‘Los Angeles is not a city but a series of suburban approaches to a city that never materializes.’ More by accident than any kind of plan, one of the early features of this blog has been the relationship between word and image. And so, to follow that theme, I thought I’d write about a novel set in Hollywood.
A screenwriter, director and biographer, as well as a novelist, Gavin Lambert was a lover to Nicholas Ray, and counted amongst his friends Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Paul Bowles and Natalie Woods. One way or another, he became engrained in the Hollywood of the fifties and early sixties. And, like the best writers, he remained as open as a camera to everything around him. The Slide Area joins Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust in being a Hollywood novel which eschews a classical Hollywood structure. Hard to imagine Robert McKee working himself up over this series of interconnected short stories or character portraits. Perhaps that’s what every scriptwriter longs for from their dream novel: to start playing a game without so many rules.
Episodic and ruminative, with a pleasing equivocacy, Lambert’s novel follows the stories of a group of characters whose only link is a narrator who works as a Hollywood scriptwriter. Unnamed, and essentially a featureless proxy for the author, he retains a necessary air of blankness as he trawls around town either on errands for or evading the characters he describes. An old school friend gone wrong, who wants to spend his life on the beach. A faded blind Countess, deluded into thinking she is travelling the world by her predatory nieces. An aspiring actress (of course). A successful star. Sooner or later, the Vaseline will be wiped from the lens, and each of them will be revealed as corrupted, even dangerous. They appear fleetingly within each other’s stories, the background cast who we know a little too much about for comfort. Some of them die, only to reappear in a separate section. The title comes from the areas around Los Angeles where the cliffs sweep away, sometimes taking the ground from under people’s feet. ‘Nothing belongs except the desert soil and the gruff eroded-looking mountains to the north. Because the earth is desert, its surface always has a terrible dusty brilliance.’ The pun of the title is clear: LA is a city where the characters slide down morality, losing touch with those closest to them, losing touch with themselves.
Suitably, The Slide Area is finally a novel about Los Angeles: an examination of the absence at the heart of the city, the ‘no there, there’ of Gertrude Stein’s famous description. ‘The city was nothing but empty streets, traffic lights winking at empty intersections, but stranger than other cities at this hour because there seemed more cars than houses.’ In fact, LA is depicted as having the same blankness as the narrator. It is the city itself which joins the characters together. Undeniably there, sometimes disappearing in its totality, the city is the true narrator of urban lives. The houses are real because they exist and people use them for eating and sleeping and making love, but they have no style of their own and look as if they’ve been imported from half a dozen different countries.’