People who are not from Los Angeles often treat the city the way they might treat an attractive woman: From far away they gawk at pictures of her, and given the opportunity to touch they’re eager to sit in her sunshine, or get a taste of the pert California produce. Either way, they call her stupid. They want Los Angeles to pay a price for being so glamorous, and so they imagine it as treacherously empty-headed and unsettled, all of those earthquakes just proof that the city is a place where nothing real could ever be expected to put down root.
Eve Babitz was born in L.A. in 1943, and she grew up to be a beautiful woman: So beautiful that she got a Time photographer to snap her nude playing chess with Marcel Duchamp as revenge against a married lover who hadn’t invited her to Duchamp’s recent opening. So beautiful that she introduced herself to Joseph Heller with a letter that read, in its entirety: “I am a stacked eighteen-year-old blonde on Sunset Boulevard. I am also a writer.”
Babitz was more than “also” a writer: She published seven books—a mix of short stories, novels, and non-fiction—between 1974 and 1997. In the late ’90s, she had a painful and disfiguring accident: Ash from a cigar she was smoking ignited her skirt, causing massive, severe burns on large swaths of her body. For her detractors, of which she had many, it seemed like the fulfillment of the same resentful fantasy that out-of-towners always have about Los Angeles: She had been punished for being too sexy and too wild. Babitz never wrote again.
But a 2014 Vanity Fair piece on her raised her profile among a new generation, one weaned on Joan Didion’s evocations of the dark glamour of the west coast and ready to take L.A. seriously as a literary city. Since then, Babitz’ books have been steadily brought back into print: the New York Review of Books reissued Eve’s Hollywood in 2015, and then Slow Days, Fast Company the following year; Counterpoint Press released Sex and Rage this month.
Because Babitz is contemporaneous with Didion, the two women are often compared to one another. But in fact they have little in common, aside from being female and Californian. In fact, Babitz’ closest peer—or perhaps her heiress—is Francesca Lia Block, who wrote a series of influential young adult novels set in Los Angeles in the ’80s, the most accomplished of which is 1989’s Weetzie Bat. The city serves as muse to both writers, who loved it long before the current vogue for its dusty vistas, strip-mall restaurants, and New Age lifestyles took hold. In fact, their writing is much like L.A. at its best: alluringly sexy but also heartbreakingly unpredictable, beautiful but indifferent to what you want from it.
Jacaranda, the heroine of Babitz’ Sex and Rage, grows up on Los Angeles’ coast, “at the edge of the ocean, and knew it was paradise, and better than Eden, which was only a garden.” Similarly, the protagonist of Block’s Weetzie Bat is also enchanted with their city: “The reason Weetzie Bat hated high school is because no one understood. They didn’t even realize where they were living,” the book begins. It goes on to detail Los Angeles’ charms, among them “a canyon where Jim Morrison and Houdini used to live, and all-night potato knishes at Canter’s, and not too far away was Venice, with columns, and canals, even, like the real Venice but maybe cooler because of the surfers.” For Babitz and Block both, Los Angeles contains a complete, entire universe: other continents, other times, all of the imaginable world.
But both writers remain aware that most people consider Los Angeles cultureless, a plastic city with no history and no depth. Their writing embraces these labels: Los Angeles’ wilderness, both geographic and cultural, engenders a freedom that the staid rest of the world lacks.
“If we were growing up in a wasteland, my sister and me, it was hard for us to see then and it’s hard for me to see now” Babitz writes in her autobiographical novel Eve’s Hollywood. “Nobody even got mad the time my sister and I got stuck together with bubble gum in the middle of the premiere of a Schoenberg piece, the high point of the Ojai festival that year.” That absence of the respect traditionally afforded to high culture is telling, and Block has it, too. While both authors adore the comparatively “low art” of the movies and bask happily in the glow of Hollywood’s glamorous aura, they are even more interested in exploring lower down, getting familiar with subculture and subversion. Weetzie goes to punk clubs; Jacaranda takes her drug habit to athletic extremes. Both women are beautiful, white, and privileged; they choose lives that bring them into proximity with danger.
The novels evoke the frustration felt when the life you live is not as it appears. Los Angeles is beautiful but it is, in fact, unstable, especially as The Big One continues to gather strength beneath its streets. The best stories about the city, and the lives lived within it, are about what it feels like to inhabit a dream: in a place often envisioned both as existing outside of history and possessed of an uncertain future.
Jacaranda, for instance, spends much of Sex and Rage developing and then recovering from a severe case of alcoholism, which Babitz diagnoses matter-of-factly. “She was an alcoholic, with all the symptoms they ask you about on TV questionnaires,” she writes. Later: “Jacaranda’s beauty had long ago sunk into the sludge of gray-green no-sun pallor; the look—with broken pink-eyed blood veins—of someone ‘who drinks.’” She does not romanticize the lifestyle that leads to Jacaranda’s condition, nor the social norms that allow it to disappear in plain sight.
Jacaranda’s constant drunkenness allows her to pretend that she’s not afraid of anything, that she’s never been hurt or disappointed; it’s the same hazy denial of complication or pain that people imagine as the default state of all Angelenos. But in fact, Babitz makes clear that this mindset is a wasting disease—something you have to descend into and then recover from. The friends who let Jacaranda get away with it are notably not from L.A.: They misunderstand what the city is for, and, as a consequence of that misunderstanding, abandon Jacaranda to a slow, painful, public decline.
Jacaranda’s life may look glamorous, but in fact she is dying of it. On a trip to La Jolla with the battered girlfriend of a man she knows, she has a realization: “Jacaranda didn’t have to plan her suicide,” Babitz writes. “She saw, looking in the sun-visor mirror up close in broad daylight, that she was committing it already.” And so Jacaranda stops drinking—quits cold turkey—and does what no good L.A. girl should ever do: She goes to New York.
Block has her heroine visit New York, too. In Weetzie Bat, Weetzie’s father Charlie, a depressive with a shadowy addiction of his own, lives there. Charlie doesn’t like L.A. “I can’t be in that city,” he tells Weetzie. “Everything’s an illusion; that’s the whole thing about it—illusion, imitation, mirage … It makes me too sad. It’s like having a good dream. You know you are going to wake up.”
Charlie commits suicide. Ultimately, it is his daughter who has to keep living in a very real city, in the very real world. In another book Charlie’s death might be used as a climax; so might Jacaranda’s decision to get sober. But for both Block and Babitz, while the confrontation between fantasy and reality is paramount, it is not, in itself, a resolution. They are more interested in what it takes to survive a dream that won’t keep you safe than in indicting the dreamer for allowing themselves to imagine it might.
Babitz makes just as much space on the page for recovery as she does for addiction. She allows it to be messy and unnerving, vital and unstable. Weetzie mourns her father’s death, but Weetzie Bat ends with her facing up to a different, ongoing kind of tragedy: the book’s final pages are consumed with her best friend Dirk going looking for his boyfriend, Duck, who has run away from home after a close friend is diagnosed with AIDS.
Dirk finds Duck, and brings him back to “a purple, smoggy L.A. twilight.” Weetzie and her family are “waiting on the front porch drinking lemonade and listening to Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” as the sky darkened, and the barbecue summer smells filled the air.” It is a perfect Los Angeles evening, hip and gorgeous and evocative. And yet, Block writes: “She knew they were all afraid.”
Jacaranda, too, escapes her troubles unscathed—for now, anyway. In the last pages of Sex and Rage, she sits on a plane, dreaming of surfing. “Tomorrow she’d be out straddling her old foam board at dawn. .… To ride such a stampede, you had to be alive with balance,” she thinks. It’s been years since Jacaranda surfed, but she’s never quite forgotten what it means to keep yourself steady in the swirl of the waves. That’s the trick that Los Angeles natives know: how to find your footing in the midst of instability, how to love a city that is at once so dangerous and so beautiful.
Women like Babitz and Block, and cities like Los Angeles, make it look easy to be charming. They invite you to imagine that there’s no trick to it, just effortlessness. They seduce you with an image that glitters, and tempt you into believing that someone’s life is easy, even if it isn’t yours.