It’s consistent with the farcical whimsy of Myron Brinig’s The Flutter of an Eyelid that the novel, published in 1933 and almost immediately forgotten, would be rescued from obscurity by a Kickstarter campaign. Early last year, Tough Poets Press attracted sufficient crowdfunding support to reprint the book, which critic David Fine once called a non-Hollywood Hollywood novel, taking place as it does in a hedonistic beach commune complete with yacht outings, “perverse ceremonies,” and golden pagan youths. The novel’s open portrayal of gay desire and gender fluidity is notable for a frankness unusual in its time.
The Minnesota-born Brinig was part of an early wave of writers who came to California, although he landed in San Francisco rather than Los Angeles. The Flutter of an Eyelid preceded Southern California classics such as Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, both of which appeared in 1939. While those books are defined by an unsentimental Depression-era grit, Brinig’s novel carries over the pleasure-seeking of the 1920s and predicts the joys of reinvention that would come to characterize 20th-century Los Angeles.
In part, the novel is a shady roman à clef, as Brinig skewers characters based on figures—including the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson—from Hollywood history. But more essentially, it relates the thoroughly bizarre saga of an uptight New England writer named Caslon Roanoke, who has come to California to “write a novel different from any he had written before, peopled by characters who were motes in the sun, driven this way and that by vagrant breezes from the Pacific, without the austerity and discipline that had marked his books up to this time.”
The Flutter of an Eyelid is both his story and his creation.
As Caslon composes the novel, he discovers that his prose has begun to control the people he is writing into the narrative; he is literally inventing the experiences they go on to live. The line between observer and creator blurs to indistinction. Much of the plot concerns the captivating yet treacherous Mrs. Forgate, “an enormously rich lady who is supposed to have murdered several of her husbands”; her young secretary/lover, Antonio, “a charming Italian lad that Mrs. Forgate discovered in a garage downtown”; and his friend, the doomed poet Hubert Daché.
Caslon’s impetus for writing the novel is to follow the object of his lust, Sylvia Prowse, whose eyelid flutters bewitchingly. She, of course, is completely uninterested in him. His impression of Southern California is of “a huge, cement motion-picture factory surrounded by tabernacles given over to the practice of strange cults and womanish religions,” and his novel attempts to capture these spiritual missteps while he worships at the altar of Sylvia’s nude swimming. Any prophecies and divinations may simply be the result of Caslon’s scene-construction skills.
The novelist encounters Sister Angela Flower, the acerbic Sister Aimee stand-in, at a garden party where all the major players in the novel first appear. The evangelist, he is told, “was constantly in the biggest, blackest headlines.… It was said that she had healed hundreds of the sick and maimed, simply by placing her hand upon them.” As Caslon seeks to explore “the mystic, the elusive, the profound, the inaccessible,” he joins the garden-party crew of “comical characters embalmed in the curious, fantastic fluids of their own personalities” aboard the boat of Chinese tea merchant Yang Kuo-chung.
There, Sister Angela’s attention is absorbed by a seaman she claims is Jesus Christ himself. In fact, his name is Milton, but as Sister Angela begins his makeover, he unquestioningly assumes the mantle of a proper savior. Jesus’s return is said to forecast an economic upturn, and even East Coast writers are intrigued. After this initial wave of interest wanes, Sister Angela comes up with a plan that causes dozens of people to drown in a stampede. The tragedy only hints at the even more dramatic scenes to come.
Is The Flutter of an Eyelid simply Caslon’s fantasy of the Southern California he expected to discover when he came out from the East? Throughout, he turns a skeptical eye toward all the characters in this pointed satire marked by abusive relationships, a fatal poisoning, sadomasochistic pleasures, and unrequited love. At the same time, there is much glee in following the play of Caslon’s mind as it opens before the parade of “ferocious men and women in the loud sunshine.”
Either way, this hallucinatory narrative of a solitary man dreaming about the dangers and delights of social proximity seems, 88 years after it was published, to have been returned to us at exactly the right time.