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James M. Cain's 'Paradise'

January 01, 2012|By James M. Cain

Now take your opus out in the noonday sun, tack it down on a board, and look at it. You will find that something has happened to it. In that dreadful glare, all the color you smeared on so lavishly has disappeared; your trees do not look like trees at all, but are inconsequential things reaching not .000001% of the distance to the heaven they aspire to; your green lawns are hardly visible, and the water that sprinkles them is but a misty mockery of water; your gay structures, for all their artistic incongruity, fail to apprise God of the joke: all that is left is the gray, sun-baked tan that you started with. Well, that is Southern California. The main thing to remember is the sunlight, and the immense expanse of sky and earth that it illuminates: it sucks the color out of everything that it touches, takes the green out of leaves and the sap out of twigs, makes human beings seem small and of no importance. Here there is no oppressive heat, you understand. The climate is approximately as represented: temperate in Summer, with cool evenings when you often light a fire;almost as temperate in Winter, except for the occasional night that makes you long for the steam heat of the East. It is simply that the sunlight gives everything the unmoving quality of things seen in a desert. And of course this is greatly aggravated by the similarity of the seasons, in itself. Nothing changes. Summer follows Winter without a Spring, Winter follows Summer without a Fall. The citrus trees flower and bear all at the same time: you never get a riot of blossoms as you do in Western Maryland when the apple-trees are in bloom, or a catharsis of stinking, primitive accomplishment, as you do in Delaware when the tomatoes go to the cannery. Here the oil wells flow right along, so do the orange trees, so does everything. It is terrifying.

You may suppose that here an addict of dark days is voicing an aversion to sunlight, and that I exaggerate the effect which the sun has on things, particularly on the appearance of the countryside. I don't think so, and I adduce one curious scrap of evidence to bolster my position. About halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego is a small beach colony, called Balboa. It lies on a lagoon that makes in from the ocean, an inlet perhaps half a mile wide and two or three miles long. This must be fairly deep, as it is a deep, indigo blue. Now this patch of blue is the only thing for miles, nay for hundreds of miles„ that can compete with the sunlight, and nullify it, so that you see things as they really are. As a result, Balboa seems a riot of'color, although it is nothing but a collection of ordinary beach cottages when you get into it. You stop your car when you come to it, feast your eyes on it, as an Arab might feast his eyes on an oasis; think foolishly of paintings depicting Italy and other romantic places.

I think that this circumstance, the fact that one patch of blue water can make such a difference in the appearance of the landscape, shows what really ails the look of this part of the country; gives a clue, too, to why the inhabitants are so indifferent to the really appalling atrocities that they have committed. Balboa, although not pretentious, is built in some sort of harmony, for with its setting the residents had an incentive to build something to go with it; but elsewhere, it makes no difference what people do, the result is the same. If they erect a beautiful house, as many of them have, the sun robs it of all force and life; if they erect a monstrosity, it passes unnoticed, is merely one more thing along the road.

There is no reward for aesthetic virtue here, no punishment for aesthetic crime; nothing but a vast cosmic indifference, and that is the one thing the human imagination cannot stand. It withers, or else, frantic to make itself felt, goes off into feverish and idiotic excursions that have neither reason, rhyme, nor point, and that even fail in their one, purpose, which is to attract notice.

II

Now, in spite of the foregoing, when you come to consider the life that is encountered here, you have to admit that there is a great deal to be said for it.

First, I would list the unfailing friendliness and courtesy of the people. It is a friendliness somewhat different from what you find elsewhere, for it does not as a rule include hospitality. The man who will take all sorts of trouble to direct you to some place you are trying to find does not ordinarily invite you into his house; it is not that he has any reason for keeping you out, it is merely that it does not occur to him to do it.

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