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Author's PC has a zoom lens

Marisa Silver brings a filmmaker's perspective to her first novel, 'No Direction Home.'

June 06, 2005|David L. Ulin | Special to The Times

Marisa Silver's home near Lake Hollywood has the feel of a sanctuary. Out back, the hills heave like an elemental landscape, tangled with thickets of growth, brown and dusty green. Beyond the front door, a basketball hoop awaits the author's sons, ages 7 and 11, while inside a pair of Labrador retrievers vie for attention, tussling across the floor.

For all that, though, the house is calm, the decor spare and full of space. A dining area occupies one side of an expansive living room; on the other side, a couch fronts a large coffee table, all sharp angles and uncluttered clarity. The same language might be used to describe Silver, who, wearing jeans and a blouse, blond hair cut above the shoulders, talks with hushed urgency about her first novel, "No Direction Home."

"It was a huge challenge," she says. "It was great, but it was frustrating in the beginning because I didn't know what I was doing, and I was feeling: How do I do this? How do I write a book?"

That, of course, evokes the floating quality of writing almost perfectly, the way, each time out, an author must develop not just a story but a way to tell it, reinventing his or her own process, as it were. It's a solitary exercise, interior and self-directed, which is both its difficulty and its appeal. "I like very much the intense individuality and aloneness of writing," Silver declares succinctly. "I love being by myself. And I love being quiet."

This sense of silence, of stillness, defines Silver's fiction, which traces, for the most part, the transmigrations of the heart. Her debut effort, the 2001 short-story collection "Babe in Paradise," examines the delicate tensions of love and family, the inevitable disappointments of not getting what you want. Similar issues motivate "No Direction Home" (publishing next week), which brings together characters from different backgrounds, establishing a commonality in their loss.

There is Amador, an illegal immigrant who fled Mexico to escape his guilt over the death of his infant son. Vincent, a failed and aging actor, who hires Amador to care for his wife, Eleanor, as she slips into dementia. At the heart of the novel are three children: Vincent's 10-year-old twin grandsons, Will and Ethan, who suffer from progressive eye disease, and Marlene, a teenager who gravitates to the family's small North Hollywood house as she searches for the father she's never known.

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A literary collage

It's a lot for one narrative to encompass, but Silver mitigates -- while also mirroring -- her characters' dislocation by shifting point-of-view among them, creating a novel that reads like a collage. Lest this seem like a short-story writer's way of taking on the long form, the reality is more complex, Silver suggests.

"I didn't approach it as short stories," she says. "That's just how my brain works. I don't have ideas that go linearly from A to Z." Before sitting down to write, in fact, she spent "a good six to nine months reading," to try to teach herself how a novel worked. "Short stories," she explains, "are so much about compression. You start in the middle, and you end before they end. So I wasn't trying to weave together a bunch of stories. I had these thematic notions and the multiple plot lines reflected back on them. It's sort of like a fugue."

If "No Direction Home" is a fugue, it's a fugue on a particular motif. Like the stories in "Babe in Paradise," Silver's novel is steeped in a ground-level vision of Los Angeles, the at times jarring disconnect between what the city promises and what it is. "Something is different about this place," Will observes upon arriving from Missouri. "The clue to the difference, he decides, is the color of the trees and the bushes, which is a weather-beaten version of the deep, trusting greens of the forest behind his old house."

Such a dichotomy, Silver believes, has everything to do with how the city gets inside us, with its sensibility. "L.A.," she says, "is ripe with things that have been abandoned. There's a loneliness out here. I grew up in New York City, so I feel a separateness; you don't have to be among people unless you choose to be." At the same time, Los Angeles lingers as a vivid dreamscape, a place of mythic potency.

"People bring a lot of hope when they come to L.A.," Silver says, "and it's sometimes realized and sometimes not. That leads to an interesting situation, for people to invest in a choice and have it work out differently from how they imagined. How do they adjust?"

Certainly, this is true of Amador, who shares a trailer with several men and sends money home to Mexico, or Vincent, a washed-up actor in a city full of washed-up actors, teaching improv to pay his bills. In a very real sense, both men are archetypes, but for Silver, that's part of the draw.

"I'm not scared of archetypes," she says. "The challenge for me is to always root it in a person's absolute specificity."

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