Image Credit: Land use maps produced by the Works Progress Administration in 1934. They render the Pacific Palisades area all the way to the Municipal Airport (at the time) along the Pacific Ocean.
Sentiment, like grief and dissent, cost time.”
—Joan Didion, Where I Was From
When I was 21 I went to LA by myself to explore firsthand the city in which my favorite writers were born and wrote. If I was attracted to a writer’s style, I sought to enact it physically, to embody it and transpose myself over the image foreseen. Narratives, I thought, sprung from direct observations embedded in geography. There exists, I then subsequently thought, a 1:1 relationship between writer and place. Naturally, I didn’t extend the same thinking to myself nor to my environment: I had to leave the Midwest and find sources out of which the writers I liked were fashioned. Origins, in other words. I was fixated on the expansive LA landscape that simultaneously absorbed and resisted all my ideations. The idea of LA, least to say the state of California, seemed to exist as pure projection in the minds of many, an incomplete idea in which one must keep psychically investing. The postwar hyper construction of the so-called sunbelt cities—connective freeways and interstate highways bringing citizens to their constellation of defense industry jobs and back home to the master planned subdivisions on previously privately owned ranches—and subsequent disinvestment—the closing and reconsolidation of the very same industry throughout the Cold War and the ravages of subsequent job losses sustained by inadequately realistic state responses—threw into stark relief the restlessly searching possibilities for American art and literature.
The all-encompassing postwar Californian aesthetic championed by the famous artist couple Charles and Ray Eames, ranging from furniture design to conceptual video art, seemed to summarize the extent to which the very subject of speculation is infinitely malleable and can conform to any such idea thrown its way. The Eames’s 1959 video installation “Glimpses of The USA,” commissioned by the United States Information Agency, a now defunct cultural PR sector of cold war America devoted to “public diplomacy,” was exhibited in the American National Exhibition at the first USSR-USA cultural exchange. Buckminster Fuller installed the seven twenty-by-thirty screens that comprised the installation. The video’s narration begins: “Too much rain falls on some areas, and not enough on others. But people live on this land, and as in Russia, they are drawn together into towns and cities. Here is something of the way they live.” What follows is a kaleidoscopic display on all seven enormous screens of hundreds of aerial shots of newly built planned communities cropping up all over the southwest and the very highways connecting American cities established and young authorized by the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act. The exhibition is self-evidently a soft-power narrative arc meant to evoke the Soviet viewers’ empathy and the American viewers’ self-righteousness. Southern California produced a curious later-20thcentury literature that posited in unadorned prose the fact that the political failures of American life—that which Glimpses of The USA was commissioned to mystify—had already thoroughly fomented there, particularly in Los Angeles county. The industrial landscape stood in sharp contrast to the city that stretched west of downtown towards Santa Monica. The Eames conclude the installation with an image of the forget-me-not flower, which translates exactly the same into Russian. The underhanded metaphor tells me that the Eames either understood too well, or believed in entirely, the illusion they were hired to design. The overidentification with the subject that one risks is the lesson I take away from Glimpses of The USA; the forget-me-nots remind me that overreach within ones desires is inherent to narration, and that the slightest detail constructed or candidly ascertained therein will never amount to resolve, the central myth of which is cumulation. I saw LA, the utmost example of American accumulation in a separate category than New York, as both embedded deeply within and wholly beyond, even outside of, American history, on account of its most popular cultural exports being consumed widely and often globally, and little to say of anything else.
Six months earlier I stayed in San Francisco for free during the summer at a friend’s while I worked as an associate editor for a small non-for-profit, independent publisher. The founding editor and I skyped weekly and she gave me as much freedom as I could responsibly exercise over the manuscript editorial process, with her pointed intervention when required. I was being paid, but that I was being paid by a meager external grant, and had I not had this source of funding, my boss would not have agreed to “hire” me, suggested then the contours of something truthful, and necessarily cast in indescribable terms, about working in publishing. The balancing act was just so; however, the choreography of those three and a half months teased a broader landscape without offering a definitive forecast. My boss put my name on the copyright pages of the books I worked on. Her generosity visible in the signifiers of our work, as if to underscore her proprietary role as both founding editor and director. The shots were hers to call, hence why she allowed me into her operations in the first place. In retrospect, it was a rare mentorship in publishing. Three years later, I found myself ushering along a manuscript I discovered by a poet and artist. My former boss wanted to publish it; once in production, the artist told me he “owed me big time.”
The trip that summer was my first attempt to unseat the belief that I should move to New York and fulfill the manifest fait accompli of those bent on pursuing publishing, which I was and which, at the time, appeared the only way to maintain my relationship to writing. The former inclination regarding locale constitutes less an error per se than does the latter illusion regarding stability and fixity by virtue of working within publishing, the milieu that cultivates disembodied audiences who may or may not ever materialize before the printed page to read the written word. It was the last summer before graduating from college, and I majored in neither English nor writing, strictly speaking, because I wanted to write, an act predicated on, again, embodiment. Art history and French literature had more to teach me about language’s lapse into writing than rhetorical technicalities or the Victorian bildungsroman. So went my quixotic logic. I paid attention to colophons and considered the curatorial role of editors, whom I saw as the elusive underbellies of literary history, part of whose job it is to imagine and gesture towards a readership. Museum studies were at their peak in the 2010s, and it appeared that publishing, that other social cultivator of tastes, class, differentiation and identification, was less discussed in discursive material terms, unlike the institutional role of the museum and its relation to contemporary art. Ironically, overt abstraction was easier to talk about, as if selecting narratives to release in printed and bound form was somehow any different. Books were touted as ineffably powerful, a sentiment that circulates in lock step with the earliest known examples of codices from centuries ago. I didn’t espouse this view. I liked books, but I cared more about the writing than whichever object form the writing took.
That I was working that with a publisher I admired given the enormously heterogeneous, often underwhelming (read: glorified garden variety office jobs) and, frankly boring realities of publishing felt incongruous. My circumstances that summer, while fortunate, felt equally as conjectural as my relationship to my own writing. The one time I tried to clarify my confusions with advice from my boss by asking how and why she started her press, her response—that she quit a tenured professorship because she “wasn’t afraid to and didn’t give a shit”—had the opposite intended effect on me. I was indirectly asking how she made a living. The window through which I was allowed to peer gave too narrow a view; all I saw was what appeared immediately before me: my boss, a writer forty years my senior, whose sentiments, the sum of which it seemed culminated in chance, arbitrariness, and sheer force, and who intentionally broke the so-called rules laid out before her, had little to say that a twenty-one year old could hold onto, let alone operationalize. She gave up her previous compass, whereas I was searching for my own. I had to accept that our time together would be an opaque, though immensely important, exercise in misunderstandings. I had to masquerade my acceptance of these misunderstandings and set them into motion, reciprocate with equally inscrutable work in return. Her persona was powerful; she commanded respect and equally revealed and concealed information between insightful oscillations dependent on external factors I had little knowledge of. This cohered with my vision of publishing, aligned with the stylistic pedestal onto which I placed the editor. Even up as close as I was, I ended every day with few concrete answers about logistics of the press, and many answers about her philosophy of publishing. She also lived in Southern California. She told me to skip the Bay Area and go to LA instead.
It was my first time on the west coast. While sojourning indefinitely in the city, one of two historical literary epicenters to which I felt indebted, I read as much Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, Sam D’Allesandro, Kathy Acker, Gary Indiana, Robert Glück, and Boyd Rice as I could get my hands on to graft a psychogeographic archive over the bay area’s contemporary social topography. This resonated with my boss, as did my plans to go to LA that winter, a city to which that she too maintained a psychic affinity. Predicated on what exactly I would never learn. I approached the open-ended stay at my friend’s, whose generosity is inseparable from my memories, with enough facile superficiality to remain optimistic and endeared to the city. I was writing, reading, and working with a publisher; this was the first time all three met at one point, which invariably left a melancholic aftertaste in my mouth every night. I met a guy online who lead me around and let me come and go as I pleased from his place in the Outer Richmond; my friend paid no mind to my inconsistent appearances at her place in Bernal Heights. I wanted to participate in a fraction of the city’s snow-globed personality and gloss over its surfaces with as little friction as possible. I wanted to see what was at stake in potentially losing myself in the images posited in the narratives I was reading. I wanted to be infatuated and obsessive like the narrator in one of D’Allesandro’s stories who stays in his lover’s bedroom all day for two weeks while his lover is away. I made a point of going to sex-shops and gay bars in The Castro, of reading the literal writing on the walls carved around urinals, and of making eye contact with older men and retroactively assuming all conversations with workers and strangers carried obvious subtexts. It was pure performance to me, and I wanted to engage the gestures of a history that only appeared amenable to frictionless passing precisely because they were so thoroughly commodified, or, put otherwise, already retained a requisite audience. I was merely a visitor, though no less a self-aware participant, to the city whose fine print was constantly reamending the terms of agreement for its inhabitants, native and non-native.
D’Allesandro moved to San Francisco from a farm in the middle of the country in the early 80’s and died there at the height of the AIDS epidemic at the age of 31. Richard Anderson was his real name, the nom de plume intentionally gesturing to the Warhol star Joe D’Allesandro, whose son “Sam” claimed to be. His prose was unpretentiously simple and learned, in a bodily sense, in its sincerity. During his tragically short life in San Francisco he would eventually befriend writers who would become synonymous decades later with the New Narrative literary scene. Sam’s work was collected and published posthumously by a small Bay Area publisher and circulated nearly exclusively thereabouts. I found a copy at a small used book store in the Mission District. It’s called The Wild Creatures , a title that speaks entirely to its time.
I wanted to believe that summer would reveal something to me about style’s relation to the written word. I was becoming skeptical that the act of writing was an assertion of self into an immediate instinctual reaction to the world, that identifying with varying historical milieu were part and parcel of the relationship to one’s written voice, but I feared relinquishing hese ideas that provided me a referential backbone. However palimpsestic vision’s relation is to language was yet beyond my experiential understanding, cast to the realm of even more speculation. Moreover, I wanted whatever the lessons the city could teach me to be revealed on my own terms, projected outward from within my spectral archive of a Californian literary history organized by geographic specificity. Evidently, I couldn’t implicate my active measures in creating what seemed a passively intuitive approach to writing, which I at the time could only loosely define as indeterminate reckonings collaged together by emotional appeal and memory. Impulse, in other words; the impulse to identify. My impulse to want to identify with D’Allesandro’s narrator, for example, blinded me to my own overreach into a story crafted out of a romantic desperation characteristic of much of his hermetically indulgent writing. I had no understanding of the stakes of his desire’s ultimate inward, and bodily, collapse. He appeared to me as an angel, so I chose to see him as such. The act of disappearing into thin air in your lover’s bedroom, into another’s mind and unquestionably beyond responsibility, finally struck me as the point of the narrative. The bedroom was language par excellence, a forget-me-not to remind the reader this is all a fantasy. Perhaps the lover was too. Regardless, they are both no less real, both no less origins achieving their own ends. I allowed the fantasies of my temporary residency to lead me, and I was eager to submit to their tutelage and unpredictable consequences. The mortgaging of the present against a future in writing that yielded little material benefit began to become more and more clear as that summer progressed. I still have yet to cash-in on, so to speak, the poet’s promise, and have little intention to. These were the aimless and potentially reckless terms to which I submitted myself in LA.
Once I landed at LAX I got on the train to Pasadena to traverse Dennis Cooper’s hometown and sought out goth clubs which, as far as I was concerned, were the center of the scene in the states. The combination of these two pursuits became a sort of literary psychosexual architectural tour. The history into which I had determinedly stepped lived up to my expectations: everyone I met while out dancing wore their desire on their sleeves ruthlessly. An older woman roleplaying dom/sub with her husband, on whose skin she put her cigarette out, wanted to recruit me, to what end, I had no clue. Regardless, I was flattered, politely declined and wished her luck. I met artists who took me to warehouse gallery openings and told me more than I can even remember about the contemporary art scene. I began rather quickly to feel aimless and disenchanted; I feared the Santa Ana winds Didion so ominously characterizes were very real, that this was the onset of their psychosomatic effect and subsequent powers over speech: I could no longer define why I was there, and given the great distances between any two points, I started having a difficult time figuring out what to do, and once I had a plan, remaining motivated to execute it. The LA boulevard operated on a scale I was wholly unaccustomed to, and I had no car.
I was seeking embodiment as much as experience, though I couldn’t have known the difference, let alone that embodiment relies on a nominal capacity for self-abandon, a willingness to unfocus the eyes and lose one’s way, effectively undercutting the formulaic straight line scaffolding my intentions. When I passed by the Hollywood Wax Museum, I imagined the figures inside mocking my prefab strategies. I knew I was approaching some truth about my impotence and the city confirmed it by staring straight back and beyond me, despondently hinting to resign to the landscape as I saw it: non-native palm trees, expansive freeways, tourists, and shopping centers, each symbiotic element vying to be the one most effortlessly inclined to tell me I could neither command nor control a story by simply arriving at a destination. Things sometimes do speak for themselves, but not without a carefully intervening voice that knows just where, when, and how to recede into the periphery, like a forget-me-not, a marker of my own investment in the story I told myself. I couldn’t recognize that I was getting in the way of both the city and myself. This was a lesson realized in retrospect: one’s voice requires both concerted effort and a conviction in surrender. Faith, in other words, that you won’t know what you’re doing at every step of the way; a faith that takes no object as a representation of belief. My boss from the summer passed along some manuscripts to me to work on if I had the time; I definitely had the time, but couldn’t bring myself to open them.
“Camp” comes from the French se camper, to maintain oneself intentionally and histrionically in a pose in order to elicit a response. If I posed myself as forcefully as I had posed the city in my mind, the unknown lessons I sought would follow, but I couldn’t do that haphazardly no matter the context, and no matter the city, for I also didn’t understand that a pose makes of a seeing eye both a viewer and a passive participant, that the pose itself is a suspended gesture turned into an image. It’s up to the viewer to make the image real and participate in its actualization. However, actualization neither affirms nor negates a pose prior to the viewer’s involvement, and neither gives to nor takes away from the viewer’s imagination. Truthfully, I didn’t know what I was doing, and was in fact committing a grave imposture. I couldn’t simply pose about in a city I knew so little about, and bring to it questions that no one else could attempt to answer but myself.
It was in my solipsistic disappointment at a diner near the hostel that a stranger requested to lead the way. One of us had inadvertently stumbled into the other, it seemed, and I don’t know who had more influence given that I was visibly younger, but I knew instantly, finally, what I was doing. I agreed, provided he was from the area. He was.
I observed every decision he made while he drove his pickup truck. I was transfixed by his knowledge of orientations I was experiencing for the first time. Every last-minute jerk of the steering wheel to get on an exit ramp, every freeway sign he glanced at to verify which way he was leading us, every detour, u-turn, and interaction with the cityscape as it unraveled before us drew me closer to the stranger and into a feeling I knew I didn’t need to describe to myself, into an idea of him, into something completely immaterial, or so I thought, in its influence over me. I intuited that I came here for this exact moment, to submit to a stranger’s mercy, and he at mine, going nowhere in particular, and never seizing a moment to clarify. I too had enchanted him as if he were alone, as if I were completely assimilated into him, to just keep driving. I wanted the trip to answer the question “who do you want to be?” I knew at the very least I could say I was in his truck in his city. I was as transfixed by him as I was by the image of myself he gave to me. There is grace in mutual anonymity, and I extended this out to the passing hills and commercial strips all the way from Glendale to Long Beach along the Alameda Corridor trough LA’s industrial core immediately south of downtown, through Vernon, an incorporated city the population of which is outnumbered by the number of factory workers and which touts the motto “exclusively industrial.” The images in Glimpses of The USA could have likely included shots of Vernon, or swaths of the very land we were driving over. I imagined the forget-me-nots against the city that could produce a writer like Cooper. The glaring, unhindered sun emphasized how punishing my questions were, how unforgiving writing can truly be —at best, an elevated ecstasy of absolute indifference to yourself and what comes next; at worst, nearly the same, but with more to waste, and less to show for it.
Outcomes and consequences were inherent to the deal we struck with one another, but I made no point of identifying what I had in mind, what he had in mind. Our initial encounter at the diner felt explicit enough to lay out our stakes: that we had nothing to lose. It has taken me years to articulate not so much the trip per se, which involved weeks of walking and driving through LA’s fractured landscape, calling on the man whenever I wanted an exit incised out of my indirection, but the way it elicited within me a trust in the projection forward, for I was young enough to obscure the fact that directions, one’s own and a stranger’s, are contingent, and that they can make a participant out of a stranger. An escape by any means is no less a dream, and my carelessness was motivated by enacting the exact opposite belief. I wanted to be lead, and I wanted to be adored, for I felt helpless in my pursuit of a voice, a source, telling me where to go, what to examine, and what to do. This sentiment feels necessarily youthful to me, however, because no matter what I had a plan, and my plan would ultimately, if executed without hindrance or detoured by my impulse, bring me back home. I put my faith in chance, or, I gave faith a chance. There are countless poses a participant never acknowledges, and subsequently, as many forms of participation that go unaccounted for.
I had believed in someone else’s desire and took a chance on my own. Someone else: he to me, LA to me, I to him, LA to him, the truck to us, us to the truck. There was less a “we” than an “I,” “he”, and “us.” I wanted us to be contingent upon and indifferent to one another and exist in his mind in his city as he existed in mine on my trip with my unanswerable questions.
“That flashing light way out there,” he pointed out from on top of his truck overlooking the valley, “that’s where I grew up. The airport is just to the left.” I recall the motion of his arm, his fingers overlaying the lights miles and miles out so flat I could gauge neither distance nor precisely where the buildings receded into the ocean and triangulated with the night sky. His arm told me to follow its frame of reference and trust the straight-enough line it imprinted southeastwardly, cutting through both space and time as he murmured “seamless in one for fact and fiction,” a verbalized period, full stop.
The realization of one’s writerly voice will always be framed as a series of discreet and overt stylistic choices that overshadow the scattered influences of chance and accident, thereby allowing aesthetic appeals to dictate the readerly act, the projection forward we want to trust above all else. Speculation, from the economic to the molecular, has long dominated every facet of life in America, and I willfully speculated about one of the most speculative cities in its mainland borders. Some speculation is conducive to positive participation in one’s life, some life-negating, thereby giving credence to the most neurotically destructive influences of indecision. I believed, and still do, in mythology, a social narratology that has taught me that myths are discursive objects sculpted through time by an emotion’s nonlinear arc. It felt correct to be driven along Mulholland Drive by a stranger at 2am and pay for a cheap room in a hostel I barely slept at with some of the money I saved from the summer. The inversion of emotions and beliefs inform me when I endeavor to answer that question, “who do you want to be?”, which appeals ambiguously to both the present and future tenses by using the auxiliary present “do” to emphasize the modal “want” in the service of “becoming,” again mortgaging out one tense for the other’s speculation. This question does not deal with the past. This is the underlying deceit smoothed out by its grammar. This is why it feels inconsequential to pose the question with little regard for the perilous endearment it casts onto the world. I am not becoming someone as I write this, but maybe I am in your mind, just as you are in mine. May this seduction (read: romance) endure. May you be betrayed by me, and may I never know of a betrayed reciprocity as you exact it on me. At the very least, this is the bare minimum we do in fact owe to one another.
The phantasmagoric muse of Dennis Cooper’s 1980-90s five-novel cycle is tightly crafted on detrimental perspectival legerdemains that recede further into obscurity against the will of the reader’s reluctance to forego the troubling seamlessness of fact and fiction. I was beginning to have language for his work, which was highly influential to me, and which most considered unreadable, if not completely illegible. The trouble with my original desires was my inability to recognize my roleplaying of another’s fantasy, and in turn, what stories I tell myself to corroborate my own, for I also want to lie in my lover’s bed and stare at his room, which I do currently do as I write this. But what else remains in me is the same curiosity in the self-effacement that accompanies trust. I found an original print of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon in a bookstore on my second day and can now say almost five years later that the trip was a mediated interaction with lack and access, dependency and conditionals. In time, this became key to understanding the very writers and artists whose styles and voices—crafted poses—lead me to LA in the first place.
The stranger and I, like I said, must have felt we had little to lose: we had no stakes in one another. Whose self-permission leads another’s? I began to think of reading and writing as one of few permissible compromises. By compromise I mean a suspension of the ego’s will to compulsively narrativize the phenomenal world and thereby expand upon the expectation that language will accrue to the self we create at any given moment. Little to lose, or, everything to lose (again, read: romance). And speaking of romance’s endurance, such is the necessarily folkloric belief that writing will inherently return something to the writer—who, at any given point in a sentence, risks having already completely lost the subject’s referent, but we dare not admit this open secret regarding the fallacy of control and knowledge.
The relationship between the sprawling urban valley and the Janus-faced designs one must intimate against the necessary tyranny of anticipation undermined my previously held belief that the act of writing was in an unarticulated assertion of a self-projected image, a motion suggesting desire’s reckless validation of becoming. Nostalgia, whether for the future or the past, should mislead your appearances and reappearances, for, while disappearance and disappointment are graceful, deferral wields a rapturous upper hand. I needed a driver to figure this out, and if that driver could also be a brief lover, yet another forget-me-not symbolizing two radically opposing ways of interpreting authorship, then so be it. The imperative strikes me as a necessary mythology now just as it was then.
Jake Valente is a writer and editor based in New England. He has worked for small and large academic publishers, including MIT Press, in addition to independent editorial research for journals and publishers. He is interested in the poetics of geography, the history of urban planning, and the social and material history of publishing and literary movements. Some of his work is currently housed at Failed Architecture, In These Times, Pancake House, Misery Tourism, Chunklit, and Plasma.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.