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A perfect place for fiction

L.A. provides what a novelist needs: silence, exile and cunning.

April 29, 2006|Ben Ehrenreich | BEN EHRENREICH is the author of "The Suitors," published this month by Counterpoint Press.

WHEN SOMEONE in Los Angeles asks what you do and you answer that you're a writer, the next question is invariably a chipper, "Oh -- film or TV?" If your answer is "neither" -- that you're working on a novel -- there is rarely a next question, just a pitying smile or a blank look and tensely pursed lips, as if you've just admitted to spending your days cataloging your collection of Victorian decorative thimbles. This can be disconcerting, but it is in fact the best thing about writing in Los Angeles: No one cares.

In New York, almost everyone you meet -- banker and plumber alike -- is pecking away at a novel, or claims to be. Almost everyone is a writer, real or imagined. Many have even published books, and they all go to the same parties. No one dances at these parties, and there's rarely a brawl. But everyone knows who is sleeping with whom, how big their last advance was and what the critics said.

Los Angeles, thankfully, suffers no such literary community. No one is looking over our shoulders. No covens of illuminati enforce the borders between genres.

About this time each year, we puff ourselves up over the vibrancy of the local "lit" scene, but (though it's true that L.A. has no shortage of great writers) we're talking to ourselves. New York is deafened by its own formidable roar; San Francisco has its ears plugged to any noise drifting north from the Tehachapis, and the rest of the country expects nothing from us save more freeway shootouts, dead celebrities and nightmarish plastic surgery innovations. Even L.A. forgets its literary credentials within a few weeks, and why should we remember? Amnesia is Los Angeles' cruelest vice and the source of most of its charm.

Living here can feel like stepping into a time-lapse photo. Buildings go up and come down with incredible speed. Leave town for a month and count the familiar blocks that have been rendered unrecognizable. Crumbling Art Deco treasures fall and are resurrected as Rite-Aids. Yesterday's shabby apartment blocks yield to today's shabby condo towers. There's little room for nostalgia; no swampy, ancestral, Faulknerian mulch. The stable conformity of an Updikean WASP adultery fable feels faraway here, quaint and somewhat fey.

There's a roundabout sort of truth to the ancient (by local standards) cliche that L.A. is a superficial place. Think of our phrase "surface streets," and its implication that the street-level meat of the metropolis belongs to a lower order of truth. The avenues and alleys are a contemptible veil pulled over the city's shape-shifting soul, which can only be glimpsed in the freedom of speed. Truth is elsewhere; it can't be here, because this place won't sit still. It's that same conclusion -- that truth must be elsewhere, somewhere not in this world -- that drives people to writing fiction.

Without trying to, Los Angeles imposes on its writers all three of Stephen Dedalus' requirements for making art: silence, exile and cunning. Silence, because there's no cocktail hum of pub-world gossip to distract, nothing but the helicopters, the wind and the crashing of falling palm fronds. Exile, because given enough years, L.A.'s perpetually mutating landscape can make even its natives feel like expats. And cunning, because once you've written something out here, you still have to get it past them back there, where they keep the money, the binderies and the drawers of long knives.

What other place could breed a Ray Bradbury, who had to project himself 100 years into the future (that's 2052!) to squeeze any sense from the L.A. streets? Or a Steve Erickson, who had to bury us in sand, surround us with rings of fire and submerge us in a lake to make L.A. feel like home? Or a Sesshu Foster, whose open portals between the Farmer John pork-processing plant, Stalingrad and the ancient city of Teotihuacan at last make Vernon feel grounded and real?

My novel is not set in L.A., or in any recognizable place or era. I'm very happy with it, most of the time. My friends say they're proud of me. Just don't tell my neighbors -- they already think I'm odd enough.

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