1. A new, personal Los Angeles canon
You Millions habitués presumably prepare for life’s big events the same way I do: by gorging yourselves on novels to do with those events, tenuously to do those events, and, well… beyond. Readying myself for a move to Los Angeles, I naturally turned to literature, but I decided to avoid the region’s richest, oldest, most beloved literary currents: its unflinching examinations of Old Hollywood, its hardscrabble outsider odysseys toward the kingdom of celebrity, its hard-boiled tales of murderous intrigue and complex deceit beneath the palm trees. Those novels became iconic for a reason, but I had to ask: given Los Angeles’ practically unfathomable size and diversity, what other kinds of literature does it offer?
So I asked all the readers I could for their recommendations of “alternative,” “adventurous,” “unusual,” “non-canonical,” or just “weird” Los Angeles novels, keeping the question purposefully vague enough to ensure a wide variety of responses. These five books, mentioned by readers based in the city and elsewhere as well as by readers for the city and against it, “clicked” together in my mind to form the beginnings of a new, personal, Los Angeles canon.
2. Faltering connections and free-floaters
Despite a shot of fresh currency from Tom Ford’s film, Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man still tends to keep its distance from the usual roundups of Los Angeles novels, thanks to, what, the expat author’s still thoroughgoing Englishness? The novel’s proud spot in the canon of modern gay literature? But don’t those very qualities make it just the novel-of-place to read? Seeing Los Angeles through a set of cultural and/or literary sensibilities unrelated to it allows Isherwood to approach and observe more obliquely — and thus much more interestingly.
Isherwood sets the story where and when he wrote it: early-sixties Los Angeles, where he taught at Los Angeles State College and his protagonist George teaches at the fictional San Tomas State College. Just as Isherwood drove across town to this inland school from his coastal Santa Monica home, George makes his similar highway commute with the Utopian zeal of someone raised on European roads. George, in the euphemistic parlance of his time, “prefers the company of men,” and has lost Jim, the one man he especially prefers, a car wreck in distant Ohio having claimed him before the book even begins.
Covering one day of George’s post-Jim existence — for mere existence it seems to have become — the novel finds him laboring under a burden of secrecy that, at least back then, still improved upon the onerous social conditions of most of the rest of the U.S. and much of Europe. Having let all but his closest friends believe Jim simply moved back to his parents’ house and feeling detached both romantically and psychologically, George criss-crosses the city as he pleases: lecturing on Aldous Huxley, arguing with colleagues, visiting the moribund woman who once attempted to steal Jim, spontaneously making an off-routine gym visit, dining with and rebuffing the boozy advances of a lady friend, and darting off to a favorite bar in the middle of the night where he runs into (and eventually goes skinny-dipping with) one of his particularly enigmatic students. After all this, George may or may not die.
George also may or may not exemplify the usual generalizations about Los Angeles life. Everyone there has severed their actual roots, one generalization says, and that certainly holds true for George’s best friend (another Brit), a pontificating fellow professor (another Brit), and several of his students. Everyone there encloses themselves in personal bubbles, another generalization says, only submitting to meaningful interaction when absolutely necessary. Tooling around the freeways between faltering connections with other free-floaters, George would seem to validate that charge, but Isherwood writes his one-on-one collisions of consciousness — be they with sycophant, confidant, former enemy, or current irritant — so richly that none of the Single Man’s encounters with the loners who surround him could come off as so simple as an indictment.
3. The neighborhood allotted him
The title of Marc Norman’s Bike Riding in Los Angeles reminds me that, lacking anything like the money for a car, I’ll be doing just that. Luckily, Los Angeles proves shockingly bikeable, given the stereotypes about the local hatred even of walking. The bikeability increases when you roll your wheels onto the city’s Metro trains, but those subway and light rail lines only began to open in 1990. Norman, writing this novel in the early seventies, wouldn’t have enjoyed the option; bike riding in Los Angeles, for him, meant bike riding in Los Angeles.
Nor, then, does the Bike Rider enjoy the Metro option; Norman’s exuberantly cycling, novel-writing protagonist heads up a cast of slightly cartoonish characters with severely cartoonish names: the Drag Cop, Derby, Flon, Marshal T — — — —, Sunny, and the Phantom Bike Rider play out their fragmented dramas in a succession of brief chapters with titles like “Street of Worries,” “Famous Bicycle Mechanics,” “Corn in the City,” “In Ventura County,” and “In Ventura County (Again),” which blow by in 122 pages that feel like even fewer. Nothing really gets “resolved,” per se, but something about Norman’s peculiar manner of storytelling — one driven by the psychological relationship you get to a place when you make your way through it in a supposedly unconventional way — makes resolution feel unnecessary.
Bike Riding in Los Angeles takes the basically familiar form of what I too grandly call a Silent Generation fever dream. Its ghostly crowd of players, passing laconically as they do on two wheels in and out of a narrative spiced with little-known regional history — extended interludes on the trials of an ill-equipped 1890 Pasadena Bicycle Club excursion provide extra comic bleakness — draw me back for further re-reading, and each trip through the book casts a brighter light on Norman’s engagement not just with questions of how to bike in Los Angeles but of how to grow a novel in the city’s supposedly arid literary soil:
All this barrenness bothers him, bothers him a lot, both as a writer and as a child of the neighborhood.
As a writer, selfishly he supposes, but then this is supposed to be his first-novel neighborhood. All the other writers he knows have one — some special corner in a mad city, some great soup from which they ladle all those wonderful laughing Italians and those charming drunk Irish and the candy-store ethics and the strong widows and all the lovers padding around in their socks with their shoes in their hands, all those rich chunks of things that give his friends’ novels their tang and truth.
But he can’t do that, not with the neighborhood allotted him.
4. It’s making you up
No matter how vaguely, broadly, or just plain poorly I described my idea, everyone I hit up for suggestions for my inquest on alternative Los Angeles novels mentioned Steve Erickson. Perhaps the living literary figure most steeped in this particular metropolis, Erickson grew up in Los Angeles, went to UCLA, studied film both formally at school and informally at his mother’s theater, has written for a variety of Los Angeles publications, teaches writing at CalArts, and enjoyed the sale of rights to his novel Zeroville to James Franco. He even pops up with some frequency at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books: long white hair, many thoughts to share, and almost implausibly laid-back.
Erickson lives in Los Angeles and works on a porous stretch of the border between fiction and fact. Given the bristling interconnections and complicated exchanges between Erickson’s life, his career, his “non-fiction” books, and his novels, it makes no sense to discuss one of his works in isolation. I nonetheless feel compelled to do exactly that. In Amnesiascope, a benignly dystopian, thoroughly sexual, cinematically hazy semi-memoir (so fans say), Erickson crafts a Los Angeles where the worst has already happened: shaken down by a Big One-type earthquake, the city continues chugging along amid the rubble and the breakdown of civic order pretty much as well as always, thank you very much.
The nameless narrator, a film critic working a weekly paper headquartered in the husk of Hollywood Boulevard’s Egyptian Theater, develops a fixation on what he calls “the Cinema of Hysteria.” This he defines as “movies that make no sense at all — and we understand them completely,” and he lives a life that makes just that kind of sense in this Los Angeles ringed by fire, sitting on flooded subway tunnels, and carved up into countless time zones separated by mere minutes. The narrator falls for a bisexual sculptor turned manic by an electric fence’s shock; he keeps vigilant watch for “Justine,” his Los Angeles’ own equivalent of mysteriously flamboyant billboard star Angelyne; he invents a fake film from 1925 and reviews it, only to find all of Los Angeles agreeing that it exists; he writes and shoots an avant-garde piece of television porno called White Whisper; and he somehow winds up stuck in a bathysphere (a kind of round submarine, if you don’t keep up on retro-futuristic technology).
You can argue that Amnesiascope’s episodic components add up to nothing coherent, just as you can argue that all the disparate urban components of Los Angeles add up to nothing coherent, but neither claim will discourage anyone hooked on the experience of either Erickson’s novels or Erickson’s city. What, through the eyes and in the words of his protagonist, is the difference between this ruined, fantastical Los Angeles and the real, solidly standing one? Perhaps none exists:
The air is filled with this odd smell the city has taken on recently, not the common smell of sandalwood and hashish but a different smell I can’t place, and as we sometimes tend to do we point things out to each other — the sites of famous suicides and old Hollywood love affairs — as though we’re tourists, which, like everyone in L.A., we are. Sometimes we even make things up, though for all we know we’re not making it up; in L.A. you think you’re making something up, but it’s making you up.
5. Some say it’s too much
Behold the two-page spread preceding the main text of Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange, a grid presenting the novel’s seven main characters on the horizontal axis and the seven days it covers on the vertical. Its title? “HyperContexts.” Might as well say “The Year is 1997” — or 1996, or 1995, take your pick. The book comes out of and saturated with the mid-nineties, the years of explosive media proliferation, the Icarus flight of ethnic studies, the first wide climate-change conversations, the aftermath of the 1992 riots — an era that gives Yamashita more than enough to work with.
Yamashita gets too much to work with, you could say, and indeed, this novel’s 280 pages can feel overstuffed. Its group of seven characters all on their own periodically intersecting journeys include a housecleaner guarding a child from an organ harvester; the little boy’s father, a hard-bitten Spanophone Chinese refugee; a media-worshipping, fully Americanized Japanese television reporter; a dreadlocked guardian angel of South Central who’s never not listening to the radio; a street crazy born in a Japanese internment camp conducting traffic like an orchestra atop an overpass; a Mexican-American reporter beholden to the even then-unfashionable rush of the newspaper scoop; and a leathery wandering eccentric who finds a way to move the Tropic of Cancer. Not the Henry Miller novel — the actual line on the map.
Yamashita doesn’t stop there, opting to lay a couple more Hollywood disaster movie plots (Hollywood disaster movies, might I add, being quite popular in the nineties) on top. First an epidemic of poisoned oranges sweeps through the state, then one of those oranges causes freeway crashes producing gridlock so widespread and so sustained that the homeless forge a makeshift city out of the miles of immobile vehicles. Yamashita also works in kidnapping, lucha libre pro wrestling, poetry, and performance art. Is it all just too much? Depends on what you can get into; some say Los Angeles is just too much.
As the nineties fall distant, so does the once-looming, fiery image of Los Angeles as the impetus for the apocalypse, as the site of the apocalypse — as the apocalypse. Yamashita preserves that overheated notion, but she also captures the Los Angeles that became a metropolis when nobody was looking, or, rather, it became a microcosm of the world, too large and varied for most to truly love but made startlingly hardy, adaptable, inventive, and enterprising by its sheer heterogeneity and freedom from the romanticizing strictures of public imagination. Or, in the words of Emi, Tropic of Orange’s young broadcaster with no time for the past:
Have you ever seen an I heart L.A. sticker? People here heart everything else — Ensenada, Hussong’s, Taos, Alaskan Huskies, Guatemala, even New York. That L.A. is a desert paradise, sunshine, blond people, insipid, romantic is B.S. Nobody hearts L.A.
6. The cortex set in concrete
“I had heard repeatedly that it was impossible to write a Los Angeles novel about all of Los Angeles,” said Vanessa Place, author of La Medusa. “This seemed a stupid challenge to me, and I very much like stupid challenges.” This newest, heftiest, and most ambitious alternative Los Angeles novel also looks and feels the messiest, but its messiness will only put you off if Los Angeles’ messiness does — assuming it even strikes you as messiness in the first place. Sweep your eyes across the city; now sweep them across La Medusa’s pages, their sudden format shifts; their words growing, shrinking, nearly bouncing; their wonky indentation and justification; their diagrams of the human brain. Exquisite organic order, or directionless chaos? It’s a thin line.
The brain emerges as one of the book’s guiding structures. Not so outlandish or unheard-of a notion, it turns out. As science journalist Jonah Lehrer observed:
L.A. is a big urban metaphor for the brain. [...] For me, L.A. is simply the cortex set in concrete, lots and lots of concrete. Those freeways are big spindle and pyramidal cells — they connect the disparate areas — and the numerous downtowns (Century City, Santa Monica, the [San Fernando] Valley, etc.) represent the many functional modules inside the mind. Everybody complains that L.A. has no center — there is no there there, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein — but isn’t that the point? The brain doesn’t have a center either, and it works beautifully.
No wonder nobody “hearts” L.A.; it’s the wrong metaphor. Hence the need to quote Lehrer at length rather than Place’s authorial voice. Her novel might look like a shattered sheet of glass, but it reads all as a piece; no substantial section lifts out in a sensible way. Best of luck to any who dare to carve a representative sample of Place’s storm of prose, ever shifting from “the Hole where the woman’s golden belly is peopled grew dark” to “African-American male suffering from Type #1 immune-mediated diabetes mellitus” to “dude don’t look smacked, wacked, n’otherwise cracked” to “INT. FEENA’S KITCHEN/LIVING ROOM—MIDCITY.”
Place builds a Tropic of Orange-style ensemble, pulling from the pool of all the ages, races, occupations, and nationalities found in Los Angeles — that is to say, from all ages, all races, all occupations, and all nationalities. But you’re on your own when keeping track of who’s who and who’s where; no HyperContexts here. Your guides to Place’s neuro-Los Angeles come in forms including a surgeon and the ice cream-vending drug dealer he picks up, a lonely elementary school girl and her blinged-out voodoo-practicing grandmother, an albino trucker and his obese lesbian wife, a hallucinating prostitute, several figures of myth, and the actual bits and pieces of neuroanatomy themselves.
Those who expect to pick up every detail, trace back every reference, and track every narrative thread have, in La Medusa, a frustrating ordeal ahead. I can only recommend submerging yourself in the text — submitting to it — and making quick peace with the inevitability of not grasping everything. If you’re like me, some elements, like Place’s recurring evocations of the Beverly Hillbillies theme song and personal injury lawyer/bus ad fixture Juan Dominguez will amuse you every time; others, you’ll never get a hold on. Bookworm host Michael Silverblatt — quite possibly Los Angeles’ greatest reader — said that La Medusa is to Los Angeles as Ulysses is to Dublin. To hope for an airtight understanding of this novel is to hope for a complete understanding of Los Angeles, or of Dublin, or of Ulysses, or of every last process inside the human brain. While we can’t call these ultimate understandings unattainable, what makes us so sure they exist to attain?
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