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 check out:
The battle between Carolyn See's Golden Days and Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man pits Topanga Canyon against Santa Monica, science fiction against realism and feminism against gay rights.
In crisp, gripping prose, Isherwood chronicles a day in the life of George, a gay professor trying to move on after the death of his long-time partner, Jim. Published seven years before Stonewall, the book's repudiation of gay stereotypes was nothing short of revolutionary.
See's novel, set in a dystopian version of the 1980's, stars Edith Langley, or Edie, who escaped two bad marriages, pulled herself up the socioeconomic ladder and sneers at “helpless” wives who are unable “to be anything more than ornaments ever.” Yet Edie only manages to achieve her dream job — president of the Third Women's Bank of Santa Monica — because the man she's sleeping with offers it to her. And once she's got the position? “I learned to say nothing in meetings, letting my earrings speak for me.”
This book was published the year I was born, so I may be anachronistically missing some nuance here, but I wasn't sure whether the reader was supposed to admire, pity or recoil from the protagonist's 1987-brand feminism. I applauded Edie's nonchalance about sex. I applauded her complaints about what the Internet now calls “mansplaining” — when men overconfidently and condescendingly explain things to women — identifying this behavior decades before Rebecca Solnit's 2008 L.A. Times piece, which is typically given credit for first noting the phenomenon.
And at first, I applauded Edie's yearning for financial independence. But soon her obsession with jewels and “credit and clothes and houses and joint ownership of things, and what things made you rich” morphed, at least for me, into vapid materialism.
Furthermore, while Golden Days maintains the gender binary, accusing men of adultery, condescension, self-centeredness and the type of ignorant, testosterone-fueled aggression that eventually causes nuclear war, A Single Man questions the notion that genitals come with a briefcase of affiliated attributes. When the novel opens, George enters the reader's consciousness not as “he,” but as “it,” perhaps to prime 1962 readers for the challenging experience of seeing the world from the perspective of a gay man.
In addition to providing a glimpse into the mind of an oppressed minority, both protagonists seem hyper conscious of some kind of impending doom. “What is it about happiness that implies an ending?” Edie asks. The portentous tone behind each book's progressive agenda reminded me somehow of the dark certainty lurking under every cheery emergency preparedness lecture I've heard since moving here.
“These experts say that it doesn't really matter if there's a war, because enough people will survive to run the country with,” George thinks, putting a sunny, L.A. spin on Cold War-era realities.
After all, our city drips with fatalism, nervously obsessing over earthquakes, fires, Carmageddon, landslides, droughts, riots and an unsustainable water supply. A few years ago, at the height of my paranoia about defending myself when Sunset Boulevard turns into “The Road” after whichever apocalyptic disaster hits first, I clutched my Dodgers' Snuggie to my chin and watched an absurdly dramatic National Geographic documentary that predicted Los Angeles would be abandoned within a century or two. I flashed back to its scenes of hokey future archaeologists poking through a half-buried freeway when Isherwood imagines that one day “the desert, which is the natural condition of this country, will return.” Perhaps the most enduring myth about Los Angeles is that the entire city is a movie set waiting to be disassembled.
Both books associate this hysterical dread with our tendency to raise the hedges, to hunker down in our homes instead of flocking to public spaces. L.A. is a city with only small pockets of real community, so I wasn't surprised to see George seething with hatred for his neighbors (who of course distrust and condescend to him) or Edie dismissing “Lakewood, Torrance, Brea, Compton, [and] Carson, [because] no one real lived there.”
Indeed, both books are narrated by cynical outsiders whose contempt for and alienation from other minorities in Los Angeles reminded me of how it often seems as though someone turned the heat off underneath our fair city's melting pot before it was done coalescing, leaving intractable lines in the hodge-podge.
I thought rather early on that Isherwood was a natural winner here, especially since I devoured his book in two feverish sittings and felt his work held up a lot better, despite having been written two and a half decades before Golden Days. But then I remembered this contest isn't supposed to be about the best novel: it's about the best Los Angeles novel.
For the purposes of this match-up, should the ability to catalogue local idiosyncrasies and make cutting observations about empty-headed Angelenos matter more than the ability to articulate something more universal you always knew existed but couldn't express or perhaps even recognize? Well, See does hit a wider range of L.A. targets, including self-affirming New Age gurus, skeezy producers and insular rich racists.
But I didn't care about her characters. I remembered more at the end of the book about Edie's favorite restaurant than I did about her daughters. She felt more like a placard than a person, a vehicle to discuss issues and movements rather than a fully formed person.
Both narrators slice Los Angeles open with sharp satire, but only George's morbid hopefulness felt like mine, like anyone's. He flits from pure joy to despair, from nostalgia to nihilism. His grief over his dead lover feels aching, personal. His friendships seem hauntingly and authentically laced with hatred, papered over with the false intimacy created by alcohol.
Isherwood captures what it feels like to space out on the freeway, yes, but he also captures what it means to wander the aisles of supermarket or to sit in a hospital beside a dying person you never liked. And, for me, that makes his book the winner.
Winner: A Single Man
Previous matchups, from round one:
Rebels & Outcasts Region:
Lost Souls Region: