When Truth is Better Than Fiction
By Pam Munter
For first-time novelist Nicole Meier, reading about the sale of dead writer Ray Bradbury’s house in Cheviot Hills on the west side of Los Angeles piqued her interest. When she saw the photograph of the large, yellow two-story house she knew there had to be wonderful stories still inside, waiting to be uncovered. She had been a Bradbury fan from her teens when she came across his seminal work, Fahrenheit 451. Though she grew up in Southern California, she no longer lives there, now making her home in central Oregon. A visit or tour was not possible. Her imagination took off and led to her writing The House of Bradbury, published in May 2016.
Meier’s protagonist is a woman, probably not unlike the author herself, trying to make a life as a single, 38-year-old writer in the suburbs. Mia is a frustrated, depressed writer because her first novel crashed and burned to the point her agent left her. “Her darkest fears about being a writer had come true.”
When Mia sees the Bradbury house is up for sale, she lobbies her ex-fiance, Carson, for a loan. A Hollywood producer/tycoon, he’s the type (“a douchebag”) often found in the Hollywood hierarchy these days, bulldozing while finessing his way to the top. She leaves him after a two-year live-in liaison due to his numerous affairs but now she needs him to help her buy the house. Thrilled when he agrees, she wonders about the quid pro quo.
“When the realtor first let her inside, Mia’s hair practically stood on end. She’d felt jittery and dizzy, like she was meeting a celebrity for the first time. She was sure Bradbury’s creative spirit had seeped into every nook and cranny of the split-level home.” She whets our appetite for more even while strewing a bouquet of clichés. And the references to Bradbury’s short stories are oblique and too abbreviated, insufficiently spelled out for the non-Bradbury reader.
The novel is filled with well-defined characters, all with explicated backstories. While it’s smooth reading, it almost seems as if the reader has access to the structure of her outline. We can see her threads, the de rigueur escalation of conflicts, the mysteries deepening. Unfortunately, there are only two genuine plot mysteries in the entire work, resolved very neatly at the end. ‘Bradbury’ reads like a Lifetime Movie of the Week, all glitz with little depth.
However, her encounters with Bradbury’s life are fun. At every turn, she imagines the kitchen cupboards he might have touched, and writes in his den. In spite of her hero-worship, though, she can’t bring herself to work in the basement, the place where he did his writing for 50 years. She makes reference to his short stories in her quest for inspiration.
We are invited on the tour of the dated house as she moves in. Her controlling sister and surrogate mother who are helping her hear a shriek from the bathroom. Mia squeals, “There are bookshelves in the shower!” The rest of the house is dirty and in disrepair but we want more of the tour, sharing Mia’s curiosity.
The most interesting part of the book lies not in its anonymous drawings left on her front door or the stranger she meets on her front porch. It’s that quid pro quo demanded by the ex, Carson. The lead in his latest film is a 23-year-old recovering addict just out of rehab (can you say Lindsey Lohan?) and he needs Mia to “babysit” her for the duration of the filming. The relationship between them develops and flourishes, in spite of the diva’s relapses and teenage outbursts. It’s the most genuine relationship in the book and provides the inspirational fuel for Mia to complete her own book, a work of science fiction clearly streamed from living in Bradbury’s house.
In fact, the real story of the Bradbury house is far more intriguing than its fictional one. Bradbury died in 2012 after a lengthy illness but the house was left intact until it came on the market in 2014 for $1.9 million. It’s bought by a Pritzker prize-winning architect who razes it, stirring controversy in both the literary community and in the media. The buyer, Thom Mayne, said the house was quite ordinary in an average neighborhood and had been unfamiliar with its previous ownership history. He later sold pieces of lumber from the home as bookends, presumably to wannabe writers or fans of Bradbury’s work. Authorized Bradbury biographer Sam Weller tweeted, “He lived a very long life and more than half of it was in that house. His energy was still there even after he died.”
That was the spirit that Meier occasionally was able to capture in her premiere novel but we wanted more. Combining fact with fiction creates a mandate for the writer to improve on the reality. Sadly, this is not the case here.
Pam Munter has authored several books and a couple dozen articles, mostly about dead movie stars. She’s a retired clinical psychologist and former performer. Pam is working on a deconstructed memoir and short stories based on old Hollywood. Her essays have appeared in Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, NoiseMedium, The Creative Truth, Adelaide and Angels Flight—Literary West. Her play, “Life Without,” opened the staged reading season at Script2Stage2Screen in Rancho Mirage, California and was a semi-finalist in the Ebell of Los Angeles Playwriting Competition. Pam will finish her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts this June at the University of California at Riverside/Palm Desert. Website: http://www.pammunter.com