Is there a God and a rational, moral order in the universe--or
is the whole scene one big cosmic crap shoot? Is death an end?
A beginning? Or is Bob Dylan correct when he sings that "people
don't live or die, people just float"?
Carolyn See, in her disturbing, but sometimes eerily tender Making
History, provides answers that you may not like as she creates
an absorbing, frightening world that extends from trendy Southern
California to the exotic, isolated fringes of the Pacific, "the
pretty blue plate with the thick gold rim."
Ms. See's wildly episodic story seems, at first, to drift chaotically
from viewpoint to viewpoint: an opening chapter narrated by Robin,
a zoned-out surfer, immediately precedes a second set in a gilded
corporate office related by an international venture capitalist
which, in turn, flows into others narrated by an angst-ridden
mother, a Simi Valley seer, a Hindu goddess--and the surfer again,
now dead, who discovers (Oh, Wow!) that the universe, like some
multi-galactic McDonald's, is structured around golden arches.
Reading this book is an unusual experience. Even while wholly
absorbed in a chapter, you find your mind drifting, wondering
who's going to show up next and what they will say or do.
But every plot twist, every line of dialogue, every seeming irrelevancy
eventually connects to the novel's philosophical core: "...there
are no such things as accidents." Instead, catastrophe is
integral to the world God designed, and the God who pushes the
buttons isn't benign (he's not even a He). And death? Merely being
alive, speaking, and feeling in another dimension that allows
the "dead" to observe, comment on--and even physically
enter ("Jerry's ribs rattled, his heart opened. Whitney jumped
right in.")--friends and loved ones left behind.
Making History is a hard novel to characterize--but try to imagine
Judith Guest's Ordinary People meeting The Tibetan Book of Living
and Dying with bits of Einstein and particle physics sprinkled
throughout. Oh. And a little Ralph Waldo Emerson, too. A hard-edged
dissection of an affluent and loving, but also dysfunctional family
whose tragedies provide the pulpit from which Ms. See preaches
her disturbing metaphysics.
On its surface, the story's not that complicated.
Jerry Bridges, financier and visionary (reminiscent of Tom Wolfe's
Sherman McCoy, but nicer), has a house right out of Architectural
Digest in tony Pacific Palisades, an ocean view, a garden "exploding
with bougainvillea", the requisite Beemer and car phone,
and a family including wife Wynn, who married Jerry (her second
husband) for the security he provides, two adorable kids, and
stepdaughter Whitney, a gorgeous, but star-crossed teen whom Jerry
treats with coolness to mask his fierce physical desire.
But his family is often an afterthought. Jerry's consuming obsession,
the driving force in his life, is to literally create a perfect
world--better even than God's creation--in the most primitive
reaches of New Guinea. In pitching his grandiose plans to a consortium
of Japanese and Australian high rollers backed by the World Bank,
Jerry is nearly evangelical in communicating his vision:
They would build an artificial community, a unit defined by economics
and (even ethical) values as much as nationalistic considerations....
A world--if everything went well--where workers were treated fairly,
tourist money poured in, and the diversified economy spun along
like a self-winding watch. Her miniature country would be a Hong
Kong, but without the congestion; a Singapore, but without the
fascism; a Catalina, but with meaningful work attached to it;
a Bali, but without the hard-eyed peddlers. A better world.
Chasing his dream and the money to realize it, Jerry spends a
year traveling to Tokyo, Australia, then the backwaters of Indonesia
and New Guinea, the latter vividly evoked by Ms. See.
...if they could just get past the horror stories of limbs getting
crunched off in six inches of ocean water, and the Rascals who
shot arrows at you as you walked down the street in Port Moresby,
and Russel's vipers that slept under your pillows, and crocs who
slid in kitchen doors and down bungalow halls and yawned with
and just beyond the coastal town.....
...blue-black Highlanders in the smoking jungles; fierce men who
painted themselves in dazzling yellow and blue, and wove old copies
of Look magazine into their headdresses...
A primitive, sometimes horrifying world (wait two hours after
eating before you read page 188). But it can't dull Jerry's zeal.
Pump in a few billion, some technology, eliminate all wickedness
and disorder, and voila! A perfect new country. Things happen
when one wishes them to happen, Jerry believes. Not so fast counters
Ms. See, for whom the problems of existence are more complex,
more unpredictable. So Jerry, one of life's innocents who has
never even seen a person die, is force fed a few lessons: that
human perfectibility is an illusion, that "suffering, seriousness,
sadness and sorrow, are part of the order and the norm",
and that life is only "a narrow road curved over a great
chasm." That the power of will and moral goodness are not
part of the equation.
Ms. See, whose eclectic theology includes the Eastern doctrine
wu-wei (struggle gets you nowhere; the harder you swim, the more
likely you are to sink), then proceeds, in the last third of the
book, to demolish Jerry's secure little world by inexorably, horribly
weaving family members and complete strangers into a grisly tapestry
of flames and shrieks and ruptured tissue presided over by the
Hindu goddess Kali, the Destroyer.
A sound of screaming joined with the sirens, an aria of sorrow
and terror; and men joined, in tenor voices, Oh God, Oh my God.
But the God they were thinking of wasn't present. This one was
a goddess with bright blue eyes and golden arms that arched across
the seven lanes of traffic. At first her eyes rolled back into
her head so that all you could see was that fathomless, endless
pale blue: I am Nothing! I am Chaos! There is Nothing behind my
eyes! And I myself am Nothing! So much for all your hopes and
dreams! Then her eyes clicked back into focus and she surveyed
In the above scene, the novel's denouement--and in the funeral
and its aftermath that follow--Ms. See's prose, mesmerizing throughout,
becomes electrifying. Every sentence crackling, every word charged.
Entire chapters that physically exhaust the reader.
Jerry is left spiritually ravaged--so desperate for some way to
replace what he has lost that he babbles to himself "I can
buy two Porsches and put them in a double garage. And those Porsches
will be our children. And they will never break down. And they
will never get hurt." His wife just goes to bed, staring
blank-eyed at television talk shows or falling asleep, unread
novels face down on her chest. All dreams dead, all happiness
Grim, gut-wrenching, provocative. Making History is all of these
and more--a novel of immense power, troubling and confusing. But
not altogether. There is another aspect of Ms. See's vision (developed
through Thea, an Australian clairvoyant who emigrates to California's
Simi Valley). But, overpowered by the novel's apocalyptic elements,
it doesn't come into clear focus until near the end--an almost
Emersonian view of human existence where, as in his Universal
Oversoul, every life is interconnected, like molecules running
through the wires of a single universal circuit. Robin, the surfer
who dies early on, says late in the story "I was part of
a crowd, a field of particles over the Pacific Coast Highway",
depicting a hereafter where "things go in arches and they
hum" and that all whose deaths followed his have become "part
of that buzz, the whole proton/neutron buzz."
Ms. See, in the end, holds out not hopelessness, but salvation.
Although she stains her landscape blood red, she mitigates the
horror of the seemingly senslessness, terrifying personal loss
endemic to human existence by going beyond what hard realism would
grant and suggesting that the nature of being transcends both
life and death, leaving none of us alone in the universe.
Praise for Making History
From Kirkus Reviews
Southern California is See's home ground, and the skewering of
its denizens' lifestyles her specialty (Golden Days, 1986), but,
here, she breaks away with a vengeance, moving confidently into
the world of international finance, pushing out to Japan and points
west, letting dead men talk, and staining her home ground blood-
red. The male voices are the first surprise, two very different
males, polar opposites: Robin, a young beach-bum for whom life
is having fun, and Jerry Bridges, a wealthy, middle-aged financier.
Jerry loves money and the Orient; he is every bit as robust, and
convincing, as Tom Wolfe's Sherman McCoy. We'll see him in action,
in Tokyo to launch an American-Japanese co-venture; later on,
prospecting along the Pacific Rim for a site for his ``twenty-first
century city-state.'' Back home, he is king in his plush Pacific
Palisades sanctuary, with the perfect (second) wife, Wynn, adorable
little Josh and Tina, and a gorgeous teenage stepdaughter in Whitney
(his coolness toward her masks a fierce physical desire). For
Wynn, too, their home is a sanctuary, for she has moved up (and
how!) from the ``dead, dank, rented bottom of the San Fernando
Valley''; and, besides, Jerry is a kind man, a good man, even
if forgetful of family occasions. Unfortunately, there are no
sanctuaries; life is brittle, even in Pacific Palisades, for Whitney
is injured in an auto accident and the driver (sweet, clowning
Robin) is killed. Whitney heals, plunges back into life, loses
her virginity on a Maui beach, only to die some months later,
along with little Josh and 13 others, in a fiery multi-vehicle
horror. Wynn has a breakdown, and Jerry (one of life's innocents,
who has never seen a person die) is no help at all. Observing
all this mayhem from his perch in an afterlife ruled by Buddha
and Kali, Robin sends out his own delicate vibrations. See is
wrestling with an old dilemma: How do you admit life's random
violence into your fictional world without wrecking it? She is
also (through a secondary, parallel story involving an English
clairvoyant) suggesting the connectedness of all human lives.
The result is flawed but fascinating: a novel that just radiates
energy and marks a major step forward for this author. -- Copyright
©1991, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This
text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this
This dazzling bestseller by the author of Golden Days bares the
schizophrenic soul of contemporary Los Angeles. Making History
was hailed by The New York Times Book Review as "defiantly
rude and hilariously sad. . . . The most life-affirming novel
I've ever read."