What is the appropriate form of storytelling for Los Angeles? L.A., after all, is a city that defies traditional narrative, even as it requires us to impose our own structures on the chaos of the place. It's no coincidence that some of the most iconic Southern California art has not been narrative but imagistic, as are the Light and Space creations of Robert Irwin and David Hockney, or aggressively elusive, like the barely controlled bombast of the 1970s punk scene.
What better way to evoke a city of unsettling distances than in flashes, snapshots: the glimmer of blue water on a canvas, three minutes of guitar fury in your car? Place one of Hockney's swimming pool paintings alongside, say, a song like X's "Johny Hit and Run Paulene," and the juxtaposition tells you all you need to know about L.A., where illusion and reality bleed together in a strangely discontinuous collage. Even the best L.A. writing works like this, eschewing the larger story in favor of smaller, more interior visions, as if the city were accessible only in glimpses, if it's accessible at all.
Norman M. Klein has made a career out of mining the impressionistic territory of memory from a cultural and an individual point of view. A professor at Cal Arts and the author of "The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory," he sees L.A. as a landscape of amnesia, in which the past is either a burden or nostalgic, depending on how one puts it to use. This is especially true of the city center, where Klein has focused many of his investigations, deconstructing neighborhoods like Bunker Hill or Angelino Heights.
"By 1986," he explains in "The History of Forgetting," "I was running a series of lectures about the level of public neglect and bad faith in Los Angeles, entitled 'Beneath the Myths.' I started taking students on what I called 'anti-tours.' I would stop at locations where no buildings existed any longer, tell them what had been there once, a movie studio, a whorehouse, whatever. We would get out, look around, and agree that it was gone all right."
For Klein, each absence operates as "what psychologists call an imago, an idealized face left over from childhood -- a photograph, the color of mother's dress on the day she took ill (the photological trace)." They are "phantom limbs," and by seeking to restore them, Klein invests his work with an air of social archeology in which excavation serves as a narrative device.
The notion of imagoes, of phantom limbs, informs "Bleeding Through: Layers of Los Angeles, 1920-1986," a novella and accompanying DVD-ROM, that reconsiders both Los Angeles and the whole idea of narrative, presenting them as fixed and conditional at once. "Bleeding Through" can be read as a companion piece to "The History of Forgetting," although such a treatment risks overlooking its authenticity. "Bleeding Through" is a study in digression, in simultaneous distractions, overwhelming in its information yet full of loss and silence.
Framed as an interactive mystery in which an elderly Angelino Heights resident named Molly may or may not have killed her second husband, Walt, it is more "a bildungsroman in which no one learns enough about anything," a crime fiction in which "[t]he journey through the evidence is more exciting than the crime itself." Part of Klein's intention is to expose the artifice of storytelling by uncovering the background, what Don DeLillo calls the "underhistory" -- the invisible material that readers never see. At the same time, Klein is after something more expansive, a form in which resolution is less important than possibility.
"It is a daunting prospect," he declares, "to give up all those newspaper clippings in order to make this story legible.... I have about a thousand photographs and newspaper articles, over two hundred relevant movies on file, and over twenty interviews ... and hundreds of pages of text. With all of these elegantly assembled in a DVD-ROM, I can follow Laurence Sterne's advice (1760): to make an entertainment, a tristful paideia, a mocking of the truth."
It's only fitting that Klein should invoke Sterne here, for like Sterne's "Tristram Shandy," "Bleeding Through" is a tale that, in its multilayered interactivity, teaches us to read it as we go along. This is clear from the start of the novella, when we meet Molly walking down a hillside. An old woman with a beaded purse, she is vague, slightly distracted, or perhaps she displays what Klein refers to as "an absent-minded guile." Either way, the implication is that there's more to the moment than we're seeing, which could also be said of Los Angeles.