[Northwestern University Press; 2023]
As climate change alters our landscapes and weather and as disregard for environmental safety manifests myriad hazards, we are rapidly learning that harm is not distributed equally. Yxta Maya Murray’s new novel, God Went Like That, is a study of this exact disparity. In this polyvocal portrait of how race, ethnicity, class, and gender stratify environmental threat, Murray, a Latina novelist and professor of law at Loyola Marymount University, peers into the wide gap between US legal protections and environmental justice.
An innovative, place-focused novel, God Went Like That is written in the form of an Environmental Protections Agency community involvement report—a collection of interviews designed to gauge the public impact of five decades of radioactivity that spread from the Santa Susana Field Lab. An experimental nuclear reactor nestled in the arid hillsides of Simi Valley, California, Santa Susana’s history is muddied by multiple major nuclear accidents, cover-ups and suppressed information, hollow government reassurances, and a complete lack of oversight. Like a slow Chernobyl, Santa Susana has been a wellspring of radioactivity for more than fifty years. It leaks toxins into Simi Valley’s groundwater and soil. It seeds tumors in lab workers’ and nearby residents’ lymph nodes and lungs.
So far, this is simply the true story of the Santa Susana Field Lab, context that Murray provides in the introduction to the novel. You can look at a map and see Santa Susana, decommissioned in 2006, sitting about twenty-five miles inland from Malibu. There it is, pinned between the San Andreas and Simi fault lines. There it is, with no traffic, a forty-minute drive to Universal Studios Hollywood. There it is, the point of origin for the 2018 Woolsey superfire, which sparked on Lab grounds and burned up decades of nuclear spillage before consuming 96,949 acres of land and 1,643 structures on its way down to the coast.
Before beginning the novel, I wondered how Murray would breathe life into a bureaucratic document. Since science so often flattens distinction and actual government reports typically render individual experiences as metrics, I wondered what room for storytelling there would be in Murray’s chosen form. Enter Reyna Rodriguez, EPA Community Involvement Coordinator and author of the report, who immediately establishes that, in order to produce this document, she has “deviated from the strict formulas dictated by the EPA’s community engagement script.” Reyna, now thirty-two, grew up in Simi Valley six minutes from Santa Susana. Her mother, who worked at the lab as a cleaner from the 1970s through the 1990s, died from lung cancer when Reyna was twenty-two. Reyna herself, who grew up playing with the hose in her apartment’s “astroturfed backyard,” pretending she lived in a forest “like the lush Shropshire glades that first inspired Charles Darwin to study the enigmas of nature . . .” lives in remission from a urinary-tract carcinoma that hospitalized her for many of her teenage years.
Although Reyna’s connection to Santa Susana and Simi Valley is shadowed by personal trauma, she begins her series of interviews with no particular angle. Trapped in what she calls “administrative fug,” she has to “relearn how to do something as basic as listening to the people I encountered, an attention they deserved even if their grief and fury compelled them to narrate horrors that veered far beyond my administrative or emotional capacities.” Reyna veers off script and is drawn into the role of archivist and caretaker of her interviewee’s stories. She preserves their speech, giving her speakers a platform to voice long-ignored grievances.
What I expected in the eleven interviews that follow Reyna’s introduction to the report were accounts of lab mismanagement and cover-up conspiracies, sagas of physical suffering and cancer treatments. Some of those details do slip through. But Reyna’s interviewees are not so fixated on exposing truths or seeking justice as one might expect.
In the first interview, Carlos Mejia, a former electronics technician at Santa Susana, begins not with memories of the Lab’s partial nuclear meltdown in 1959, but with his childhood on an alfalfa farm in Guanajuato, Mexico. Switching between Spanish and English, he shares the story of his violent father and brothers, his early love of poetry, botany, and ancient history, and his romantic affair, equally sweet and disturbing, with his own mother. As a young man, Carlos fought in the Korean War and witnessed Pacific Ocean atomic bomb tests before returning to civilian life and taking on a job at Santa Susana. It is there that Carlos fell in love with the director of the Lab, Dr. Walther Becker, a fictional German scientist who worked alongside Otto Hahn, the real father of nuclear fission, a scientific discovery that led directly to the invention of nuclear power and the atom bomb.
It would be easy for Murray to cast Walther as a villain. When the lab began to malfunction, he was the one who ordered the engineers to “bleed the gas,” releasing toxins into the fresh night air. But with Carlos at the helm of this narrative, blame becomes much more complex. Carlos wants us to know that, during the following partial nuclear meltdown, Walther threw himself into the radioactive mess in order to raise the security shield. Carlos wants us to know that, on his deathbed, after “the accident destroyed his blood and skin,” Walther confessed to him, “I wasn’t one of them, but I didn’t try to stop them.” A man who spent his whole life tied to destructive forces, it’s not clear whether Walther was speaking of the Nazis, of the scientists who created the atom bomb, or of the corporations who disregarded safety precautions at Santa Susana. In this account of complicity, Carlos could have blamed Walther for contributing to the catastrophe that exposed Carlos and so many others to radiation. Instead, he wants us to see Walther’s vulnerability, complication, and beauty. He wants us to see that he and Walther loved each other.
In another stand-out interview, Reyna speaks with Simon Graham, a young white man who served time in prison as a teenager after running over a homeless man in a stolen car. Already a father by the time he’s released from prison at eighteen, Simon’s path toward accepting responsibility and sharing the role of raising his daughter is long and painful. After fleeing the 2018 Woolsey fire with his daughter, he begins to worry about Santa Susana and the radionuclides released to the air during the fire. “The reason I get scared,” Simon says, “is I know how people can do evil and still think of themselves as good.” He rationalizes that he was eventually able to take responsibility for his actions because, as he says, “my daughter’s love made me a better person.” He wonders what the government may be evading because he knows that “the government doesn’t love people . . . It doesn’t have the same incentive that I do to own up to what it’s done.”
Reyna’s eleven interviews span the full history of Santa Susana’s environmental impacts, from 1959 to the present day. We hear from Elisa Oumarou, a woman who worked as a secretary in the Lab in the 1960s. Elisa declines to answer questions about her own cancer in favor of sharing a story about Dr. Benjamin Augustine, a scientist she fell in love with at the lab, who taught her how to take photographs. We hear from Greg Wiśniewski, a white man who regrets the pro-police stance he took in the 1992 Los Angeles riots, directly opposing a Black lab employee who he considered to be a good friend. We hear from Monica Ramírez, a Latina firefighter who idealizes and longs for her mentor, Brenda, a Black lesbian firefighter who extends her exposure to radiation during the Woolsey fire in order to prove her worth in a white male dominated field. We hear from Yaoxochitl Sudo, a resident of Simi Valley, who, after losing her husband to cancer in the 1980s, is driven nearly to madness petitioning the EPA for information about toxic waste. We hear from Barry Scott, a white man from a family of Kentucky coal miners, whose father develops cancer from long-term exposure to lead and mercury. Barry left Appalachia and became a scientist because, as he says, “I thought I could avenge my daddy and kill coal with my ideas.” But the bitter irony is that Barry’s belief in the future of nuclear power leads to his own exposure and eventual cancer diagnosis. Just like his father, he realizes, he was “just a boy being used by the powers-that-be.”
Modern day iterations of characters from short stories by Gogol, Melville, and Kafka, Reyna’s interviewees are caught up in bureaucratic nightmares, chewed up by technology corporations that utilize their labor and spit out the chaff of their sickened bodies. The interviewees do rant—they ramble, they monologue, they vent. But they also seem to know that justice is out of reach and those responsible—the EPA, the US government, NASA, Atomics International, Boeing, and other major companies—are too big to touch. Instead, they speak about their lives. They share stories of their loves and losses, their joys and pains, their hard-won moments in life of beauty, transcendence, and artistry.
By sharing their stories, the interviewees insist on their wholeness and humanity in the face of injury and dehumanization. They express what Santa Susana’s regulators and stakeholders lack: care for others. A powerful and capacious novel, God Went Like That does the important work of showing us what agency and care can look like in this era of failed environmental justice.
Christina Wood is a fiction writer with short stories appearing in The Paris Review, Granta, McSweeney’s, Virginia Quarterly Review, and other journals. She is a PhD candidate in English and Creative Writing at the University of Georgia, where she teaches creative writing and composition classes.
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