INTRODUCTION to Grove Press
Edition of Bodies and Souls
"It always astounded him, this city of bodies and souls. He did not consider it the flippant land of the inherited
clichés. To him it was the most spiritual and physical of cities, a profound city which drew to it the various bright and dark energies of the country." So reflects one of this novel's main characters about Los Angeles.
It is that view that I wanted to convey in this novel (which I consider to be one of my very best and which took over three years to write). In it, I intended to explore beneath the clichés too often expressed about Los Angeles: its spurious obsession with artifice, not substance, its lack of defining center, its courtship of extremity, its mindless narcissism--that is, its want of profundity, of soul.
Early on, I found a metaphor for my view of Los Angeles. Along the rim of the Pacific Ocean, at dusk on certain days, clouds and light conspire to create a twilight known as "the blue hour," when everything is said to be most sharply seen. An awed silence spreads along the horizon as people come to stare into the dusk. Flocks of birds gather on the sand, beaks pointed in ambiguous signal toward the ocean. Then, lithe perfect bodies often perform a slow dance at the edge of the water, a dance of graceful motions, bodies artfully challenging--and acknowledging--the approach of night.
That challenging acknowledgement, I felt, was at the core of Southern California's restless psyche. Indeed, one might view the City as the place of exile chosen by banished angels after expulsion from Heaven for disobedience, angels still restive.
This "rage to live," in a phrase borrowed from Alexander Pope, is heightened by the fact that Los Angeles is a city of daily apocalypse. Sant'Anas, fires, earthquakes, simultaneous flood and drought, mud-slides--no tiny disasters in Southern California. They're grand, dramatic, melodramatic. The City waits for each with stubborn defiance, and survives with tattered elegance, always pushing closer to the edge.
The City's sense of urgency is augmented by the fact that this is the last frontier. This is where the country ends. It is the edge of night. Miles of coastline emphasize a literal edge. Abrupt cliffs jut along its coastline before land surrenders to the vastness of the ocean. It is on such a psychic edge--the last chance--that the characters in this novel exist.
The fact that Los Angeles is a city without a center encourages restless individuality. A city of multiple personalities, it contains "cities" within the City: Bel Air, its mansions hidden behind small forests of trees and barred gates; downtown Los Angeles, glistening with glass towers over revolutionary murals that augur East Los Angeles; Hollywood, Venice Beach, Beverly Hills--these disparate worlds and their inhabitants are connected--only fleetingly as cars dash past each other--by swirling freeways, which, unwound, stretch into 597 miles, the distance between Los Angeles and Phoenix, Arizona, with 200 miles left to spare. Why would such a spectacular sprawl need a center?
To convey a sense of banished angels, I titled the interlocking sections of this novel "Lost Angels." That also describes the three central characters. All three yearn for what is impossible but is emphatically promised by American mythology, promises that, unfulfilled, nurture a sense of betrayal. These strains run deep, like scars, within the American psyche. Lisa longs for the fake sentiment of old movies; Jesse James yearns for the deceptive romance imposed on the violence of the American West; and Orin is in search of promised religious redemption, a longing so extreme that he turns to gothic evangelists who guarantee communion with the dead.
Beneath the maligned facades of characters often dismissed as Southern California "stereotypes" (which, no matter how derided, do exist, thrillingly alive, often revealing themselves to be archetypes), I attempted to locate their longings, fears, their impugned soulfulness. Mr. Universal perfects his body in an attempt to stave off death; the black maid's wish for vengeful fire is doused by a despairing tenderness; the pornographic actress longs for a purer pornography; a Bel Air matron craves to be free of her luxurious constraints.
Behind the aging male-stripper's macho bravado is a fear that a new world of impersonal desire will spit him out; the tattoo of a naked Christ on the Chicano punker may be sacrilegious, but it expresses the punker's longing for salvation. Two gay hustlers try to find love on the loveless streets. A wandering schizophrenic woman searches for a purifying ocean within the sounds of the freeways.
To exemplify the edgy adventurousness of the City, I used a variety of stylistic techniques. Whereas the point of view of all the main characters is wide open, and each is explored closely, the point of view of the central character, Orin, is never opened. I hoped that would keep him as mysterious to the reader as he is to the two who follow him. To overcome that limitation in point of view, I resorted in a crucial passage to what I hope were successful "tricks." After Orin has looked through a telescope at the Griffith Park Observatory of "Rebel Without a Cause," Lisa peers through it, and through her we know what he has seen and carefully located. In a "narcissistic" chapter of
self-reflectiveness, a university lecturer explores the novel itself and introduces the theme of fate as perfect accident.
Another chapter is told only through a psychiatrist's rambling, bungled report of events involving the police shooting of a black woman. A chapter is narrated in fragments to suggest the hallucinations of a schizophrenic wandering woman. One entire chapter is a graphic sexual combat between a television anchor woman and an ambitious studio grip, a combat with overtones in the exploitive world of "in-depth" news reporting about "the lower depths"--no, I did not always find admirable soulfulness within my characters. A mean middle-aged woman who meanders through the novel mouthing petty banalities is transformed into a deadly Cassandra, an ally of disaster.
Throughout, I reproduced scenes from classic movies, including "White Heat" and "Duel in the Sun." My intention was to strip away romance and sentimentality from the old films in order to expose camouflaged violence. I opened the novel, deliberately, with perhaps the most passive of all syntactical structures--"There is--" The suggested passivity would augur an impending apocalypse, like the stillness that precedes earthquakes.
I often envision cities in Technicolor, sepia, or black and white. New York is always in sepia tones. Chicago is in sepia with patches of Technicolor; so is San Francisco. No matter how colorfully it is depicted, New Orleans is always in black and white in my mind, as is St. Louis. Los Angeles is in Technicolor. I sought to write this novel in Technicolor, and in black and white.
The mansion that opens this novel no longer exists. There is now only a huge lot overgrown with yellowing grass and weeds. The mansion was owned by a middle-Eastern prince. Life-size nude statues with darkened pubic hair were located along a baluster. They boldly exposed themselves to Sunset Boulevard. It was those statues that supposedly outraged other denizens of Beverly Hills--and may have been the object of a mysterious fire that destroyed them, and the mansion.
More than the fact of the statues, however, was the fact that the prince dared to display his gaudy wealth, that he flaunted excess, revealing what others in Beverly Hills hid behind fortresses of trees. I wrote the passages about that mansion, and other passages throughout, in "Technicolor" prose--and I juxtaposed that scene, and others, with scenes of violence, written in "black and white."
I love Los Angeles, my adopted home--it is a main character in many of my novels, and in this one it is a central character throughout--and so I am pleased to see this novel, a favorite of mine, reissued by Grove Press.
The quotation that opens this Introduction continues, expressing my view of the City of Lost Angels:
"All its strains, of decay and rebirth, repression and profligacy, gathered here in exaggeration--as exaggerated as actors in Greek tragedies. Its desperate narcissism--which acknowledged death in extended summers under seasonless skies--and its vagrant spirituality--which burgeoned into excess--were manifestations of a fury to live, to feel, to be, here on the last frontier before the drowning land--the snuffed sun, the darkened shoreline, land's end."
Los Angeles, California
to The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez