MAILANDER ON … BOOKS - I know a writer who thinks that everyone who is more renowned than he is a sellout and everyone who is less renowned than he is unimportant. I know another writer who believes that she can only come to be known as A Writer if something she writes appears someday on the back page column of the New York Times Magazine.
As writers are self-proclaimed to the world—despite Oprah’s dispensations and all the efforts of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop to convince us otherwise—the practitioners of this lonely and existential vocation, more malady than trade, also endure enormous personal battles with self-esteem. They typically bruise too easily and too wearily; they often cope with their outré status by means of the usual raft of addictions. They are more often than not in dire need of money—certainly so, as not only are books hard to write, but nineteen out of twenty of them will never generate five figures of sales—a sum that most stalwarts in the honored trades of telemarketing or housekeeping can reach in six months.
Whatever the level of accomplishment or esteem, I like to read books set in Los Angeles or at least written by people who have known these streets for a while.
I often do so hoping against hope—as I did so many times this year. In part, I like to try local and often under-heralded books because I believe that New York’s publishers have largely missed the real stories of Los Angeles by about seventy years or so on the yang side and about thirty-five years or so on the yin side.
The degree to which Raymond Chandler and Joan Didion still seep into the prose of LA writers is, to me, mostly an embarrassment, an indicator that many writers remain gullible enough to lend their very voice and whole artistic sensibility to someone else’s very old vision of what Los Angeles is in fact like.
The truth is that for a very long time in Los Angeles few of us have needed to hire a pro to snoop on our mysteriously felonious friends and that nobody here much believes that the world has an empty white core. But New York editors think they can sell these two conditions, and many writers here gleefully oblige.
I would never presume to tell you what to read. Nor would call something as oblique and potentially distasteful to you as a book one of the “best” that was written in a given year. No, I am merely anxious to share with you my hunger for the kind of LA book that bucks trend and especially that doesn’t pander to the increasingly banal New York commercial mill formulae for LA lit. A book that is not best but is most exemplary, if you will—most exemplary of what Angeleno writing can be.
Allow me then to present what to me was the most exemplary LA book of 2012. It was…
Rodger Jacobs, “Invisible Ink,” (The Book Motel), 124 pages, $9.95.
“The ineluctable workings of economic law once deposited Hal on the doorstep of a bottled water distributor in Alhambra…” one story begins. “’Have you ever seen a movie that wasn’t made before last week?’” another story ends. In between and throughout there are similar blazes of fire.
Jacobs’ collection of short (and sometimes flash) fiction from 2005-2009 can be taken in caramel corn handfuls, and is best put away every thirty thematic pages or so (one features Narcissus, another, in a furious wheeze on the dread Murakami, celebrates “Writers on the Shore,” and yet another becomes a novella that turns tail on both Carver and Brautigan just when you think it may be snuggling up to one or the other), and then revisited as soon as the mad sugar rush subsides. Jacobs has many times been down the road of the kind of master satire that nonetheless stands apart from that which is being lampooned, but this may be his top effort.
I’d like to mention some other books…but reading what I have written of some other books, I don’t think I can in earnest, and without being chided as a hypocrite. There remain too many books I’ve read in the past year whose authors are still too beholden to the old commercial formulae, formulae that ironically make the writer both a slave of New York and thereby a slave to a meretricious system that never brings either reward or a real voice to a city that badly needs them.
I do hope 2013 is a good enough year that I can find favor with ten LA books—instead of one—by year’s end.
(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of New World Triptych and The Plasma of Terror. Mailander blogs at www.josephmailander.com.)