Pondering the Big Questions In the Land of Milk and Honey

Los Angeles may be the most mythologized city of our time: "The City of Fallen Angels," "The Land Where Legends Are Made," "The Capital of the Third World," "La-la Land"--the list of monikers for the metropolis goes on and on. Everyone from the Mamas and the Papas to Roland Barthes has theorized on the significance of the First World's fastest growing urban center.

As a result, this very real city is too often discussed as if it were a concept rather than a collection of 14.5 million inhabitants. People use the word "L.A." to conjure up any number of two-dimensional, cliched images: L.A. means the glamour and glitz of Hollywood; it means slums teeming with illegal immigrants; it means the hedonism of an appearance-obsessed culture, it means pristine beaches and smogchoked hillsides; it means a postmodern, impersonal city of intertwined freeways and grid-locked streets; it means inner cities blighted by gang warfare and Rodeo Drive.

Sex, Death and God in L.A.

edited by David Reid

Random House



Sex, Death and God in L.A., a new book of essays edited by David Reid, admirably avoids settling for any of these oversimplified pictures as a real explanation of the city. The book's sheer scope guarantees that the somewhat chaotic reality of Los Angeles does not escape the reader: there is the predictable section dealing with the movies, but there is also a refreshing look at the city's architectural significance, several personal and theoretical discussions of its racial and cultural make-up, in-depth analyses of the economic prospects of the Downtown region and a piece on the city's fascinating religious history.

Reid's inclusion of such a diverse range of essays displays a healthy respect for the size and variety of his subject. In his introduction to the collection, Reid attempts to convey a sense of the city's vastness. He quotes Jean Baudrillard, who wrote that "There is nothing to match flying over L.A. by night." Reid describes the awesome vision offered to a plane passenger approaching the city: the glowing web of streets displays an almost terrifying "limitless urban power and sweep...measureless sprawl."

Appropriately, the book's opening essays by Alexander Cockurna and Mike Davis recreate the dizzying sensation of that approach by surveying the economy of the Downtown area. While perhaps a bit dry and statistical, these essays paint a fascinating portrait of a region filled almost exclusively with immigrants from Latin America and the Pacific Basin who work in sweatshop conditions and have virtually no political power.

The subsequent pieces are more personal, zeroing in on the experience of particular Angelenos. Novelist Carolyn Sees' "Melting" is a funny and complex autobiographical meditation on racial relations which brilliantly shows how L.A's diversity affects a few personalities. Sidestepping the sociological buzzwords about multiculturalism, she details a world where interaction between people of different groups is an inevitability and a fact rather than a fashionable political decision.

Sees is not interested in "the East Coast melting pot." "I'm talking about a whole other thing," she writes. "I don't think numbers are the way to figure it, or economics either. I think love is the way to get a handle on it." In Sees' discussion of her own sticky emotional entanglements, she brings ethnic groups that are too often seen as separate, inviolate groups into close contact. She writes of her husband, friends, lovers and children of various racial groups in a reminiscence that is intelligent, caring and sometimes humorously biting.

Equally funny, and more irreverent, is novelist Eve Babitz' "Bodies and Souls," which defends and explores the Southern Californian cult of the body. "It has always seemed to me that sex (i.e. inspiring lust) was what L.A. was about," she writes. Babitz' memoir details her own quest to be "totally devastating when it came to pulchritude, blond-haired and smoldering."

One of the virtues of this eclectic collection is that no single impression of the city dominates for too long; Lynell George's "City of Specters," a stark essay on death in Black Los Angeles, serves as a sobering and understated counterpoint to Babitz' exuberant piece. "In junior high school we went to more funerals than weddings," George writes. Her memoir is filled with children for whom the "concept of life has never been more ephemeral...there is not the need nor time to pace and fret over a future that may never be."

Another standout in the book is Ruben Martinez' autobiographical "La Placita." Although it appears under the section labelled "God," this essay embraces topics as varied as family history, gang warfare and the Latino immigrant population of L.A. Martinez speaks from his dead grandparents' house, where he contemplates the "strewn shards of [his] identity." The racial and cultural identity of this journalist of Salvadoran ancestry proves as multi-faceted as the city in which he grew up. Memories of Watergate and the Flintstones figure alongside stories of the Chicano movement and assassinated Salvadoran friends in this personal history.

Martinez' essay includes what may be the book's most telling observation on multicultualism in a section on the L.A. Festival, a recent civic celebration which glorified the racial and ethnic make-up of the city in a slightly Disneyesque fashion. He writes:

"There are Chileans jamming the blues with Cambodians; Eskimos dancing alongside Aborigines. It's real and it's a parody; it's superficial, kitschy, deceiving, fun, invigorating, debate-sparking. Maybe, just maybe, it's what we are."

Martinez, like the other contributors to this book, has attempted to portray the reality of the city that exists among the myths, and the interplay between the two. These writers' introduction to the city is suitably complex: sometimes affectionate, sometimes critical, Sex, Death and God in L.A. is absorbing and insightful throughout.