Better Living Through Donuts
More than any other modern city, Los Angeles is a character in its own fictions. How could it be otherwise, this city so unique, so alien as to be almost a world all its own? While ‘only in LA’ has long-since become a slur of cultural identification, for the writer of fiction, a city where the atypical is instantly recognizable as typical presents its own peculiar hazards. How does one represent the fantastic, the absurd, the unbelievable nature of such a place without settling into cliché?
As a starting point in her new novel of Los Angeles, This Book Will Save Your Life, A.M. Homes takes as her protagonist a character whose life is in no way, shape or form related to the film industry (the ‘Industry’ only appears in the book tangentially via a movie star cameo and later, through the appearance of a successful screenwriter whose current trade is not his most interesting claim to fame). And, unlike many LA story protagonists, Richard Novak is not on the make, seeking wealth, fame, power, glamour—he is already made. As it turns out, he is also already broken.
Comfortably wealthy, Richard is a juggler of stocks, who trades online each day without ever leaving home, until one morning he finds himself gazing out from his lofty Hollywood Hills home, doubled over in pain, wondering whether this isn’t ‘IT’—his mortal end. What ‘IT’ turns out to be isn’t Richard’s physical demise, but his own recognition of his disconnect from life. Richard hasn’t left the house in months (why would he have to?), he hasn’t had sex in years, and his only physical contact each day is with a housekeeper he blocks out, wearing headphones while stepping on the treadmill and watching the fluctuations of the stock market roll past on the screen. Meanwhile, there’s an ex-wife in New York equally removed from the world, and a 17-year-old son unable to latch onto anyone or anything, never having been held close enough or long enough to do so.
This theme of dislocation—how people become disconnected from one another in an impersonal modern world—is one that Homes has been exploring for some time. Her early novel The End of Alice featured a jailed pedophilic murderer in correspondence with a 19-year-old girl who finds herself gravitating towards young boys. Music For Torching, a brilliant suburban subversive etched in acid, told the story of a married couple coming apart, seeking out extremes of sensation as a way to feel something. In a more recent short story, Please Remain Calm, a husband discusses his perennially impending suicide with his dismissive wife, and only when they face death together in a late-night car accident does he admit “I want to live, but I don’t know how.”
Los Angeles, then, a city populated by people sitting isolated in metal boxes strung out back-to-back along its roads and freeways, a place which embraces the future with greater alacrity than just about any other American city, would seem to offer fertile territory for Homes. Her style might accurately be described as ‘clinical realism,’ and in this latest book she employs a narrative voice similar to that used in Music For Torching , present tense and as detached of emotion as the characters she portrays. It’s also no easy task to make a sympathetic character from someone rich and overly privileged, yet this is one of the tasks Homes sets herself. Richard Novak’s re-entry into the world, or at least his attempt, begins when he is forced to leave the house and is rushed to the emergency room. He asks a doctor, “Is there something wrong?” and in response is told “You’re in pain.” “What should I do in the meantime?” he asks. “Live,” the doctor tells him.
Richard meets an unlikely range of characters as he reaches across the city, seeking ways to be good. There’s Anhil, an immigrant making his way in America by way of his own donut shop; Cynthia, a beaten-down housewife he discovers crying in the produce section of the supermarket and subsequently sponsors in re-inventing her life; Nic, a screenwriter, homeopath and former “spokesman-for-a-generation;” Dr. Lusardi, a doctor of “psychological internal medicine”, and a fraud; and Sydney, a Gyrotonics instructor and cancer survivor, by whom Richard is re-introduced to real, mortal physical intimacy. In any city except Los Angeles such characters grouped together might seem ridiculous, yet one of the ways in which this city undermines fiction is that it defies all attempts to invent the improbable. Fiction set here is almost inevitably satire, yet if any place on earth is beyond satire, it’s probably LA. Regrettably here, characters like Anhil, who is supposed to charm and ingratiate but mostly irritates, and Sylvia, a nutritionist of fetishistic proportions, come across as types rather than as individuals, and no matter how many strange baubles of character their author hangs on them, the more clichéd they become.
This book isn’t the first pass Homes has made at Los Angeles (recently she produced a work of non-fiction, Los Angeles: People, Places and the Castle on the Hill, and currently contributes to The L Word, a television show set in the city) but in This Book Will Save Your Life she takes on something bigger, more ambitious. It is a book filled with Homes’ typically sharp, off-kilter dialogue, supported by bravura set pieces of black comedy. Like the city itself though it is also sprawling, without a compelling center, and even a writer of Homes’ undoubted skill and intelligence can’t avoid the indigenous pitfalls. No amount of wit can make certain observations new, as when a woman drives her car into Richard as he crosses the street and asks, “Why don’t you just drive, like a normal person?” Later, a local government inspector has his screenplay read and optioned by Richard’s movie star neighbor, and the fact that such things happen in “real” life hardly seems to matter; in fiction it’s lifeless, rote.
Homes’ narrative finds resolution in Richard’s rapprochement with his son, who spends the majority of the novel arcing across country from New York in order to spend the summer with him. Richard begins to find life when he climbs down from the mountain, and recognizes the pain that his divorce and his failure as a father have caused him He also stops trying to live forever on micro-processed foods, and finds better living through donuts.
This Book Will Save Your Lifeis a novel whose pleasures reside in small details, rather than in its panoramic sweep. Only in a novel set in LA—no cultural swipe intended—might the protagonists luxury house and automobile be rendered as fully realized characters in the service of plot, yet like Richard’s luxury house, this novel is full of brilliant expressed details built upon shaky ground. The story ends, as many LA stories have since the time of Nathaniel West, with a scene of natural apocalypse and an ambivalent lead character gazing into the destruction, floating but somehow “still here”.