Best L.A. Novel Ever: Joseph Mattson's Empty the Sun vs. Carolyn See's Golden Days , Round 1
L.A. Weekly is determining the best L.A. novel ever by holding a tournament featuring 32 of our favorites in head-to-head matchups, until there's only one novel standing. For further reading:
Any true rambler knows there is only one direction to drive when he gets restless - west. The East is too steeped in tradition, too nosy, too concerned with social strata; people want to know where you grew up, your family crest, who you "are." When your family tree is withered and your personal past is littered with the kinds of messes it's easier to flee than clean up, you start to feel a kinship with the derelicts and convicts whose eyes glittered at the opportunity for a sparkling rebirth in sunny California. As Edith Langley, the protagonist of Carolyn See's Golden Days says, "... after several short trips to Paris, Madrid, Rome, I realized that I'd been going in the wrong direction; the further east you got the further back in you were."
The narrator of Joseph Mattson's Empty the Sun also wants out. "I went west as I always seem to do when leaving a place behind," he says as he careens down the freeway.
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Both books begin in a car, the predictable yet perfect start to the classic L.A. novel, both literally and figuratively. Both protagonists are running: Mattson's from his parents' death and the general unfairness of life (once a talented guitarist, his index finger is now missing; his one friend is dead); See's from two failed marriages and the general feeling of always being an outsider. They're both wounded yet determined, whether that means to end it all or to re-up. They both sense impending apocalyptic doom; Mattson's narrator even believes God has given him an exact date for the end of the world. They both hover on the fringes of the city, metaphorically as well as actually. They both take seriously religious encounters the rest of the country would consider at least kooky, if not downright crazy.
In other words, you realize early on this is an even match, one that will be hard to call.
In their descriptions of the landscape, a vital element of the classic L.A. novel, they again go head to head. Both have a flair for rich description, not least when detailing the city's physical diversity. Mattson's is more noir: "... the long bleached avenues of warm disquiet, the whispering seven-story palms ... It is the most honest place I have ever known." On the "pure climb into the sky" that is driving into the mountains, See writes, "How easy, I thought even then, to keep going straight when road turned left, to arc out into nothing for one last carnival ride."
It's difficult not to view this as a battle of the sexes, however. Sun's narrator is reckless and armed with the most basic of plans. Major points go to Mattson for a shotgun blast of an opening couplet, "Here I was, doing ninety on the Santa Monica Freeway with a quart of whiskey shoved into my crotch and my dead neighbor in the trunk. It had come time to leave Los Angeles" -- possibly by driving straight into the Pacific. Though, yes, she also toys with the idea of suicide, See's Edith is strategic, coldly so, revealing the steeliness that lies hidden in women until push comes to shove.
"I planned to earn my own money, and never to cry, and never to lay about with the cruel weapons of spite," she says. "I would take accounting courses. I would become a person who knew about riches, so that when people heard my name (when I became famous), the wouldn't hear 'Edith Langley,' who made two bad marriages and had to make her own way ... but Edith Langley, whose name meant money, and money meant power."
Mattson and See have flipped the neurotic female and stoic male stereotype, which makes sense given the time they were writing. Golden Days is a product of the '80s wave of shoulder-pad-clad feminism, where women powerwalked their way into the workplace. Men are appreciated but disposable, their adultery a tired old tale. Empty the Sun is a product of the new millennium. Men took to expressing emotion more readily, to being more sensitive. Just look at the lyrical content of the rash of indie rock bands that flourished in the '00s.
Ultimately, See, the underdog, emerges victorious. Yes, we admire that she bucks the stereotype of the L.A. woman, who's often portrayed as either broke down and scraping by doing porn or stripping, or as a beautiful, forlorn starlet scraping by pretending to be happy and bowing to men in less blatant ways. And, as author Gabrielle Zevin notes, "its formal fluidity [is] a revelation ... A novel could start out contemporary realism and end up speculative fiction?"
Yet what pushes Golden Days ahead (just barely, mind you!) is how Edith emerges from the rubble still buoyed by the same diehard hope that burns in every person who chooses to escape to this mad city.
As Edith says, believe me.
Winner: Golden Days
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