Babitz feast: A tart spread of her writerly wit

41cxwwrD0ZL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The book I’m having the best time with right now, the one that swings with a driving lyric beat, glitter and spunk, is Eve Babitz’s “Sex and Rage,” a midsize book with a kingsize subtitle: “Advice to Young Ladies Eager for a Good Time.” (Why are subtitles so long yet explicate so little?)

Published in 1979, this inebriating, semi-autobiographical novel of L.A. sun and New York fun, of boozing and book publishing, was reissued last month after an overdue Babitz revival was set loose by Dwight Garner’s rave review in The New York Times of her ebullient memoiristic novel “Eve’s Hollywood”.

Babitz, so young, jazzes her already pungent prose with piquant similes and pinging metaphors, snarky observations and laughing surprises that rush you along, flowing and splashing. She’s an effortless, evocative dazzler, both tragically hip and self-deprecatingly down to earth.

Currently in the thick of “Sex and Rage,” I’ve plucked a few chewable excerpts that reveal a stylist’s stylist:

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“In the hurricane, the waves were fifteen feet high and roared like lions and volcanoes.”

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“Gilbert’s apartment was furnished by his landlord in cocoa-brown threadbare fifties’ Modern with a cocoa-brown shag rug and stucco walls, which had been swirled into a pattern so life would be more interesting.”

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“He smelled like a birthday party for small children, like vanilla, crêpe paper, soap, starch, and warm steam and cigarettes. Anyone would have liked being hugged by him.”

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“She had heard that an artist was ‘any white person over twenty-five without health insurance.'” 

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“His voice was icy but cordial, a combination she had never remembered hearing. It was sort of like Montgomery Clift trying to be mean.”

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“He was built like a lizard or a saluki. He was narrow and ancient-looking; his skin looked like papyrus, five thousand years old but not wrinkled, just from another age — from an age before they knew about chocolate or Dante or Charlie Chaplin.” 

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“This wave would grow larger and larger, sucking in its cheeks, and, unable to contain itself, finally it would break, thundering with a passion so ruthless that nothing in its way prevailed. To surf such a stampede you had to be alive with balance, for the speed welled up beneath your feet, blooming faster and faster, as the green glass smashed into foam, throwing you into its tangoed embrace. If you lasted and kept on your feet, the wave unrolled until finally it exhausted itself, spent upon the wet shore, softly uncurled like a baby’s smile.”

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“She felt as though she’d been in front of a firing squad that had changed its mind.”

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“Max’s laugh was like a dragnet; it picked up every living laugh within the vicinity and shined a light on it, intensified it, pitched it higher. It was a dare — he dared you not to laugh with him. He dared you to despair. He dared you to insist that there was no dawn, that all there was was darkness, that there was no silver lining … He dared you to believe you were going to die — when you at that moment knew, just as he did, that you were immortal, you were among the gods.”

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Babitz

Six books I didn’t put down this summer

I’m an impatient reader. I get excited about reading a particular title, I crack it, read it, and allow it 50 pages to regale me. If I’m not enthralled or at least engaged by page 50, that book is going down. I can’t say how many books I’ve stopped reading at the mid-century mark. The humanity.

This summer has proven good for reading — fruitful, satisfying, nourishing. I think I’ve only put down two books, always apologetically. (As in all my breakups, it’s me, not them.)

One I did not cast aside was Elizabeth Strout’s mellow novel “Anything Is Possible,” a chiseled gem that’s really a collection of nine interconnected stories, deeply soulful snapshots of life, love, loss and more, whose subtlety has an easy-listening vibe.51mPEE0qUtL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_

I journal a lot. And in May I wrote that Strout’s book is “freeze-dried minimalism, pared and spare, miniaturist portraits so easy to read and follow but practically toothless. They don’t leave imprints, marks. Delicate as bird bones, the prose lacks the prickle and sparkle I’m drawn to — listless, not lifting — yet it still holds me.”

That sounds harsh, but I enjoyed “Anything Is Possible” — I gladly finished it — even though I hardly remember a thing about it, and I almost forgot I’d read it altogether. I guess anything is possible.

Rather more memorable books I’ve read this season abound. Here are five great ones:

Michel Houellebecq’s award-winning novel “The Map and the Territory” is all brawny brain, yet brisk and entertaining, pretty brilliant and laced with slashing erudition. France’s literary bête noire, Houellebecq’s reputation as an Islamophobe, misogynist and racist precedes him, so I braced for acrid ugliness. But this is a relatively mild story about the meteoric rise of a young artist and all the traps and trappings of an obscenely priced art market, and, for an extra twist, the murder of a writer named Houellebecq, whose portrait he had painted.

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Art, love, money and death are shrewdly explored and a sparkling literary flair survives the book’s English translation. It’s pungent with sharp, funny insights like this:

“It’s impossible to write a novel … for the same reason it’s impossible to live: due to accumulated inertia. And all the theories of freedom, from Gide to Sartre, are just immoralisms thought up by irresponsible bachelors.” 

And, on a more harrowing note: “As you approach the truth, your solitude will increase.”

From one despair to another: Matthew Klam’s mordantly funny “Who is Rich?” hurls its title character Rich Fischer, a washed-up cartoonist, into paroxysms of lust, existential turmoil and the maw of marital decay. Here’s Klam on the latter topic:

“It was just the usual struggle to stay in love, keep it hot, keep it real, the boredom and revulsion, the afterthought of copulation, the fight for her attention, treating me like a roommate, or maybe like a vision of some shuddering gelatinous organ she’d forgotten still worked inside her.”

41OvV2OwvWL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_A tart entertainment, this wincingly lifelike novel starts out breezily but deepens by the chapter with sometimes devastating insights, keen, unsparing observations on family life, marriage, infidelity and children, who he regards as wondrous, but also soul-killing and disappointingly mundane.

Bitter and despairing over his shambolic life, Rich spirals into a hell of his own mind. By the last 30 pages, he’s quaking on the edge. Love kills. Yearning destroys. But light does beam in:

“How do you do it? How do you span the nothingness? Through love, through music, through art, through the sharing of food, fucking and experiences.” 

Billed as a novel, Eve Babitz’s crackling “Eve’s Hollywood” reads like a rollicking, site-specific memoir, pulling readers on a picaresque through Los Angeles and the author’s precocious and prickly teenage mind.

In this unsung classic, first published in 1974, Babitz is our beautiful, privileged tour guide, leading us to druggy parties, the Watts Towers, a favorite taco joint, encounters with rock stars, bums and bohemians.

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Babitz’s prose is casual poetry, jazzy here, plainspoken there, always direct and evocative with smells, colors and emotions. She’s like a kid scrawling in a scrappy journal, her memories of parties and privilege unfurling with a blasé panache. She possesses the eye of an adolescent anthropologist, at once callow and cutting, seeing through it all.

Renata Adler’s “Speedboat” also blurs the border between novel and memoir, but more radically than Babitz’s book. Almost structureless, the story’s protagonist, journalist Jen Fain, hopscotches urban America, bumping into life and experiences in jagged, kaleidoscopic impressions. The fragmentary scraps, fragrant and alive, aren’t woven into a narrative tapestry, more a crazy-quilt, and that’s made the 1976 novel an influential cult item among writers like David Foster Wallace.

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Partway through “Speedboat,” I noted in my journal: “Not sure what it’s about, or if it is, as it seems, slices and episodes of a journalist’s peripatetic life.”

I was right, but journalist Guy Trebay, writing in the book’s afterward, nails it: “By turns journalistic, diaristic, aphoristic, always episodic and mordant, ‘Speedboat’ is a novel made up of a series of sharply observed miniatures rendered aslant.”

That’s my kind of book.

Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio” is one of those canonical masterpieces that no one has heard of. Published in 1919 but distinctly modern in tone and themes, this fine fiction is a cycle of 22 interlinked short stories limning more than a dozen characters’ lives in confining small-town America.

51ivP9BjP5L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In patient, pellucid prose, Anderson plumbs work, religion, morality and the loneliness and isolation of life in fictional Winesburg. I found the quaintness of time and place relaxing and gently engrossing. The stories possess a simple sublimity, and taking my time through its pleasures was a joy. It’s a fast, clean read that isn’t without dramatic and emotional punch. A hushed knockout.

 

 

It’s my journal. If only it were more.

“Journal entries, those vessels of discontent, are notoriously fickle, subject to the torque of mutable feelings; without caution, speculation falls into usurpation.” Cynthia Ozick

I’ve kept a journal for more than 22 years. It’s mostly electronic, tip-tapped on my computer, though I’ve printed out hundreds of pages from the first decade or so and bound them in a plastic spiral binder, as if I wrote a book. It’s quite fat.

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A big hunk of my journals, bound.

(This word barrage, incidentally, doesn’t include the stacks of Moleskin notebooks deliriously filled during my extensive world travels.)

What I write in the journal is hardly revolutionary. I report, remember, ruminate, philosophize, complain, yearn, whine and woolgather — all that human stuff. Most likely it is ravenously narcissistic, disgustingly self-obsessed, irretrievably solipsistic. (And how.)

Some of it’s pretty juicy, even naughty, but I’m careful not to get too personal about others. For one, I’m not comfortable anatomizing friends and family; second, I wouldn’t want to injure feelings of someone who pried where they weren’t supposed to. (Once, someone did pry where they weren’t supposed to. A romance that was in its death throes was instantly snuffed.)

It wants badly to be literary, more narrative than journalistic, even occasionally novelistic, lyrical, with cartwheels and curlicues. This means a lot of it is dreadful. Perhaps what I’m aiming for is the memoir-y fictions of writers like Ben Lerner (the astounding, erudite “10:04”), Karl Ove Knausgård (the granular, un-put-downable “My Struggle” series), Teju Cole (“Open City,” a minor masterpiece), and Eve Babitz (“Eve’s Hollywood,” a delicious, decadent Didion), paragons of the form, of living, breathing autobiographical novels.

And then there’s one of the Platonic ideals, Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground,” the first half of which is the faux-memoir of a blustering, philosophical nihilist, spittle flying with frothing apoplexy. It’s nuts, pure sulfurous id.

And, three attempts in, I still can’t surrender to this undisputed (until now) classic novel. Despite its machine-gun stream-of-consciousness, “Notes” is a grinding slog. The book rushes headily but incoherently, a corrosive rant by its nameless protagonist that loops-the-loops, caroms, careers and pinballs. Zesty, it’s also strangely insipid. I don’t know what the character is on about most of the time, but there’s a zing and energy propelling his transgressive thoughts.

About putting it down, yet again, I am conflicted, though I am mostly just bored, and that — boredom by a work of art — is unforgivable. I persevere for my friend Sativa’s sake. “Muscle through,” she, a fan of the book, tells me. But I can’t.

Still, I wish my journals were as combustible, as gnarly and smart. Sylvia Plath’s published journals, so frank and vivid, have inspired me, told me how to limn a banal day, galvanize a simple gesture. Lerner, infusing the quotidian with ballistic intelligence — he’s something else. (I’ve twice read “10:04.”)  I return to my bloated journal, its thirsty computer pages, recording the day, feelings, longings, and do what I can, all the while hoping for something approaching, or just faintly grazing, art. Ha.