When we use the word dark in literary character descriptions, the mind has been conditioned to associate it with the negative or morally corrupt. If to be good is light, then the inverse is evil, or at the very least, to occupy a state where there is no goodness. The author of Catalina, Liska Jacobs, has pointed out that her protagonist Elsa is simply making choices without the attachment of morality or even likeability, an important statement as it explicitly gives Elsa the freedom and responsibility of agency—a neutrality that creates a welcome feminist realism in fiction as opposed to the standard poles of good and bad characters. Jacobs has also noted that Elsa is a character more in the vein of Joan Didion’s Maria Wyeth in Play It As It Lays, which is acute: both are detached observers of their own lives, even in the midst of living them.
Catalina finds Elsa—newly let go from her job as an assistant to Eric, a high-powered figure in the New York art world—back home in California, using her severance money to live recklessly in the Miramar hotel. To live like this is to simply be devoid of what everyone else might see as normal structure: To Elsa herself, each day and night blur into each other, a perfectly structured amalgamation of pills stolen from her mother, occasional coke, and room service alcohol, punctuated by random sexual encounters with strangers she meets outside of it. If this is dark, her light was life in NYC, a job whose lines blurred due to her affair with her boss, no less emotionally chaotic. But in her flashbacks, light hardly equates with happiness to the reader, and even Elsa must realise with each attempt at a text or checking her emails for a message that never comes that there is no way back.
There is no convenient way to ascribe morality or lack of to any of these actions: Elsa’s choices might feel random but are specifically driven by what each moment calls for—a pointed reminder that while we feel that life must follow certain patterns to fit, the reality is that our needs are too changeable to ever be easily categorised, much less happily static; that the outer self sometimes inhabits a different life to the inner one and the cohesion of the two can result in existential collapse. It isn’t a struggle of good vs. bad as much as it is trying to maintain emotional equilibrium, and trying to stem constant desires that leak from every part of the soul; the inevitable fallout of relationships with no closure, or ones that exist based on constructs and superficialities.
A trip to Catalina with old friends on a boat owned by the sleazily matter-of-fact Tom, predator of the emotionally desperate, disintegrates: the party’s flaws and failures—brought out by limitless alcohol—stand out in ugly contrast to the perpetually idyllic California weather. The natural comparisons here are to Bret Easton Ellis’ nihilistic hedonism in Less Than Zero and The Informers, but it’s too easy—and perhaps lazy. Ellis’ characters, for all their empty inner dialogue, are closer in literary kin to Tennyson’s lotos-eaters in a dream-state, detached from real life or the want to go back to it. Elsa’s inner dialogue —and the external dialogue of the other women—reflect all too accurately the constant observation of the non-communication of the sexes, as well as self-awareness of their place within that conversation. As dismal as the latter may be, it is steeped—almost drowning—in reality. Jacobs’ prose is such that it is less narration and more an instant transference into Elsa’s thoughts, complete with the self-doubt, pain, and bursts of pleasure, whether it comes in terse, determined sentences, or longer, more rambling ones of longing. That seamless transition from page to mind is the ultimate success of good writing—the momentary confusion of untangling if Elsa is actually you, rather than the too-often standard realisation of place, that of reader to book.
As unlikely as it seems, Elsa is a survivor. Not one of a single catastrophe, even if her dismissal/breakup is the catalyst for the story—each thought, pill, drink, and fuck is a step that leads to another, even if she doesn’t know where to. It hardly matters, and that’s the realism of Catalina.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you do or where you go, just so as long as you put one foot in front of the other. Every action is one of survival, because there’s always something that requires surviving.
“The worst kind of want is to survive, and we all have that” says Tom to Elsa one evening, a line that is repellent, reverberant, and a prophesy that she acts on, knowing the future will always have the cling of desperation, but aware that very thing is what motivates her decisions. Coming back around to the idea of likeability, are Elsa and Catalina? It’s a question that may seem irrelevant, subjective. But the recent chaos over Kristen Roupenian’s ‘Cat Person’ short story tells us that it is, at least from a moralistic standpoint, if not literary. Woman as a flawed creature requiring guidance (regardless of moral or immoral) is too tempting—the new Eve of the social media age. Note the National Review response article to ‘Cat Person’ by Kyle Smith, a lecture to a non-existent woman. Of course, it is meant to be a sermon to all (real) women of agency, unheeding of the wisdom of men and God, done in their best interests. The undeniable takeaway is that Cat Person Girl is lost—unless she reshapes herself in the image of male suitability—and we, flesh and blood, are as well, destined to wander that barren landscape of female self-guidance.
This should make Elsa beyond repulsion—Elsa, more experienced and worldly-wise than Cat Person Girl. And perhaps she is, to the Kyle Smiths of this world, unable to comprehend equal agency without the attribution of mythic shame. If I see my 20s self in Roupenian’s character, then I still see Elsa in my now early 40s self. I see mistakes and longing, hunger and hope—even if that hope doesn’t come with happy endings or even definite ones, simply the option of being able to continue by my own compass, for better or worse. Elsa may be with men, make some of her mistakes because of them. But her choices are not made by their diktats, in the interest of her own good, ‘her’ being equally applicable to anyone identifying as a woman. The individuality of agency renders unlikeability likeable in that I, at least, cheer on every hangover and sexual encounter with the knowledge that Elsa does it because she wants to. Female likeability is such in the new era of #MeToo that we need to first applaud that freedom of choice (failure) before we can then get down to the more complex issues of the ramifications of it—something we have done, but maybe only now are doing so more openly, and in so, having that connective discourse which makes some women feel less alone in those choices. If that seems backwards, it is because it is necessarily born from the years of repression of male constructs and privilege. We must be allowed to fail and regret, and yes, change our minds about those things.
One can only hope, as I do, that as more characters like Didion’s Maria Wyeth, Jean Rhys’, Irenosen Okojie’s, and Jacobs’ Elsa are published, that we move from that detached observation of our own lives to fully seizing without fear, agency, failure, happiness, and the unknown—guiding ourselves through knowing that the best paths to our lives are the ones we walk with our own compasses. Is that success? If it is in Catalina, why can’t it be in life?
Liska Jacobs holds an MFA from the University of California, Riverside. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and The Hairpin, among other publications. Catalina is her first novel.
Tomoé Hill is a senior editor at Minor Literature[s]. @CuriosoTheGreat
Catalina is published by MCD x FSG Originals. Author bio courtesy of the same.