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Dec 1, 2003
31 Min read time
Los Angeles easily defeats as many writers as it inspires—or defeats them as it inspires them. Take the instructive case of Arturo Bandini, the hero of John Fante’s proletarian novel Ask the Dust(1939), a Depression-era chronicle of a writer so down-and-out that he uses his suitcase strap as a belt for his one pair of pants. Knowing that he has to produce a novel in order to live, Bandini sits in his Bunker Hill hotel and clenches up:
Arturo Bandini in front of his typewriter two full days in succession . . . the longest siege of hard and fast determination in his life, and not one line done, only two words written over and over across the page, up and down, the same words: palm tree, palm tree, palm tree, a battle to the death between the palm tree and me, and the palm tree won: see it out there swaying in the blue air, creaking sweetly in the blue air.
Bandini may be the most hardworking and afflicted author who makes an appearance in Writing Los Angeles, but his struggle is the anthology’s leitmotif: how do you write about the Los Angeles dream without being seduced into thoughtlessness by that dream—without letting it write you? While millions have been transfixed by Los Angeles—by its light, its glitter, its promise of mobility, its mix of hype and relaxation—Writing Los Angeles is held together by the seductiveness of a city that seems infinitely complex yet unified in its singularity. Generations of writers, searching for the city’s principle of connection, have landed on epithets that range from the ambivalently ironic (James M. Cain’s “paradise,” Cedric Belfrage’s “promised land,” D. J. Waldie’s “holy land”) to the lyrically diagnostic (Aldous Huxley’s “city of dreadful joy,” Umberto Eco’s “city of robots,” Mike Davis’s “city of quartz,” Lynell George’s “city of specters”) to the inventively celebratory (Reyner Banham’s “autopia,” Jan Morris’s “know-how city”). Every writer, it seems, is goaded to one-up the evocative, almost garrulous poetry of the city’s full name, bestowed in 1781 by the governor of Spanish California: El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciúncula, the City of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels.
Freewheeling and expansive, Writing Los Angeles bears the subtitle “a literary anthology,” which suggests its own principle of connection. Editor David Ulin leans on the one hand toward writers with an established literary cachet, many of whom either parachuted into Los Angeles on some kind of reconnaissance assignment (Edmund Wilson, Simone de Beauvoir, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Umberto Eco) or were lured out by, and often became disillusioned with, the Hollywood studio system (William Faulkner, Nathanael West, Tennessee Williams). On the other hand, Ulin has a strong attraction to the homegrown tradition of L.A. debunkers, extending from the noir writer Raymond Chandler and the Popular Front journalist Carey McWilliams to contemporary authors such as Walter Mosley, Wanda Coleman, and Rubén Martínez, whose work is grounded in the lives of the city’s less celebrated residents. The back-and-forth between these two strands in the anthology produces some good tension: the reader swings between the mindset of the tourist and the mindset of the native informant, and the judgments elaborated by one group are often punctured by the other, so that by the end of the anthology one has been treated to a stimulating, often lancing debate—debunkers, celebrants, and mediators in a spirited century-long pile-on.1
As with all anthologies there are omissions and stackings of the deck. One might quibble with the selections near the end of the anthology, when Ulin had to cull ruthlessly from the current literary scene: why no T. C. Boyle, no Karen Tei Yamashita, no Octavia Butler, no Helena María Viramontes? As a way to narrow his field, Ulin leans toward the genres of memoir and realist fiction, scanting the more speculative and elliptical fictions about the city. In addition, the anthology does not aspire to represent fully how Los Angeles has been imagined in popular fiction—a task that would mean excerpting such disturbing works as The Turner Diaries (1978), a crypto-fascist and anti-Semitic novel which revolves around the ethnic cleansing of Los Angeles by Aryan Nation guerrilla warriors. (Timothy McVeigh read The Turner Diaries, not against its grain, as a how-to manual.) Inasmuch as Ulin’s authors have easily identifiable politics, they tend to stake out a broad set of positions between the liberal center and the left. Which is to say: they may challenge Los Angeles for its devotion to artifice, its relentless celebration of youth, its racially divisive politics, or its chokehold-given police, but they give its cosmopolitanism and secularism a free pass. If L.A.’s culture takes a beating in many of these writings, it is by implicit comparison with megalopolises like Paris and New York rather than, say, Topeka or Salt Lake City.
A productive way, then, to read the selections in Writing Los Angeles is as a series of intellectual sorties into some of the major cultural transformations of the last century. As L.A. has risen from the capital of the film industry to “the capital of the Third World,” in David Rieff’s suggestive phrase, generation after generation of intellectuals has seen in it the shape of the future and shadowboxed with it accordingly. Parsing Writing Los Angeles as its own sort of labyrinth, we might say that its contributors elaborate on four ways of looking at Los Angeles—as a “city in a garden,” a God-given but man-made Eden; as a city revved with the promise of mobility and sexual adventure; as a city built on fantasy and simulation; and as a city with a suppressed and noirish back story. The place of spirituality in an age enamored of abundance, the status of mobility in an opaquely stratified society, the role of fantasy in a commodity culture, the disjunction between official memory and the full historical record—these are the dilemmas that give the anthology its heft. And, one might add, they are the dilemmas that give L.A. its unique place in the American imagination, as a city that expresses—but also is in thrall to—20th-century ideas of freedom.
I. City of Glow
When Gilded Age author Charles Dudley Warner proposed that in Southern California “nature seems to work with a man, and not against him,” he condensed the early promise of the region, the way it seemed to repeal Victorian assumptions about the virtues of struggle in the development of character. Much of the region’s fate in the past century derives from this prophecy of a new rapport between the cultural and the elemental. Southern California would become the breadbasket and fruit basket of the nation, sustained by a year-round agricultural industry (and, as the boosters forgot to note, by poverty wages in the fields). It would become a magnet for elderly Anglos hoping to be “sun-kissed and made well,” in Louis Adamic’s words, and for generations of immigrants looking for a steady job and a place to settle. And it would become the birthplace of new forms of spiritual-aesthetic convergence, from the barbershop pop harmonies of the Beach Boys to the East-meets-West holism that found many disciples in the Hollywood Hills. All these sorts of “California dreaming” connected back to a very old dream: that the problem of scarcity could be solved, and that individuals could be free to devote themselves to self-fulfillment.
In this spirit, many of Ulin’s authors bear down on the singularity of Los Angeles’s light—a light which has been seen more generally as a supreme kind of blessing, abundance made manifest in the color of the air. Lawrence Wechsler, in his “L.A. Glows” (1995), surveys a broad spectrum of opinion—astronomers, artists, cinematographers, sports announcers—as if to solve the mystery of what, quite literally, is ineffable about living in the city. A Cal Tech scientist, noting the number of significant discoveries made by the telescopes at Southern California locales such as Mount Wilson, Mount Palomar and the Griffith Observatory, explains how the ocean-cooled air floats from the west over the coastal plain, only to be trapped under the warmer flow coming from the desert on the east—prompting a stasis in the atmosphere that allows astronomers to view the stars without distortion. Environmental engineers in L.A., meanwhile, have coined the term airlight to describe the effect on the naked eye of pollutant particles, which do not simply obstruct the light but also bounce it back with a kind of ferocity. (L.A. residents will recall that smoggy days are days of great glare too.) Putting together the intensity and opacity of L.A.’s light, the poet Paul Vangelisti observes, more metaphysically, that the city’s light “yields a simultaneous sense of distance and of flatness: things seem very sharp up close and far away, with nothing in between. And the uncanny result is that you lose yourself—somehow not outwardly but, rather, inwardly. Here the light draws you inward.”
The poet’s remark is borne out by L.A.’s long history as a seedbed for new forms of religious experience: the city was a cradle for Pentecostalism, Theosophy, and sun-baked fundamentalism before it became home to Hare Krishna and Zen. The beauty of the landscape has fostered the sorts of introspection that center on the lure of rebirth—how to awaken from self-deception and into enlightenment. More caustic observers have called this drive for personal revelation “narcissism” or “airheadedness,” but it’s interesting to note that some of the most severe critics of L.A. spirituality reversed themselves after soaking in the city’s atmosphere. The novelist Stewart Edward White, in his Rules of the Game (1910), lumped together gurus with self-promoting teeth-pullers as the great hucksters of Los Angeles, but later became an enthusiastic proponent of spiritualism. The British transplant Aldous Huxley, like H. L. Mencken and Edmund Wilson, satirized L.A.’s prewar faith healers for advertising, packaging, and selling salvation in the manner of a Hollywood studio. But between the barbed Jesting Pilate (1926) and the exploratory memoir The Doors of Perception (1954), Huxley became one of Southern California’s most influential and ecumenical spiritualists, retailing his own psychedelic experiments to other enlightenment-seekers—most famously, perhaps, to Jim Morrison of the L.A.–based The Doors, whose apocalyptic rock bracketed the end of 1960s pop as much as the Beach Boys’ angelic harmonies marked its beginnings.
Huxley’s fellow expatriate Christopher Isherwood suggested a third way, something between enthusiasm and debunking: a spirit of skeptical inquiry sustained even in the visionary moment. In his brilliant pre–WWII diaries, in which he swings between a fascination with the multinational cultural elite he knew well (Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Thomas Mann) and a prickly disaffection with the culture of Hollywood Boulevard, Isherwood is seduced most by the power of the city’s landscape:
When the sun sets into a clear sea, with a low bar of cloud along the horizon, its disk grows distorted, bulging and flattening into a glowing pyramid of red coal, without a top. Then, within half a minute it slides away under the edge of the world, and suddenly the ocean seems enormous and cold, teeming with wrinkled waves, unutterably wet.
Isherwood’s vision along the beach manages to be at once scarifying and sensuous. The gift of the sunset is no narcosis but a kind of hyperacuity: he experiences the sun melting into oblivion, a palpable sense of being near the ends of the earth, a wetness so extreme as to be sublime. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that Isherwood was simultaneously the most practical and the most flamboyantly spiritual of the European exiles, one who churned out savvy, genre-based scripts for Hollywood while pursuing enlightenment under the guidance of his Vedanta teacher Swami Prabhavananda. He was drawn to reconciling opposites, puncturing easy illusions while searching for a form of enlightenment that would be impervious to his own sharp irony.
Other writers—usually those who settled in the city on a tentative basis—have preferred mostly to puncture. The promise of an “endless summer” has provoked ambivalent reflections from writers like James M. Cain, William Faulkner, Bertolt Brecht, and Norman Mailer, who have pointed out how unearned the blessing of perpetual sunlight may be. Our sense of poetic justice may need to be recalibrated, they note, when the most diabolical and hateful people come disguised with perfectly tanned skin, gleaming smiles, windswept hair, and the scent of success. This seems to be the ethical point of, for instance, Faulkner’s “Golden Land” (1935), the one short story he set in California. Its main character, a real estate mogul, beats his son for being gay, frames his daughter so that the tabloids report her involvement in Hollywood sex orgies, holds his mother in what amounts to a state of house arrest—and is rewarded with an easy conscience and the love of a woman who’s the soul of wisdom and the very image of beauty. Faulkner ends with a skeptical invocation of the pleasures of Los Angeles, which, unearned, are also vacant: “the golden days unmarred by rain or weather, the changeless monotonous beautiful days without end countless out of the halcyon past and endless into the halcyon future.”
A less churlish note was struck by playwright Tennessee Williams, who, like Faulkner, moved to L.A. to work as an MGM screenwriter but could not accommodate the studio’s demands. For the Santa Monica–based Williams, the weather of Los Angeles was the city’s presiding deity, a “wonderful rocking-horse” that
goes rocking over the acrobats and their slim-bodied partners, over the young cadets at the school for flyers, over the ocean that catches the blaze of the moment, over the pier at Venice, over the roller coasters and over the vast beach-homes of the world’s most successful kept women—not only over those persons and paraphernalia, but over all that is shared in the commonwealth of existence. . . . It has gone rocking over accomplishments and defeats; it has covered it all and absorbed the wounds with the pleasures and made no discrimination. For nothing is quite so cavalier as this horse.
Williams’s final witticism—the horse’s rider is supposed to be “cavalier,” not the horse itself—points to one of the refrains of Writing Los Angeles: the city’s simultaneous blessing of and blithe indifference to its inhabitants. Here the “rocking-horse weather” stands in for the supreme consciousness of the city. Are people drawn to L.A. because they feel they can submit to this rocking horse or because they feel they can take charge of it? Because they lose themselves in the city or because they find themselves there? In L.A. these sorts of existential questions are begged each time you get in a car and take a drive.
II. The Cruising City
When Angelenos talk about their freeways it is with the definite article—the 101, the 405, the 10—as if to recognize that these numbered masses of concrete have higher powers and personalities of their own. Los Angeles was the first American city to develop a metropolitan freeway system, so its promise of modernity has always been keyed to the idea of nearly miraculous freedom of movement—from beach to mountains to desert in a matter of minutes. The British critic Reyner Banham wrote, “The city will never be fully understood by those who cannot move fluently through its diffuse urban texture. . . . So, like earlier generations of English intellectuals who taught themselves Italian to read Dante in the original, I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original.” Banham called Los Angeles “autopia,” but few contributors to Writing Los Angeles have an unambivalent relationship to its driving culture. Traveling through a region that, by one contemporary estimate, contains 18 urban village cores and over 140 incorporated cities, writers in L.A. have repeatedly experienced the loneliness of the long-distance automobile. Joan Didion observed, “A good part of any day in Los Angeles is spent driving, alone, through streets devoid of meaning to the driver, which is one reason the place exhilarates some people, and floods others with an amorphous unease.”
The brief against L.A.’s sprawl is familiar. For Dorothy Parker, L.A. was “seventy-two suburbs in search of a city”; for Gavin Lambert, it was “not a city, but a series of suburban approaches to a city that never materializes”; for the more sympathetic Simone de Beauvoir, it was a “collection of villages, residential neighborhoods, and encampments separated by woods and parks.” In his short story “The Pedestrian” (1953), Ray Bradbury imagined a future where walking the streets was deemed illegal—and where the city dwellers were so submissive, so conditioned by their “viewing screens” that the cool, empty streets were patrolled by a single driverless police car. Bradbury’s dystopian sense that pleasure in L.A. was routinized, drained of its connection to the surprises of urban living, resonates in the poetry of New York’s Charles Reznikoff, who spent three years as a researcher for a Hollywood producer and brought to L.A. his fondness for taking long walks. In “Autobiography: Hollywood,” Reznikoff bid the city a weary farewell:
The cloudy afternoon is as pleasant
as silence. Who would think
one would ever have enough of sunshine?
A good epitaph, I suppose, would be
He liked the sunshine;
better still, He liked to walk.
And yet the dead, if it could speak, might say,
I had grown tired of walking,
yes, even of the sunshine.
Banham's Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971) took on the conventional bias against the city’s sprawl, offering a striking riposte to the anomie of observers like Bradbury and Reznikoff. Where they saw Los Angeles as a depopulated polis—a commons turned over to the thoughtlessness of four-wheeled machines—Banham appreciated the sprawl as a new principle of connection, strangely egalitarian: “The point about this huge city,” he wrote, “is that all its parts are equal and equally accessible from all other parts at once.” The influence of Banham can be traced, in part, to the way his view of the city’s architecture, his celebration of its “symbolic assemblage,” articulated a postmodern urbanismavant la lettre. While critics of Banham have rightly pointed to the deep inequalities that divide neighborhoods from each other, his point of view was that of the driver cruising along, not the resident putting down roots. The Danish writer Cees Nooteboom suggested along this line that “the essence of Los Angeles lies in the fact that it hardly has a center. It is, if one can say this, a fluid, a “moving” city, not only a city that moves itself—breaks itself down, builds itself up again, displaces and regroups itself—but also a city in which movement, freedom of movement, is a strong premise of life.”
Yet what would it mean to make freedom of movement into a premise of life? Jack Kerouac, who might have been expected to delight in L.A., called it “the loneliest and most brutal of American cities.” The great cruisers in Writing Los Angeles—those who embody what Banham called the “doctrine of ‘doing your own thing’”—tend to fall into two camps: car enthusiasts like Light and Space artist Robert Irwin and the customizers profiled by Tom Wolfe in The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965), and gay artists like Tennessee Williams, John Rechy, and David Hockney, who saw a more raucously festive city than the one captured in either Hollywood’s A productions or its film noir. The pleasures of cruising, judging from the anthology, seem largely reserved for men: they include, for instance, drag racing in a city strip (Wolfe’s car customizers), siphoning gas out of other parked cars (Robert Irwin), and visiting the downtown headquarters of Physique Pictorial, a magazine that recruited its pinups from the ranks of those recently released from the city jail (Hockney). The tone of these selections is iconoclastic and sprightly, although the buoyancy is often hedged by the irony of camp, as in the Williams and Hockney excerpts.
One partial exception to this buoyancy is the memoir of Rechy, whose earlier work, City of Night (1963) inspired Hockney to set off for Pershing Square on his very first night in town. Rechy gives perhaps the most moving account in the anthology of Los Angeles’s air of freedom. Waiting to view a gay parade down Hollywood Boulevard on the occasion of the nation’s bicentennial, he notes how the gay community “had fought dedicatedly and sometimes bitterly for this royal street, and now it was more symbolically ours than any other place in the world.” The parade that follows is a carnival of misrule—queens and princesses of drag balls alongside leather-clad motorcyclists—but its sense of the absurd has an obviously provocative edge:
Defendants enmeshed in the iron spiderweb of courts and idiotic laws—busted during a notorious gay bathhouse raid—march along the street: a woman chained to a man, each flanked and handcuffed to a gay man in cop uniform—a chilling spectacle, a reminder to how many spectators of their own arrests? Then the group pauses, and the two gay men playing cops turn to each other and embrace lovingly, and kiss. The roar of the real-cops’ motorcycles boomed like shots, the drivers—faces drained . . .
Gay men playing cops, set against real-life cops playing cops: we see the power of simulation and the simulation of power, knit together so tightly that the relation of the two becomes confused. This may not have been Rechy’s intent, but he put his finger on the possibilities and difficulties of speaking truth to power in Los Angeles, where artifice has a reality all its own.
III. City of Simulation
L.A. novelist Carolyn See has observed that “Los Angeles doesn’t make raincoats and soup, it makes things like movies and bombs, which are good and bad dreams. It’s the perfect place to write from.” See’s remark has a considerable blind spot: the city does produce some raincoats—and even more women’s sportswear—now that its once-unionized auto, tire, and iron manufacturing plants have been replaced by a sweatshop economy anchored in the low-wage apparel industry; in 1991 L.A. passed New York as the center of garment manufacturing in the United States. Still, there are many voices in Writing Los Angeles that echo See’s sense of Los Angeles as a city that specializes in the manufacture of fantasy. Take the polymath historian William Irwin Thompson: “In leading the world in the transition from industrial to post-industrial society, California’s culture became the first to shift from coal to oil, from steel to plastic, from hardware to software, from materialism to mysticism, from reality to fantasy. California became the first to discover that it was fantasy that led reality, not the other way around.”
As Thompson and See underscore, fantasies in Los Angeles are stoked by an economy oriented to specialize in their production. The most longstanding, and perhaps easiest, criticism of these fantasies is that they are unreal—mere flimflam or tinsel, designed to distract, and so dupe, the purchaser of the fantasy. Since its early days as a tourist town L.A. has been viewed as a carnival of distractions, what Carey McWilliams called “a great circus without a tent.” Novelist Stewart Edward White saw, in the age before Hollywood, a public in thrall to L.A.’s culture of publicity: his character Painless Porter speaks like a descendant of P. T. Barnum, advertising his promise of pain-free tooth-pulling with “I want you to go away and talk about me. It don’t matter what you say, just so you say something. You can call me quack, you may call me fakir, you may call me charlatan—but be sure to call me SOMETHING!” In L.A.’s carnival culture the hard sell works by winking at itself. Flimflam is not mere deception but an invitation to be entertained by deception.
Starting especially in the 1940s observers of Los Angeles began viewing this self-conscious culture of the hard sell in terms of commodification and depersonalization. The various descendants of Painless Porter were representative figures of a society in which everyone was on the make, peddling the insubstantial fiction that was their self. L.A. was not a simple carnival culture, then, but a brutal market economy tricked up as a carnival. Playwright Bertolt Brecht, who escaped from Nazi Germany and landed at San Pedro Harbor in July 1941, wrote in his journal that “custom here requires that you try to ‘sell’ everything, from a shrug of the shoulders to an idea, ie you have always to be on the look-out for a customer, so you are constantly either a buyer or a seller, you sell your piss, as it were, to the urinal.” Brecht saw, behind the sun-drenched landscape of the Pacific Palisades, the darkest of politics: his friend Isherwood made the telling observation that he dressed “in loose grey clothes and felt slippers, like a convict prepared for electrocution.”
Selling one’s piss to the urinal was in some sense preferable to what Norman Mailer diagnosed as the dehumanizing ethos of the city. Posted in L.A. to cover the 1960 Democratic Convention and drawn to the city’s show-business aspects, he called it a “playground for mass men—one has the feeling it was built by television sets giving orders to men.” L.A., he wrote dismissively, was rooted in “the spirit of the supermarket, that homogenous extension of stainless surfaces and psychoanalyzed people, packaged commodities and ranch homes, interchangeable, geographically unrecognizable.” Behind both Brecht and Mailer’s antipathy to L.A. was a larger uneasiness with the shape of the emerging service economy and a related discomfort with the idea of the (tacitly male) writer as a mere salesman or crowd-pleaser. Buying, selling, shopping, being psychoanalyzed: these were activities unbefitting any intellectual with a sense of self-respect.
While writers like Brecht and Mailer took a hard line against the shallowness of L.A. culture, many others have seen this insubstantiality as part of a Faustian bargain: the price paid for living in a culture where everyone is a star and nature can be bent to the demands of fantasy. Early in the century, the poet and film critic Vachel Lindsay replied to the “enemy of California [who] says that the state is magnificent but thin,” observing that “this apparent thinness California has in common with the routine photoplay, which is at times as shallow in its thought as the shadow it throws upon the screen. . . . It is thrillingly possible for the state and the art to acquire spiritual tradition and depth together.” One might say that Lindsay’s prophecy came true, but not as he had hoped. Films became more and more thickly realized—with larger and larger budgets; with more devotion to artifice that would recreate the “real” in painstaking detail—but the depth was not “spiritual,” nor did it reinforce the sort of “tradition” that Lindsay, emerging out ofVictorian America, took as a touchstone of value. Instead of spiritual depth, films—and the L.A. landscape in general—became devoted to the depth of illusion: entrepreneurs like Walt Disney specialized in constructing rich fantasylands that would be less burdened with ethical complexity than a flesh-and-blood neighborhood and more predictable in the schedule of rewards that they promised and delivered.
Umberto Eco was one of many cultural critics who disembarked at Disneyland in the 1970s to get a fix on the workings of this new America. Eco’s conclusion that Disneyland was an “allegory of the consumer society” seems like a truism now, but his discovery of the “hyperreal” there—the novel way that the amusement park indulged in the idea of the fake—remains fresh:
When there is a fake—hippopotamus, dinosaur, sea serpent—it is not so much because it wouldn’t be possible to have the real equivalent but because the public is meant to admire the perfection of the fake and its obedience to the program. In this sense Disneyland not only produces illusion, but—in confessing it—stimulates the desire for it: A real crocodile can be found in the zoo, and as a rule it is dozing or hiding. . . . Disneyland tells us that technology can give us more reality than nature can.
Eco ended his essay by wondering whether Disneyland was an exception in the broader pattern of American culture or the rule. He did not foresee the developments of the past twenty years—the “theme parking” of urban life, where whole neighborhoods are organized as leisure worlds for a niche market; the prevalence of reality TV and talk show’s, which scramble the difference between public and private life in favor of a single, media-saturated life—but with the idea of hyperreality, he had a strong, premonitory sense of their allure.
If the pleasure of surfaces is a constant theme in Writing Los Angeles, the undertow of the collection suggests a harsher truth: the depth of pain that keeps the fantasy machine in perpetual motion. The noir tradition in L.A. writing proposes that spiritual dilemmas are not made irrelevant in a culture of surfaces; rather, through a kind of existential blowback, they are perceived with a renewed intensity. Joan Didion is probably the most famous of L.A.’s native existentialists, having testified for almost 40 years now, with preternatural lucidity and fearsome coolness, to the city’s anomie. L.A. seems more self-aware when refracted through Didion’s style—a style that is properly ashamed, in its own way, of the city’s hunger for quick fixes and sensual pleasures; a style actively working to shed its illusions and acknowledge the distance that separates even those people who share a common dream.Writing Los Angeles links Didion, the voice of disconnection, to her literary forbears in noir such as Raymond Chandler, to cohorts such as John Gregory Dunne and screenwriter Robert Towne, and to her descendants among current essayists, such as the lapidary Lynell George and the deadpan D. J. Waldie.
Perhaps the most unexpected relative of Didion in Writing Los Angeles is the French-born Simone de Beauvoir, who delighted in the warm reception she was given by her L.A. friends but also perceived the city’s haunting sadness. Looking down on the city lights “glitter[ing] as far as the eye can see,” the “big glowworms slither[ing] noiselessly” between “red, green, and white clusters,” she offered a doleful appreciation of the spectacle:
Now I am not taken in by the mirage: I know that these are merely street lamps along the avenues, neon signs, and headlights. But mirage or no mirage, the lights keep glittering; they, too, are a truth. And perhaps they are even more moving when they express nothing but the naked presence of men. Men live here, and so the earth revolves in the quiet of the night with this shining wound in its side.
Beauvoir’s final lines suggested, against the equation of glamour and power that dominates L.A.’s media culture, that it was sheer doggedness—the doggedness of the unrecognized—that made the world go round. Behind the spectacle, giving it its life, were the specters.
IV. City of Specters
Here’s a telling vignette from near the end of Writing Los Angeles: Lynell George is talking with her friend Moss, a formerly active artist living among the converted warehouses just east of Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles. A decade earlier Moss had specialized in massive, ceiling-to-floor sculptures welded together out of the city’s debris—iron, steel, hubcaps, wire hangers. Then his neighborhood turned ugly: a talk show host who lived nearby was bludgeoned to death in his sleep; residents stopped walking the streets after nightfall. Moss’s best friend, Aaron, feeling stifled, did take a late-night walk to Venice Beach and was found dead the next day behind a dumpster near the boardwalk—murdered, apparently, for $20, a wristwatch, and a pair of glittered shoestrings. Now Moss no longer sculpts, and he has taken leave from his old life. “If you drop out of sight in L.A.,” he observes, “people don’t always assume you’re dead, I’ve learned. Rather they assume you’ve only moved out of carphone service distance. Or that you’re busy. . . . thus happy and healthy.”
The optimism of L.A. is often a form of ruthlessness, a willed disregard for any story that has no happy ending in sight. Unsurprisingly, certain areas in L.A. and the people who live in them have borne the brunt of the city’s habit of forgetfulness. The writers in the first two-thirds of Writing Los Angeles, most of whom did not adopt L.A. as their own, tend to remain on the glitter-and-sand axis that runs from Hollywood through Beverly Hills to Santa Monica and Venice. The San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, the large central-city area extending from downtown to Watts, the concentrated sprawl around East Los Angeles—these areas do not figure in these selections, so off-limits as to be unrecognized. In the last 30 years, however, Los Angeles has done a better job at nourishing its own homegrown literary culture, and the anthology’s selections fan out expansively at the end while looking backward to the stories untold in the anthology’s earlier pages. Mary Helen Ponce, for instance, remembers growing up Latina in the San Fernando Valley, watching “El Roy Rogers” movies in her local church hall and mistranslating them to her puzzled and myopic aunt. Likewise, poet Garrett Hongo recalls an ill-fated romance with his white classmate Regina in the South Central community of Gardena. Hongo’s memoir illuminates the tribalism that structured even the integrated communities of postwar Los Angeles: though he and Regina avoided the all-white and the all-Japanese dances, romancing each other at Chicano dancing parties in El Monte, the relationship came to an abrupt end when Regina had her arm broken by a white football player and Hongo had his face ground into a bed of gravel by a group of Japanese boys.
Interestingly, although the genre of noir allowed in the 1930s and 1940s for some of the most scathing indictments of L.A.’s gilded beauty, many of these recent memoirs—narrated from the point of view of those who don’t fit the city’s self-image—refuse the older hard-boiled attitude and strike a complicated ethical balance. On the one hand, they tend to recognize, as Lynell George has written, that “profound emptiness and a gray despair are both cradled snugly within this vast lap of luxury.” Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins says, typically, “People told stories of how you could eat fruit right off the trees and get enough work to retire one day. The stories were true for the most part but the truth wasn’t like the dream. Life was still hard in L.A. and if you worked every day you still found yourself on the bottom.” The critic Mike Davis, in particular, has mastered a no-holds-barred form of social analysis that tracks the widening gap between rich and poor in the city, while laying waste to the claims made by its captains of capital.
On the other hand, the most recent generation of L.A. writers is less given to sweeping pronouncements about the city and more sympathetic to those people—graffiti artists, migrant laborers, failed mini-mall entrepreneurs, homicide detectives—who live in the space between the city’s dreamwork and its bottom line. The keynote of these more recent pieces is one of a slightly confounded perseverance. They tend to hang on moments of transitional self-knowledge—as when Bernard Cooper, in his memoir of his childhood, comes to an awareness of sexual possibility after bumping into two transvestites on Hollywood Boulevard. Cooper’s immediate response is to feel like “everything I had taken for granted up to that moment—the curve of the earth, the heat of the sun, the reliability of my own eyes—had been squeezed out of me.” But there is a sense of freedom, too, in Cooper’s discovery of a sexual world beyond the conventional wisdom of the nuclear family. Likewise Pico Iyer, who spends a week soaking up the culture of LAX, writes of living “in an odd kind of twilight zone of consciousness, that weightless limbo of a world in which people are between lives and between selves, almost sleepwalking, not really sure of who or where they are.”
This half-troubled, half-awake sense of freedom is not quite what Los Angeles is known for: the mythologies of the “golden land” tend to celebrate relaxation rather than self-questioning, the blessing given rather than the blessing earned. Yet Writing Los Angeles suggests that the contemporary struggles of the city are pushing it toward a new literature, one that builds on the debunking tradition while remaining committed to the idea of the city’s promise as a community, however difficult that promise may be to sustain in the polyglot and politically fragmented metropolis that Los Angeles has become. There are many dreams of community in the last 200 pages of the anthology, and while they are not often the same dream, the selections generally share the modest hope that the specters, once given a voice, will no longer be mistaken for the dispossessed or unrooted. We can listen, for instance, to the bristling poetry of Wanda Coleman, and hear someone talking back to the city, holding it to account for the dreams it inspires:
something keeps telling me to quit call it splitsville baby ooohhh baby boogaloo down Broadway cuz nobody signals their intentions anymore and the stare down is as ugly in the 80s as it was in the 50s but i can’t give it up or give up on it it’s my birthplace it’s my pride my price having paid my dues forevah paying dues hopin’ to collect what’s due me
1 Here Writing Los Angeles stands alongside several relatively recent and worthy efforts to anthologize the city. For a strong compendium of contemporary nonfiction about L.A. see David Reid, ed., Sex, Death and God in L.A. (University of California Press, 1994). For a panoramic appraisal of the city’s urban development, with particular focus on its social and economic disparities, see Allen J. Scott and Edward W. Soja, eds., The City: Los Angeles and Urban Theory at the End of the Twentieth Century (University of California Press, 1996). And for a selection of contemporary fiction, poetry, and nonfiction from authors, many lesser-known, who claim L.A. as their home, see Ulin’s other edited collection, Another City: Writing from Los Angeles (City Lights, 2001).
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December 01, 2003
31 Min read time
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