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The Unbearable Lightness of L.A.

DEPTH TAKES A HOLIDAY: Essays From Lesser Los Angeles,\o7 By Sandra Tsing Loh (Riverhead Books: $22.95; 226 pp.)\f7

April 21, 1996|Thomas M. Hines | Thomas Hines is a lawyer and free-lance writer

More often than not, making fun of Los Angeles is a bit like leaving the fish in the barrel before you shoot--it's just way too easy. That's why when non-Angelenos make cracks about earthquakes, celebrities and surfing, we can only smile halfheartedly. That's not really us. What about the city we actually live in? What about the L.A. of temp jobs, Trader Joe's, non-Hollywood parties and grocery shopping? (How come Vanity Fair never mentions Alhambra?)

Happily this is precisely the place where Sandra Tsing Loh lives, works, bitches and breathes. And it is to this "lesser Los Angeles" that Loh turns her merrily jaundiced eye in her first collection of pithy essays, "Depth Takes a Holiday."

Don't let the title fool you. "Depth Takes a Holiday" isn't full of the usual cheap shots about L.A. Loh, whose "Valley" column in Buzz magazine is the source of this collection, revels not only in L.A., but in its "most declasse part," the San Fernando Valley (a region she would wisely like to update by calling it the SFV, much as Kentucky Fried Chicken streamlined its image as KFC). She is a woman who knows the peculiar horrors of returning from some reasonably normal place "like Minnesota" and finding yourself in the vast expanses of LAX's Parking Lot C preparing to head for Van Nuys.

While her subjects range from nightmare time-shares in Dana Point to the horror of being the Woman's Day speaker at Venice High, Loh is especially attuned to the difference in L.A.'s constantly shifting class structure.

A self-described downwardly mobile "Late Boomer" (a term she finds appropriately downbeat and "evocative of having arrived too late for a party"), Loh lives somewhere between the baby boomers (who have already plundered everything) and the incomprehensible twentysomethings (who seem to have little more than the constant attention of Newsweek). As Loh describes her peers: "Only now entering our key power-lunching, German-car-buying years, we're chagrined to have missed the oily treats of the swollen '80s: real-estate speculation, junk bonds, stealing." Having been "slapped around by the likes of Crate & Barrel" with its $400 side tables , Loh has retreated to the solid comfort of Ikea, musing about the '90s, "a decade in which the silicone implants of the economy have been removed."

This keen awareness of being stuck in a demographic Parking Lot C provides many of the real delights in these essays. Loh knows how things are supposed to be. She should have lived in New York in her 20s, but found herself sleeping late in Pasadena. ("Shhh! Wait. What is that exciting person with her crisp dark hair in her striking black winter coat and bright red muffler doing now? Why, she's jumping into a cab and heading up 57th, down 43rd, up 11th, and down 13th. How thrilling! It's a career in itself.") She should be writing a screenplay. ("The screenplay is a thong bikini, exposing all structural flaws. I and my pear-shaped musings were advised to cover ourselves in the loose old bathrobe of the novel.") She should be able to picture God as a woman ("With apologies to feminists, I still see Him as a He. When I picture God as a female I see this heavyset woman of 50 hoeing in Topanga.")

Unfortunately, nothing has quite worked out as planned. And whether she is in the South Seas ("I'm old, I'm fat. I'm going to Tahiti. Brando thought it. Gauguin thought it. And last month it was my turn.") or taking in Las Vegas' Nudes on Ice revue ("it exuded not unbridled debauchery, but the sort of brave jollity you see in some of the less popular children's attractions at Disneyland"), Loh's wide-eyed disappointment and flair for the telling detail propel these essays along in high style.

Perhaps nowhere is Loh better than in deflating the pretensions of the L.A. cultural scene. Loh notes, at some point in the 1980s, the word "multicultural" replaced the word "international" and took all the fun out of, well, almost everything.

"International--what a guileless, friendly world. As a kid in the '60s, I remember drinking up everything international: Expo 67! UNICEF! The five intertwining rings of the Olympics! International House of Pancakes. 'Come in!' International always seemed to be saying. 'We don't care where the hell you're from. Have some flapjacks!' "

Multiculturalists, on the other hand seemed to have chucked brotherhood out the window and instead "spend much of their time hurling things at each other and fighting over grisly bits of grant money." Loh's description of L.A.'s 10-volume, $250,000 politically correct cultural master plan ("a quarter of a million dollars seems a lot to pay for such stunning insights as 'both the Arts Advisory Committee and the Los Angeles Task Force on the Arts recognize the artist as the originator of art activity' ") and its sad effects on the art world are both hilarious and creepily telling.

It's about time that someone took on the periphery of Los Angeles with such wicked delight, because--face it--in this town, the periphery's the real heart of the city.

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