The Power of Sunshine

Alexander Cockburn

  • City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles by Mike Davis
    Verso, 462 pp, £18.95, November 1990, ISBN 0 86091 303 1

‘City of Quartz’? Los Angeles is indeed bright, hard, opaque. Even the astonishing sunsets one can see from Interstate 15, looking west towards Pomona, have a sepulchral flush to them as the red light filters through the foul air rolling towards Riverside and the desert seventy miles east of the Pacific. And when the Santa Ana winds blow the other way and clean out the whole basin there’s nothing warm in the colour tones even then, just an eerie depth of field so clear throughout its focal range that it’s hard to keep an accurate sense of perspective.

Most writers find their way to Los Angeles from somewhere else and the city has been refracted through the lens of their disenchantment, remorse, bad faith; diminished in such costive satires as those of West or Waugh. The European Marxists of the Frankfurt School, fleeing thither from the Nazis, were as uncomprehending, though at a higher level of sophistication. Years later, when he’d returned to Frankfurt, Adorno remarked rather portentously that ‘it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that any contemporary consciousness that has not appropriated the American experience, even if in opposition, has something reactionary about it.’

He was talking about Los Angeles, where he and Horkheimer allowed (as Mike Davis puts it) ‘their image of first sight to become its own myth: Los Angeles as the crystal ball of capitalism’s future’. They exhibited as little interest as their fellow exile Brecht in the wartime turmoil in the local aircraft plants or the vibrant night-life and music in the Central Avenue ghetto, and turned their gaze instead onto the little single family homes that represented to them the world-historical mission of the proletariat perverted into the highest stage of false consciousness. As they put it in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, ‘even now, the older houses outside the concrete city centre look like slums, and the new bungalows on the outskirts are at one with the flimsy structures of world fairs in their praise of technical progress and their built-in demand to be discarded after a short while like empty food cans. Yet the city housing projects designed to perpetuate the individual as a supposedly independent unit in a small hygienic dwelling make him all the more subservient to his adversary – the absolute power of capitalism.’

This was in essence a heavy-breathing version of the noir fix on Los Angeles which began in 1934 with James M. Cain’s The postman always rings twice, surging through Chandler, Faulkner, film noir, the extraordinary novels of Chester Himes and on towards Rechy, Didion and Bret Easton Ellis. Davis acutely points out that noir – dystopian revulsion at the boosterism that manured the city’s growth – took hold as a style in the Depression because it was anchored in the despair of the middle class, their savings sunk in real estate and oil speculations, as they volatilised in a downward spiral of crisis and bankruptcy. Chandler’s Marlowe, in his stale office in Downtown, snarling alternately at the punk scum and the powers-that-be, was a political time-bomb waiting to explode. In their agony and panic no less than 100,000 bedrock Republicans crossed the lines in 1934 to vote for the socialist Upton Sinclair in his gubernatorial campaign conducted under the slogan ‘End poverty in California’. Four years later, the tide turned and the Midwestern retirees were bellowing ‘Ham and eggs’ – the rallying-cry of a bizarre pension-reform movement with Brownshirt undertones. In this mulch Marlowe himself would probably have ended up as a Brownshirt if Chandler had followed the true logic of his character.

For every noir scrivener staring out across the Hollywood Hills under eyelids heavy with disillusion there’s been a booster, starting with Charles Fletcher Lummis, who in 1884 took 143 days to walk from Ohio to Los Angeles and was hired on arrival by the patron of the Los Angeles Times, Colonel (later General) Harrison Gray Otis. Lummis helped to forge the booster image described by Kevin Starr in his book Inventing the dream: ‘a mélange of mission myth (originating in Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona), obsession with climate, political conservatism (symbolised in the open shop), and thinly-veiled racism, all put to the service of boosterism and oligarchy’.

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