Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh, and L.A.
(New York Review of Books)
US: Aug 2016
Eve Babitz, during the ‘70s, had the distinction of being part of the hip, high-brow literati circles of L.A. as well as a popular socialite. Skirting back and forth effortlessly between some of the more randy rock stars of the era (Jim Morrison) and artistic icons like Marcel Duchamp, Babitz really had the best of both worlds. It’s not so difficult to understand why she should have taken up the noble (and difficult) profession of writing: she had so much experience and, therefore, material, it would have been nearly criminal to not so much as even consider picking up a pen.
Babitz, for all of her glamorous excursions into L.A. nightlife as an adult, wasn’t exactly new to this lifestyle when she began writing. Her parents were very well integrated into a lavish scene that included some of the biggest and brightest stars of those days; Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, and Igor Stravinsky are just a few names that the writer knew well growing up as a child in the Hollywood Hills.
Babitz’s writerly angle is scene-capturing the too-cool-for-school members of L.A.’s social intelligentsia. Her slim novel, Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A. (originally published in 1977 and reissued this year by New York Review Books) expounds the lives of bored Californian denizens, hungry for company and a few thrills. It’s to Babitz’s credit that she captures L.A.’s hipster elite with such precise observation; her world of lonely would-be lovers, who are just regular people and, somehow, still spectacular, is described plaintively but with great detail.
This collection of stories, however, read more like elongated and richly-textured diary entries. Often, the tales are devoid of any narrative arc and merely serve to provide readers a slice-of-life composition of ‘70s easy, free living.
Babitz’s narrators are all observers who are at once a part of the action taking place as well as perpetual outsiders. These characters offer the stories a unique perspective that seems to say something about the alienation one can feel in a city like L.A. Too often, however, the stories read like reportage. Though the worlds of these hapless people are lovingly described, the emotion sometimes falls flat.
Opening story “Slow Days” (merely a slip of a story at about two and a half pages) is sharply written but thoroughly navel-gazing. “Bakersfield” opens up the language a bit so that there’s more flow to the narration. The surrounding arid landscapes of California’s vineyards are beautifully and atmospherically rendered here, but Babitz’s narrator seems to take in her experiences off-the-cuff and perhaps in a manner a little too blasé. She claims to have experienced something truly remarkable as she is chauffeured around the vineyard by a new friend, but we just don’t feel it deeply enough.
An even denser read appears in the form of “The Flimsies”, which feels like an exercise in serious exposition. There’s a strangely enthusiastic dispassion at work here, which places the reader squarely inside the head of Babitz’s narrator and yet shuts him off from the emotional pathways that would otherwise connect him to the material.
There are certain moments which do, rather slowly, draw the reader in. “Dodgers Stadium” is a curiously reserved love story in which two friends are drawn to one another over a baseball game. There’s wit here, at once gentle and pointed, which turns the story over with inquisitive humour. “Sirocco” feels like a story that could have been written by Erica Jong, but Babitz provides the tale a sparkling ingenuity that seems born from a Californian narrative of women’s sexual freedom (slow-sizzling and lackadaisical) than it does the speedy passions of Jong’s New York.
Whether these tales are intentionally remote in their rendering of West Coast bohemia or they are sincerely the projection and appropriations of Babitz’s own afflicted desires, the author’s ability for sagacious detail is never obscured. If you can’t get on board with these stories that go nowhere, you must, at the very least, acknowledge the sheer force of Babitz’s ability to transcribe the complications of the ‘70s woman with the exactitude of the most dynamic sculptress; we often don’t feel a beating heart beneath the clay of her women, but their knowing smiles are clearly perceived—and carved with the most dexterous of fingers.
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