Before we know anything else about the lives of the characters in Venita Blackburn’s debut novel, Dead in Long Beach, California, we know Jay has just committed suicide and Coral, his older sister, is left to deal with the mess. Quite literally, she walks into Jay’s apartment to find his dead body laying in his bed. At first, Coral is confused more than horrified. She just spoke to Jay before she headed over to his place, and he never mentioned the possibility of suicide once in their entire conversation or any time before that. Confusion evolves into annoyance, and then the annoyance takes Coral to places she never expected to go.
After Jay’s body is taken away by the EMTs and police leave his apartment, Coral notices Jay’s unlocked phone going off. It’s his daughter and Coral’s niece, Khadija, texting him to reschedule the dinner they had planned to have with Coral that evening. Unable to process or even fully think about the death of her younger brother, Coral — a talented and minorly beloved science fiction graphic novelist who has a penchant for lying to strangers and an attraction to people who deal in betrayal — dissociates from this reality. She latches onto another one, one where Jay isn’t dead to anyone but her. She replies to Khadija’s text messages as Jay, hoping impersonating him will spare her from the responsibility of his death, and finds an unexpected comfort in doing so: “Coral’s heart accelerated for a different reason. This was not grief or fury or the shaking of a fist at the sky for all the injustice of all time. This was at worst a kind of crime and at worst an infraction of decency.” She passively decides to keep doing it, not because she feels like she should but because it’s the only option that makes sense to her in that moment.
Using the first person plural of the same gang of artificial intelligence archivists who serve as the narrators for Coral’s popular novel, Wildfire, Blackburn takes us through the next seven days of Coral’s life as she drowns deeper and deeper into the world she’s building for herself and for all of the people who have a connection to Jay. As we move alongside her with the help of our AI guides, we also get a glimpse into some of Coral’s earliest memories growing up in Compton with her father and largely absent mother. We’re taken along as she realizes she’s a lesbian and keeps her identity a secret for as long as she can. We witness Khadija’s youth and her own struggles with her distant mother. We see Coral’s clandestine dates (both good and bad) and fleeting pieces of young “love.” And we’re given some of the moments that made Coral and Jay’s bond what it was to begin with.
The novel doesn’t follow chronological narrative aside from the fact that Blackburn assures us time is moving forward through the chapter titles. Throughout the new revelations and the unveiling of information, Blackburn incorporates a variety of other elements — text messages excerpts, pieces of Wildfire, newspaper headlines and stories, and a couple of pieces of Wildfire fanfiction — to help expose the truly fractured nature of Coral’s existence after Jay’s death. The most interesting of these are the various asides about the nature of humanity and our lives on this planet that come from that chorus of consciousness inside Coral’s mind. The chorus is there to tell us Coral’s story and guide us through her thought processes, of course, and it serves a much more intimate purpose, too.
Coral’s reaction to her brother’s suicide could easily be read as a way for her to deny the fact of his death, for her to avoid a complete descent into the pain and heartache of grief, but the voices provide a much more nuanced understanding of how Coral’s (and maybe, our) grief works: “When something is lost so suddenly, irrevocably, and spectacularly, there is no clear order of events to follow, especially when considering grief.” There is no doubt Coral is grieving because everything she does in response to Jay’s death is shaped by that sorrow, even if that isn’t immediately obvious.
The week keeps moving forward, and Coral’s behavior becomes more and more erratically calculated as she attempts to ensure no one knows what happened to Jay except her. She keeps responding to Khadija’s texts and creating excuses for why Jay is never home when Khadija wants or needs to drop by; she flirts with and tries to evade the attention of the woman Jay is dating; she engages with coworkers and convinces them Jay is in the hospital temporarily; she goes even further by creating a social media presence for Jay he never had when alive.
Meanwhile, the voices remind us of what’s happening in the depths of Coral’s consciousness, “When we remember murder, we know there will be loss. Someone somewhere probably loves that person, but we are more concerned with the ripples throughout the world that come from the new space. When the living are no longer living, a hole opens up where they used to be. People stare or look away. That hole exists for as long as someone remembers what was there before.”
Through the chorus, Blackburn brings us back to something inherently true about anyone experiencing this kind of loss: Our grief may seem singular, it may seem like it belongs solely to us, but that’s not exactly true. Grief is part of a larger system that connects us all to one another, and what we do with it, how we handle it, and what becomes of us after is not always fully in our control.
Coral’s unraveling feels so unusual, because it is. At first, it’s hard to even tell she’s detached herself completely from the way the world is supposed to work and from the responsibilities she has to the other people she loves outside of her relationship to Jay. There is an underlying paranoia that accompanies her every move, but she’s organized in the way she approaches imitating Jay, and she doesn’t let the paranoia guide her decisions. But as time moves forward, Coral’s ability to juggle the act of pretending to be Jay and her own torment diminishes little by little. And although her grief never spins her completely out of control, she’s brought back to the futileness of her battles against herself over and over again. The chorus tells us,
If Coral understood the world, there would be a time to say goodbye to those that are loved and a time to meet new loved ones. If Coral understood the world, she would’ve been born in mourning, knowing that what was cherished had already been buried, realizing that the road to the past had been erased. Because Coral did not understand the world, she believed in choices, personal autonomy in all cases. She believed she was strong, an American, Black, a woman, cunning, a minor god in the cosmic order of things and that she could have what she wanted if she willed it so. Coral secretly knew better than this but of course she believed it anyway.
It’s a masterful feat of storytelling for Blackburn to constantly make the reader feel as if Coral is coming full circle, only to remind us she can’t. When it comes to grief and emptiness we feel in regards to the loss of someone we love, we’re never fully done feeling that loss. Coral can’t bring Jay back and, technically, she doesn’t try to for herself. What she tries to do is prevent other people from feeling the way she does about Jay’s death, and in doing so, she does something we might be inclined to think of as unforgivable.
And yet, Blackburn reminds us at every turn that while Coral’s behavior might be unusual, it’s certainly not undeserving of our efforts to understand and empathize. Surely, we have all loved and lost or will love and lose in similar ways Coral does and, as Blackburn points out in the novel, we’re not free from reacting in ways that seem unthinkable. Part of what makes us human and sets us apart from everything else on this planet is the depth to which we can feel that love and those losses. Both can feel so insurmountable that whatever we believed we were capable of can elude us entirely, and the things we never expected to be capable of can become our main modes of moving through the world.
Her internal war with the chorus of consciousness comes to one final conversation before Coral tries to reconnect herself to our reality, to the reality where she has to let everyone into the secret of Jay’s death: “So you’re saying everything is just a cycle of creation and destruction? No, you’re saying that. We are saying that destruction is the purest form of existence, the grand finale to all other elements for the Species. So to love is to eventually give way to death? Yes, we say. And to control love we must control death? Yes, we say. To let love be in untamed ferocity is to be subject to suffering? Yes, we say.”
In the end, Coral has to fully accept the truth of what’s happened to Jay, which means she has to also stop pretending to be him, which means she also has to admit she’s been imitating him to the people who will miss him and who deserve to grieve him in their own ways, just as Coral has been doing for the last week.
We’re left with a profound and surprising demonstration of how there’s no way to fully outrun or outmaneuver or out-strategize the pain of loss. Even when we truly believe we can, the despair and disrepair of the loss will bring us to our knees and turn us in on ourselves. And although the idea that we don’t move beyond grief, we only learn to live with it is common, Blackburn’s debut novel provides a new vision of just how true this is, making that truth feel brand new again.