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The latitude and longitude of L.A. lit

Writing Los Angeles, A Literary Anthology, Edited by avid L. Ulin, Library of America: 884 pp., $40

October 27, 2002|Steve Wasserman | Steve Wasserman is the editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review.

America is, famously, the republic of reinvention, where peoples the world over have sought an escape from history, a new identity in a land of seemingly endless possibility. California, of course, is, as Susan Sontag has remarked, "America's America," and Los Angeles has for more than 100 years been a terminus, the destination of desire. Despite its notorious reputation for making a fetish of the body and eschewing the life of the mind, Los Angeles has been a magnet for writers. Hometown for some, refuge for others, it is both a place and a sensibility whose literature reflects a range of affection and disdain among writers who have found here what Carey McWilliams discovered more than half a century ago: a "curious amalgam of all America, of all states, of all peoples and cultures of America."

"Writing Los Angeles," edited by David L. Ulin and published by the Library of America, is a nearly 900-page anthology that, like the city it seeks to represent, is both multifaceted and immense. It offers a panoramic view of a diverse and sprawling literary landscape, featuring brief chronological selections from the work of nearly 80 writers who have sought over the last century or so to make sense of the astonishingly swift rise of the improbable megalopolis Mike Davis memorably called the "city of quartz," bright, hard, opaque. Ulin has done a masterful job of choosing some of the more compelling efforts to evoke a city whose essence has proved maddeningly elusive for most of the writers who found themselves here. Ulin inclines toward many of the usual suspects, from Nathanael West to Raymond Chandler and Joan Didion, who described Los Angeles so vividly and successfully that their L.A. is by now so firmly lodged in the frontal lobe of popular imagination that it is all but impossible to experience the city as anything other than a battle of cliches. Other familiar authors include John Fante, John Rechy, Chester Himes, Christopher Isherwood, Ray Bradbury, Upton Sinclair, Tom Wolfe, Reyner Banham, Gavin Lambert, Wanda Coleman, Carolyn See, Walter Mosley, James Ellroy and D.J. Waldie. Ulin's compendium is not comprehensive. How could it be? The literary history of Los Angeles is too unruly and rich to be fully represented and enclosed completely within the grid of its particular latitude and longitude. To those he has left out -- both the living and the dead -- he offers his regrets.

There are at least two ways to read this Rosetta stone. One is to test one's own experience of L.A. against the reactions of its various writers, to assess where one agrees or disagrees, where they seem to get it right and where they have got it wrong. A second more suggestive (and challenging) approach is to imagine you are a reader who has never visited or lived in L.A., whose only encounter with the city is through the pages of this book, to treat it as if it were a novel written by multiple authors. Read this way, it gives rise to several questions: What is the tale that is told? What is the nature of its main character -- the city itself? What changes does it undergo over time? And what, if any, is the moral of the story?

"Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears," Italo Calvino wrote in "Invisible Cities." Nowhere is that more true than in Los Angeles, a city whose very founding and survival rebuke the notion that geography is fate. For, unlike other cities, Los Angeles is entirely an act of will. It doesn't thrive at the confluence of rivers, or at the mouth of a natural harbor, or in a verdant plain made bountiful by plentiful rainfall. On the contrary, it is, observes John McPhee, "a metropolis that exists in a semidesert, imports water three hundred miles, has inveterate flash floods, is at the grinding edges of two tectonic plates, and has a microclimate tenacious of noxious oxides." To put it another way, Los Angeles has no right to exist. And yet, against all odds, it does.

From the beginning, its chief seduction was the obliteration of the past, the manufacture of desire and the promise of redemption. Its siren call was most clearly heard through movies, of course. Movies made Los Angeles a virtual destination for people everywhere, projecting images of both a glittering Arcadia and a dark underbelly of anomie and murderous suffocation. But it wasn't only the movies, as "Writing Los Angeles" reveals. Novelists and journalists played their parts, by turns swept away, astonished and appalled by the spectacle that was L.A. Land speculators, oil men, railroad tycoons, religious cranks, hucksters and grifters of every stripe combined to make of Los Angeles a beacon for ordinary Americans who sought to liberate themselves from the stifling confinements and corruptions of the industrial East, to flee the idiocies of the rural life and to renew themselves in a sun-kissed land where they might yet stumble upon the secret of life in their sunset years.

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