It took seven years living in Los Angeles to realize it was not the city that Adam, whose dearest friend “believed him to be mad,” had admired as a young boy in Lebanon. Much as it gave him a feeling of normalcy and of belonging, the city also pushed the “crazy handsome” Angeleno to “the brink.” It is difficult to miss the truth of the Kurd’s pronouncement following Adam’s death, “America killed [Adam].” Adam Derderian, the protagonist of Aris Janigian’s newly-released novel, This Angelic Land (West of West Books 2012), is a victim of the senseless violence that overtook the city of Los Angeles following the acquittal, in 1992, of the white offi- cers who had savagely beaten a black construction worker named Rodney King during a traffic stop. Janigian tells his story against the backdrop of what came to be known as the Rodney King Riots.
The novel follows Adam who, with his family, while still a boy, flees the Civil War in Lebanon to start a new life in America. Adam settles in Los Angeles, the “cool and agile” city that provides exiles like him a chance to reinvent themselves. “Anything was possible in LA,” writes Janigian. It is through his engagements with Sacha (a curator from Iran), the Wizard (a Jewish professor who takes Adam under his wing), the Kurd (a landscape artist and “buddy” to Adam) and other exiles who had fled a bloody past in search of a new home, that we get to know Adam’s sweetness and generosity. Adam never holds a grudge. His selflessness is evident in his support of his immigrant parents whom he cares for while his older brother Eric settles in New York in pursuit of his own dreams.
Adam’s kindness, however, his youth and his beauty, are no match for the subtle, and the not so subtle, destructive forces surrounding him. The special bond he has with a strong-willed and spirited grandma — the only survivor of the death march — and “the shelter of a family” prove inadequate against the disdain and the darkness of a burning city. “And yes, there was a dark irony in the fact that [Adam was] now reliving the horrors [he] had crossed half the world to escape,” writes Janigian. The city where he comes to survive abruptly ends Adam’s life.
This Angelic Land explores a dangerous topic unflinchingly. Janigian recreates the King Riots, an episode he says he “personally went through and never got over.” “It’s a massive event but we have no literature about it,” he adds, incredulous. Perhaps race is too hot a topic to handle and the central issue of the riots is race. Nonetheless, Janigian “tells it the way it happened here,” giving us an almost mythic recreation of the brutal beatings and of the lootings and the fires that consumed the city following the “not guilty” verdict. He
writes about white boys and black boys and that in-between world that his Lebanese- Armenian protagonist has to traverse. Adam, who could easily be taken for a white boy, but who was not a white boy, is the perfect metaphor for the American experience, says Janigian. “The experience of becoming American is the central American experience,” he adds.
The book, however, goes well beyond the LA riots. Through Adam’s story Janigian explores the human condition of exile and of survival. Enduring the pain of endless dislocation appears to be the only reality in a world ravaged by wars and by violence, a bloody present the inevitable next step to a bloody past. In the novel, the burning of LA alternates with the burning pasts of the Lebanese Civil War and of the Armenian Genocide — Janigian’s Armenian heritage being an essential part of his identity.
One closes the book wondering if Adam’s death indicates an end, or if it is perhaps the beginning of a more fulfilling life for the survivors. Indeed, following Adam’s death, there is a sense of the senselessness of “the willful destruction of the city,” and the promise that LA will be rebuilt “in unison.” A new brotherhood forms between Adam’s brother Eric and the Kurd, erasing a bloody historical trail. Yet, the book ends on a deliberately ambiguous note. It is “impossible to say,” writes Janigian, if the light that the “horizontal band of sunlight” provides in the painting the Kurd finally completes and offers to Eric “and Adam,” is “com- ing or going….whether it was breaking on the horizon, or draining away from beneath a door.”
Janigian has a passion for ideas. His characters are always conversing, pondering the significance of various philosophical and psychological ideas. They are, nonetheless, specific people in specific settings, engaged in dialogues that are true to their inner truths as well as to their contexts. Additionally, Janigian has the uncanny ability to observe, with insight into the nature of things. His description of old people in retirement homes, “slumped in wheelchairs like banana peels, some Filipino girls smiling ‘open wide’ and shoving the microwave lasagna into their mouths,” conveys a truth that goes beyond the truth of matter-of-fact accuracy.
This Angelic Land follows Bloodvine (2003 ) and Riverbig (2009), two novels set in the Central Valley of California. Reading these earlier novels had given me the excitement of novelty, the rural scene and the drama of the immigrants’ attempts to take root in a new land— which Janigian recreates so truthfully — being alien to me. The rootlessness of the city, however, “a nowhere place where nowhere people congregated before moving onto another nowhere place….taking root everywhere but nowhere deep,” is a scene I experience on a daily basis. The urban setting of This Angelic Land, with Janigian’s penetrating comments on the vices of Hollywood and the media that extinguish the human imagination — which Janigian exposes through his recreation of the television broadcasts of the riots — gives me the thrill of recognition.
Fiction is not about ideas, but there are “a lot of little mirrors in This Angelic Land, my most ambitious book by far,” says Janigian. Janigian cares deeply and he reaches us deeply. Buried deep inside his fictional world is the plea to bring America back to America.
(Arpi Sarafian is on the faculty of the California State University, Los Angeles. This Angelic Land was issued in 2012 to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 LA Riots.)