L.A. Through the Eye of a Stranger : LOS ANGELES; Capital of the Third World <i> By David Rieff</i> , <i> (Simon & Schuster: $20; 259 pp.) </i>
No publisher would dream of sending a Los Angeles magazine writer with scant experience in New York to spend a few months in Manhattan and explain that city--and, while he’s at it, analyze the entire area, its history and its future. But some people must want news of Los Angeles very badly, because that’s what they did in reverse: sent a Manhattan writer, David Rieff, to spend what he keeps calling a “time” or “period” among us, and reveal us to the world. Rieff is careful not to say just how long or short a time it was, though he does admit that until he began writing this book, he had not spent “more than a few consecutive weeks in Southern California” in the last 25 years.
Rieff’s lack of L.A. experience may account for his earnest, often apologetic tone (the audiocassette should be read by Sally Field) and his many ridiculous generalizations. Sentences such as this dangle from every chapter: “No one can spend very long in Los Angeles without talking about more real estate than is entirely good for the spirit”; and, 10 pages later, “In Los Angeles people talk obsessively about their homes.”
Depends on whom you know, I suppose, but speaking as someone whom a census would call Anglo, who makes decent money, and who’s lived in Los Angeles going on 14 years: Most of my friends don’t talk about real estate unless a landlord raises their rent. In fact, you can’t learn from Rieff’s book that the overwhelming majority of Angelenos, including the great majority of white people, rent. He strains to give the reader the opposite impression.
This is the sort of thing that serves Rieff for a theory: “That golden dream, the set of images and expectations by which Californians had always made sense of themselves, continued to prevail (in Los Angeles).” Well, how many of you Angelenos out there go around “making sense” of yourselves by means of “that golden dream”? And did you know that you are “a society made up almost entirely of true believers,” believing, that is, in the optimistic future of Los Angeles? And that, among other things, you have “found the future, no matter how much (you) might disagree about what that future was”? Rieff thinks that we think we’ve “found the dream.”
Do you go around thinking you’ve “found the dream”? Do you know many people who do? When you apply Rieff’s statements to daily experience, they fizz into nothing.
According to Rieff, for Angelenos “traffic jams or no traffic jams, every car trip is a kind of miniature version of the fresh start that moving, on a deeper, more serious level, is felt to represent . . . (when) they drive, they are all stars.” Do you feel like you’re getting a fresh start in life, or think you’re the new Madonna, on any car trip, much less “every” car trip, even when you’re caught in a traffic jam?
As to our collective relationship to the future, Rieff says, “the Japanese were at the heart of the matter. There were times it seemed as if their success possessed the imagination of Angelenos completely.” Sentences such as that make me want to stop people on the street, hand them a slip of paper with my phone number, and ask them to call me immediately the next time their imaginations are “possessed completely” by the success of the Japanese. I want to know what that’s like.
Any writer can get small things wrong, like thinking that Steven Spielberg directed “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (it was Robert Zemeckis). But you don’t know your own country if you call moving a “rare” step when more than 40 million Americans move every year. And is it conscientious for Rieff to say there are “between 70,000 and 90,000 gang members in greater Los Angeles”? In a nation in which the government admits it’s no longer capable of an accurate census of the law-abiding population, how does anybody know how many gang members there are? Or are these the figures Daryl Gates’ LAPD and/or some social agencies want us to believe so that they get more funding and power?
It’s to Rieff’s honor that he attempted a difficult form. It’s hard for any stranger to evoke the spirit of a place, to speak both to and for it, even when that place is more or less contained and stands fairly still. When George Orwell tried, in “The Road to Wigan Pier,” he got some important things wrong (there is no pier in Wigan, probably never was). And even Jean Baudrillard, in his brilliant “America,” can get pretty silly, sounding like a Ronald Reagan speech writer when he claims that a “concrete, flexible, functional, active freedom (can be seen) at work in American institutions and in the head of each citizen.” But these writers had what the form demands: rigorous intellectual focus, and a knowledge of (and passion for) specifics. David Rieff can’t seem to focus.
Rieff constructs his chapters much like his sentences: Beginning on one tack, they veer off, double back, repeat previous points, inch forward, double back again, and don’t exactly finish--they just sort of plop down wherever they happen to be.
Rieff is trying to write about the effect of the Third World’s epic immigration on Los Angeles and America, but the cogent things he has to say get lost in the muck.
Early on he speaks of what he calls L.A.'s “class segregation” as being “well-nigh absolute.” True, when you’re talking about West L.A., Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, East L.A. and South Central, among others; but not true when you’re talking about Venice, Silver Lake, Mar Vista, Culver City, Burbank, or North Hollywood--areas that don’t figure at all in Rieff’s demographic geography. His familiarity doesn’t seem to extend past mid-Wilshire, West L.A., Brentwood and Downtown, with bus rides deep into East L.A. The New York equivalent would be to analyze that city with no more than lip service to half of Brooklyn and all of Queens.
And he has some very strange notions about L.A.'s white people. They think of maids as “part of the basic ‘kit’ of middle-class life.” According to Rieff, only the most “exceptional” whites, or people in “straitened . . . circumstances,” do without servants.
As sensitive as Rieff is to Third World maids and busboys, he never notices that many of the waiters and waitresses, secretaries, receptionists, assistants, messengers and what-have-you are white. That these whites have jobs which are in no way upwardly mobile never comes across, for Rieff invariably equates “white” with “affluent.” This misconception can’t help but maul his sense of Southern California’s demographics, and without an accurate sense of those demographics, what are any of his theories worth?
It’s hard to say because, again, they’re hard to read. Even when Rieff gets to his book’s heart--the meaning of Third World immigration both to Anglos and to the immigrants--his grammar keeps tripping over his abstractions:
“In their insularity, it was possible for Anglos to assume that since they thought of themselves as Americans, and the Europeans they met usually described themselves as coming from France, Germany, or Italy (and, as the reality of the United Europe of 1992 began to sink in, as Europeans), such broad categories had always predominated.”
You figure it. I only work here.
David Rieff’s demographic holes are matched by his historical vacuums. For example, he assails “multiculturalism” for being vague and mushy, charging that it doesn’t take into account peoples “with long histories of antipathy; Koreans and Japanese, to take one obvious example.” But he seems to forget there have been equally long histories of equally virulent antipathies between the French and the Germans, the English and the French, the Irish and the English, and the Italians and the Germans, when they came over during the last great wave of immigration. Why should it be any worse between the Koreans and the Japanese now? Rieff doesn’t say--not just then. He drops the argument in the middle of one chapter until 40 pages later, when in the middle of another he picks it up again just as suddenly.
Things will be worse now, Rieff says, because today’s immigrants want to keep their cultures intact, whereas during the last wave, “many immigrants aspired to nothing more than to change their names and to pass for white Protestants.” Does Rieff know any New York Italians? Minnesota Scandinavians? Chicago Poles? Bangor French Canadians? Boston Irish? San Francisco Chinese? Texas Germans? They’ve held to their roots vigorously. There are towns in central Texas, like Fredericksburg, where third-generation Germans and Slavs can still speak the language of the old country.
In a book about immigration, it’s fair to expect of the writer some knowledge of the history of immigration. But what serves Rieff for knowledge is nothing more than a collection of spotty impressions. And what serve as his ideas hardly pass muster as notions. This makes it hard to judge his book’s overall intent. He’s all over the map of a place that doesn’t exist.
So David Rieff ends up saying, not nothing, but little. Scattered throughout his 259 pages is a decent 40-or-so-page pamphlet about the situation of Third World immigrants in Southern California, and their relationship to those who were here before them. Rieff details L.A.'s economic dependence on this meagerly paid labor. In the midst of one of these pages, he gets off his best sentence: “In Los Angeles, every dream now crowded in on every dream, and every claim impinged, sometimes fatally, on every other claim.” Yes, but the same thing could be said of New York, Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, D.C., St. Louis and Wichita--or any other of a dozen American cities. Aside from that, he only states over and over again what James Baldwin told America 30-odd years ago: that the world is white no longer, and never will be white again.
But what does this mean for Los Angeles? Will it become “the capital of the Third World,” as Rieff’s title suggests? Race war? Assimilation? Cross-culture fertilizing? Will the lack of water end growth? Will the Big One end everything? In his jumbled way, he considers and passes over many possibilities but can reach no conclusion, broach no theory, make no suggestion. Like many of his sentences, Rieff’s book doesn’t so much finish as stop, exhausted and bewildered.