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Writing in the Dust

The fabulist literature that's peculiar to Los Angeles is the only American fiction that's really worth reading

November 13, 2005|Alan Rifkin | Alan Rifkin is the author of "Signal Hill: Stories" (City Lights Books), a collection of short stories and a novella.

The vision comes and goes. You can still picture, if only barely, Evelyn Waugh arriving back when not everything here had been named yet, and seeing the double meanings laid so bare--oasis and dust, paradise and exile--that he finished a novel in 10 weeks ("The Loved One," his sendup of an immortality-crazed mortuary) after it had taken him three years to write the one before.

Of course the ironies have gotten a bit gentrified since then. They've been coming true and becoming familiar at the same time--growing up.

This happened fast, because it was only a couple of decades ago that writers growing up in L.A. could detect at least the tail wind of Waugh's delirium--that flickering state between the dreams and the bleached bones of the dreamers, not to mention the bleached bones of satirists from back East ... that awareness of standing on our own graves. And I know this gets hazy. But in the California youth that I'm remembering, mostly Valley in my case, mostly '60s, you could tan and pretend there would never be cancers, or write about people who did. ("The goddess of the coast and the germ of a bag lady," as I once described a character.) You could make up histories out of place names, before the last figments vanished from the highway. You could wager everything on madness, like Pascal, because madness might be a latter-day prophecy. Or some kind of R.D. Laing exercise in going sane. There were rumors, of course, that madness wasn't really sane at all. But you weren't sure of this yet in Los Angeles.

We were going to be ageless, find the Garden, reinvent brotherhood (or show where it had been lost).

At the same time we knew, like Waugh, that we were dreaming. And this reality disorder has been the starting point, the given, for an entire generation of local novelists--"In Los Angeles, it is always the first generation," Kate Braverman once said--a group too quiet, too neglected, to consider itself a literary movement, except maybe in its secret fantasies. But that is where some neglect can begin to pay off.

For decades, L.A. has been pulling a certain type of writer away from realistic fiction toward something no one ever bothered to name, something that has slipped right through the genres of the outside world. Anyone can recite a short list of variously hallucinatory L.A. visions from the 20th century, by Nathanael West and John Fante and Joan Didion and Carolyn See. They were a recurring dream that shook the bed once or twice each generation, like little earthquakes. But the last several years have seen dozens--heralding either a crescendo or a death throe, or maybe The Big One.

Not that the writers themselves get too animated about all this, except in private. It can just seem so personal. The gorgeous estrangement. The flakiness, the longing. The possibly delusional belief that the conflicts most central to the human condition--truth and illusion, spirit and flesh, heaven and earth, race and community--are reaching endgame mainly here.

Last spring at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books I met Francesca Lia Block, whose dozen-plus metamorphic novels since the mid-1980s, including the popular Weetzie Bat oeuvre, have been turning Hollywood's fallen angels into something like pagan myth. An hour's worth of fans had lined up for her autograph, but unless she was lying, the highlight of her day was getting to bond over the making of an L.A. fabulist--in her case, a childhood steeped in Greek mythology and Melrose Avenue. She talked about how orphaned she'd felt when punk monogamists John Doe and Exene split up, and how she didn't break through to her own brand of hallucinogenic fairy tale (I think her novels are Young Adult; they're also seriously horny) until she'd gone away to Berkeley, and her father was dying, and she yearned for a Hollywood lullaby. There seemed something almost stubbornly vulnerable about the proposition she'd kept staking her career on. ("How can I tell you this without sounding too crazy, too West Coast?" she told the New York Times. "I believe life is infused with magic.") Yet all her success had streamed from this quintessential L.A. foolishness: writing as if no young generation elsewhere had really been young.

Then there's Steve Erickson, whom even those who love him struggle to get, but I get him, because he keeps writing the serial dreams of my Valley childhood: moon bridges, sand dunes, secret portals to Forever. Not that he trusted these visions right away. First he had to write five unpublished novels. "The whole activity," he told me once, "in the eyes of people I knew, and maybe even my own, began to seem a little insane"--a word that in Erickson's mouth has the hiss of someone spotting a nemesis across the room. He finally began "Days Between Stations" when he felt "there was nothing to lose, and therefore I could allow myself to bury L.A. under a sandstorm."

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