Rereading Kage Baker

Rereading Kage Baker’s Company Series: Mendoza in Hollywood, Chapters 4-7

Welcome back to the Kage Baker Company Series reread! In today’s installment, we’ll cover “chapters” 4 through 7, so from the end of what we covered in last week’s post up to the end of the San Pedro trip, ending on “I’d have wrung the bird’s neck after the first hour.” (Pages 54 to 97 in my Avon Eos edition.)

As always, you can find all previous posts in the reread on our index page. Also, beware spoilers: this reread will discuss plot details up to and including the very end of the series, so be careful if you haven’t read all the books yet.

And with that, we’re off! For your rereading enjoyment, today’s suggested soundtrack is Manuel de Falla’s El Amor Brujo, briefly mentioned in chapter 4 of this novel.

 

Summary

Nan, Kalugin and Eucharia visit the Cahuenga Pass HQ. Mendoza accompanies Oscar on his rounds and visits San Pedro with Einar and Juan Bautista. Imarte continues to collect pieces of the international plot.

 

Commentary

Chapter 4: The list of travelers in the opening paragraph of this chapter probably contains some fun Easter eggs, but I’m having trouble identifying them. Anyone have any guesses? (Unrelated detail: the two nearly identical Basque wool magnates on this list remind me of the Being John Malkovich-like scene in The Graveyard Game where Joseph and Lewis visit the Basque region and Lewis is amazed to discover that everyone there looks like Joseph’s identical twin.)

You can already see Mendoza getting more isolated and paranoid here, hiding among the trees whenever a stage coach makes a stop at the HQ because “mortals got on my nerves, these days.” She even has to go pace around among the oaks for a bit after Nan, Kalugin and Eucharia appear, and that’s before many more nightmares, a long period of idleness because all the plants are dead, and two truly anomalous events with the inadvertent trip to future L.A. and Edward’s appearance. It’s no wonder she’ll break down completely at the end of the novel.

Eucharia, Kalugin and Nan again reinforce the impression that this is a “slice of life” novel, showing what everyday life for immortal operatives is like when they’re not going through unimaginable emotional trauma and other suchlike distractions. There’s something reassuring about these scenes, I think, and I always enjoy revisiting them when I reread the series.

Eucharia is a bit of a cypher. Even though Porfirio obviously knows her very well, I don’t remember her being mentioned in any other published Company novel or story. There’s probably an unfinished story, somewhere in Kathleen Bartholomew’s treasure trove of unpublished Company material, that describes Eucharia’s history with Porfirio.

At this point, Kalugin was still a bit of a cypher too, of course, except for readers who caught “Facts Relating to the Arrest of Dr. Kalugin” in Asimov’s in 1997. This story, set in 1831 in Fort Ross, mentions Mendoza briefly (Kalugin uses some of the botanical data she collected during her time alone in the wilds of California) and even features another early appearance by Labienus. “The Wreck of the Gladstone”, a second Kalugin story, was published in 1998 in Asimov’s and also featured Nan and Victor, but this one is set later in the 19th century, after the events portrayed in Mendoza in Hollywood. (Both stories can be found in Black Stories, White Knights: The Company Dossiers.)

Kalugin is a Preserver specializing in marine salvage, which has to be one of the more nightmarish job assignments in Dr. Zeus, Inc.: he goes down with sinking ships (and their drowning crews) to track and protect valuable cargo for the Company. As he’s careful to point out, his experience isn’t all that different from other immortals, who know their mortal acquaintances will die too… but still, he’s the only one trapped in sinking ships while the mortals drown around him. (There’s some bitter irony here too, if you know what Kalugin’s fate later in the series will be…)

And Nan, of course, is the same Nancy who was best friends with “Mendy” during her training years in Terra Australis. Now an adult, she is poised, happily married, and professionally successful. She runs an art salon in Paris and has elegant calling cards, while poor, traumatized Mendoza sleeps on a cowhide bed in a lean-to in the middle of nowhere. The contrast between these two operatives, who started out from similar positions, couldn’t be more clear.

Taken together, I love the story of Nan and Kalugin, mainly because romantic love between immortals is so rare in the series. Aside from Nan and Kalugin, we only have a few unrequited crushes (Lewis and Mendoza, Victor and Nan), several lasting friendships and rivalries, and the often uncomfortable parent/child-like relationship between recruiter and recruitee. It’s actually interesting to imagine how different the Company series would be if romantic love between immortals hadn’t been so rare. In the balance, I think it might have muddied the waters a bit too much because there’s already so many threads to follow, and also because the ongoing Mendoza/Adonai story provides a beautiful (if dark) romantic plot arc.

Speaking of relationships, there’s a brief reference to Nan’s time as “third wife to one of the sultan’s corsairs” in this chapter. This might refer to Nan’s marriage with Suleyman (and Nefer and Sarai) mentioned in one of the later novels. I didn’t list this one in the previous paragraph because I think this may have been more of a cover story for an operation rather than a real romantic relationship, although I guess it could have turned into a combination of the two along the way. In either case, this marriage is a minor point in the series, but another one of those little Company side plots I would have loved to read more about.

The chapter ends on another one of Mendoza’s nightmares, this time a bizarre erotic death dream with a nautical theme, probably inspired by a combination of the plot of El Amor Brujo (part of which Eucharia sings, and Juan Bautista plays on the guitar, in this chapter) and Kalugin’s job description, with maybe some memories of Nicholas playing the Winter King in In the Garden of Iden thrown in for good measure.

Chapter 5: This chapter showcases the two vastly different approaches practiced by our anthropologists Oscar and Imarte. Thanks to Imarte’s customers, we get two more small pieces of the hidden plot, one at the start of this chapter and one at the very end. The first one comes in the form of “Mr. Kimberley”, one of Imarte’s johns who is a British engineer with the Albion Mining Syndicate. He’s in California because some con men persuaded the British that there’s gold to be found on Catalina. (For now, file this with last week’s items about the Bella Union’s Confederate sympathizers and the British playing both sides of the Civil War.) The second one, at the very end, is Mr. Cyrus Jackson, who apparently fought alongside the filibuster William Walker during his ill-fated adventures in Nicaragua. Cyrus, currently one of Asbury Harpending’s co-conspirators, is falling head over heels for “Miss Marthy” and will return to cause trouble for the operatives later on in the novel.

Between those two events, we get to see the second anthropologist, Oscar, in glorious action as he takes Mendoza along on one of his sales trips. After all, Porfirio won’t let Mendoza go out on her own until she becomes more proficient with her firearm, so she has to accompany other operatives on their rounds in order to avoid going completely off the rails with idleness. She’s well aware that her mental state is getting increasingly precarious: “Finance had never interested me, but I craved trivia just now, anything to tie me to the present place and time.”

Sadly, neither of the two very different customers Oscar visits will purchase his Criterion Patented Brassbound Pie Safe (yet!) but the two scenes do allow Kage Baker to show two very different inhabitants of the area: a working class housewife (Señora Berreyesa) and a certified California crackpot (“Princess” Sophia Sylvia Rodiamantikoff of Grumania-Starstein, who feels like she could be a distant predecessor of Mrs. Bryce in “Welcome to Olympus, Mr. Hearst”.) I don’t have much to add about these two customers, reread-wise, aside from pointing out again that Imarte’s two important plot points (the Albion Mining Syndicate and Cyrus Jackson) barely get two little paragraphs, whereas the scenes with Oscar’s two customers take up most of the chapter. Smoke and mirrors!

Interesting (YMMV) historical detail: as described in this chapter, white mulberry trees were in fact brought to the New World specifically for the cultivation of silkworms, although in reality this first happened over a century earlier and in Georgia, not California. (One of the abandoned mulberry plantations in Georgia would later become famous as the place where the cotton gin was invented.) Thesilkworm trade never quite took off in the U.S., but many people (including apparently Mrs. Berreyesa’s husband) fell for the hoax.

Chapter 6: This short, transitional chapter is more or less the equivalent of one of those movie shots where sheets are flying from the calendar or the clock’s hands are spinning dizzily. Time is passing, more Cahuenga Pass Film Festivals are held, and Mendoza is spinning out of control as quickly as those clock hands I just mentioned. Here’s Mendoza, talking about some of the funniest comedies made in the early years of Hollywood:

I didn’t enjoy the comedies, as a whole, because so much heartache went with them. That world didn’t even exist yet, that innocent place, and it was already lost. Those comedians weren’t yet in their mothers’ wombs, but their fates were already known. It was hard to watch pretty Mabel and not look for the icy vivacity of cocaine, hard to watch Fatty hide his face in comic shame, knowing the doom one rowdy party would bring on him. […] But the comedians were nearly as immortal as we were, and we gave them our applause.

Good times, good times.

Chapter 7: Mendoza decides it’s been too long since she’s seen the ocean and accompanies Oscar to the Company depot in San Pedro. Juan Bautista comes along with his “short broad plank, planed smooth and rounded off at the corners” to go surfing. Unfortunately for Porfirio, Juan Bautista doesn’t bring along his traumatized condor Erich von Stroheim, who screams his disapproval throughout the entire day. Adding insult to injury, Juan Bautista will bring home a second rescued bird, a brown pelican he nicknames Marie Dressler.

Kage Baker uses this chapter to insert a good amount of information about Phineas Banning into the story. Banning, who has been mentioned a few times so far in his stagecoach tycoon role, is a key figure in the history of California and would come to be known as the “Father of the Port of Los Angeles”. The nearby San Pedro landing had up to this point mainly been used for fishing and smuggling contraband, but Banning’s investments in the 1850s would gradually begin to turn the area into a real port, though (as Einar points out) it was still too shallow for ocean-going vessels at the time the operatives visit it.

Einar also points out Banning’s mansion, which was indeed under construction at this time. Unlike the Bella Union and contrary to what you might expect from a Los Angeles landmark, it has actually not been turned into a parking lot yet! More relevant to our story, Banning was also responsible for Union barracks to be constructed on his land, to counteract burgeoning pro-Confederacy sentiments in the area.

Finally, I want to highlight the irony of Mendoza giving advice to Juan Bautista about how to cope with mortality and saying she doesn’t get attached to what she studies. Sure, she doesn’t get attached to her plants, but in terms of coping with the death of beloved mortal creatures, this is a prime example of the blind leading the blind…

 

And that’s where we’ll leave it for this week. Quick programming note: because of Life Things, I’ll need to skip a week in the reread, so our next installment (which should cover the rest of Part 1 of the novel) will go up in two weeks, on September 6th. See you then!

Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. You can find him on Twitter, and his website is Far Beyond Reality.

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