By Denise HamiltonApril 23, 2012
Pink Smog: Becoming Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block
BY NOW, AN ENTIRE GENERATION of girls (and some boys!) who fell in love with the story of an arty, punkish, pixie, DIY teen misfit named Weetzie Bat and her circle of L.A. friends has grown up and placed these postmodern fairy tales into the hands of their own children.
Written by Los Angeles native Francesca Lia Block to nourish her homesick soul while away at college, the Weetzie stories deal with love and loss, darkness and light, temptation and forgiveness. There is palpable danger and cruelty in Weetzie's world (bullying, addiction, anorexia, gay-bashing, disappearing fathers, dying mothers), but there is also great beauty and magic. Not fairy-dust magic, though there is some of that, but the everyday L.A. magic: rock 'n' roll and Hollywood diners, hidden Laurel Canyon gardens, and sun-bleached surfer boys sleeping on sugar-sand beaches.
Mostly there is love, conventional and otherwise, which trumps all.
Block created Weetzie in the late 1980s and has gone on to write dozens of other books, all of which have been received warmly by critics and ardently by fans. Though Block has written widely (poetry, erotica, and even a mythological dating guide), the themes she explores in the Weetzie saga continue to inspire her dark, incantatory coming-of-age stories.
Having read most of her books, I was both excited and a little apprehensive when I heard that Block, almost a quarter-century after Weetzie first appeared, was writing a prequel called Pink Smog: Becoming Weetzie Bat. Sure, I was greedy with book lust to learn Weetzie's backstory. But I was also scared. Did Block still have the magic inside her to write another Weetzie book? Could it ever compare with the perfection of the original? Not only that, but there is a huge gulf between the life of a preteen and an older teenager. Could the travails of Weetzie the tweener be as compelling, as romantic, as full of yearning, as those of her older adolescent self?
I'm happy to say that the answer is a resounding Yes!
Pink Smog ushers us into Weetzie's earlier life with the confident aplomb that characterizes all of Block's writing. We see the beginnings of boy-crushes, the excruciating agony of being a smart, creative, adolescent outsider, the heartbreak over her parents' breakup, and nostalgic longing for the enchanted Hollywood cottage where her little family should have lived happily ever after (before finances forced them down the hill into a San Fernando Valley condominium complex).
While the language may be jeweled and gorgeous, Block doesn't gloss over the harshness of seventh-grade Weetzie's life. Her one-time actress mother Brandi-Lynne drinks herself to sleep in front of the TV every night and cries, "Why didn't you let me go?" when she's saved from drowning after falling drunkenly into the pool one night. Her beloved father, Charlie Bat, a director of science fiction and horror movies, can't find work anymore, abuses substances, and has gone AWOL as Pink Smog opens.
School is no haven either. While Weetzie is relieved to find two friends, dangerously anorexic Lily and gay Bobby, the popular girls bully the threesome, forcing them to band together and form the "club for cool outcasts."
Worst of all, a sinister doppelgänger family, also fatherless and headed by a beautiful witchy woman with long black hair, has moved into apartment 13 of their condominium complex, even though Weetzie's mom claims there's no such number.
But forces of good also hover. Weetzie receives a series of cryptic but encouraging messages from a mysterious stranger. Also, a foxy skateboarder seems to show up each time she's in mortal danger. Could he be her Guardian Angel, Weetzie wonders? Maybe, except that he's got tousled blond hair and wears faded T-shirts: not your typical celestial being.
As with all of Block's novels, the iconic L.A. landscape is a living character: we catch glimpses of Hollywood's Chinese Theatre, the Art Deco Max Factor building, the Hollywood Museum, Will Wright's ice cream parlor, and the Westwood Village Memorial Cemetery. There are paeans to Marilyn Monroe, azure blue pools, pastel Thunderbirds, lip gloss, rustling palm trees, hot asphalt, roller skates, giant tropical plants, and the pink smog of the title. If Pink Smog is a creation myth about Weetzie's origins, it's also a love letter to Block's hometown.
"In L.A. the sunsets are pink," Weetzie writes in her "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" essay for English class:
When the sun goes down and the sky flares it is really beautiful, like magic. However, the lush-plush peony rose of the L.A. sky is a by-product of something that may be killing us all, little by little. Smog! And smog is like sadness. It slips stealthily inside of you, with every breath.
Weetzie is proud of her essay, but her condescending teacher calls it "overwritten" and makes young "Louise" read it aloud to the class as an abject lesson.
"'Weetzie,' I whispered. 'My name's Weetzie.'"
And so we learn how Weetzie got her name. Her mother named her after silent film gamine Louise Brooks, but Charlie Bat began to call her by the diminutive Weetzie and it stuck. Now that Charlie is gone, Weetzie is determined to hang on at least to the nickname.
Block also gives us a possible explanation for Weetzie's short hair in the later books. As Pink Smog opens, Weetzie has long hair with seventies-style "wings" that she's laboriously grown out. But when one of her school tormentors sticks a wad of gum deep into her hair, she has to hack it out, then cut it short.
"Pixie-cut time again," she reflects. "So much for wings."
Pink Smog stands firmly on its own as a novel, but is also sure to lure a brand-new audience into Weetzie's world. (To help this along, HarperCollins has wisely tacked the first chapter of Weetzie Bat to the end of Pink Smog.)
It's a great idea. Unlike some prequels that appear thoughtlessly tossed off just to feed the market, Pink Smog is a natural flow into the Weetzie series. Block waited 23 years to write her prequel, but perhaps she needed that time to gain some perspective on Weetzie's world after the initial explosion of success.
The Weetzie Bat books already have a follow-up — 2005's Necklace of Kisses — in which Weetzie, now 40, leaves her beloved My Secret Agent Lover Man and checks into the Pink Hotel because everything is "sad and scary." There's no more magic and they haven't kissed since September 11, 2001. With Pink Smog, the Weetzie books are now perfectly bookended. But anyone expecting a fairy-tale ending will be disappointed. In Weetzie's world, as in life, nothing is neatly resolved. Instead, Weetzie learns to navigate her life. She learns to take care of herself and those she loves and to appreciate her hometown, where dirty asphalt "sparkled with diamond chips in the burning sun" and "at night the lethal freeways became the Milky Way."
In fact, locating the beauty and magic in the everyday becomes her philosophy: "No matter how bad things get," she says, "you can always see the beauty ... The worse things get, the more you have to make yourself see the magic in order to survive."
And with that, she is free to dream and imagine her future, and the future of the Weetzie Bat books:
I closed my eyes and saw a tall, dark handsome boy who looked scary but was really quite shy and gentle and a cute blonde surfer boy with a funny, snorty laugh and the easiest shoulders. I imagined a boy with dreadlocks and a girl with hair like flowers. And I thought of a boy in a fedora hat and a trench coat, like a funny detective, like a secret agent man, with green eyes that were full of mystery and familiarity at the same time. I saw us all sitting around eating lunch together and laughing. Maybe we would be friends forever. Maybe we would all live together someday, in a sunny cottage like the one I lived in when I was born.
L.A. native Denise Hamilton is a crime novelist and the editor of Los Angeles Noir, a short-story anthology. Her books have been compared to Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy. She's also the Los Angeles Times perfume columnist. Visit her at www.denisehamilton.com.
LARB Staff Recommendations
"Block paints Los Angeles in late-eighties' Rococo: Patrick Nagel doing the Go-Gos in dayglo."
An audio interview with Francesca Lia Block, author of the beloved Weetzie Bat series, by LARB Senior Editor Clarissa Romano. Producer/Engineer...
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