Futuristic “We” in “Dead in Long Beach, California”

In classical Greek tragedies, choirs comment on scenes in unison and provide insight to the audience. The distinctly futuristic and non-human choir, represented by Venita Blackburn’s Dead in Long Beach, California works in a similar way. When I imagine this voice as a reader, I think of scenes in movies where a robot begins to malfunction and its malfunction splinters its voice into several dissonant octaves.

Blackburn's Chorus opens the novel with a peculiar declaration, the kind of voice-over that might introduce a film: “We are responsible for telling this story, especially because Coral can't. She's just found her brother dead in his apartment.” Given the protagonist's grief and the insight of the Chorus, not Coral, I immediately feel this responsibility as a burden—who am I, in the position of the collective voice, to tell someone's story, to announce someone's grief? Yet as the Chorus continues to narrate the sequence of events, showing us, practically step by step, how the protagonist tries to process the aftermath of her brother's suicide, I am lulled into an unusual mode of observation in which emotional response plays no role.

As the book progresses, the Chorus' observations become much more scientific, lacking sentimentality and purely observational. They seek to understand not only Coral but human nature more broadly. For example, when Coral hides the truth about her brother's death from one of his romantic partners, the Chorus comments with detached curiosity: “We don't understand self-inflicted suffering so much as we study the concept. We begin, as good researchers always begin, with compelling points of inquiry: Why have humans caused so much unnecessary suffering?” Blackburn's Chorus sees itself as a group of researchers, and Coral is the final subject in the human experiment.

For me it is a necessary—Coral is a frustrating and confusing character who is probably not a reliable narrator. We see her lie to her brother's daughter, lie to friends and family members. We watch her rejoice when she narrowly avoids being discovered. We see her vacillate between panic attacks and an eerie calm. Had this story been told from a different perspective, it would have been almost impossible for me to root for Coral or find her sympathetic. I imagine reading Coral's inner thoughts as she sends text messages from her dead brother's phone; I'm sure her thoughts in these moments would make me angry at her. But Blackburn's analytical refrain instead trains me to study her – my moral compass is silent, turned off. She becomes an object under the microscope that I examine, and when grief is added to the sample, I simply make notes about how the new addition changes her chemistry.

The narrative distance of the chorus narrows my emotional space as a reader, but also finds another way to surprise and scare. The chorus doesn't abide by the same rules of time and space, but instead moves seamlessly between past, present, and future, sometimes causing different moments to collide or overlap. At one point, I think to myself, “I've seen this before.” And I have. Black MirrorSeason 1, Episode 3, “Your whole story“—almost everyone has an implant that allows them to scroll through their memories and replay them to themselves or others. Throughout the episode, the characters are plagued by an obsession with the past that feels endless as it intrudes on the present. In one scene, the main character and his wife have sex, but they only achieve orgasm by replaying past sexual encounters on their memory implants; the overlap of past and present prevents any real human connection.

Something like Black MirrorThe scrolling of memories occurs whenever Coral's mental and emotional states break down. In moments of panic, or even when Coral's psyche is so shattered that she is haunted by the ghosts of deceased loved ones, Blackburn's “system” of time also falters. Trying to cope with the rapid shifts in time, the chorus begins to sound distorted and out of tune. As the book builds to the final confrontation between Coral and Khadija, her deceased brother's daughter from whom she has hidden the truth about his death, the line between memories and the present almost completely disappears. With the book's time system overwhelmed, we feel overwhelmed by the expansiveness. Our responsibility to tell the story is not lifted until the final pages of Dead in Long Beach, California– when technology falls away, when there is a silent knowledge that the two women are going back and forth between them, when Coral finally shares her grief with another human being. When Coral begins to build a new community to help her bear the burden of her story, the chorus falls silent. Finally, the novel's time system straightens out again.•

Join Blackburn on July 25 at 5 p.m. Pacific Time as he sits down with CBC anchor John Freeman and a special guest to discuss Dead in Long Beach, California. Register for the Zoom call Here.

Taylor Byas is a critic, poet and author of I clicked the paragraphs three timeswhich won the 2023 Maya Angelou Book Award and was named the Honor Book for Best Poetry of 2024 by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Her second collection of poems, Resting bitch facewill be published in 2025.