Drift by Jim Miller

Miller-Drift sample.inddJim Miller’s “Drift” is a collection of short vignettes about San Diego through the eyes of many different people. It is a sampling of different backgrounds and ideologies and how these flavor the way each individual sees the world. Every chapter switches point-of-view, which adds richness to the story. The impression that you walk away with after reading this book is that although everyone’s ideological structures differ, they are logical given each person’s backgrounds and experiences. A few examples of the POV vignettes include:

* A woman in Tijuana working as a prostitute to open a shop back in her hometown.

*One of Joe’s former students who drops out and stops taking his pills, who loses his housing and ends up screaming, “I can see the light around you!” at passerby.

* An office worker named Janey who listens to “Raging Robert” on the way home to her same-as-the-others peach-hued home (driving by a Ralphs — so on the way to Carmel Valley, perhaps?).

* A cultural critic writing about the four types of tourist and yearning to return to New York.

Its main characters (although one could argue that San Diego is the main character) are Joe, an adjunct English professor, and Theresa, one of his former students who he starts dating after the semester ends. Joe’s knowledge of San Diego’s history creates contrast to what he sees, which is what every tourist knows just by looking. Joe is a flaneur, he likes to drift around the streets, observing his surroundings and thinking about places in historical perspective. In one memorable scene he passes the majestic California Building and thinks:

“The California Building announced an illusion of a romantic Spanish past that had never existed. It was a concrete manifestation of the desire for history without blood.”

One of the succeeding chapters explains that the Panama Exhibition, during which the California Building was built, was one of the most blatantly racist and empiricist celebrations in California history. White people in San Diego put on a play with Native American and Spanish costumes to reenact Anglo mythology about romanticized mission life. Talk about blatant appropriation! But that was the culture at the time… there’s also an incendiary quote from the San Diego Union-Tribune of 1915 which I’ll leave it to you to discover…

A major theme of “Drift” is how people (read: business moguls and their politicians) tend to rewrite San Diego’s history – or, rather, make it seem as though it doesn’t have one. Thinking of San Diego brings to mind images of beaches, amusement parks, SeaWorld, all the touristy “fun” aspects, not the murder of hundreds of Native Americans or the lynchings of Wobblies (International Workers of the World) that happened in the 1910s and 20s.

Many prominent thought currents in San Diego are addressed: labor movements, race relations, the need for mental health support, environmental vs. business interests, spirituality, and, beyond all else, death.

I lived in San Diego for three years before I moved away to college. My family still lives there. I had always felt there was some strange aura around San Diego. It has a brightly-colored tourist-town coating surrounding an empty core, a bitter untold story.
Miller’s “Drift” gives history to explain that missing or bitter note. He writes about how the Spanish-style buildings created for the Panama Exposition put on a show of an idealized mission life that never existed. In the history books, the Missions were shown as outposts of benevolent aid and disseminators of Christianity to the Native Americans in the area, but in reality the Spanish and the Native Americans shared a bloody history with violence often breaking out on either side.

Although the text portrays the world with a liberal slant, it never gets preachy or feels like it’s telling the reader what to think. Using details and perspective-work it focuses its primary effort on showing the reader how things are and refrains from making judgments about how they should be or how they should be fixed. The actions of every person or group are shown as organically growing out of their goals and history. The only ones left out of “Drift” are the CEOs, the people who choose to import cheap labor from Mexico or outsource overseas. Perhaps it was too difficult to get into their heads.

Chaucer has said, “Prosperity blinds”. There are a few scenes where we see this played out, like when Joe is at a labor rally with his friend Mike. While the janitors are striking and chanting “Si, se puede!” a man in a suit walks by, muttering, “Fucking speak English.”

In addition to showing how people routinely and obliquely step on one another in San Diego, “Drift” addresses how San Diego has both a taboo against and an obsession with the reality of aging and death. Anyone who lives in San Diego could tell you how much the billboards, newsletters, and posters are filled with ads for liposuction, plastic surgery, yoga, meditation, and health supplements.

San Diego’s tendency to obsess over living as long as possible has a history going back to when it was a center for theosophy and spiritualism. However, you can’t escape death by opposing it. The harder you fight against something, the more the fight against that thing defines you, the more the thing you are trying to escape becomes a part of you. By dedicating all your efforts to living longer, you spend less time focusing on what you might do with that time, which leads to a sort of hollowing out, preserving the body as an empty shell.

One of my favorite quotes from the lovely/horrible Guerrilla Phallus scene (a really silly reaction-to-feminism art exhibition) is, “Whatever. It’s a great word. It embodies our epoch.” Something about the drunken collision of philosophy and slang is sardonically hilarious. The word “whatever” has that sense of ennui and disconnection, yet non-exclusionary attitude that is emblematic of our generation.

“Drift” isn’t all darkness and despair, though. It puts forth hope that multiculturalism and cities that bring diverse populations together will help with countering ignorance and oppression. While he’s walking around downtown, he thinks, “the bright lights and the hype brought out the crowd and Joe refused to give up on the crowd.” Another professor Joe meets at a party says, while watching Latino and Asian people in the park, “The Anglos had imagined a privatopia of ‘freedom from,’ a paradise of isolated individualism. These new immigrants believed in community; they brought it with them.”

I’m not sure if that’s because of the culture or because one needs community when moving to a new country, but it does bring up an issue with the Western culture dogma that individualism and independence are required to live a happy life. There is not only independence and dependence; there is also interdependence. Interdependence is valued in countries like Japan that hold the view that “two heads are better than one”, that people are stronger when they act together, that everyone has weaknesses and needs help occasionally, and helping one another in times of weakness or lack helps to form strong relationships and a strong society.

That said, independence can foster strength and self-confidence. Theresa, whom Joe begins dating after the end of his class, is a single mother working at a Spanish book store. After she separated from her first husband, she had to rely on her sister to help take care of her daughter while she’s at work. She’s neither completely independent or dependent, but in that balanced state of interdependence. Moreover, she’s very intelligent; most of the ideas that stuck with me after reading the book are parts of  her dialogue. Her comments about how the radio is a “nightmare machine” and the deep worry that comes with having children rang true for me and gave me some insight into my own mother’s psyche. I wish she had more space to talk in the novel — the scenes of Joe and Theresa together are told from Joe’s point-of-view, so her internal voice is limited to a few POV chapters.

I would recommend “Drift” for people that are interested in how other people think. Usually you have to read a lot of books to get a variety of perspectives, but Jim Miller manages to combine them more or less harmoniously into the story of one place. This novel may get a little boring for people who aren’t used to reading history, nonfiction, or general fiction, but it did a great job of making me think about the stories you don’t see in schoolbooks.

Rating: ☆☆☆☆✮

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