Tag Archives: California

Reading Women: The Lonely City by Olivia Laing and Slow Days, Fast Company by Eve Babitz

In this age of social distancing and self-isolation, I’m finding myself drawn to certain types of non-fiction, typically books with a connection to the arts or cultural world. Two recent reads that really stand out on this front are The Lonely City, Olivia Laing’s meditative exploration of loneliness in an urban environment and Slow Days, Fast Company, Eve Babitz’s seductive collection of essays.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing (2016)

This is a terrific read – a compassionate, multifaceted discourse on what it means to feel lonely and exposed in a fast-moving city, a place that feels alive and alienating all at once.

You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people. One might think this state was antithetical to urban living, to the massed presence of other human beings, and yet mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel a sense of internal isolation. It’s possible – easy, even – to feel desolate and unfrequented in oneself while living cheek by jowl with others. Cities can be lonely places, and in admitting this we see that loneliness doesn’t necessarily require physical solitude, but rather an absence or paucity of connection, closeness, kinship: an inability, for one reason or another, to find as much intimacy as is desired. (pp. 3–4)

At the time of writing this book, Laing was living in New York, recently separated from her former partner, an experience that had left her feeling somewhat adrift and alone. During the months that followed, Laing found herself drawn to the work of several visual and creative artists that had captured something of the inner loneliness of NYC, a sense of urban isolation or alienation.   

Through a combination of investigation, cultural commentary and memoir, Laing explores the nature of loneliness, how it manifests itself both in the creative arts and in our lives. While this is clearly a very personal and well-researched book, the author uses this wealth of information very carefully, weaving it seamlessly into the body of the text in a way that feels thoughtful and engaging.

Laing examines the work of several artists, from the relatively well-known (Edward Hopper and Andy Warhol) to the less familiar (David Wojnarowicz and Henry Drager), each contributing something unique to the scene. Here’s a passage from the chapter on Hopper, surely the foremost visual poet of urban alienation, an artist with the ability to convey the experience with such insight and intensity.

Hopper routinely reproducers in his paintings ‘certain kinds of spaces and spatial experiences common in New York that result from being physically close to others but separated from them by a variety of factors, including movement, structures, windows, walls and light or darkness’. This viewpoint is often described as voyeuristic, but what Hopper’s urban scenes also replicate is one of the central experiences of being lonely: the way a feeling of separation, of being walled off or penned in, combines with a sense of near-unbearable exposure. (p.17)

At the start of her time in New York, Laing recognises in herself a growing anxiety about acceptance and visibility. On the one hand, she longs to be seen, to be valued and accepted by those around her. On the other, she feels dangerously exposed, wary of being judged by others, particularly when alone. During her investigations, Laing discovers various aspects that together prompt a deeper understanding of her own relationship with the condition. These range from the loneliness of difference and not fitting in – as typified by Andy Warhol’s early life – to loneliness as a longing for integration as well as acceptance. There is also a section on the particular challenges of making meaningful connections with people in the digital age, where smartphones and other devices facilitate non-physical forms of interaction.

In summary, this is a fascinating book, beautifully written and constructed – a contemporary classic in the making.

Slow Days, Fast Company – The World, The Flesh and L.A by Eve Babitz (1977)

Journalist, photographer, album cover designer and party girl – these are just some of the roles Eve Babitz adopted during her early years in Los Angeles, the city of her birth. These days she is perhaps best known for her writing, mostly thanks to NYRB Classics and their stylish reissues of her work.

I’ve written before about my fondness for Babitz’s writing with its fluid, naturally cool style. (My post on her marvellous autobiographical novel, Eve’s Hollywood, is here.) Strictly speaking, Slow Days is probably classified as autofiction rather than memoir, but the ten essays/sketches in this excellent book feel very autobiographical.

Babitz grew up in a talented family. Her father, Sol Babitz, was a baroque musicologist and violinist with the film studio 20th Century Fox, and her mother, Mae, was an artist. Family friends included the composer Igor Stravinsky, Eve’s godfather. However, unlike others with this type of background, Babitz doesn’t namedrop for kudos or attention; instead, her writing reflects a long-term relationship with California., snapshots of her bohemian lifestyle within the cultural milieu.

In Slow Days, Babitz conveys an enthralling portrait of Californian life, turning her artistic eye to subjects including men, relationships, fame, friendship, parties, baseball and drugs. She writes of deserts, vineyards, rivers and bars, the essays taking us across the state from Bakersfield to Palm Springs to Emerald Bay, each one portraying a strong sense of place.

Babitz’s style is at once both easy-going and whip-smart, a beguiling mix of the confessional and insightful. She is particularly good on the superficiality of success, the emptiness that can often accompany popularity and fame. Janis Joplin is a touchstone here, particularly as the pair had met just weeks before Joplin’s death.

Women are prepared to suffer for love; it’s written into their birth certificates. Women are not prepared to have “everything,” not success-type “everything.” I mean, not when the “everything” isn’t about living happily ever after with the prince (when even if it falls through and the prince runs away with the baby-sitter, there’s at least a precedent). There’s no precedent for women getting their own “everything” and learning that it’s not the answer. Especially when you got fame, money, and love by belting out how sad and lonely and beaten you were. Which is only a darker version of the Hollywood “everything” in which the more vulnerability and ineptness you project onto the screen, the more fame, money and love they load you with. They’ll only give you “everything” if you appear to be totally confused. Which leaves you with very few friends. (p. 54–55)

While Babitz isn’t particularly famous herself at this point, she comes close enough to detect the stench of success, a smell she describes as a blend of ‘burnt cloth and rancid gardenias.’ As Babitz reflects, the truly dreadful thing about success is that it’s built up to be the thing that will make everything alright, when in fact the opposite is often true, leaving loneliness and desolation in its wake.

I’ll finish with a final passage, one that reminds me just how naturally funny Babitz can be – this is a book full of quotable lines and sharp humour

L.A. is loaded with designers, art directors, and representatives from amazing Milanese furniture manufacturers. These people don’t live in apartments like most people, or studios like artists; they live in “spaces.” “How do you like my space?” they ask, showing you some inconceivable, uncozy, anti-Dickens ode to white, chrome and inch-thick glass.

“But where do you sleep?” I wonder, nervous.

“There’s a space up those stairs,” I’m told.

“But those stairs…I mean, those stairs don’t have banisters. Aren’t you afraid of falling head first on your coffee table and wrecking the glass? The glass looks pretty expensive.”

But designers never get looped enough to get blood on their spaces. Red doesn’t go with the white and chrome. (Not that they necessarily have red blood, come to think of it.) (p. 90) 

If you like this quote, you’ll almost certainly enjoy the book. If not, then it’s probably not for you.

My thanks to NYRB Classics for kindly providing a review copy of the Babitz. The Laing is published by Canongate, personal copy.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

Nicholas Ray’s noir classic In a Lonely Place is one of my top ten favourite films. I’ve seen it a dozen times, probably more. It’s one of a handful of old films I watch every 18 months or so, whenever I want to remind myself just how good the movies used to be in the 1940s and ‘50s. As such, I’ve always felt slightly nervous about the prospect of reading the novel on which the film is loosely based. I’d heard that Ray’s version of the story was very different to Dorothy Hughes’ book (also titled In a Lonely Place), so much so that some consider it to be a completely separate entity. Even so, would the novel live up to my expectations? How would I feel about it compared to the film? Well, to cut a long intro short, I absolutely loved the book. It’s tremendous – so atmospheric and suspenseful, a highlight of my reading year.

From here on in I’m going to focus solely on Hughes’ novel (first published in 1947) as there’s more than enough to say about it in its own right without drawing comparisons or contrasts with the film. Maybe that’s something for another time.

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The central character here is ex-pilot Dix Steele, now trying his hand at writing a novel following his discharge from the US Army Air Force at the end of the war. Dix has been in LA for about six months, conveniently holed up in a fancy apartment while its owner, an old college friend named Mel Terriss, is away in Rio. Not only is Dix living in Mel’s flat, he’s also driving his car, wearing his clothes and spending his money courtesy of some charge accounts he has managed to access. With all these resources on tap, you might think Dix would be feeling pretty comfortable with his life, but that’s simply not the case. From the beginning of the book, it’s crystal clear that Dix is a very troubled man; he’s damaged, depressed and desperately lonely.

As the novel opens, Dix is prowling the city streets at night; he’s out by the coast, the fog rolling in from the ocean. When he spots a girl stepping off a bus, Dix’s interest is aroused.

He didn’t follow her at once. Actually he didn’t intend to follow her. It was entirely without volition that he found himself moving down the slant, winding walk. He didn’t walk hard, as she did, nor did he walk fast. Yet she heard him coming behind her. He knew she heard him for her heel struck an extra beat, as if she had half stumbled, and her steps went faster. He didn’t walk faster, he continued to saunter but he lengthened his stride, smiling slightly. She was afraid. (pg. 2)

For the last six months, a serial killer has been on the loose in LA. Young girls are being murdered at a rate of one a month; different neighbourhoods each time, but the method is always the same – strangulation. To the reader, the nature of Dix’s connection to these killings is pretty clear from the outset. Nevertheless, Hughes stops short of focusing on the murders themselves; thankfully all the violence is ‘off-camera’, so we never actually see any of the crimes being played out in full.

Shortly after the incident with the girl from the bus, Dix decides to look up an old acquaintance from the forces, Brub Nicolai. When he calls at Brub’s apartment, Dix finds his old friend a somewhat changed man; much to Dix’s surprise, Brub has landed a role as a detective in the LAPD. When he learns that Brub is working on the recent sequence of killings, Dix knows he should back away. Nevertheless, there is something fascinating about skirting close to the source of danger. In some ways, Dix sees Brub as an opportunity to discover exactly how much the cops really know about the perpetrator, so he decides to stay in touch with his friend, quizzing him carefully while trying not to make any slip ups in the process. Dix knows he is flirting with danger by sticking close to Brub, but he simply cannot stop himself. In his own mind, Dix is untouchable, his crimes untraceable. That said, it’s not just Brub that Dix has to contend with, there’s his wife too, the smart and perceptive Sylvia, a woman who clearly loves her husband, so much so it serves to reinforce  Dix’s loneliness.

He wouldn’t go. He wouldn’t intrude on their oneness. They had happiness and happiness was so rare in this day of the present. More rare than precious things, jewels and myrrh. Once he’d had happiness but for so brief a time; happiness was made of quicksilver, it ran out of your hand like quicksilver. There was the heat of tears suddenly in his eyes and he shook his head angrily. He would not think about it, he would never think of that again. It was long ago, in an ancient past. To hell with happiness. More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. Those made you forget. They made happiness a pink marshmallow. (p. 17)

Dix is a devilishly complex character. Deep down, he is resentful of all the ‘rich stinkers’, the guys who get everything without having to lift a finger for it. Guys like Mel Terriss, his old acquaintance from Princeton; men like his Uncle Fergus, the patron who mails him a cheque for a measly $250 each month even though he could certainly afford a lot more. Hughes is particularly strong on portraying Dix’s anger and resentment towards the lucky people, the source of which stems from his own lack of status in life. As a pilot in the forces, Dix was respected; he had power and he had control. Now he has nothing.

The war years were the first happy years he’s ever known. You didn’t have to kowtow to the stinking rich, you were all equal in pay; and before long you were the rich guy. Because you didn’t give a damn and you were the best God-damned pilot in the company with promotions coming fast. You wore swell tailored uniforms, high polish on your shoes. You didn’t need a car, you had something better, sleek powerful planes. You were the Mister, you were what you’d always wanted to be, class. You could have any woman you wanted in Africa or India or England or Australia or the United States, or any place in the world. The world was yours. (p. 96)

As the story unfolds, we learn that Dix remains tormented by a woman from his past, a girl named Brucie whom he knew from his time in England during the war. Ever since then, no woman has ever come close to lighting Dix’s fire; no woman except his neighbour, the glamourous Laurel Gray. When Dix spots her for the first time, he is utterly smitten.

Her eyes were slant, her lashes curved long and golden dark. She had red-gold hair, flaming hair, flung back from her amber face, falling to her shoulders. Her mouth was too heavy with lipstick, a copper-red mouth, a sultry mouth painted to call attention to its promise. She was dressed severely, a rigid, tailored suit, but it accentuated the lift of her breasts, the curl of her hips. She wasn’t beautiful, her face was too narrow for beauty, but she was dynamite. (p. 21)

It’s not long before Dix and Laurel are an item, spending most of their evenings and nights together in Dix’s apartment. Laurel is another damaged character. Outwardly self-assured, but more than a little vulnerable at heart, divorcee Laurel is wholly dependent on her wealthy ex-husband for support. Ideally, she’d like to break into the movies or a show, something that would place her in the spotlight where she seemingly belongs.

All goes well between Dix and Laurel for a week or two, but then everything starts to crumble. One evening, Laurel doesn’t come home on time. Dix’s mind goes into overdrive, he gets angry and jealous; and when Laurel gets back, there are hints that the situation might spiral out of control. In this scene, Dix realises how close he has just come to hurting Laurel.

‘I’m sorry.’ He was, and for a moment he tightened. He was more than sorry, he was afraid. He might have hurt her. He might have lost her. With her he must remember, he must never take a chance of losing her. If it had happened – he shook his head and a tremble went over him. (p. 91)

In a Lonely Place is a first-class noir – superbly crafted, beautifully written. I don’t want to say too much more about the plot as it might spoil things, but it’s pretty suspenseful right to the end.

The characterisation is excellent, complex and subtle in its execution. Even though the novel is written in the third person, Hughes holds the reader close to Dix’s perspective throughout. We gain an insight into the mind of a deeply tormented man. Dix is angry and bitter and twisted, yet he is also rather vulnerable and fearful for the future. A lone wolf at heart, the war has left him with no real hope or purpose in life. Even though we know Dix commits some unspeakable acts, his pain is clear for all to see. At times, there is a sense that Dix is in denial about his actions, as though he is trying to distance himself from the other Dix, the one who hates women: ‘he wasn’t the same fellow.’ If only things work out with Laurel, then everything will be okay.

The other leading characters are portrayed with depth too. I marked up a great quote about one of the women in this story, but I fear it might be too much of a spoiler to include.

Hughes also excels in the creation of atmosphere and mood. As a reader you really feel as though you are walking the streets of the city at night, moving through the fog with only the dim and distant lights of LA to guide you.

If this novel is representative of Dorothy B. Hughes’ work, then I can’t wait to read another. Caroline has also reviewed this book here.

In a Lonely Place is published by Penguin Books.

Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz (NYRB Classics)

Journalist, photographer, album cover designer and party girl – these are just some of the roles Eve Babitz adopted during her early years in Los Angeles. She describes her first book, Eve’s Hollywood, as a confessional novel. Nevertheless, it reads like a memoir in the form of a series of sketches, snapshots of a bohemian lifestyle, a life lived in the cultural melting pot of LA with all its colour and splendour. Taken in its entirety, it’s quite a ride.

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First published in 1972 when Babitz was 29, Eve’s Hollywood consists of 45 vignettes and a scrapbook of photos. Some pieces are very brief (a sequence of three pitch-perfect lines on Cary Grant); others are more substantial (mini-essays on the allure of young ingénues, the trials and tribulations of adolescence and the author’s early lovers). In some ways, the following quote sets the tone for the book – it’s taken from the second snapshot, a piece entitled Hollywood and Vine.

When I was 14, I began writing a book, my memoirs, entitled I Wouldn’t Raise My Kid in Hollywood. A few weeks earlier I had let a spectacularly handsome man drive me home from a party I wasn’t allowed to go to, and when I told him I was 14, he dropped me off a block from my house and said, paternally, before he gave me an unpaternal and never-to-be-forgotten kiss, “Don’t let guys pick you up like this, kid, you might get hurt.” After that I never saw him again except on the front page of the papers two years later when he was found dead in Lana Turner’s bathroom. He was called Johnny Stompanato, poor guy. I’d been writing that book sort of before that, but afterwards I began writing it for real. After that, I’ve always been writing it. (pg. 14)

Eve Babitz grew up in the midst of a talented family. Her father, Sol Babitz, was a baroque musicologist and violinist with the film studio 20th Century Fox. Her mother, Mae, was an artist (a few of her drawings of LA appear in the book). Family friends included the composer Igor Stravinsky (Eve’s godfather), the opera singer Marilyn Horne, and the influential poet and essayist Kenneth Rexroth. Here’s one of Eve’s early recollections of Stravinsky.

Stravinsky himself was Stravinsky.

He was tiny and happy and brilliant and drank. He used to slip glasses of scotch to me underneath the coffee table when my mother wasn’t looking when I was 13. At my 16th birthday party, I wore white (very low necked white, of course) and he slipped rose petals down my top when my mother wasn’t looking. (pg. 10)

Several of the vignettes focus on Babitz’s adolescence, the time she spent at Le Conte Junior High and Hollywood High. She writes openly and engagingly about teenage life in the late 1950s, Friday nights at the Polar Palace ice-skating rink and summer days riding the waves at the rather rough beach at Roadside. None of the kids from Eve’s school went there, only the kids from West LA, ‘tough kids with knives, razors, tire irons and lowered cars.’

Babitz is particularly good on the beauty and power of teenage girls. In The Sheik, she highlights the 20 or so girls at Hollywood High who were extraordinarily beautiful, too beautiful for the constraints of the high school environment. The building itself was awash rumours of the girls’ love affairs, their tears and laughter echoed through the corridors. Even the teachers seemed powerless in the face of this overwhelming force of nature.

These were the daughters of people who were beautiful, brave, and foolhardy, who had left their homes and traveled to movie dreams. In the Depression, when most of them came here, people with brains went to New York and people with faces came West. After being born of parents who believed in physical beauty as a fact of power, and being born beautiful themselves, these girls were then raised in California, where statistically the children grow taller, have better teeth and are stronger than anywhere else in the country. When they reach the age of 15 and their beauty arrives, it’s very exciting—like coming into an inheritance and, as with inheritances, it’s fun to be around when they first come into the money and watch how they spend it and on what. (pg. 81)

Babitz develops this theme in Ingenues, Thunderbird Girls and the Neighbouring Belle: A Confusing Tragedy. In this piece we meet Sally, Eve’s best friend in Hollywood High, a beautiful, rich and tragic ingénue. For Eve, it was love at first sight.

It was a romance. Everything to do with Sally was a romance, that was how she was. She wasn’t one of those cheerfully sunny girls who bring spring into a room with them, She was way too Garbo, sullen and tragic. It’s their best friends who flee shrieking from the patio. (pg. 97)

Naturally, several of Babitz’s vignettes capture something of the cultural milieu of Los Angeles. There are the drugs of course, but some of my favourite pieces focus on other aspects of LA life: the sight of a roller skater crossing Sunset Boulevard; the sheer joy of eating taquitos from a roadside stand on Olvera Street, the best taquito place in town; a beautiful mini-essay on the Watts Towers, a set of sculptural structures designed by Sam Rodia. There are many more. This is a book that sparkles with a lively sense of place and time.

Perhaps most importantly, Babitz is keen to put paid to the notion of Los Angeles as a cultural wasteland. She pushes back against the outsiders’ view of LA, those people from the East Coast or abroad who look down on a city they consider to be rather ‘shallow, corrupt and ugly’.

Like talking about uprisings in front of the slaves, people travel to Los Angeles from more civilised spots and cast their insults upon the days, only to see their own reflections sniffing down their noses back. It’s perfectly all right to say, “Los Angeles is so garish and a wasteland,” as they sit beneath the arbors and pour themselves another glass of wine though it’s already 3 p.m. and they should be getting back to the studio to earn their money. (pg. 192)

There are other cultural musings too. Babitz writes of her ultimate love for Lawrence of Arabia, a film she resisted seeing for a year as a result of all the hype and the shower of Academy Awards it attracted. In The Hollywood Branch Library, we hear of the writers Babitz loves and admires, writers such as Isak Dinesen, Virginia Woolf and Joyce Carol Oates. Here she is on Colette whom she discovered at the tender age of 9.

When I travel, there are always certain books that go with me. Colette always is right there. I wouldn’t trust myself anywhere without Earthly Paradise, what if something happened and I didn’t have it? What if the electricity went out and all my friends died? Without Colette, where would I be? For me, Colette is one of those books you open up anywhere and brush up on what to do. (pg. 231)

Colette as a spiritual guide – isn’t that wonderful?

If you haven’t guessed by now, I really loved this book. It’s a difficult one to describe, but I hope I’ve given you a flavour of it here. Babitz’s style is at once both easy going and whip-smart (she is eminently quotable). There is a breezy lightness of touch to her writing that feels so effortless and engaging. The same is true whether Babitz is writing about the deeply personal (the loss of her virginity at the age of 17, ‘it was the Rainier Ale that did it’) or the more surprising (a short piece on her dislike of photocopying is a delight). There are touches of humour threaded through this collection of vignettes too.

In the end, it’s a book you have to experience for yourself. In some ways, I was reminded of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays and Lucia Berlin’s stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women (both of which I rate very highly). I feel as though I’ve found a new friend in Eve Babitz, one I’d like to return to again and again.

Eve’s Hollywood is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.