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The latitude and longitude of L.A. lit

Steve Wasserman is the editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review.

America is, famously, the republic of reinvention, where peoples the world over have sought an escape from history, a new identity in a land of seemingly endless possibility. California, of course, is, as Susan Sontag has remarked, “America’s America,” and Los Angeles has for more than 100 years been a terminus, the destination of desire. Despite its notorious reputation for making a fetish of the body and eschewing the life of the mind, Los Angeles has been a magnet for writers. Hometown for some, refuge for others, it is both a place and a sensibility whose literature reflects a range of affection and disdain among writers who have found here what Carey McWilliams discovered more than half a century ago: a “curious amalgam of all America, of all states, of all peoples and cultures of America.”

“Writing Los Angeles,” edited by David L. Ulin and published by the Library of America, is a nearly 900-page anthology that, like the city it seeks to represent, is both multifaceted and immense. It offers a panoramic view of a diverse and sprawling literary landscape, featuring brief chronological selections from the work of nearly 80 writers who have sought over the last century or so to make sense of the astonishingly swift rise of the improbable megalopolis Mike Davis memorably called the “city of quartz,” bright, hard, opaque. Ulin has done a masterful job of choosing some of the more compelling efforts to evoke a city whose essence has proved maddeningly elusive for most of the writers who found themselves here. Ulin inclines toward many of the usual suspects, from Nathanael West to Raymond Chandler and Joan Didion, who described Los Angeles so vividly and successfully that their L.A. is by now so firmly lodged in the frontal lobe of popular imagination that it is all but impossible to experience the city as anything other than a battle of cliches. Other familiar authors include John Fante, John Rechy, Chester Himes, Christopher Isherwood, Ray Bradbury, Upton Sinclair, Tom Wolfe, Reyner Banham, Gavin Lambert, Wanda Coleman, Carolyn See, Walter Mosley, James Ellroy and D.J. Waldie. Ulin’s compendium is not comprehensive. How could it be? The literary history of Los Angeles is too unruly and rich to be fully represented and enclosed completely within the grid of its particular latitude and longitude. To those he has left out -- both the living and the dead -- he offers his regrets.

There are at least two ways to read this Rosetta stone. One is to test one’s own experience of L.A. against the reactions of its various writers, to assess where one agrees or disagrees, where they seem to get it right and where they have got it wrong. A second more suggestive (and challenging) approach is to imagine you are a reader who has never visited or lived in L.A., whose only encounter with the city is through the pages of this book, to treat it as if it were a novel written by multiple authors. Read this way, it gives rise to several questions: What is the tale that is told? What is the nature of its main character -- the city itself? What changes does it undergo over time? And what, if any, is the moral of the story?

“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears,” Italo Calvino wrote in “Invisible Cities.” Nowhere is that more true than in Los Angeles, a city whose very founding and survival rebuke the notion that geography is fate. For, unlike other cities, Los Angeles is entirely an act of will. It doesn’t thrive at the confluence of rivers, or at the mouth of a natural harbor, or in a verdant plain made bountiful by plentiful rainfall. On the contrary, it is, observes John McPhee, “a metropolis that exists in a semidesert, imports water three hundred miles, has inveterate flash floods, is at the grinding edges of two tectonic plates, and has a microclimate tenacious of noxious oxides.” To put it another way, Los Angeles has no right to exist. And yet, against all odds, it does.

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From the beginning, its chief seduction was the obliteration of the past, the manufacture of desire and the promise of redemption. Its siren call was most clearly heard through movies, of course. Movies made Los Angeles a virtual destination for people everywhere, projecting images of both a glittering Arcadia and a dark underbelly of anomie and murderous suffocation. But it wasn’t only the movies, as “Writing Los Angeles” reveals. Novelists and journalists played their parts, by turns swept away, astonished and appalled by the spectacle that was L.A. Land speculators, oil men, railroad tycoons, religious cranks, hucksters and grifters of every stripe combined to make of Los Angeles a beacon for ordinary Americans who sought to liberate themselves from the stifling confinements and corruptions of the industrial East, to flee the idiocies of the rural life and to renew themselves in a sun-kissed land where they might yet stumble upon the secret of life in their sunset years.

No longer hostage to the past, these immigrants found themselves in free fall. There was a kind of vertigo to the place. It was a land of compulsive (and, it would appear, compulsory) reinvention. For many -- Christopher Isherwood and David Hockney, for instance -- the experience was intoxicating. No longer bound by the claustrophobic class and sex constraints of their native England, they found L.A. to be a city of exhilarating velocity and possibility. “Within a week of arriving there in this strange big city,” Hockney recalls, “not knowing a soul, I’d passed the driving test, bought a car, driven to Las Vegas and won some money, got myself a studio, started painting, all in a week. And I thought, it’s just how I imagined it would be.” By contrast, for many Germans, fleeing the Nazi conquest of Europe, living in Los Angeles was, as Bertolt Brecht put it, an “exile in paradise.” In his bitter and brilliant Hollywood poem cycle, Brecht is at pains to denounce the manifold hypocrisies of the place, the terror lurking behind its shallow smiling exterior: “Alas, the lovely garden, placed high above the coast / Is built on crumbling rock. Landslides / Drag parts of it into the depths without warning.” The whole city sought to evade what Brecht called the “stink of greed and poverty.” He knew what many other writers had also discovered: Los Angeles is a world unto itself -- a mythic city of both abundant promise and tragic disappointment, a city precariously perched on the edge of a continent, a golden mirage of Edenic prosperity which barely conceals a darker edge, an apocalyptic fault line of class and racial tension that splinters its subterranean vaults, threatening its otherwise relentlessly sunny disposition with the specter of disaster.

Los Angeles, on the evidence provided by the authors in “Writing Los Angeles,” is a city that has yet to make up its mind about what it wants to be when it grows up. The one thing it knows for certain is that it wants to get there fast. What emerges in “Writing Los Angeles” is a magical city of the imagination that is as complex, dynamic and familiar as the real city of palm trees with “scrawny fronds like broken pinwheels,” in the words of Robert Towne who, like others, remembers growing up with “the Santa Anas progressively drying the city into sand and summer smells” and the “smell of pepper trees mentholated more and more by eucalyptus.” That more innocent Los Angeles is largely gone, pulverized by the hammer wielded by the present upon the past in its remorseless quest to make way for the radiant future.

No single anthology, however thoughtfully and artfully assembled (as “Writing Los Angeles” surely is), can fully contain that drama. This reader misses, for example, something of the spice of a number of authors who have written about L.A. with wit and insight: Kate Braverman (“Lithium for Medea”), David Rieff (“Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World”), T.C. Boyle (“The Tortilla Curtain”), Sandro Meallet (“Edgewater Angels”), Yxta Maya Murray (“Locas”), Norman Klein (“The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory”), Richard Rayner (“Los Angeles Without a Map”), Kem Nunn (“Pomona Queen”), Bret Easton Ellis (“Less Than Zero”), Hector Tobar (“The Tattooed Soldier”), Susan Straight (“Highwire Moon”), Bruce Wagner (“I’ll Let You Go”), virtually any of the novels of Michael Connelly and Robert Crais, as well as extracts from the autobiographical writings of Agnes De Mille, Arthur Miller and Michael Korda. All such lists are inherently subjective, of course, and every reader will have his or her own favorites. (Ulin himself a year ago put a number of important contemporary L.A. writers into a useful volume titled “Another City: Writing From Los Angeles,” published by City Lights Books.) The best map to Los Angeles is the one each reader creates by virtue of his or her own reading. In the end, each of us is properly the cartographer of our own literary discoveries. Nevertheless, Ulin is a trustworthy guide, and “Writing Los Angeles” is an indispensable introduction to the literature of Los Angeles. It by no means exhausts the subject.

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