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Anthology, Like L.A., Goes Its Own Way

An editor collecting tales of the town finds it defies a unifying theme

September 02, 2002|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Consider it the constant reader's equivalent of the Thomas Guide. Just as few could wade through those hundred pages of ice cream-colored maps and emerge functionally L.A. literate, no one will be able to read "Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology" from cover to cover in one, or even a dozen, sittings. And the reason is the same: Los Angeles occupies too large and complicated a space, on both the geographic and the cultural landscapes, to be understood quickly, or possibly ever.

In a way, this city defies anthology. Even as editor David L. Ulin diligently sifted through something like 10,000 pages of various manuscripts before selecting close to 900, L.A. refused to serve up any sort of overall "urban narrative"--that oblique term so beloved of book reviewers and conference participants. Yes, there were themes--boosterism and bashing, exile and discovery, the 40 shades of light, the destructive natural forces, the dislocating size of the city--but no cohesive tale of how the city came to be and what it means ever emerged.

Ulin wasn't surprised. For him, and for many of those who actively ponder the meaning of this city, the space where the narrative thread should be is the narrative thread.

"You have to let go of certain preconceived notions of order. It's a paradox--the disorder is the order," says Ulin. "L.A. literature is an anti-canon canon. There will probably never be the Great L.A. novel, because there is no central narrative. L.A. writers don't identify themselves as L.A. writers. And that's a good thing, a liberating thing. It gives writers, and everyone, a freedom that you don't see in other cities."

Ulin is quite familiar with L.A. writers. Aside from being one himself--he has contributed to this newspaper among other publications--and teaching the craft at local colleges, he has spent much of the past four years attempting to chart and then illuminate his vision of this city's literary innards.

Last year, he published a collection of contemporary local writers called "Another City: Writing From Los Angeles" (City Light Books). So it wasn't surprising that the folks at Library of America turned to him for the L.A. version of collections that thus far include New York, baseball and sea writing.

For nine months, he and a team of editors and researchers pored over novels and nonfiction works, thumbed through old copies of Life and Look and the American Mercury magazine. They talked to writers and teachers and readers of all sorts and finally came up with works from 78 authors.

"My mantra during the whole process was a line from Joan Didion, which, of course, I am now going to quote incorrectly," says Ulin. "For a while, the lack of narrative here bothered her. And then one day she was driving somewhere when she realized that narrative is sentimental."

Some of the contributors to this non-sentimental endeavor are Angelenos, but many are not even American. The table of contents reveals many "usual suspects" -- Helen Hunt Jackson, Aldous Huxley, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West, Didion, Charles Bukowski, Carolyn See, Mike Davis--but others are a surprise. H.L. Mencken is there and Edmund Wilson, Tennessee Williams, Simone de Beauvoir, Umberto Eco, Jan Morris, John McPhee and a host of contemporary writers including Sandra Tsing Loh and Ruben Martinez.

The overriding theme of L.A. writing, Ulin says, is chaos. But in a good way. And the book reflects this. There is no one, or two, or 17 ways to describe the kinds of pieces Ulin chose. They are ordered chronologically, which reveals some interesting trends. Toward the middle, a Chandler story is followed by an excerpt from John Fante's "Ask the Dust," and another from West's "The Day of the Locust," which, in turn, is followed by a story by E. Scott Fitzgerald. The years 1938-40, Ulin says, produced some of the most iconic L.A. fiction.

Many of the anthology's pieces are fiction, some are non, and some hover above the line between. There are pointed political and cultural analyses, poetic diatribes and footnoted histories. There are also (and these may alone be worth the $40 cover price) wonderful journal excerpts from the likes of David Hockney, Christopher Isherwood and De Beauvoir, all describing an outsider's budding relationship with a city that, at first, makes no sense at all.

Hollywood makes its presence known, in story and excerpt, but not too much and that is intentional. Ulin doesn't find the "Hollywood Novel" particularly useful. "It served for too long as too much of a filter," he says, "and a way to just write off L.A."

What he wanted to do is include as many parallel narratives as he could in the hopes that the final product would reflect the city that he sees around him. "I wanted to paint a portrait of the city using words," he said.

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