Call them siren songs … The stories of Los Angeles make people want to come here. “Los Angeles is like the rest of the country, but more so,” in the words of journalist and author Patt Morrison. The Southern California dream is like the American dream, but better. Not simply wife, kids, yard, but palm trees, oranges in winter, beaches and more sin, drugs and fun than the rest of the country can imagine. It has glorious sunshine and apocalyptic events, fires, floods, earthquakes, riots. People move to California to reinvent themselves. That clichéd dream is perfectly reflected in Carolyn See’s Golden Days, which also follows a tradition of California phonies like Aimee Semple McPherson: it features a lunatic with followers and then nuclear apocalypse.
There are many Los Angeles in literature – and all feel vaguely familiar thanks to countless celluloid adaptations. Hollywood itself is, no doubt, the setting for much of the town’s literature. LA stories like F Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Love of the Last Tycoon place films as a major character in the city, a backdrop for everything. Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust, set in the Great Depression era, describes piles of houses with a strange mixture of architecture from everywhere, as if a child God were playing with stacking toys between the freeways. One of its minor characters, Homer Simpson – which inspired the Simpsons TV character – walks out into what he thinks is a mob but turns out to be people in a film. And that is the essence of all LA stories: nothing is as it seems. The beach, the house, the hair, the intangible wealth, nothing is real.
I’ve always liked the idea that Los Angeles writers think they’re making up a new language
LA Noir, the sub-genre encompassing tales of crime set in the shadows of the streets, is impossible to imagine without Raymond Chandler. With The Big Sleep, he began the stories of Philip Marlowe, the hard-boiled detective who finds that Los Angeles is full of liars, cheats and dirty deals. Women jump into bed with you, but sometimes they have a gun. The distance between rich and poor, between the grime of the streets and the clean swimming pools, threads through LA noir stories: James Ellroy’s LA Confidential, Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, also follow LA detectives through its mean streets. In Los Angeles, of course, the movies stick with us as much as the books do. Devil in a Blue Dress is hard to think about without remembering Denzel Washington walking through mid-Wilshire and LA Confidential is one of the most enduring films about Los Angeles, crudely introducing us to street hustling.
But lovers of Los Angeles stories would say: don’t stop. What about drug stories? Among many others, Lithium for Medea is a tale of addiction and of LA as an anti-paradise: “The deformed sun dissolving above me and spitting sick orange blood on the pavement,” writes Kate Braverman. Incidentally, she once told me that she invented “tropicalizing the language.” I’ve always liked the idea that Los Angeles writers think they’re making up a new language.
A must-read southern California chronicler … Joan Didion sitting inside white Stingray car, with cigarette, pictured in Hollywood in 1970. Photograph: Julian Wasser/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Contemporary authors capture this bittersweet character of Los Angeles perfectly. In Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, we have the absent father, the mother in prison and the young woman inventing herself over and over, learning about drugs and sex too early. In Paint it Black, Fitch takes the story further: a young woman falls in love with a wealthy young man, but they cannot find happiness because they are both so damaged. Mona Simpson’s Anywhere but Here has a mother and daughter coming to Los Angeles to be happy together. But happiness is out of reach. It seems real like the huge gloating sunshine, the palm trees and the freeways against the skyline, but it’s not. Happiness is in movies that you didn’t get a part in. You tried out, you seemed perfect, but everyone else got into that movie except you.
For many readers of Los Angeles, the crime fiction and the inequality come together with Charles Bukowski. However, once you read John Fante’s Ask the Dust, you realise who Bukowski was reading as he fell asleep. Fante’s Los Angeles is colder and crueler than we’d like it to be, and it’s far dirtier. Mike Davis’ elegiac City of Quartz, depicting a metropolis destroyed by corporate greed and short-term civic thinking, is a must read for anyone who wants to understand how Los Angeles evolved. Wanda Coleman, Luis Rodriguez, Eloise Klein Healy and Laurel Ann Bogen are the poets you’d read to hear the music of the city. Of course, that music is all encompassing in Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, the Los Angeles novel we’ve all been trying to write ever since. It’s about the desire to have it all matter, to have it all amount to something. To have the story hold up against the world:
There was silence. Something real was happening: this was, as it were, her life. If she could keep that in mind she would be able to play it through, do the right thing, whatever that meant.