era to the postwar boom, the sixties which quickly morphed into the Manson-caused fear, the eighties and the recession following the end of the cold war that collapsed the aerospace industry.

See saw this and she managed to turn it into some amazing work. She seemed to be able to craft in her fiction an understanding of the ways the world had changed, the ways society had changed. Most importantly, I felt that she was pointing towards a way to live and work as a writer.

It's so easy to be overwhelmed by what's going on in the world, but See in her fiction managed to write about topical issues, write about characters who were dealing with these issues, who were at the mercy of these larger forces. I felt as though she was showing a way for writers to function, to carve out a private room of our own where we could work, while at the same time paying attention, to see closely, to write about it with the same nuance and consideration that we give to people and their interactions.

There may have been an autobiographical origin of this. See has written about how when she was a child her father left her mother in August 1945, and she has always linked the bombing of Hiroshima with that personal betrayal, that human bombing. Regardless of where this perspective originated, See had a unique voice and wrote some great work. Even sadder than her death is the fact that we have no more Carolyn See books to look forward to.

Rest in peace.

If you've never read Carolyn See:
  • Her novels. Start with either Golden Days or There Will Never Be Another You.
  • Her memoir, Dreaming, is a great piece of work.
  • Her book, Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers.

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