American Literature Travels to France

Noteworthy

Normally I focus on literature outside of the United States, but I found a great opportunity to share some insights of American literature and how it is viewed beyond our borders.  Transfuge, a French cultural magazine, is asking the question, “Is the Golden Age of American literature over?”  Some of you might not have realized that we were in a Golden Age (especially with the recent comments of a particular Nobel committee), but not only does France like Jerry Lewis, they are also huge fans of our literature.  I managed to snag a copy of a great piece about Los Angeles written by a great guy and an equally great writer, Larry Fondation.  I am fan of Larry’s work which includes Fish, Soap and Bonds, Common Criminals, and his latest short story collection, Unintended Consequences.  Also, I like the Los Angeles angle because it is a breed of it’s own and Larry presents the United States “city” in a unique way.  Los Angeles and it’s place in American literature will be covered extensively at this year’s Guadalajara International Book Fair.  As an attendee this year, I am excited about Los Angeles being a focus of the international fiction spotlight.  I thought Larry’s piece would be a good intro to what  I am sure I will be posting more about during the Book Fair.

The article appears in French in the magazine, but here is the transcript in English:







Los Angeles Literature: Apocalypse,
Redemption and Reality

 

            Drought,
fire, flood and earthquake.  The four
seasons of Los Angeles. 

            Sunshine
and noir.  Paradise and
Armageddon. 

            Riots
and flames in 1965, and again in 1992. 
All cinder and ash.

            The
apocryphal tale of Lana Turner sipping soda at Schwab’s – discovered by
Hollywood and going on to the bright lights of stardom.

            There
has always been the sense that opportunity looms large here; there has always
been the sense that the world will end here. 

            Los
Angeles is the ultimate city of duality.

            Disaster
films and fairy tales, fifty-room mansions and bungalows burning to dust in the
Angeles National Forest.

            It
is ingrained deep in our imaginations – past and present, here and
elsewhere.  The world sees us like
this; we show ourselves to the world like this.

            Los
Angeles is the most uncertain of cities.

            Literature
has helped form the image of the City. 
If it continues to do its job, it will also paint it new.

**

            Over
the years and decades, Los Angeles fiction has tried to keep up with the myths
of the City.  Along the way, much
of that fiction – aided and abetted by film – has itself become mythical:  Double Indemnity, The Big
Sleep
, Ask the Dust, The Day of the Locust, to name just a
few.

            James
M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, John Fante and Nathanael West all wrote about a Los
Angeles they knew well – the hard-scrabbled LA of the Depression-addled
1930s.  They wrote about the times
they lived in and they wrote so well as to cast a spell on their successors and
to create a vision and indelible image of LA for the world at large:  LA as noir.

            Since
the Thirties, much good work has come out of Los Angeles, depicting Los Angeles
— but very little of it so iconic. 
Chester Himes, Pynchon (in his two LA books), Bukowski, Christopher
Isherwood and, of course, Joan Didion have all portrayed Los Angeles skillfully,
insightfully, even brilliantly. 
But the only emerging images able to compete with noir have come from
music (and later film) – the golden surf and sand of the Beach Boys and the
marijuana romanticism of the hippies of Laurel Canyon. 

            Contemporary
Los Angeles fiction has four roads to take.  Thus far, it has taken only three.  In my view, the road not taken will produce the new
iconography.

            The
three avenues LA fiction has recently explored are:

            1.  Dreamy LA – The dreamscapes of the
Laurel Canyon sound now can be found in hallucinatory words by writers like Aimee
Bender, Joy Nicholson and Francesca Lia Block, whose “Weetzie Bat” books
defined a kind of 1990s punked-out, teenage Los Angeles.  This avenue, however, leaves out 90% of
the very interesting city that LA has become.

            2.  Fabulist LA – In a piece for the Los
Angeles Times Magazine
in 2005, writer Alan Rifkin made a case for LA
“Fabu-Lit,” a “fantastical literature peculiar to Los Angeles.”  The exemplars here are writers like
Steve Erickson and Carolyn See, who present often post-apocalyptic visions of a
Los Angeles ravaged by flood and nuclear attack, respectively.  Erickson, in particular, is a terrific
writer.  His work deserves to be
widely read.  Yet these fictions
leave the obvious and glaring gap of a “now” that links past and future.

            3.  The Los Angeles Past – Current writers
such as James Ellroy and Walter Mosley have chosen to write now about what LA
was like “back then.”  Both these
writers, among a number of others, have successfully dredged up the horrors and
pains of Post-World War II Los Angeles and painted searing pictures of those
times.

            But
the extant issue becomes this: there is nowhere to go from here.  We eventually get to the present.  And here lays the road not taken.  A new gritty realism that confronts Los
Angeles as it is now, not as it once was or might someday be.  This is the current challenge. And, the
first pillar of that challenge is a recognition that – as it was in the
Thirties heyday of LA Literature – Los Angeles is a poor city, a city with a
smattering still of poor Southern whites, the homeless, ghetto-bound Blacks,
and back-broken immigrants, largely from Mexico. Poorer still amidst the
current global recession.  While
acknowledging both the past and the myths of the City, the next great Los
Angeles novel will depict and embrace the city’s poverty, and transcend it.

           

**

            The
best LA novel of the past 20 years happens to be a record album – NWA’s Straight
Outta Compton
, a switchblade sharp documentary picture of the Los Angeles
inner city.

            Like
nothing else, “Compton” confronts – by biting your face off – what LA is
now to increasing numbers of its denizens – in Chandler’s words, “something
more than night;” in mine – something beyond noir.

            Indeed
though, there are good, even great, books about the Los Angeles “now.”  James Frey may deserve ambition points
for Bright Shiny Morning, though the novel reads as if it were written
by someone who has read about LA but has never been here (though Frey indeed has
lived here).   Dennis Cooper,
perhaps America’s greatest prose stylist, effectively depicts the ennui of LA
and elsewhere, particularly in his “George Miles Cycle” of novels.  Recent work by Richard Lange, Dan
Fante, Sesshu Foster, Hector Tovar, Jim Krusoe, Gary Phillips (in The
Perpetrators
.) and Salvador Plascencia all have notable merit.  Yet none of these works define the “LA
Now.”

            The
next great Los Angeles novel will be post-realist.  American Post Realists already exist.  Post Realism is defined by the use of
the tropes and devices of post-modernism for a different effect.  Brautigan, Barthelme and Barth et al.
largely played with language for its own sake – to create linguistic effect.  Exceptions existed – notably
Barthelme’s “Indian Uprising” — a surprisingly political story for the playful
60s and 70s crowd.  It is not my
purpose here to examine Sixties era American fiction.  Suffice it to say that it delved into more private than
public realms.  Whereas the future
of American fiction – especially that rooted in Los Angeles – lies in its
ability to reclaim it public function. 
Fiction about the world must replace fiction about the living room.  Post Realists reposition plot,
narrative attack, character development and non-linearity to covert political
effect – not for didactic or polemical purposes, but rather to depict life as
it is lived now.  We live in an age
of too much information, not a lack of information. Too little interpretation
and elucidation, and too many random and unconnected factoids.   We live in a time that witnesses
the growth of poverty, not its reduction. 
The rise of violence at the expense of peace. An age of dissonance, not
harmony.  Official terrorism by the
powerful and unofficial terrorism by the powerless. In the prescient words of
Benjamin Barber, Jihad vs. McWorld. The challenge to all fiction is to
witness and represent our times. Nowhere is this more needed or more true than
in Los Angeles, one truly 21st century city.

            I
can think of five amazing Post Realist American books – none thus far set in
LA: Eric Miles Williamson’s Welcome to Oakland , Chris Offutt’s Kentucky
Straight
, future Nobel laureate William T. Vollmann’s Whores for Gloria,
 
Kim Addonizio’s novel-in-poems
Jimmy and Rita, and Barry Graham’s (as yet unpublished) When It All
Comes Down to Dust . These books tell it like it is about Oakland,
Kentucky hillbillies, the San Francisco Tenderloin (two), and Phoenix,
Arizona.  All these books fuck with
your head, on the page and in your brain, the way great literature should.

            Los
Angeles is ground zero for so much dichotomous and diversionary cacophony.  In our literature, the closest we’ve
come is likely Plascencia’s “The People of Paper,” a book about immigrants and
illusions and much more. I say this with a wink, not a nod, to the fabulist
school that claims him because this novel is all too real.

            Outside
a select and celebrated few – Cain, Chandler and West among them — most 1930s
authors have been neglected, forgotten, ignored or downplayed in the United States.
Writers such as James T. Farrell, Ellen Glasgow, Jack Conroy and Henry Roth
rarely get their due. Even John Dos Passos’ masterpiece, The USA Trilogy,
remains vastly underappreciated.

            Instead,
many critics trumpet the Post-World War II era of American fiction as a kind of
Golden Age.  I take the opposite
view. Much of the literature of the past several decades has been overly
introspective and self-indulgent. University writing programs turn out scores
of harmless craftspeople, superficially skilled stylists who have nothing to
say. Chain bookstore shelves are redolent with works of glittering shit, finely
wrought bits of nothing, the fool’s gold of the written word.

            For
decades now, there has been no Fante, no Nelson Algren, no Jack London or Stephen
Crane. Yet the new realities of our age, a time of limits, will force our
literature once again to address the margins – as it did in the 1930s.  This will reinvigorate American
literature, and great public fiction will again emerge from Los Angeles.  I am naturally suspicious of the
glamour of gold.  But our times
will almost forcibly birth a new era in American writing: the Literature of Iron
— a fresh body of enduring, meaningful and deeply moving work, work that
matters.

            At
this point, though we know what it may look like, the next great Post Realist
novel of Los Angeles is as yet unwritten, by someone who may be as yet unborn.


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