Rudolph Wurlitzer’s Quake (1972) parades the traumatized victims of a near-future earthquake through a lust-filled black comedy. Wurlitzer deftly re-purposes the language of erotica for distinctly un-pornographic ends: the aimlessness of life transmutes into a priapic shuffle towards nothing.
In the near future an earthquake destroys Los Angeles. A nameless transient (N), a recent transplant to the city’s “rituals and corruptions” (3), wakes to a scene of carnage. N stumbles from his cheap cabin, with a bed sheet tied around his waist, towards the hotel pool. Stretched out on the diving board, he observes hotel cabins collapse disgorging the sad dramas playing out within. A woman joins him on the diving board and attempts to converse. He refuses to give his name: “we’re overloaded as it is” (11).
As people cluster around the pool, some weeping and others bemoaning the collective inability to understand the human toll, N gets caught up in an uncomfortable but hilarious erotic adventure on the diving board… Soon he’s entangled with “three or four other bodies as they thrashed among the sheets and tried to climb onto the diving board” (17). When another aftershock causes the water to drain from the pool, he takes shelter in a cabin with a family reenacting their endless failures and shattered dreams and perverse desires.
Possessed by “a manic carnivorous force” N journeys into the wrecked streets (33). Increasingly unable to communicate, surreal event leads to surreal event. Militias spontaneously emerge with guns and vague ideas of sanctioned violence: “‘Is this a war or what?’ [the man] began to cry. ‘I thought this was an earthquake'” (41). The armed reenact scenes reminiscent of the Japanese treatment of American prisoners in the Philippines, marching herded victims from place to place to place… Humiliated. Huddled. N finds himself parroting justifications for the chaos (54). Falling victim to an inevitable gravity, N peers into a crevice caused by the quake. His companion asks him “what do you think is down there?” and N responds, “Nothing” (103). Retreating within, his own voice fades away and only grunts remain.
The seedy Americana of L.A. is the perfect backdrop for a violent lurch towards cataclysm. The land of dreams lays bare its maggot-ridden wounds camouflaged by “palm trees and orange juice bars” (10). N can only slip inward as the exterior world blurs, his limbs taking on a primal movement of their own. The elite and downtrodden play out their anguished impulses.
Wurlitzer uses small details to great effect. Noting the clothing of the gun toting militias–“blood-stained white yachting pants and pale blue alpaca sweaters (58)–he suggests the elite will not resist an excuse to play out fantasies of power. The landscape itself is populated by unconscious movements of those in shock–a belly “shook, as if his insides were out of control” (61), a woman taps “because there’s a nerve jumping around in her broken arm” (46), and N grasps for “stuffed elephant” when an aftershock roils a city block (43).
I find myself drawn to 70s visions that redeploy the language of the erotic as parables of collapse. As with Barry N. Malzberg, Wurlitzer fills the pages with surreal and uncomfortable humor. Quake reveals the inability of humanity to grasp the reality of mass cataclysm.
Recommended only for fans of surreal 70s visions of trauma. I suspect Quake will find fans with readers of Barry N. Malzberg and J. G. Ballard’s Crash (1973).
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