Writers love New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. They do not ignore Los Angeles, but love is often in short supply, writes book critic and former Los Angeles Times book editor Ulin (The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, 2010, etc.) in this mostly affectionate, rambling exploration of his adopted city.
Catching the literary world’s attention in the 1930s as the soulless, neon-lit slum of Nathanael West and Raymond Chandler, LA has grown into the endless urban village laced by crowded freeways and empty sidewalks of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, perhaps doomed to become the grim dystopia of Blade Runner. This is not much of an improvement, Ulin points out while admitting that observers still see Los Angeles as “the end of the line, the place where the myths of possibility and reinvention butt up against the edges of the continent, and the vanishing point of the horizon becomes the vanishing point of the known world.” In fact, traditional urbanism is well-established, in the form of mass transportation, tall apartments, and a rejuvenated downtown. “To live here,” he writes, “is to play an elaborate Situationist game of psychogeography.” Ulin mostly approves of changes, but he remains fascinated with the vast, quasi–dream city packed with architectural oddities and fake neighborhoods (Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, The Grove) built as purely commercial enterprises. In this brief but engaging book, the author chronicles his wanderings through the streets and his conversations with friends, entrepreneurs, and officials, and he makes it clear that he has read every book and seen every movie on his subject.
Those who know the city will have the advantage, but Ulin casts his net widely, so most readers will enjoy his observations of Los Angeles in literary and popular art as well as his thoughtful personal views.