Thrill Rides

On Wednesday morning, I drove up to Magic Mountain to get the first shot of the vaccine.

Six Flags Magic Mountain is a gigantic amusement park thirty-five miles north of downtown Los Angeles, near the intersection of the 5, the freeway which runs from the border with Mexico to the border with Canada, and the 126, a two-lane highway towards Ventura, where the death toll is astronomical, due to the absence of a centre divider to avoid head-on collisions, or guard rails to prevent lethal spinouts on the curves. Magic Mountain is known for its roller coasters, providing a selection of different ways to experience falling, flying, floating – losing one’s sense of orientation and balance. I myself don’t take roller coasters, or any other gravity-defying rides, having had a particularly mind-bending experience on a rickety apparatus at Battersea Fun Fair in the late summer of 1967. They had to stop the machine mid-ride to let me off, my screams registering a different level of terror. I was twelve. A group of people gathered to watch me dismount, shaking and sobbing; that was enough for me.

The variety and extent of the massive ‘thrill rides’ at Magic Mountain are visible from the 5, itself a monumental concrete surface, five or six lanes running in each direction, with on and off ramps expanding and contracting, at a scale that dissolves any human measure. To the west, driving north, the enormous curves and sudden drops of the steel structures at Magic Mountain appear, as if by magic, emerging out of the scrubby unpopulated hills, and in the past, if you opened your window, you could sometimes hear the cries of participants as the death drop let them fall. The rides are silent now: you cannot socially distance and scream at the same time – tears may be transmissions and any desperate clutching at a companion is potentially lethal. So-called amusement parks are places to play with death; on the roller coasters, we are held tightly, safe as houses, while our bodies sense only danger, free fall, the abyss. These are forbidden pleasures, now.

In Les Jeux et Les Hommes, Roger Caillois outlines the ways that human beings have fun, defining play as ‘an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, ingenuity, skill, and often of money.’ Caillois proposes a classification of all play within four categories: competition (agôn), chance (alea), simulation (mimicry), or vertigo (ilinx). A combination of competition and chance structures most games. Mimicry designates games where ‘the subject makes believe or makes others believe that he is someone other than himself’. This complicated category includes ‘any distraction, mask, or travesty’, as well as our deep propensity, despite everything, to identify with footballers or actors or characters in a book. Finally, ilinx (from the Greek, whirlpool) designates games ‘based on the pursuit of vertigo and which consist of an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind’. He describes children who whirl in circles until they are too dizzy to stand up, as well as the spasmodic thrills of amusement parks, where mechanical ‘contraptions’ cause people to ‘shriek with fright, gasp for breath, and have the terrifying impression of visceral fear.’ I like to think of the whirlpool in relation to the digital world, where the formal consistency of the ubiquitous rectangle situates us in a field of apparently infinite spatial and temporal possibility. We require the rectangle, as our algorithmic identities form and dissolve; it holds us in its frame. But viral is no longer a metaphor; the pandemic isn’t digital, and neither is Magic Mountain. It’s all too mechanical: we can view the colossal apparatuses of panic from a great distance, wildly out of perspective, like a dream landscape promising desperate pleasures to miniature people. These rides are record-breaking, historic, with names like Viper and Apocalypse and Drop of Doom. Closer, the wide open spaces of the parking lots appear, built to accommodate thousands upon thousands of pleasure-seekers. I wouldn’t have chosen Magic Mountain as my destination, but the digital interface for people like me (over 65 years old) was so overloaded, continually crashing and contradictory, that eventually I gave up looking for a vaccination in the city. I was thrilled when I finally booked a slot at the periphery of the county, driving out to Magic Mountain was not too far to go.

I arrived ten minutes before my appointment, about three quarters of an hour after I’d left my house. I’d run out of gas on the drive up; I reckoned I had about 30 miles left in the tank, as empty does not really mean empty any more. I joined the queue of cars entering the amusement park, fighting for my place in line as the lanes narrowed from three, to two, to one. And then we stopped. We sat in our cars in the winter sunshine, in a long line that stretched out of sight. I was listening to a podcast about a pop record called Beyond Disco, put out in 1985 by two Pakistani-British siblings living in Birmingham. The lead singer, Nermin Niazi, was 14 years old, still in school; she wrote the songs with her brother and sang them in Urdu. According to the podcast, she is now an officer in the Metropolitan Police, living in Epsom.

Massive looping structures, ghostly roller coasters recalling the curved lines and verticals of Tatlin’s Tower, loomed over us. I had been to a number of drive-through COVID-19 testing sites in Los Angeles, and I’d never spent more than 40 minutes creeping forward, back and forth, along the zig-zag maze made of bright orange traffic cones, towards the open tent, temporary site of shade and natural ventilation. Here, the immense parking lot was packed to capacity, crisscrossed with hundreds of cars moving slowly and then stopping for ten minutes at a time. I listened to my podcast. I checked again that I had my driver’s license (to prove I am a resident of Los Angeles, as well as my age) and the confirmation email on my phone. I didn’t need to show my health insurance cards, as the vaccine is free. Sitting in the driver’s seat, staring at the light on the distant mountains, I gradually lost any sense of scale, time and space expanding and contracting in my solitude. Quarantine – or quar, a little nickname for texting – has produced a strange sense of time, as the months go by, yet isolation within the confines of my car is familiar, part of everyday life in Los Angeles.

There’s an elusive sense of community that occasionally emerges among cars moving together on the freeway. I remember driving home alone late one night when I first moved from London to Los Angeles, over thirty years ago. I was driving fast and felt a sense of distant companionship with the other solitary drivers in the darkness, a strange solidarity, echoing the camaraderie I remembered feeling when sitting on the top deck of the last bus at the end of an evening out. That imaginary connection has eroded. In the lines of cars at Magic Mountain, almost everyone kept their car windows rolled up, as if fearful of the virus blowing in, and drivers were annoyed if someone didn’t move forward instantly when some space opened before them. One car at a time, punching its way forward, in contrast to my memory of the seemingly choreographed flow of cars on the empty freeway at night. Here, my Subaru was a giant mask, a little safe house, an isolation chamber on wheels. The deserted parking lots of Magic Mountain, the Forum (an arena where I saw Prince perform), Dodger Stadium, have been reclaimed as public space, only to be transformed into health care centres, crammed with cars instead of bodies. I remembered Ballard’s Crash, and Cronenberg’s movie, the erotics of speed and collision. Like Burroughs, Ballard studied medicine.

Stopping, starting, I recognized the irony: this was an inversion of the category of the thrill ride. There was no speed, no sensation of flying, or falling, or spinning out; only incremental forward motion interrupted by long periods of stasis. I was seriously worried that I would run out of gas, picturing the scene of my incapacitated car blocking the route of all the thousands of cars behind me, as the switchback lanes offered no possibility of an exit. This humiliation would be still worse than the moment when people at Battersea Fun Fair clustered around to watch, laughing, as I staggered off the turn-you-upside-down-and-spin-you-round-and-round machine. I was beginning to feel hungry, my body clock chiming in. In his discussion of amusement parks in Thrills and Regressions, Michael Balint suggests that the fizzy drinks and excessively sweet foodstuffs of the funfair – like cotton candy or candy floss – return us to a stage of development that could only be described as infantile. We regress to a condition where we have not yet learned, as babies must, to ignore our inner sensations, so that the pink melting strands of sugar, the swig of Coca-Cola (too cold, too sweet, too fizzy) take us back to that earlier time, when every feeding was an adventure – a roller coaster ride – the longed-for burp essential to the windy baby’s health and wellbeing.

The Magic Mountain is a novel by Thomas Mann, who lived in exile in Los Angeles for a decade; I read it when I was a teenager. Sitting in my car, I recalled very little about it, remembering only that it is set in a sanatorium for tuberculosis and there is a beautiful woman who is, perhaps, slowly dying. Last year I took up listening to audio-books while driving and quickly discovered what I liked best: long novels that I’ve already read in a former life – Little Dorrit, Can You Forgive Her?, Middlemarch. The Wings of the Dove was an exception: the sentences were too elaborate, too internal, and the emotional repercussions too subtle for my ears to take in properly, especially on the freeway. Too fast, too slow. This despite the fact that Henry James dictated his late books to a woman typewriter, as they were called, as he perambulated up and down, enunciating every word.

I kept checking the time and I therefore know precisely how long I sat in my car, anticipating the pain of the injection to come, distracted by the podcasts about 80s music, fearful of the imminent catastrophe of a car that wouldn’t move – a car that would shift from being a vehicle to an obstacle in an instant. I know how long it was: two hours and forty minutes. When I finally pulled up to tent number 11, I was elated; I thanked the two women, fully covered in PPE, for being there, and told them with a laugh that I had run out of gas before I arrived at the vaccination centre hours before. The woman who was typing on the laptop looked up and said, ‘Living on the edge!’ We all laughed. Sitting in my car, I pulled my t-shirt aside and the needle went in. At last! And then, anti-climax: I had to wait another 15 minutes, to make sure that I did not have an allergic reaction. I drove forward, joined a single file of stopped cars, turned off my ignition. Another friendly woman wrapped in PPE came to chat with me; she made a note of the time I would be allowed to leave and placed the orange paper under my windscreen wiper. I made a comment as I thanked her, about how we smile with our eyes now. She explained that if I felt I was having an allergic reaction, I should honk my horn loudly, and a nurse would run over – she pointed into the distance, across the expanse of empty concrete, towards nothing I could see. I briefly imagined a nurse running, trying to figure out which car was honking. Then I asked if I could leave my car unattended; it was almost four hours since I’d downed a cup of tea and left my house, and I was considering using the portable toilets at the edge of the lot, despite the obvious risks. She said, no, that’s not possible, because what if you had your allergic reaction inside one of those? Momentarily I pictured myself collapsing in the darkness, no horn to honk.

Eventually my fifteen minutes were up and she came over to give me permission to go. As I drove to the gas station by the freeway, I felt grateful, a little triumphant, and angry, for all the people who can’t wait half the day in a car for a vaccine. Here, in Los Angeles, I am in a privileged minority; I am much less likely to get sick and I am more likely to get vaccinated, for many different reasons, a set of structural inequalities that can be mapped by neighbourhood and ethnicity. Unlike most people in this city, I live alone. I isolate in my car, in my house. I do not live in a multi-generational household, I do not do a high-risk job, I am not a health-care worker or a nail salon stylist or a grocery store clerk or a hospital cleaner or a warehouse worker or a delivery driver or an undocumented casual labourer – the list goes on. I have internet service and a laptop; I have a smart phone and a car; I can pay for gas. I have the time and the flexibility to return repeatedly, despite my frustration, day after day, to the almost incomprehensible websites purporting to offer appointments for vaccination to every Angeleno over the age of 65. In my solitude, I can keep trying, at different times of day; I can jump through hoops and hang on tight, while disappointment and elation propel me forward. Three weeks from now, when it’s time to get the second shot, I can drive up there again.

I’m intending to re-read The Magic Mountain, some time, a book about withdrawing from the world, but not now. Here in Los Angeles, hundreds of people are dying every day, although the doctors know so much more than they did in March and April last year, when hundreds of people were dying every day in New York. We thought there would be treatments by now, we imagined the chaotic scenes of overwhelmed emergency rooms wouldn’t be repeated. Instead we have a slew of vaccines, each with a different refrigerator, and proliferating variants that may make my hard-won vaccination irrelevant. Fauci calls the variants mutants; I hear him on the radio as I’m driving – ‘we need to neutralize the mutants!’ – and I think, has he never seen a science fiction movie? In the novel, the mountain is magic because people who are incurably ill get better, they can breathe. Here the magic is in the sudden drop, the voluptuous embrace of a collective near-death experience, all together, screaming as we fall. But we are not in this together; on the contrary, poor people are dying and rich people are not. In the vertiginous whirlpool of the pandemic, certain structures remain consistent, an invisible framework holding each of us in place.

Read on: Mike Davis’s seminal ‘political autopsy’ of Los Angeles.