Verdict: KARMAFORNIA is a merciless but loving look back at 1970s political and social culture; a deep and thoughtful look at human efforts to achieve real emotional freedom, and escape the bonds of karma that shape, but also imprison us.
KARMAFORNIA is the story of a love triangle, set in Berkeley in the late 1970s, with the beautiful graduate student Laura Reiner at its apex. The two men vying for her attentions are the loving, faithful, and attentive Walt and the mysterious, egotistical but introspective Cob. This being Berkeley in the 1970s, the characters spend a reasonable amount of time stoned, and during an acid vision early in the story, Laura and Walt remember past lives that do not bode well for their current relationship, past lives in which Cob also figures.
The story is an exploration of freedom and commitment, love and jealousy, openness and secrets. Walt, Cob and Laura are complex characters, each with their own appeal, each deeper than they might appear at first glance (particularly Walt). The writing is lyrical, almost poetic in places, and the author uses symbolism deftly to add color and depth. The book is not a pleasant one, particularly – none of the characters spend much time happy, and there are a number of seriously disturbing incidents (including suicides) – but it is a thought-provoking story, with a wry and darkly humorous view of human nature and relationships. Historical events, like the murder of Harvey Milk, are woven into the story seamlessly, giving substantial context for the book’s emotional tone. It is appropriate that the initial vision that sets the tone for the rest of the book takes place in ancient Greece, as the book itself is a Greek tragedy, in which the characters’ own fatal flaws – and the fatal flaws of their time, place and culture – trip them up in the end.
At times, the reader may be frustrated by apparently inexplicable emotional behavior on the part of the three protagonists – it seems as though every moment of happiness must be followed by everyone rethinking everything in order to maintain the proper level of stress and tension. The characters are prone to navel-gazing, and the story can feel a bit self-obsessed at times as a result. This is quite likely an intended effect rather than a flaw, as self-obsession is a major theme of the story.
KARMAFORNIA is a merciless but loving look back at 1970s political and social culture; a deep and thoughtful look at human efforts to achieve real emotional freedom, and escape the bonds of karma that shape, but also imprison us.
Reviewed by Catherine Langrehr for IndieReader.