Geoff Nicholson Maps the Territory

By Anthony MillerJune 4, 2014

    Geoff Nicholson Maps the Territory

    The City Under the Skin by Geoff Nicholson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 272 pages.

    The Los Angeles Review of Books and Los Angeles magazine launch a joint publication today with the release of “Geoff Nicholson Maps the Territory”: a multimedia collaborative story. Featuring author Geoff Nicholson and writer and critic Anthony Miller — with video by LARB AV and photography by Michael Schmelling — this is the first story collaboration between the Los Angeles Review of Books and Los Angeles magazine.

    The joint LARB/Los Angeles magazine feature coincides with the release this week of Nicholson's new novel The City Under the Skin. Nicholson invited Miller, a longtime friend, to join him on a walk to explore a series of urban ruins hidden in plain sight. They started at the Hollywood Walk of Fame and made their way to Joan Didion's former house. LARB's multimedia division, LARB AV, recorded the journey on video. Michael Schmelling documented it via photograph. Anthony Miller's print edition, "Geoff Nicholson Maps the Territory," is presented here. 

    The video edition of "Geoff Nicholson Maps the Territory" by LARB AV is posted at the end of this article, or click here.

    Click here for the photo series, "Maps and Territories," by photographer Michael Schmelling.


    The Map

    I’m standing in a patch of overgrown scrub next to an overpass of the Hollywood Freeway, concrete above and below. I have driven past this spot who-knows-how-many times without giving it any thought, but for author Geoff Nicholson it’s more than a mere waypost — it’s an urban ruin that merits our attention. If drivers notice us at all, they likely regard us as lost. In a way, we are. We are trying to lose ourselves in the middle of the city in order to see it.

    “Walking is the gateway, if you like,” Nicholson explains. “It’s not in itself that fascinating. It’s where it takes you and what you see and observe while you’re doing it.” He has become an authority on walking while residing in a city that long ago gave itself over to the automobile. Nicholson and I traverse a two-or-so mile swath of Hollywood on a Wednesday afternoon in May, not for any purpose other than to better apprehend the city around us, to ponder what it might be communicating to us, to get it under our feet, perhaps even under our skin.

    Nicholson’s latest novel, The City Under the Skin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), is an excursion through a city of secrets, scars, facades, hidden depths, “images” that may or may not be authentic, and people with their own traces and ruins left within it. If “cartographic noir” can be considered a genre, Nicholson may well have established it. The story features all manner of maps, not all of them drawn on paper. A young man working in a map store located in an “Arts and Crafts Zone” sees a woman shed her clothes and glimpses what he perceives to be a map on her back. The clerk, Zak Webster, a self-styled “urban explorer” who reads the world as an unfolding series of maps, is given to making declarations like: “A map doesn’t even have to be ‘true’ to be useful” and “Getting lost is a form of mapping.” Fittingly, his pursuits in the novel cannot be mapped according to that archetypal noir route where the plot turns on dangerous broads and dead bodies. One of the most crucial revelations in Nicholson’s book hinges on a tattoo of a compass rose, that directional flourish adorning most maps and globes. 

    A deranged tattooist has been scrawling maps, or parts of one, on the backs of kidnapped women, then leaving them to wander the city. A killer (and map collector) named Wrobleski begins to abduct these women so he can decipher this strange epidermal rebus. “That’s a very scary and powerful and deeply unpleasant thing to do, and it’s permanent in a way that a cellphone app never is and never will be,” says Nicholson of the desecration of these women’s bodies with these carnal engravings. “To have a map on flesh is about as intense and scary a thing as you can imagine.” 

    The city in Nicholson’s book is not Los Angeles but is in a kind of dialogue with it; shorn of Los Angeles.’s identifying landmarks, it still resonates on a particular frequency for readers of sunshine and noir. The map store recalls the bookshop out of Raymond Chandler’s (and Howard Hawks’s) The Big Sleep. The name of the dive bar, The Grid, besides having a perfect moniker for a map-minded drinker, seems also like a sly homage to The Scope in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.

    Nicholson, a native of Sheffield, England, has been an Angeleno for around a dozen years. He is the author of some 20 books of fiction and nonfiction, the last sixwritten while living here. Taken together, Nicholson’s contemplations of pedestrianism — The Lost Art of Walking and Walking in Ruins — start to do for perambulation what Robert Burton, one of Nicholson’s heroes, did for dejection in The Anatomy of Melancholy. (There is a good deal less Latin, obscure classical allusion, and footnoting to be found in the Nicholson volumes.) There is some melancholy in Nicholson’s work as well; in Lost Art of Walking, Nicholson says that he began his walks to curb his depression not long after relocating to Los Angeles. Having accompanied him on a few previous wanderings, I know that his treks can start as odysseys to find some obscure architectural or cultural landmark: the site of a photograph, the home of an artist, writer, or fellow flaneur, or locations from the 1971 last-man-on-Earth film The Omega Man. The excursions have even been known to involve a quiet bit of “creative trespass.”

    Before undertaking any journey, one must set out a route. A map, much like a novel, is many documents at once: a tangible artifact of a journey, a record of a specific geographical location within a given historical moment, an aesthetic object to be coveted. Maps can be followed religiously or disregarded as quickly as instruction manuals. Much depends on the nature of the map and its reader. The name of the map store in City Under the Skin, Utopiates, is said to be derived from an Oscar Wilde quotation, but it’s difficult not to think Nicholson wasn’t also trying to suggest something more Marxian about maps becoming “opiates” for seekers of destinations — both geographical and spiritual. “As I say more than once in the novel, maps never mean the same thing to everybody,” says Nicholson. “They’re always in somebody’s interest — and it may not be yours.” While undoubtedly true with oil maps, tourist maps, and maps of imperial conquest, it does make me wonder what agendas lurk underneath the seemingly innocuous pages of the Thomas Guide.

    Nicholson has long found maps a fascinating subject. Here’s how he had one character describe them in his 1997 novel Bleeding London

    Maps are euphemisms, clean, clear, self-explanatory substitutes for all the mess and mayhem, the clutter and ambivalence and blurring and intermeshing weft and warp of the real places they purport to describe. They are fake documents, pathetic simplifications and falsifications.

    “I’ve always liked maps a lot, whether I use them for walking or not,” says Nicholson.

    I remember the first time I ever went abroad, I went to France, to Nancy, and the first thing I did was go and buy a map at the local tabac. I was with a group of jeunesse people in a hostel and everybody thought that this was a terribly odd thing to do. It seemed to me that when you move to a new place it’s very interesting to see it laid out like a plan.

    City Under the Skin opens with an epigraph from one of the two novels Nicholson says he most often rereads, Heart of Darkness, in which Marlow reflects on being a young man with a “passion for maps,” pointing to the most inviting blank spaces on a map with the intentions of going to those locales when he grows up. “I’m not sure I ever put my finger on the map and said, ‘I want to go to LA,’ but I always had that sense of looking at maps and wanting to get outside of my own neighborhood, my own town, my own country,” Nicholson says. 

    He describes one pedestrian experiment where he spotted the distinct shape of a martini glass in a map of New York City’s East Village and followed its pattern through the city. He toasted each end of his promenade with a martini. “There was absolutely no sense while walking this route that one was walking that shape,” he says. “There is that disconnect between what a map looks like and the experience of what walking that map looks like, and I find that intriguing.” Philosopher Alfred Korzybski observed, just as Nicholson’s character Zak does, that the map is not the territory.

    “I’m very aware at this point that an interest in maps is an interest in a dying, antiquated technology, and I don’t see it coming back like vinyl,” Nicholson says. “Who needs a map anymore when you can look at your smartphone?”

    The Territory

    Nicholson and I commence our walk at the nexus of Hollywood’s “surface layer,” the corner of Hollywood and Vine. We are standing on part of the Walk of Fame, where one casts one’s eyes not up but down to look at the stars. Unfortunate tourists stride over these names both familiar and forgotten on the sidewalk, searching for something that screams: “Hooray for Hollywood.” Unlike the blue plaques on buildings in Nicholson’s home country, these woefully maintained pink terrazzo-and-brass constellations don’t serve as real markers indicating some birthplace, residence, or locale of a famous meeting or event. No one quite knows why the names are dispersed as they are. The stars on the Walk of Fame are like fading tattoos on the city’s skin.

    A block north, Welton Becket's experiment in "programmatic" architecture, the Capitol Records Building, suggests a stack of LPs on a turntable. A visual hallmark that may have seemed novel to visitors when the building opened in 1956 seems anachronistic in 2014. Across the street from Capitol’s headquarters, with its legendary soundproofed recording studio, is a derelict beige metal post, some 25 feet high. Look up and you’ll notice that it’s an air-raid siren, an SD-10 “wire spool” contraption that dates to 1942. It was installed to warn Angelenos of an attack by the Japanese. At street level it’s barely noticeable, unless you know where to look. Across Yucca Street, two different structures built for broadcasting two very different kinds of mid-20th century messages face one another.

    Just as some people are infatuated with collecting objects, Nicholson is preoccupied with cataloging and collecting the collectors themselves. He devoted particular attention to these figures in his novel Hunters & Gatherers and his nonfiction book Sex Collectors. “I think one of my basic interests is obsession,” he explains. “People who collect things, whether it be maps or books or dildos of the world, I understand that, I have some of those urges, some of those genetic markers. But I’ve talked to and written about enough collectors that I know that I’m not a genuine, full-on collector.” His books bear the earmarks of someone who has spent a great deal of time investigating such magpie subjects as Volkswagens, guitars, foot fetishists, and tattoo artists. He also has a taste for some notoriously inscrutable fascinations — poet J. H. Prynne (who was Nicholson’s supervisor at Cambridge), novelist Thomas Pynchon, irascible songwriter Mark E. Smith of The Fall, the Japanese noise band Acid Mothers Temple— but always shares his enthusiasms with a light hand and irreverent humor. (He’s also an enormous fan of The Simpsons.) His obsession with obsessives is mapmaking of a different sort, the charting of human psyche, its ruins and forgotten corners. 

    Nicholson is also enthralled with “edgelands,” a term coined in 2002by environmentalist Marion Shoard and picked up more recently by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts to describe those neglected industrial areas that have been reclaimed by the natural world. Stand on the concrete island amid grass dusted with scrap metal and glass and severed by fencing near the 101 overpass at Franklin and Vine, and you’ll catch sight of palm trees, symbols of the land of sun and surf, here framing not the beach but a sprawling concrete tribute to the automobile. Spread out all around us, these edgelands, these unobserved slides into ruination, reveal themselves only when we start to think about the city as a character. J.G. Ballard, one of Nicholson’s favorite authors, ruminated on such topography long before the term existed. The decaying remains of the nuclear test site on Eniwetok in “The Terminal Beach” or the drained swimming pools in Empire of the Sun share the same entropic beauty as the automobile trees of Franklin and Vine. “Ballard would have liked this a lot,” affirms Nicholson. 

    Heading west on Franklin Avenue for about four blocks, we pass a number of unremarkable apartment buildings with baroque names before reaching the backside of Hollywood and Highland. Geoff points to the top of the Loews Hollywood Hotel, formerly the Renaissance, to a World of Tomorrow–esque flying-saucer-shaped structure that once housed a rotating restaurant. Nicholson tells me this is the inspiration for the Canaveral Lounge, the rotating restaurant of the Telstar, the abandoned '60s hotel where Zak's lover Marilyn turns out to be squatting.

    Another quarter-mile west on Franklin, Nicholson points out a two-story white house. Only the garage is really visible from the street. Joan Didion lived here during the waning days of the ’60s when she wrote about The Doors and the Manson murders in the essays that would come to form The White Album

    […] the night they did the LaBianca murder, they were driving along Franklin Avenue looking for a place to hit, and that’s where we lived, and we had French windows open, lights blazing all along on the street.

    In Julian Wasser’s famous photo, taken during this era, of Didion posing with her Corvette Stingray, you can see a nondescript garage behind her. It has been replaced by a modern, remote-controlled door, but the house is still the same. As he often does on his walks, Nicholson comes armed with photographs to compare the past and the present. After beginning our walk overwhelmed with names of countless stars scattered underfoot, there is nothing to indicate that Didion lived here. Alongside “another deracinated Englishman,” architectural theorist Reyner Banham, author of Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Nicholson credits Didion as the writer who has most shaped his thinking about Los Angeles. “She was able to get herself into the cracks,” Nicholson says. “People didn’t really notice her, and she wrote about these small things, and then it becomes this gigantic truth about cities, the female psyche, and the human condition.” It’s also mind-boggling to imagine anyone being able to afford such a home nowadays on a writer’s salary. Going through a gate to verify that the back patio is in fact the one on which Didion was photographed, we find the backyard tennis court (imagine having enough acreage for such a thing) has been torn up and given over to a garden. It is tended by members of the Shumei Hollywood Center, a group devoted to communal living, urban agriculture, and enlightenment; it might have been featured in a Didion essay at the time she inhabited the house.

    Nicholson is one of several contemporary authors who have recorded their walking in their writing. Iain Sinclair’s perambulations through and ruminations on the city in books such as Lud Heat, Lights Out for the Territory, and London Orbital have made him an elder statesman of the genre. Novelist Will Self is known for his ultra-pedestrian outings including one that took him from his house in London to a Hollywood hotel without him once stepping into a car. (He and Nicholson compared their thoughts on walking in The Believer in 2009.) Like fellow Britons Sinclair and Self, Nicholson has had to negotiate his own personal détente with the concept of “psychogeography.” The word was advanced by Guy Debord, founder of the Situationist International, to describe how a city influences the psyches of its denizens. As the term strayed out of Situationist enclaves, psychogeography spawned associations and guidebooks, became a way to intellectualize any city walk as well as the title of Self’s column in London’s Independent newspaper. Nicholson’s reaction to the concept suggests it retains about as much subcultural cachet as a Google exec visiting Burning Man. “You know it must be over because every university in England has a psychogeography department,” he says. “Iain Sinclair refers to it as a ‘franchise,’ and he says he bought his franchise earlier than everyone else.” Although Nicholson says, “I don’t need a philosophy in order to walk,” he sometimes refers to his walks as “drifts,” a Situationist term, and has some sympathy for their ways of seeing cities. 

    What Debord and the Situationists are saying is true, that when you walk through a city you do pick up on certain feelings and ambiences, you feel yourself drawn one way rather than another way, and you’re not absolutely certain why. I find myself reading the stuff and thinking, “Isn’t that what everybody does”? Anyone who goes for a walk in the city is doing that.

    I am not convinced this is the case. When we reach Runyon Canyon Park at the end of our afternoon we are practically the only two not attired in workout clothes. We have not come to this 160-acre park for the exercise or the nature or to let a dog off its leash but to visit some urban ruins. Nicholson tells me about George Huntington Hartford (he went by Huntington), who, after his plans to build a Frank Lloyd Wright–like house at the top of the park fell through, attempted to give the property to the city in 1964. When the city turned down the offer, Hartford sold the property to Jules Berman, who demolished the buildings on the site and let the property disintegrate. The ruins of the estate survive in strange platforms that look like stages and heavily graffitied collections of brick awash in the pervasive odor of dog urine. Joggers and canines move blithely by us as we stand on a stone floor, the foundation of a guesthouse where Errol Flynn very likely once resided. (He also played tennis on the abandoned courts further up the trail.) Now people stretch their hamstrings on these structures, if they notice them at all.

    Nicholson understands that what makes walking ephemeral is also what makes it important. “For me, I quite like that purposelessness of walking,” he says. “I sometimes think if I put in all the hours I spent walking on doing something else, playing the violin or working on the garden, I would have a great garden or have great skills. There is no end product, apart from the books. I get to write about it.”



    Anthony Miller is a writer, critic, and an editor-at-large of the literary journal Black Clock.

    LARB Contributor

    Anthony Miller is a writer, critic, and an editor-at-large of the literary journal Black Clock. He has written about books, film, and other cultural obsessions and ephemera for Bookforum, LA Weekly, Los Angeles CityBeat, East Bay Express, Poets & Writers, and other publications. He is a contributor to the pop culture website HiLobrow.


    LARB Staff Recommendations

    Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

    LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!