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Part of the process – or rather the point – of re-reading AM Homes’ work for this column is to find the missed details from my first and other readings. As a fan, there is the desire to gather as much information about Homes as a writer – for what lover of books doesn’t enjoy reading about the writers themselves? I clung to any behind-the-veil views at Homes’ writing process or how some stories came about. When Homes is in an elevator she notices a sign ‘PLEASE REMAIN CALM’ and jots it down later to be used as a title in her second collection, Things You Should Know. Yet my desire made me resistant.
Homes is very firm with three things – her personal privacy, the difference between AM Homes the writer and AM Homes the person and that she is a writer of fiction, she writes from her imagination and doesn’t enjoy readers – perhaps, more importantly, reviewers and interviewers – drawing parallels to her life and her work. As part of the ‘Living With Music’ New York Times blog Homes wrote of Joni Mitchell, one thing that stood out: ‘I fundamentally believe that one should never crack an artist’s code, i.e. expose the relationship of their language, patterns and imagery to what is known about their lives…knowing the “truth” would be like breaking a snow globe thinking you could hold a flake of the snow in the center of your palm and feel it melt.’ A very uncomfortable interview with the Barcelona Review (who published Homes’ short story, ‘A Real Doll’, later collected in The Safety of Objects) in which this sort of question came about:
‘Does non-fiction – because of its ability to deal strictly with fact – offer the writer protection, or a narrative distance that fiction doesn’t allow? Is it less of a risk publicly?
AMH: I’m not sure what you’re getting at. Fiction and non-fiction are so incredibly different.’
Later in the interview:
‘What is your one guilty pleasure in life?
AMH: Oh please, I should be writing a novel right now…’
After re-reading Los Angeles: People, Places, and the Castle on the Hill I began research through interviews and reviews of Homes’ work. Mainly to get a bigger picture. Not just of the writer but how the writer is perceived. When I read about AM Homes, I read about the Guggenheim Award, the visits to Yaddo, graduate of Iowa, publications in the New Yorker, Granta etc. A review of Los Angeles in the Guardian – although overall negative – rang true something I feel about Homes’ work: ‘I was hooked by the language, by the promise of chaos unraveled and characters laid bare.’ This is what Homes does and I think it’s what has begun this cultural fascination with the woman behind the writer, behind the genderless initials, behind the AM Homes.
Homes’s characters are real people – not good, not bad, human, flawed. Homes herself said in an interview with New York Magazine, ‘One of the things I’ve always done with my characters is make them have to face the truth of who they were even if it was excruciatingly painful to them.’ Homes’s prose has been called so many things from ‘minimalistic’ to ‘sparse’ but one agreement is that the prose is very short storyesque and keeps a beat, a rhythm of events, chaotic, outlandish yet very real. There’s a certain pace to Homes’s mind, characters and work. A speed. And we are compelled to keep up. We are compelled to read and watch as these characters laid bare move through their stories. What’s fascinating is that Homes does this with herself in her non-fiction about Los Angeles in which she gets on a plane and goes to the land of dreams.
The Dead American Dream
‘The new century began with enormous expectations, almost a sense of entitlement, for continued success, growth, the upsizing of the American Dream. But beneath all of this lurks the threat that the dream has become inflated as if to compensate for all that is otherwise not happening, as if to distract us from an underlying depression – emotional and economic; as though we are consuming, stuffing, and spoiling ourselves to avoid our fear of failing, of falling, of having nothing at all.’
The American Dream is the focus. It is the undercurrent of Homes’ fiction and interests. Where there is this distraction of failure, it is the distraction that the American Dream is dead. Yet Homes continues to find its life and roots through her writing. After flying to Los Angeles and camping out at the Chateau Marmont, Homes spends her days dissecting the city with her camera, mind and questions. She goes about interviewing certain Los Angeles people. One of them is the artist and post man Mark Bennett whose own work shares similarities with Homes:
‘What becomes clear from looking at Mark Bennett’s work is that watching television is not just a collection cultural experience but an instructional one as well – we learn how to live and how others live. Witnessing the ways in which these characters negotiated the space of their faux houses is as much an anthropological investigation as it is a lesson. In these programs we see worlds of possibilities – on television it is possible for fathers and sons to talk about important issues; for mothers and fathers, husbands and wives to argue and recover, for a family to struggle and get on with life. The dysfunction is minimal and is the stuff of situation comedy. On a television show, one can see where a family should be, one can see oneself in the characters success, one can see a better life. The focus is ultimately on prosperity, success and versions of the American dream.’
So how does the American Dream come into play in Los Angeles? For the American Dream always felt, at least to me, connected with the suburbs, with the house, the lawn, the working father, the stay-at-home mother. The post-war life left the people in the suburbs confused as to where they stood, what to do next. Los Angeles has always been another sort of dream, another version of the American Dream, one full of sparkle, jazz and movies. The home of Hollywood. And what bigger dream then to be a movie star, to make it on the silver screen?
‘Hovering in the farthest edge of the Wild West, Los Angeles is the home of the American Dream machine – Hollywood – it is where hopes and desires are manufactured and delivered back as though they were our own, where lucky men and women are elevated, as if elected, to become our stars, our heroes – at least until someone better comes along.’
Until someone better comes along. In Los Angeles the dreams are trivial and therefore the American Dream becomes trivial. It is about youth, fame and gold. There is a cheapness almost to it, of the LA dreamers scrambling above one another to climb the highest. It is a pessimistically realist view of people. The people of LA become the characters of AM Homes. Their personalities, dreams, desires, contribute to the city. They are its beating heart.
The Chateau Marmont
‘The Castle on the Hill – its tarnished patina is a kind of cultural comment. It ages more than gracefully, its earthquake-proof walls absorbing, the stuff of scandal, turning its tainted past into luscious history.’
I don’t share Homes’s fondness for hotels. Where Homes sees ‘the sense of a second chance, an opportunity for re-invention’ I see emptiness, ghosts and confusion. The lost come here. The people in limbo. Business men and women checking in at lunch time to conduct their affair, alive, free but deeply lost. Singletons in distress. The man alone with a bottle of whiskey and a gun in his pocket. The woman with one suitcase and a black eye. These are my views of hotels. I worked in one for six months as a linen porter, pushing the semen, sweat and blood-stained sheets outside to where they got taken away by a mysterious van and replaced with brand new ones. I remember long, empty corridors, identical to one another, confusing me if not for the door numbers. I remember secret staircases that only staff could use. I remember cupboards only the maids knew about and the attic that my manager’s office was situated. I remember the smell of vinegar in the kitchen, the basement where we could eat – the fact that the staff were made to be invisible due to their class in the hotel.
Homes describes herself as: ‘a hotel person, a kind of a hotel fetishist. I use them for escape, for meditation, as a place to run away, to hide, to contemplate big decisions.’ When reading Homes’ relationship with the Chateau Marmont I kept comparing it to my own. I contemplate big decisions, usually, outside. I get on my bike or walk until I’m alone, in a forest, woods or a field, somewhere with trees, somewhere I can sit and only hear the birds talking over my mind. I do this for meditation, I do this, literally, to run away. I’d find the noise in a hotel even with the bare solitude created by its rooms. I wouldn’t find myself as an individual, trapped in the tall box, in a room similar to all the others, if not for the extra pen on the desk.
‘In a town obsessed with youth, a culture where twenties are prime, thirties are starting to lose their luster, forties are practically over the hill, and fifties are positively geriatric, I wondered what it was like to actually be old. It occurred to me that I’d never seen any old people in Los Angeles, not on the streets, in the restaurants, not shopping, not even shrunken down and hovering over the edge of the steering wheel, tooling down Sunset a little light on the gas.’
I’m not sure interest is the right word here although it’s the only word close to what I mean but Homes has an ‘interest’ in the elderly. Casting an eye to her fiction – May We Be Forgiven, the short story ‘The Chinese Lesson’, even the aged Ronald Reagan, suffering from dementia in the story ‘The Former First Lady and the Football Hero’. There’s a great symmetry – almost irony – that a book about LA should contain a chapter about the elderly folk of LA. On a literal level it makes sense – to understand the dreams of LA and America, you have to ask the people who were around to create them. The other level is that Homes is attacking the cultural phenomenon of youth and beauty by interviewing the ignored.
‘Hollywood celebrates immortality, the perseveration of youth, the buying and selling of wrinkle-free icons. The phrase “senior-citizen” connotes someone who has lived here for more than five years – it’s a death-denying culture.’
In the same sense that Homes hunts for life in the death of the American Dream, Homes shows the life within this death-denying culture. She shows us the people near it yet very much living. They are Tommy and Bobbi Farrell, Tommy the son of a movie star, there’s Hal Riddle, a retired character actor and Virginia McDowall, sister of Roddy McDowell. These people challenge Homes’s view of the Los Angeles of her childhood – ‘a town where everyone is famous, where everyone knows each other – they’re all friends…It’s the kind of place where Lucille Ball invites Doris Day over for dinner and Doris Day brings Kirk Douglas and someone goes strolling down the sidewalks of Beverly Hills carrying a tuna noodle casserole in a Pyrex dish…there are no race problems, no poverty, everything is rich and green.’
The Los Angeles of Homes’ childhood is a dream of LA made un-real with the elderly and their memories, their wisdom, their experiences. There was never an LA without race problems, without poverty. It is a dream but not the American Dream. The American Dream was always about success, stepping on others shoulders to get there. Lucille Ball wouldn’t invite Doris Day over if she weren’t Doris Day.
In the LA Times David L. Ulin describes Homes’ book as representing ‘a lost opportunity, a chapter left unwritten, an experience undone’ as well as suggesting ‘it becomes a metaphor for the entire volume, which never evokes its subject in any satisfying sense. That may or may not have to do with Homes status as an outside but surely it suggests a lack of absorption, of curiosity, in the city and its life.’
I have to argue against the ‘lack…of curiosity in the city’ as there is curiosity however tangled. Homes describes Los Angles as ‘a place of enormous anonymity – people pass each other blindly on their way in and out of their homes, on and off the freeways. And yet people are desperate for recognition. They want to be seen, noticed – they are constantly hawking their product, pitching their services, their souls. They want to be recognised, rewarded, congratulated’. As stated before, many of Homes’ observations go back to the idea and construct of the American Dream but what Los Angeles brings us a writer honestly reckoning with that, outside of her fiction but still in her mind. There is a curiosity and I don’t think it loses steam or energy – Homes went back years later to write part of her novel May We Be Forgiven – but rather there is a lack of interest. Where Homes is curious she becomes disinterested in answers, perhaps comfortable with the curious bubble in the form of the Chateau Marmont.
Homes’ hunt for the sense of “there”, “here”, “home”, is complicated with her actual desire. ‘There is a lack of landscape, lack of organising idea, a focus. This absence of enter furthered the often referenced notion that there is no “there” here. Natives would argue, rightfully, that there is a “there” everywhere.’ As a first time reader I was taken away by the language, by the thoughts of a writer I deeply admired. As a re-reader I began to question the missing details – the heaviness in Homes’s voice toward Los Angeles when comparing it with New York. Homes is, evidently, a New Yorker, loves New York, wants to be in New York. Her idea was to go to Los Angeles and write about it, not to write a bible of Los Angeles, not a guide of any sorts, just her experience – yet Homes turns down many experiences with interviewees and strangers, she hunts for “there” whilst making me believe, at times, that she isn’t interested in where “there” is.
‘I feel both a lack of self-consciousness – I am so out of my element that I am invisible – and a certain self-doubt that being a total outsider I have no business attempting to make sense of this place. I am not from here; I don’t know anything about here, I don’t even know where “here” is.’ It is a solitary journey which amounts to further confusions. Overall I find the still confused Homes, still unsure of a place, still unknowing quite comforting. I find the idea of travel writing amounting to no extraordinary accomplishments – both physical and of the mind – quite real and unexplored. There’s an incredible moment in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha in which our heroine, Frances, hurt and lost by her best friend’s abandonment, goes to Paris for a revolutionary weekend. It is the trip to fix her, time away where her mind can go over the past few months, where she can heal. In fact she comes home just as confused, her experience not so much an experience but an anti-climatic one. Perhaps this is the same with Homes and Los Angeles. Perhaps there was no enlightenment but that doesn’t mean we, the readers, weren’t enlightened due to the lack of it.
Five Favourite Quotes:
‘There is a romance to flight, to the image of the aviator as explorer. It is perhaps one of man’s strongest impulses to try and free himself from the laws of nature, to defy gravity.’
‘I’m travelling as though I am an object, a painting, some precious breakable thing, plastic-wrapped, heavily protected, deeply American.’
‘I am drawn to Los Angeles as though it were a character I am compelled to crawl inside of, exploring its evolution, the people who populate it, the land itself as though to inhabit it, however briefly.’
‘This is a city with an infamous dark side, shadowy figures, hard-boiled noir, the Black Dahlia, the helter-skeleter of the Manson family killings…This is where “Reality TV” was born. This is where O.J. Simpson’s car chase was broadcast live from a helicopter tracking the Ford Bronco as it made its way over the city’s infamous freeways.’
‘One thinks of retirement homes as halfway houses between living and dying.’