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A success at failure

Glasgow Phillips cheerily recounts his unerring inability to make anything of himself in his very L.A. memoir, 'The Royal Nonesuch.'

March 13, 2007|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

IF Zelig -- the Woody Allen character who casually showed up alongside Hitler, Al Capone and Babe Ruth in the 1983 film -- was a thirtysomething hipster in aviator shades, he might resemble Glasgow Phillips, a Los Angeles writer whose new memoir gives new meaning to the term "failing upward."

Phillips, 37, has managed to brush up against almost every pop trend of the last decade or so, including "alternative hip hop," the mainstreaming of porn, the Internet boom and sub-Sundance indie film festivals.

His look-back-and-laugh memoir, "The Royal Nonesuch," which comes out today, recounts his ups and downs and assembles a supporting case of slackers and savants, dreamers and bottom feeders. One magazine article called it a coming-of-age book "despite the fact that Phillips never seems to grow up." (In fact, the book's subtitle is, "Or, What Will I Do When I Grow Up?")

If the book takes off, it could be the first memoir by what we used to call Gen X to make an impact since "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," whose author, Dave Eggers, once ran with Phillips.

"The Royal Nonesuch" could also serve as a literary Rorschach test. If you are an angry heartland dweller looking for confirmation that Hollywood is a den of indulgence and sin, this is the book for you. For anyone who's crossed paths with Hollywood youth culture in the post-Beck, post-"Pulp Fiction" age, you may see yourself or your friends in here.

"I probably had slightly weirder adventures than most people I know," Phillips said last week as he relaxed at an outdoor cafe near his Venice apartment. He is a friendly, easygoing dude with an Owen Wilson drawl. "But not really markedly weirder," he added.

It was about five years ago that Phillips realized he had a book and not "just a bunch of things that happened."

"When you're in your life," he said, "I think you don't have a sense of how weird it is."

The book, which takes its name from a strange scene in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," was inspired in part by Frederick Exley's "A Fan's Notes," which showed Phillips how fascinating failure can be.

"South Park" co-creator Matt Stone, who eventually hired Phillips to write for the show, calls the memoir "the best book I've read about being in your 20s and trying to figure out what to do with your life, and that's not just because I'm in it."

In some ways, Phillips is claiming to have captured a certain generational story, at least among members of his generation who came out of enormous privilege -- the author grew up in Marin County and went to Brown University and then Stanford on a Stegner Fellowship in creative writing.

"Most of our generation's parents," Phillips said, "were baby boomers who encouraged us to be 'anything you want!' I mean, God bless 'em, but I don't think a lot of us have come to any decisions. I don't think it's entirely necessary. The idea of defining yourself by a career is a bit of a bummer."

The Phillips of "Nonesuch" defines himself, instead, by little quasi-creative projects that rarely pay off. It seems at times that the book's protagonist was aiming to fail. "I wonder that at times," Phillips said, reflecting. "But no, I was seriously trying."

The book chronicles Phillips' last 10 years -- since his move to Los Angeles in 1997, with the insurance payout from a motorcycle crash. He calls the period his attempt to find a middle ground between "working for The Man, and being a total bum." (His latest project, a zombie western called "Undead or Alive" that he wrote and shot, is seeking distribution.)

Did all of the maneuvering bring him to anything resembling a sweet spot? "No," he said with a laugh, "I did not hit it."

Indeed. The line between success and failure is blurred pretty seriously throughout, but in some scenes it's unambiguous.

One of the book's passages involves its author appearing in what sounds like the most humiliating low-budget porn shoot ever launched -- and realizing that a collection of onlookers had assembled. ("I wasn't sure which was more regrettable," he writes, "doing this in front of people who knew me or doing this in front of people who didn't.")

In another memorable scene, he and a friend leap into a "brand consulting" business in which they labor to come up with names for Internet start-ups. As they fail to name company after company, they learn very little, but their fees go up, and by the end he's making $30,000 a shot, even if companies didn't take his advice. "For me being a fiction writer," Phillips said, "this was a lot more per word than I was used to making."

Besides a few excursions to the Bay Area and elsewhere, this is very much a book about L.A. and the city's odd millennial mix. The characters in the book, despite cameos by everyone from Troma Entertainment's Lloyd Kaufman to rapper Kool Keith, are mostly those who don't show up in the press or on entertainment television.

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