Awhile back, I mused here about the perfect epigraph for “Los Angeles Noir,” the short story anthology I edited that Akashic Books, will publish this month. Some of you offered suggestions and asked that I post my final choice. Ultimately, I was unable to come up with one epigraph, so I chose two.
“L.A. is epidemically everywhere and discernible only in glimpses.”
- James Ellory, in “The Great Right Place: James Ellroy Comes Home,” an essay in West Magazine, Los Angeles Times, 2006
“It occurs to her that what she most appreciates about this City of the Angels is that which is missing, the voids, the unstitched borders, the empty corridors, the not yet deciphered. She is grateful for the absence of history.”
- Kate Braverman, “Palm Latitudes” 1988
Both of these quotes are reproduced in the book with grateful permission from the authors, so thank you James Ellroy and Kate Braverman.
It was quite difficult to find les mots justes, as the French say, and I flipped through dozens of books, memoirs and short stories trying to find the essence of what I was trying to get at. For starters it couldn’t be just a generally lyrical passage or description, it had to include the words L.A. or in Kate’s case, “City of Angels” in order to orient readers. I nixed many quotes I liked but that were either too specific or too general.
Here is one I quite like that almost made the cut:
“Perhaps there are more haunted houses in Los Angeles than in any other city in the world. They are haunted by the fears of their former owners. They smell of divorce, broken contracts, studio politics, bad debts, false friendship, adultery, extravagance, whiskey and lies. Every closet hides the poor little ghost of a stillborn reputation. “Go away,” it whispers, “go back where you came from. There is no home here. I was vain and greedy. They flattered me. I failed. You will fail. Go away.”
- Christopher Isherwood, Diaries Volume I, 1939-1960.
The epigraphs I ended up with struggle to pin down – in very eloquent ways - a city that refuses to be defined. And perhaps that was what I was trying to get at -- the challenge and endless fascination that L.A. offers to writers. There is no one short story or novel that encapsulates the city. We can only write about facets and fragments, about moments in time and place, about one small piece of it. Los Angeles is so huge and varied that it defies all efforts to contain it. That is both its curse and its intoxication, it’s what makes the city a siren, endlessly alluring despite all its problems and what keeps us chipping away at the hype and silicone surfaces to get at the essence of what it means to be an Angeleno today.
For me, the city is sometimes like a bad boyfriend that you can’t break free of because what ties you to it isn’t rational. L.A. is flawed and insouciant, arrogant and testy, but you have a history together and its charms cast a spell. It pushes you away when you open your heart, then steals it anyway and breaks it. It is poignant and breathtakingly beautiful from one angle, hideous, trollish and superficial from another. It reflects back a part of yourself.
Once I settled on the epigraphs for Los Angeles Noir, it also occurred to me that these snippets mirror the anthology itself, which contains new stories by 17 writers who picked a neighborhood or community to plunk their story down in. They aren’t all traditional neighborhoods either – one’s set along the L.A. River, another along the sinuous spine of Mullholland Drive. But it’s a mosaic, pieces that when put together, don’t exactly equal a whole, but gives you kaleidescopic glimpses inside something that is forever coalescing and spinning apart, forever in flux, but captured here, on flimsy paper, from one perspective, at one specific point in time. They are 17 “discernable glimpses,” as Ellroy said, and they flow like water through Braverman’s ‘unstitched borders,’ often ending far from where they began.