by Liska Jacobs
Published 2017 by FSG Originals
$15.00 paperback ISBN 978-0374119751
By Noah Sanders
Expectation is what dooms Catalina for me as a reviewer. The book trumpets itself as an “LA Noir”—a seedy, white heat sort of genre that proclaims murder and sordidness in equal measures. And yes, Liska Jacob’s book is a tar-black tale of adulthood gone wrong, but it never reaches the fever pitch of what I, or any fan of the genre, would deem “noir.” Instead Catalina bends towards “emotional noir”—all the inner psychological weight and concurrent desperation, the shitty decision-making and save-your-own-ass motivation, without the violent climax. Liska Jacobs propels the reader forward with pithy descriptions and a main character with a set of morals burnt by rejection and rampant pill popping, upping the ante by surrounding her with a cast of supporting roles equally damaged by the inevitable emotional traumas of adulthood. Yet the build—and Jacobs has an enviable skill at creating dramatic tension—amounts to almost nothing, no big finale, no grisly death, just bad people doing bad things.
Elsa Fisher has been fired from her job at as an assistant to the Head Curator of New York’s MoMA. With an enormous severance package in tow, she abandons New York—with a stolen scarf and pharmacy’s worth of pills as her luggage—and returns to the setting of her youth, Los Angeles, for a reunion trip to Catalina Island with long abandoned old friends. Told from Fisher’s perspective, this is a story about being unable to come to grips with the average responsibilities of adulthood. Fisher is many things—a pill-popping alcoholic, a dark and selfish soul, and a woman who buries her pain in the arms of a rotating cast of men—but Jacobs writes her smart and aware of her own undoing. She’s the self-proclaimed black sheep of her friends having divorced Robby—a bitter UX designer jealous of his friend’s riches—and absconded to the coast. Her friends have followed a straighter line—seemingly normal relationships, the hopes of having children, high paying jobs—but Elsa’s inner turmoil seems to draw out their own inadequacies, their own substance abuse issues, their own chafing at the bit of getting older. As the group boards the boat of Tom—a middle aged millionaire who acts as a crystal ball for their own sad, rancorous futures—and heads for Catalina, the booze flows and the tenuous bonds of their lives unravel in tandem.
Elsa starts at the bottom. She’s stumbling through life after an ill-advised affair and her subsequent firing from a dream job, throwing down Vicodin and Xanax like their breath mints and washing them down with booze at all hours of the day. She’s an emotional wreck, but a manipulative one who uses her looks and intelligence to get by. Yet, with Elsa already playing tourist at rock bottom at the beginning of the book, Jacobs really has nowhere to take the character. She drinks and fucks and makes increasingly bad decisions while watching her friends do the same, revealing their true natures aren’t too far off from hers and that’s about all.
Jacobs is trying to make a few points in the book: the affects of life’s tiresome plod, the even shittier effects of the events that shape us, and how all of us, no matter how bright we shine, contain a darkness just waiting to claw its way out. But her characters are thin stereotypes—the predator-like rich guy, the frat-boy turned old and sour, the unhappy mom-to-be and the preening Los Angeles fitness buff—with only Elsa given more than a cursory glance into their motivations. Instead the characters quickly shrug off any defining descriptions and each one—sans Tom, who’s a prick from the get-go, the book’s sole, weak stab at an antagonist—slowly become slight, ill-defined versions of Elsa herself, consumed by the murkiness inside.
The writing in the book screams “noir” with compact, terse language filled with Elsa’s cynical descriptions of her touristy surroundings. “Moms in floral cover-ups watch children with sand toys, digging away,” Jacobs writes of a crowd of tourists on Catalina, “while dads mingle at the tiki bar, watching the many flat-screen TVs.” It isn’t bad writing and it serves the purpose of highlighting the distance Elsa has placed—with drugs and general malaise—between herself and the real world. Like the characters in the book though, it never changes. It’s crackling and weighed down by Elsa’s bleak worldview for the full length of the book and at some point it all just bleeds together into a whirlpool of drugs and poor decision-making.
In the end, Catalina is all forward momentum without any destination. Jacob’s writing—propulsive to say the least—baits the reader with the idea that “something” is going to happen. That these broken souls, scarred by money and life, will go to Catalina and the very worst of their darkest urges will materialize in the violence and death “noir” is famous for providing. Instead, the book floats along on mean-spirited characters sinking lower into themselves with no real climax ever dragging them to the surface. Even Elsa, the horrendous foundation of this collection of awfulness never learns anything about herself other than, “this is who I am and this who’ll I continue to be.” It’s the grimness of noir, without any of the reckoning. Catalina is a frothy tease, a whole lot of bad behavior without anything to be said about any of it.