As the increasing fascination with Los Angeles persists (all the while with New York City becoming less au courant as a place to lust after in terms of inhabitance), it seems appropriate that Eve Babitz would experience a sudden renaissance after many decades spent under the radar. Her obvious counterpart, Joan Didion, is a darker, more brooding version of Babitz (as showcased in Play It As It Lays), perhaps a result of being born in Northern California, whereas Babitz was born in L.A.
As a result, Babitz has a keen ability to make fun of the city while lauding it at the same time. In one chapter, she describes the absurdity of west coast decorating motifs, with rich people determined to deem their houses “spaces” instead of, well, houses. She adds the caveat, “I exclude Italians from all this because somehow when Italians do it, it’s human and O.K. Italians would never live in a ‘space’ because ‘spaces’ are likely to cast eerie glows over dinner parties from too much white. No Italian would brook that sort of nonsense at dinner. Half the people at the table were Italians and the other half were trying to become Italian by osmosis: tutored in the language, all Italian friends, all Italian furniture.”
This is the type of levity that Didion has never been capable of possessing when it comes to her depiction of L.A., with nihilistic dialogue exchanges like, “’Tell me what matters,’ BZ said. ‘Nothing,’ Maria said,” that would later beget the likes of Bret Easton Ellis–who has, indeed, freely admitted to ripping off Play It As It Lays for Less Than Zero. Thus, there is a certain refreshment to the way Babitz describes the place she’s so inextricably tied to, cast with a bright light instead of a dark one.
Elsewhere, Babitz discusses the nature of New Yorkers who migrate to California and try to become one of them, as if the mere donning of a few costume pieces and accessories can get the job done. One of her friends provides a rare antithetical example of this, as she notes, “David had never become a Californian (for which I was grateful–he never did those damn double-knit jump suits or those damn gold chains or those Gucci loafers or the rest of those things New Yorkers do when they become Californians).”
For just like being a New Yorker, being a Californian is often something one is born with rather than something one can transcend into through specifically cultivated traits. However, both coastal populations enmeshed in a certain scene can identify with one of the most succinct and poignant terms coined by Babitz: “tar-baby.” For those not in the know, “…a tar-baby is one of those people who drive you crazy through your life by never responding to anything you do no matter what kind of display you cook up for their delight. And the more you try to embrace your tar-baby, the more you get stuck in the tar and the worse everything is.” Babitz, of course, admits to Jim Morrison being one of her life’s great tar-babies, while bringing up Italy–once again (the California-Italy connection is stronger than one might think, at least shape-wise)–as one of her friends’, Al Stills, tar-babies. She laments on his behalf, “He would have done anything to make Italy notice him, he worshipped her with all his might. But she, of course, has always ignored Icelandic northerners.”
And maybe, in some sense, L.A. is Joan Didion’s tar-baby. Her desire to be so much apart of it after writing her infamous “Goodbye to All That” essay about New York ultimately found her back in New York in her old age. It seems that the less we try for things, the more easily they come. And Babitz doesn’t have to try in any way to portray a timeless version of both California and Los Angeles.
It is possibly Babitz’s background as a painter that informs her writing style, with her manner of speech often speaking to a painter’s vocabulary (e.g. “occasional figures in the landscape”). Her time spent in the L.A. music scene–beyond the simple fact that she was one of Jim Morrison’s women–found her designing album covers for the likes of The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, and also informs the almost journalistic style of her writing. Like an objective reporter on the surreal goings-on of her life, Babitz doesn’t hold back on anything–from lesbian encounters spurred on by the Santa Ana winds to her essential domestic partnership with a gay man.
With an introduction to the book by novelist Matthew Specktor, it’s made clear that what makes Babitz a writer that has stood the test of time is this: “Any writer may be in or out of step with his or her time, but a great one is inextricably bound to place.” And Babitz will forever be bound to that polarizing but increasingly loved “72 suburbs in search of a city” (as Dorothy Parker once dubbed it). Didion, on the other hand, might have to settle for Sacramento being the place she’s inexorably tied to (see: Run, River).