Observer review: Los Angeles by AM Homes

The strange and brilliant lunacy of the City of Angels proves elusive for AM Homes in her new book, Los Angeles

Los Angeles: People, Places and the Castle on the Hill
by AM Homes
National Geographic £12.99, pp192

Los Angeles is slippery, murky and alluring, a city of strange riches. When A.M. Homes was offered a contract to write a book about anywhere on earth, she chose LA. Homes is notorious in the US for her novel The End of Alice which crawls inside the mind of a paedophile, and which drew comparisons with Nabokov from fans, and 'chilled vomit' from detractors. Her body of fiction and journalism is extensive, she teaches at Columbia, and has received awards such as the Deutsche Jungendliteraturpreis. Yet she skates across Gertrude Stein's observation that 'there's no there there', tentatively communes with a few LA success stories and then evacuates, seemingly relieved she doesn't have to stay around any longer.

Yes, this place can be lethal, cutting into naïve souls with its diamond-sharp California light; you can roam its gritty boulevards for miles without seeing another living soul, and many people are indeed the hopeful, hapless winners of high-school beauty pageants, come to seek stardom with zero work ethic and a set of well-rehearsed traumas. If ghastliness were all the city had to offer, then it might be best to leave LA to its emotional cannibalism and write about somewhere else.

As one of the city's resident aliens, I opened the book with keen anticipation. I hoped that Homes might understand the city's lunacy, brilliance and inconstancy better than I do; I longed for confirmation that, even if she were unable to come up with any answers, she might at least have some of the same questions. Had she stumbled along Hollywood Boulevard looking over her shoulder, wondering if Los Angeles was behind her? Did she believe the West LA assertion that she could not venture into Compton or Watts at all, because she would, quite routinely, be killed? Of course, Los Angeles, vacuum-sealed and freeway-bound as it is, means entirely different things to each member of its many subcultures. I did not expect Homes's experience totally with mine, yet I did expect her to have an experience.

It is telling that the 'Los Angeles' map printed at the beginning of the book shows the sliver of earth that runs between Hollywood Blvd and the Santa Monica Freeway, bounded by Beverly Hills on the one side and Los Feliz on the other. This is like drawing a map of London that starts with Notting Hill and ends with Tottenham Court Road, extending up to Baker Street and down to Hyde Park.

The Chateau Marmont Hotel dominates the tiny map as Homes's main reference point and refuge. In a city of 2,000 square miles everyone needs their vectors, especially when most mini- malled street corners look the same. Homes's touchstone and obsession is the Chateau, wildly expensive and seedily glamorous, a monolith perched on a pile of rubble above the Strip.

Homes arrives in LA by way of an introductory chapter discussing her fear of flying and, by page 17, she is at Los Angeles airport, thinking of all the pioneers of the past who went west with high hopes, only to have exhilaration morph into 'underlying depression, emotional and economic'. 'Los Angeles,' she says, 'exists in this disconnect, in this fissure, like a geological fault in the collective soul.' I was hooked by the language, by the promise of chaos unravelled and characters laid bare.

But it didn't happen. There were flashes of insight into 'a town where it is hard to be alone and even worse to be lonely', but Homes, disoriented and without focus, doesn't allow the city to settle within her but rapidly does 'what everyone does'. She leaves. 'The phone has been ringing like crazy, strangers, all calling offering me their Los Angeles - the actor's Los Angeles, the immigrant's Los Angeles.' After unwinding at health spas in Palm Springs, she ventures back, but not, sadly, to take anyone up on their offers.

Homes might not want to incorporate the kinds of story people want to tell her, but someone who asserts in passing that: 'Everyone in LA has a car; because of it, it is incredibly easy to park just about anywhere', might have done better to look beyond her velveteen suite. The Los Angeles Bus system (MTA) reported 131,355,285 bus-boardings in 2001, the year of her tenure. Those people probably aren't cruisin' in their Cadillacs after hours.

Homes's ruminations are intercut with interviews with those who have 'made it' in some way (meaning that they have relinquished anonymity). There's Beverly Hills's most eminent circumcision specialist, a coterie of retired Hollywood stars who live in an 'industry' retirement home, the manager of the Chateau Marmont. The frustrating thing is that these people are not dull, but Homes's interview style is, and she often cuts short her subjects just as they seem about to say something to light up the whole enterprise. Out of the blue, the hotel manager asserts: 'LA seems like the modern-day equivalent of Rome.' Homes ignores this. What was the man going to say? We'll never know.

Homes is a talented writer and her skirmishes with strangers and parasitical film agents are funny and incisive. But she is suffering from the anxiety of influence: 'Didn't Joan Didion write everything about Los Angeles that needed to be written? I have no business attempting to make sense of this place.' This fear scuppers her enterprise and she will not set off on her quest. Her last paragraph, rushed, and lacking the delicacy of her earlier prose, asserts: 'I don't have a clue as to the truth or heart of Los Angeles.' Perhaps some truths would have come had she sought them in the shadows below Sunset.

Zoe Green

The GuardianTramp

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