Yesterday, a friend and I, both finding ourselves at the same conference, were discussing what it was like to be at the only warm spot in the country at the end of an otherwise-cold November– and since said spot is a quick southerly drive from our mutual alma mater, it entailed a review of everything we’d found disturbing about the area when we’d lived there all those years ago.
Very basically, the dissatisfaction lay in the weather: near-continual sunshine, blossoms and greenery most of the year round. No wonder, he asserted, that Southern California is uniquely obsessed with eternal youth: nothing dies here; in a built-up environment, no one witnesses any longer the nuances of the region’s natural cycle of death and rebirth that may at one time have been evident to a population necessarily entangled with sky and soil and wildlife.
I always had a hard time reading my beloved Russian literature in L.A.; the severe clash that occurred when the words and attitudes and situations came into contact with my physical environment had everything to do with the eternal sun around me and less with a significant gap in generational understanding. Anna Karenina, transported to the contemporary Southern Pacific U.S., might have gone in for a nip-n-tuck and a lifetime supply of anti-depressants; the nearest I could see her coming to a self-propelled toss under the train** would be an updated version of Madame Bovary’s death, tripping out her last breaths on a plush carpet courtesy of some bad street drug.
The closest I ever came to feeling something appropriately cloudy could be read in and written within the confines of L.A.? Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which is one of my favorite books of all time. His ability to make the seediness of the city and its environs dark, instead of plastic, is incredible. Raymond Chandler nailed an ethos, and the creepiness of the Santa Ana winds; Nathanael West kicked literary Hollywood bum with The Day of the Locust— but all are uniquely American voices, and have in a sense turned a particular American environment into an unforgettable character. The latter two can be sardonic, or (Chandler) nearly unfeeling, but don’t get at the particular type of smart-horror-film evil and pathos that Danielewski does. I suppose a 19th- (or 21st-)century Russian would feel displaced reading any of these guys in Novosibirsk or Yaroslavl (Chandler or West, at least, would provide notable cases of cultural unfamiliarity). And so, we may be back to the question posed a few days back, on first-hand experience’s importance for literary understanding.
But it’s that time again: the hour to return to the needlessly air-conditioned convention center, and its environment more or less devoid of any regional or natural-climatic reference at all. Maybe that’s why so many affect-free reports get read and dry deliveries of information occur in such places…
* Yes, that’s a great Tom Waits song I’m citing.
** For one thing, let us not forget, due to the eradication of California’s one-time excellent rail system, yanked up thanks to automobile industry interests.