CITY AT THE EDGE OF FOREVER
Los Angeles Reimagined
By Peter Lunenfeld
Los Angeles is due for a masterpiece.
Carey McWilliams’s “Southern California Country: An Island on the Land” — the first of what the U.C.L.A. professor Peter Lunenfeld rightly calls “the three most important and influential studies of Los Angeles” — arrived 75 years ago next year. Also next year, Reyner’s Banham’s “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies” will turn 50. Slightly tardy, Mike Davis’s “City of Quartz” loomed into view a little more than a quarter century ago. Check your calendar, Lunenfeld slyly implies. Make way.
Lunenfeld’s “City at the Edge of Forever: Los Angeles Reimagined” is a major book about Los Angeles — unless you’re an Angeleno. At its best, the book shares McWilliams’s bountiful gift for anecdote, the dumbfounded glee of a happy transplant like Banham and Davis’s compassion for those traditionally airbrushed out of the picture.
What’s missing is a shaping idea, some fresh thesis with which to think about the city. In its place, Lunenfeld overworks a flimsy metaphor, tenuously mapping the alchemical elements of earth, air, fire, water and aether onto his 11 chapters. Mercifully, he’s a sucker for a good story, even when its relation to the stories before and after isn’t always apparent.
In other words, this is a classic Los Angeles residential street of a book. Instead of Spanish Revival next door to Polynesian fantasy, we get snide alt-weekly riffing alongside academic theory, punctuated by lots of delightfully shunpike Southern California lore. Some passages read as if written years apart for different conferences. There’s nothing wrong with an essay collection, of course — unless it’s posing as a cohesive tour de force of cultural history.
Disconcerting lapses pop up along the way. The author has F. Scott Fitzgerald writing his Hollywood stories in the 1940s. Alas, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in 1940, one day before a car accident killed his friend Nathanael West — whose “Day of the Locust” Lunenfeld calls Los Angeles’s “first truly great novel,” even though Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” came out fully three months before. New York fact checkers who couldn’t find California with a map and a flashlight are an old joke around here, but Lunenfeld shouldn’t have needed rescuing in the first place.
Of course, nit-picking is for chimps. Bad prose is something else. Lunenfeld writes that an “alchemical map of a Los Angeles reimagined transmutes the elements, diagraming a connectionist platzgeist.” When you hear people talk about doing away with academic tenure, sentences like that help explain why.
Deep into the book, though, the damnedest thing happens. Lunenfeld gets out of his own way for a spell, and the prose starts to bloom. Chapter 5, for instance, his bracingly original account of the generational leap from ’50s dads in the military to their rock-star kids — among them Jim Morrison and Gram Parsons — will more than reward a masked expedition to the bookstore. But “City at the Edge of Forever” remains, stubbornly, 11 chapters in search of a book.
Lunenfeld has cribbed his title from Harlan Ellison’s Hugo-winning, pulpy, mind-blowing “Star Trek” episode “City on the Edge of Forever.” That’s the one where Dr. McCoy goes back to the Depression and disrupts the past, obliging Captain Kirk to choose between putting history right or saving the life of his newfound love.
Applied history, meanwhile — the use of the past to understand the present — is an expression of love. Here’s how your city used to be, its practitioners argue, but it doesn’t always have to be this way. Carey McWilliams was saying, in effect: Reckon with Los Angeles’s past. Reyner Banham admonished us to look again at what we always thought was ugly. Mike Davis, as good a writer as either, essentially says: Eat the rich, if you can keep them down; they’ve kept you down since 1542.
And what would a wiser book than Lunenfeld’s say about today’s unequal, unaffordable, still somehow unforsakeable Los Angeles? Jim Morrison in “Roadhouse Blues” had it about right: Save our city.