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BOOKS & IDEAS

Nina Revoyr looks inside the outsiders

Her third novel, 'The Age of Dreaming,' examines Hollywood's racial politics in the story of a Japanese American silent-film star.

April 27, 2008|Marc Weingarten | Special to The Times

YOU don't hear folks touting the virtues of Compton too often. But where some might view the city as an incubator of crime and poverty, Nina Revoyr sees a land of comity and cultural richness.

"Compton is a very romantic place for me," said the novelist, who was eating brunch at Auntie Em's, a hipster-magnet restaurant near her Eagle Rock home. "Historically, Compton's had an organic blend of Japanese and African American culture. You would see black families there designing Japanese gardens in their yards. I just love the idea of people finding a common stake in something larger than themselves."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, April 29, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Pamela Beere Briggs: An article in Sunday's Calendar section about novelist Nina Revoyr said that documentary filmmaker Pamela Beere Briggs teaches at UCLA Film School. Briggs has a masters of fine arts from the school but does not teach there.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, April 30, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Nina Revoyr: An article in Sunday's Calendar section about novelist Nina Revoyr quoted her talking about the virtues of Compton. It should have said Crenshaw.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, May 04, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Nina Revoyr and Pamela Beere Briggs: An article last Sunday about novelist Nina Revoyr incorrectly said that documentary filmmaker Pamela Beere Briggs teaches at UCLA Film School. Briggs has an MFA from the school but does not teach there. Also, the article quoted Revoyr talking about the virtues of Compton. It should have said Crenshaw.

This is not idle chitchat for Revoyr; it's an organizing principle for her art and life. As an empathetic chronicler of the dispossessed outsider in L.A., Revoyr is endlessly fascinated by the ways in which Los Angeles has acted as both a lure and a repellent for those seeking a fresh start. In her three novels, she has traced the messy intersections of lives that have been transformed by the complications of cultural and racial identity.

Revoyr's latest book, "The Age of Dreaming," is something else altogether, as the novelist turns for the first time to Hollywood -- specifically, the silent-film era -- to excavate the question of race in the earliest days of Hollywood.

An unsolved murder lies at the heart of the story, but the book is really a multilayered examination of how Hollywood has always welcomed the alien as an insider. All of the main players in the book have taken on new personas within the comforting womb of the movie business. There's the protagonist, Jun Nakayama, reared in a traditional Japanese family that has renounced his new persona of rakish movie star; Elizabeth Banks, the glamorous sex bomb who can never quite efface her Midwestern roots; Ashley Bennett Tyler, the imperious director who cloaks himself in the mannerisms of the parvenu; and Nora Minton Niles, the Shirley Temple innocent who's a puppet for her domineering stage mother.

"In a larger sense, people come to L.A. to reinvent themselves," said Revoyr, who is of Japanese and Polish American descent. "At that time, at the beginning of the silent-film era, there was a kind of innocence, a bravado among the participants. It was that exciting sense of possibility, that anything could happen if you were in the right place and had the ambition to make it happen."

The urge to refashion one's identity plays into Revoyr's fascination with the idea of cultural assimilation, of wanting to both fit in and stand out at the same time. But as the novel demonstrates, the players within the Hollywood machinery are no more immune to the illusory nature of the place than the ticket buyers themselves. So it is for Nakayama, a giant star who finds his popularity waning as American attitudes toward the Japanese begins to curdle after World War I. So painful is this fall from grace that Nakayama constructs a firewall that keeps him in a suspended state of denial.

Every picture tells a story

PLACING her story in the silent era was not Revoyr's original intention. In fact, she had an entirely different idea in mind for the book. But the city's history crept up on her in an insidious way. She was really just going about her business when it happened. A vice president of external relations for Children's Institute, a nonprofit devoted to helping single fathers in need, Revoyr works in a vintage building in the mid-Wilshire district that once belonged to silent-film star Mary Miles Minter. "Just being in that building, you can't help but feel the tug of its history. There are pictures of Minter all over the building. I would just stare at those photos and daydream."

Minter was a silent star who was a suspect in the unsolved 1922 murder of director William Desmond Taylor, a story that was first told in Sidney Kirkpatrick's book "A Cast of Killers." Using this story, as well as the real-life story of Japanese silent-film star Sessue Hayakawa, Revoyr fashioned the narrative that became "The Age of Dreaming." (Nora Minton Niles, who may have had a sexual dalliance with Ashley Bennett Tyler, is the fictional version of Minter in the book.)

The northeastern L.A. neighborhood of Eagle Rock, which still retains many of the buildings that were built in the early part of the 20th century, was another place where Revoyr could conjure up the ghosts of the city's past. "Walking around my neighborhood evokes so much of what I wanted to capture in the book," she said.

Pamela Beere Briggs, who teaches at UCLA Film School, recently featured Revoyr in a documentary called "Mysterious California," a film that explores how four California writers use the state as a character in their novels.

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