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:
Is L.A. essentially a comedy, or a tragedy?
That's the question at the heart at this week's matchup in our tournament to determine the greatest L.A. novel of all time. As we kick off round two, things are getting more difficult. The overrrated novels are all gone; what's left are only great reads with real insight into the way we live.
So, yes, it's not overselling it to say that both of this week's books — The Loved One, by Evelyn Waugh, and Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion — are masterpieces. Both were written by brilliant outsiders who came to L.A. and couldn't help but see it for what it was: a collection of preening, shallow strivers and social climbers; a place that could send a nice girl headlong into a nervous breakdown.
And while both authors had a moralist's reaction to the city's excesses, they deal with their disgust in sharply divergent ways.
Didion seems sick to her stomach. Her protagonist is nearly catatonic — she's so depressed by what she's seen, and what she now knows of life, that she's frozen. Of Maria Wyeth, she writes, “For days during the rain she did not speak out loud or read the newspaper. She could not read newspapers because certain stories leapt at her from the front page. … In the whole world there was not so much sedation as there was instantaneous peril.” Her fear manifests itself in a nervous breakdown.
And while Play It As It Lays is a novel, and “she” is not “I,” as Waugh would say, it's hard to read about Maria Wyeth's crackup without thinking of Didion's non-fiction recounting of a crackup of her own in “The White Album,” one in which an L.A. summer was also the catalyst. Suffering from nausea and vertigo, Didion writes, “By way of comment I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.”
Evelyn Waugh's response would be to laugh. The Loved One, his “little nightmare produced by the unaccustomed high living of a brief visit to Hollywood,” suggests that nothing is sacred. Not funeral parlors. Not suicide. And certainly not delicate young women preyed on by clever men with sex on their minds.
From the start, Waugh mocks the very thing that Didion empathizes with. Aimée Thanatogenos is a rebuke to the silly ideals of American womanhood: She strives to be “ethical,” yet she falls for a scamp. She yearns for the poetic, but she hasn't read enough of the classics to catch on when her suitor plagiarizes the classics. She slavishly pesters the worst possible person for advice, only to ignore it until precisely the wrong moment. She is every girl you've ever met who's just arrived in Hollywood from the sticks — and her ending is so pathetic, it can't even rise to the level of tragedy she longs for. She is, in the end, a joke.
As are we. Los Angeles is many things, but once you've lived here any length of time it's hard to see the place as the venomous den of vipers that Didion is insistent upon. Her vision of L.A. comes from a child of the desert — a brilliant, humorless John the Baptist who wants the path made straight. It's searing, yes, but upon a second reading, you might notice that none of the characters in this book other Maria Wyeth remind you of any actual person. And certainly, none of them, with the possible exception of Maria, will remind you of yourself. Play It As It Lays is an indictment, yes, but it indicts all the obvious things.
The Loved One, by contrast, takes a more jocular tone, but actually hits closer to home. Yes, Waugh's characters are absurd, but they are us: our pretensions, our longing, our selfishness. Reading Didion next to Waugh, you acknowledge the superior power of her prose — even as you realize that he's the one who actually gets it right.
Has there ever been a city more wonderfully funny than L.A.? We've been given paradise, and we paved it for an endless sea of parking lots. We attract the best and the brightest — and then put them to work on the silliest of amusements. We long for immortality, but the closest we're ever going to get is a big rococo mausoleum at Whispering Glades — sorry, Forest Lawn Cemetery. The thing that's most ridiculous about Los Angeles, really, might be the people who insist on taking this fever dream of a city so seriously.
Of course there is inane laughter, and then there's knowing laughter. Waugh's is the latter. And so even if you howl with it, you should be vaguely discomfited. “Sir Ambrose, in accordance with local custom, had refrained from listening,” Waugh writes. Ouch.
By all means, read Didion's book. Read it twice; it holds up on second reading, too. But then pull out Waugh's, and laugh until you cry — or at least laugh until you see your own pathetic self reflected back in the mirror.
Winner: The Loved One
Previous matchups, from round one:
Rebels & Outcasts Region:
Lost Souls Region: