When the day of reckoning comes, when bombs rain from the sky and hellfires rage across the land, Carolyn See will be ready. The walls of Topanga Canyon will protect her, and champagne will nourish her, and remembered stories will sustain her.
"As they said in that other war," she declares, lifting her small frame into a posture of conviction, "the situation is desperate, but not serious." People -- "a race of hardy laughers, mystics, crazies," as she describes them in her new novel, "Golden Days" -- will be curious enough about the future to go on living, to create a new world, "the New Jerusalem."
This is definitely the long view: Armageddon as a chance to turn over a new leaf. Not even Caspar Weinberger, who figures emblematically in the book, has had the imagination to put this spin on the story. But the secretary of defense is not as audacious as the diminutive lady from California -- a hardy laugher, a mystic, a crazy, to be sure -- who wants people to shake off their fear of the next war and start considering what life will be like when it's over.
"The way people have come to think about it is, 'I'll be at ground zero. It won't matter, therefore I don't have to think about it,' " she explains, patient as a prophet in this city of cold eyes and hard noses.
" 'I don't have to think about it' -- that's a failure of the imagination. The people who survive will be the ones who like their life enough that they want to see what's going to happen next. Despite the best efforts of these guys, the whole world is not going to be at ground zero."
John Milton had the right idea. "The world shall burn," he wrote in "Paradise Lost," "and from her ashes spring/ New heaven and earth, wherein the just shall dwell,/ And after all their tribulations long/ See golden days, fruitful of golden deeds,/ With joy and love triumphing, and fair truth."
That was easy for him to say, of course. But Carolyn See has been thinking about nuclear war, and reading about it, for a long time. She wants to declare, before anyone gets the idea that she's woolly-headed, that "this book is based on thousands of facts," and she reels off a list of the books she's read whose facts and plausible theories have been cycled into her own.
"Golden Days" was published recently by McGraw-Hill to critical encomiums: "the most life-affirming novel I've ever read," wrote Carol Sternhell in The New York Times; "her vision has a crazy majesty ... a stinging exactness," wrote Ursula K. LeGuin in The Washington Post.
The novel is about such a determined lady as herself, hunkered down with her loved ones in that very canyon sheltered between the plague-ridden waste of Los Angeles and the deep blue sea, a family learning to live again after the next war. They have chosen to live, a choice See believes many will have the chance to make, and are propelled through the long, dark night by what you might call simple curiosity.
The night will be long and dark indeed, and See does not shrink from describing its agony. "When a person's skin burned away, it grew back as cracked brown hide," for instance. Looting, and shooting, and sickness unto death; unearthly silence among the scattered survivors as they scavenge for food and water, suspicious and sullen amid the devastation.
Given all that, it isn't easy to paint a magical picture of the world after the war, but that's what See is about here. The survivors find joy in what they have left: in one another, in the stories they remember and tell again, in the return of green things and the appearance of birds and snails, in the sight of a solitary sailboat on a blue ocean, in the spectacle of a beach transformed by the awful heat into "smooth jagged sheets of glittering colored glass that took the sun like rock candy, like lights in a jukebox."
This vision is not, for See, pure fantasy or pure denial. "I feel that we're on an evolutionary cusp," she says. "We're history, as we speak, but something else is coming. There is a larger plan, obviously. I cannot believe that Caspar Weinberger is in charge. I think he is an instrument in a larger plan. I don't believe that life on the planet will die."
bat10 See utters these marginally hopeful words over breakfast in the deserted bar of the Sheraton-Carlton Hotel. As it happens, outside, trudging down 16th Street toward Lafayette Park, the last platoons of the Great Peace March are winding up their cross-country trek.
She says the peace march "griped" her when it began. She thought some more about it (even thought about writing a book on the march) and decided the marchers' arduous journey of 3,700 blistering miles was "an experiment in post-World War III existence. That's what's going on out there. They're learning to live together out in the wilderness."
Do they know that's what they're doing?
"I don't think they know anything," she says, letting loose one of her bursts of mischief.
Are they wasting their time?
"No, no, no, no, no ..." She frowns and thinks hard about this.
"I don't think they're wasting their time because they're using their lives. They're 'showing off to God,' as Leo Braudy says in 'The Frenzy of Renown.' They're making the existential choice that given these terrible weapons, the only thing to do is fight against them. But they make the mistake of thinking the militarists have the same set of moral genes as they do. They keep offering moral arguments against people who are ruled by numbers."
But still she's curious, and not a little sympathetic. She rises from the table and trots out to the sidewalk to stand in the cold and clap as the marchers go by.
A fellow in an army jacket festooned with buttons comes by and wordlessly holds out a shiny pendant bearing the symbol of the march. See asks how much. He shows the price with splayed fingers. She takes the pendant and puts it around her neck. The silent fellow proffers a Great Peace March T-shirt. She takes that, too, for her daughter.
When the transaction is complete, the fellow speaks. "Thank you," he says. "Peace." And moves on.
Back to her plate of fruit and the business at hand, See tells where she gets off preaching optimism about nuclear war.
"I'm a 52-year-old housewife. I have a PhD in English. I have no credentials except what I've read. But I don't want Caspar Weinberger to be right. I don't want him to win. I'm sick and tired of these guys ..." -- her throat catches, and her voice trembles -- "... scaring people."
But she has transcended her righteous anger. Her approach to the coming war is an apocalyptic version of the advice given to apprehensive Victorian brides on their wedding night, to "close your eyes and think of England." For See, the thing to keep in mind is the "larger plan."
This sounds for all the world like submission to fate or, as See's narrator, Edith Langley, describes it, "the relieved sense that it was going to happen; and we wouldn't have to spend any more time worrying about whether it was going to happen."
There is, of course, freedom in such belief, the thrill Langley evinces as she stands on the beach, her skin cracked and leathery, her head nearly hairless, facing a group of fellow survivors and exclaiming: "Some say it was the end, but I know it was the Beginning! Some will call this the Dark Ages, but I know this will be the Age of Light."
See was raised a Catholic, and there is certainly a devotion about her. The question is what kind of believer she is.
"There is a heaven of some variety, and the trick is to make it appear on earth, okay? Either we're in heaven or we're not, and you can't beg for it. You either have it or you don't."
"I have faith in miracles, faith in the divine. We're always putting miracles in the past. To me that's very interesting. Christ could walk on water, all right? But you talk about that stuff now [as she does in her book: faith healing and levitation and such] and you're an idiot. But we had better believe in miracles, we had better believe in the divine, or we're up the creek."
"I think this is a great Catholic book. It's always irritated me that God said, if He did, 'Okay, I promise I'll never destroy the world again ... with water.' " She can't keep the laughter down. " 'But I'm not ruling out fire.' "
"I'm very irritated at the church and that mindless patriarchy, okay? But in order to have a mindless patriarchy you've got to have a lot of mindless fools who will listen to those people. At any moment, you could pull the string on the pope and say, 'He's just a bald-headed guy in a long white skirt! He's just a big silly!' "
And back again to the poor old secretary of defense:
"It's like I say: You wouldn't go to bed with a guy named Caspar, why do you give him the power of life and death over your entire universe? There's something wrong not just with the leaders but with the people who buy into them."
Carolyn See is a writer of many parts. Before "Golden Days," which has been a best seller in Southern California, she published three novels under her own name:
" "The Rest Is Done With Mirrors" (1970): "It sold 300 copies. It will be reissued in paperback next year, thank God."
" "Mothers, Daughters" (1977), about her second divorce: "I should have waited another year ... I was still awfully mad at Tom, so I wrote it as a sorrowful woman's book. It's pretty silly, although there's some good writing in it."
" "Rhine Maidens" (1980): "It's about a wimpy daughter and a destructive mother. I like it very much but I don't think I'm interested in writing women's novels any more."
She also published two under the nom de plume Monica Highland, "Lotus Land" (1983) and "110 Shanghai Road" (1986) -- collaborations with her 31-year-old daughter Lisa See, western correspondent of Publishers Weekly, and her 73-year-old common-law husband John Espey, a distinguished Ezra Pound scholar who supervised See's PhD thesis at UCLA more than 20 years ago.
For her thesis on the Hollywood novel, See had to read 500 of them. That labor caromed her into an accidental career as an expert witness in obscenity trials, which generated not only handy income but her only nonfiction book, "Blue Money," about the American pornography industry.
"Mr. Espey went down to defend Henry Miller," she recalls, "but they couldn't find anyone to defend something called 'Lust by Friends and Neighbors,' this harmless little book. So some desperate lawyer called me up and said, 'Can you defend this?' I'd read a million books like it. I knew it had redeeming social value because I'd written a dissertation on it." She erupts with another of her laughs. "I was so good they started paying me $ 250 a day."
She also observes: "It's the only book I've ever written, up until now, that guys have ever read. They don't read this other stuff, but they say, 'Oh, yeah, Carolyn See: 'Blue Money.' "
For pocket change, See teaches composition at UCLA ("It's really about how to earn a living as a writer") and writes a regular book review column for the Los Angeles Times. Earlier this year, she did a stint in the Hers column of The New York Times.
Her books, like her mind, are very much of the West. "Los Angeles doesn't make raincoats and soup, it makes things like movies and bombs, which are good and bad dreams. It's the perfect place to write from," she says.
Carolyn See is asked if she feels like a prophet. She doesn't hesitate, and she doesn't laugh.
Then she's asked if she's felt that way before.
"No," she says, but this she finds quite funny, and her mind races to what is, for her, a pertinent memory: Her father abandoned her and her mother when See was 11, in August 1945, the same week the bomb fell on Hiroshima. "Personal and universal disaster were forever one," she says.sk,1
Then the answer continues. "I have this birthmark." She acts as though it is obvious -- it covers the right side of her face -- but in fact it is not. She keeps it hidden under a layer of powder, and many of her friends don't know it is there.
"When I was little, they gave me a whole lot of X-rays; they thought that would get rid of the birthmark. But all it did was raise my radiation level a really horrifying amount. I don't even like to think about it because -- "
She stops, looks confused for the merest second, then beams. "See! There it is, 'I don't even like to think about it.' There it is!"