FEBRUARY 18, 2016
AT FIRST GLANCE Waiting for Lipchitz at Chateau Marmont appears to be another dark and disturbing Hollywood satire, with a hint of the absurd in the title reminiscent of Beckett’s classic play about waiting for a man or god who never arrives. But Aris Janigian’s nameless narrator is more than a hapless bum looking for a break — he’s a literary snob who longs to be loved for his superior screenwriting (and remembered for his past successes), a Jew who views other cultures with enmity and suspicion, and an Angeleno whose love-hate relationship with the city has pushed him to the brink of self-exile. He is, in other words, a bipolar misanthrope fueled by multiple contradictions.
What is most unexpected and fascinating about Lipchitz is that at times the book becomes a panegyric to the virtues of living in Fresno, California. A few years ago, I happened across Aris Janigian’s third novel, This Angelic Land, which contrasted Beirut’s civil war with Los Angeles and the Rodney King riots of 1992. Janigian had been a longtime L.A. resident and former humanities professor at SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture), whose two previous novels Bloodvine and Riverbig were set in his native Fresno. As it happens, Janigian had been going back and forth between Fresno and Los Angeles for years. After I wrote about This Angelic Land, Janigian presented the novel at the Levantine Cultural Center, and we struck up a long-distance literary conversation about Los Angeles and the world beyond. Later, when my wife and I were considering a move out of the city, we drove up to Fresno and paid Janigian and his family a visit. Like the narrator in Lipchitz, I even pondered what our lives would be like were we to transplant ourselves to “the so-called armpit of California” (Janigian). While we didn’t wind up moving to Fresno, that Central Valley city continues to be a source of intrigue, and it might almost be considered a character in Lipchitz.
Lipchitz is less concerned with plot and suspense than with the world of ideas, among them the importance of being an artist and what it means to belong or not belong in a megalopolis where one experiences dépaysement (more on that later). So while our embittered screenwriter amusingly impugns the Jews along with several other cultures as “subwhites” or “ethnic people,” he spends 175 pages on the fence about his entirely momentous decision to decamp for Fresno. He also ponders the world’s momentous changes, such as the shift from a literary to a screen culture, and what it means to belong when living in a county in which, according to philologist Vyacheslav Ivanov, at least 224 languages are spoken.
It’s not difficult to identify with Janigian’s character when you live in a megalopolis that is home to more than 18 million people. How often have you dreamt of leaving Los Angeles in search of your own particular Shangri-La, exhausted by the traffic-noise-pollution and ambiguity of a city that is not a city in any traditional sense? Surely one could become disgusted by the snobbery, nepotism, and artifice of the entertainment industry — and the groveling that characterizes those “ass-lickers” (Janigian) wanting to make their way in it, fortified by the belief that there must be a better way to live, perhaps connected to the natural world while nurturing oneself with a life of ideas and art?
Lipchitz is a lament about the devaluation of serious literature and the way Hollywood’s entertainment culture is destructive, not only to Los Angeles city life but to world culture itself. And while Janigian’s harsh indictment of Hollywood is nothing new, at least he doesn’t mince words: “Entertainment has become the end of culture and hypocrisy the methodology.” In an overly familiar gripe, the narrator suggests television content reaches for “the lowest common denominator,” yet seems unaware that what used to be television has morphed into something else entirely with the advent of “quality TV,” such as Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, Orange Is the New Black, House of Cards, et al. Just the other day, former Homeland star Damian Lewis — a Brit who plays Americans for a living — told NPR’s Kai Ryssdal:
I found that the quality of TV material that came to me was so great and was just often better than the film material I got. And when I find a good movie that I really like I jump on it because it’s exciting to do. But mostly I just find the witty, ambitious, political, and smart material comes to me through TV more than it has in film.
As television has gotten better, Hollywood studio films have degenerated into endless remakes and franchises, many concocted from comic books or young adult fiction. The age of compelling drama for mature minds (Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home, The China Syndrome, Raging Bull etc.) has mostly gone by the wayside, with the rare exception of auteur flicks like Birdman or Spotlight.
And so Janigian’s antihero, a Jewish screenwriter and former journalist who’s become a world-class racist, wiles away agonizing hours waiting at the Chateau Marmont, humorously kvetching about everything and everyone — can you believe? — as if to suggest that failure in Los Angeles has the potential to not only transform you into a curmudgeon but also gradually make you hostile to other cultures that make up the American mosaic. Janigian is a member of that mosaic as an ethnic Armenian, and the concerns of ethnic people are fleshed out in all three of his previous novels. But his nameless narrator in Lipchitz is just as hostile to Jewish culture as he is to the other groups he maligns, and he finds religion anathema. Angelenos “claim they are spiritual without being at all religious, when, in fact, the precise opposite is true: they are religious without being in the least spiritual,” he argues. “They adhere to all of religion’s irrationalities: wishful thinking, faith in half facts, and full-on fantasies.”
The narrator’s contradictory nature is in full display when, after having maligned Armenians, Koreans, and Salvadorans, among others, he muses: “In fact, the only authentic people left in L.A. are the tribal ones.”
While our antihero’s potential savior is film producer Saul Lipchitz, his mentor/literary hero is a writer named John Hirschman, a novelist who has always written about Los Angeles (yet says there are no serious Los Angeles novels), but who has left the city, apparently in a bitter state, to set up a new life on an orchard outside Fresno. With the evangelical zeal of a recent ex-smoker, Hirschman is a big Fresno-area booster, and our narrator comes under the elder writer’s spell. As he visits Hirschman’s orchard home, he thinks to himself, if Hirschman can do it, “[W]hy can’t I? I can die here content; I can die a nobody in the middle of nowhere California.”
Lipchitz is the proverbial shit heel — a wheeling-dealing producer who has little respect for his writers — while Hirschman is the other side of that coin, a literate gentleman with a vast book collection who prizes his friend and is not judgmental about him making a living writing for Hollywood. The two share a few rural nights at Hirschman’s orchard and tour Fresno, where our narrator puts down a deposit on an apartment, before heading back for his meeting at the Chateau Marmont. Hirschman devotes considerable time telling his charge about an apparently bewitching visit to one of Fresno’s hidden gems, Forestiere Underground Gardens, which are to Fresno what Simon Rodia’s handmade towers are to Watts, although Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere went underground to create his whimsical fantasyland, while Rodia built up in South Central. Forestiere, according to Hirschman, was an unsung genius, the underground gardens a metaphor for anyone who wishes to live a creative life and thus must be willing to engage in some serious self-excavation.
Hirschman grew up in Los Angeles and writes novels about Los Angeles, yet says that, for years, “I had this strange feeling, what the old time French called dépaysement, the feeling of being a foreigner, an outsider who pines for home, except I felt this way about the city I was born and raised in — strange.”
Except this is not strange at all: this is frequently the writer’s condition, being both an insider and an outsider. The novelist can be omniscient; convey a kaleidoscope of perspectives, multiple voices, and viewpoints; mimic the voice of God. So of course Hirschman feels a sense of not absolutely belonging, of dépaysement — it is part of every writer’s experience, and not just writers. The savvy traveler longs for dépaysement, in the same way the savvy reader wants his or her world turned upside down, with something different, something new; after all, a “novel” is something new, is it not?
While some of us philosophize about the meaning of life — to be or not to be — at times Janigian is more wrapped up in to belong or not to belong. The specter of the Other arises throughout Aris Janigian’s fiction, from the odars (Armenian for non-Armenians) in Bloodvine and Riverbig to the “dispossessed tribes” in This Angelic Land and the goyim (Hebrew for non-Jews) and “subwhites” in Lipchitz. It is this confrontation between insiders and outsiders that drives much of Janigian’s writing.
In the first two novels, Bloodvine and Riverbig, Janigian told dramatic stories about struggling Armenian farming families that could remind one of a latter-day Steinbeck or Jean Giono, while his third, This Angelic Land, had the bones of a masterpiece, particularly in the way it juxtaposed the cities and cultures of civil war–Beirut and Los Angeles during the time leading up to the Rodney King riots. Here, in Lipchitz, the novelist seems to be in nebulous territory, tergiversating between cultural criticism and fiction. The book is in part an encomium on Fresno that positions Los Angeles as a kind of purgatory. In Janigian’s world, Dante would find his Inferno and Purgatorio in Pacific Palisades amongst Hollywood’s nouveau riche and aging Jewish aristocracy.
Like Hirschman, I grew up in Los Angeles, albeit the son of an immigrant who was himself the son of an immigrant; while I was perfectly American, I was also the scion of Moroccan-French-Amazigh-Jewish people on my father’s side of the family and Lithuanian-American immigrants on my mother’s side, as her grandparents sailed to the United States on a ship and filtered through Ellis Island before going on to Chicago and eventually migrating to Los Angeles. This begs the question: if your folks are from elsewhere, and they transmit stories of life and culture abroad, does that plant seeds of dépaysement — of not entirely belonging in your surroundings? In that case, most people in the greater Los Angeles region would sometimes feel like fish out of water. The immigrant experience, or having one parent from this city or country, the other parent from that, entails being between worlds.
In Lipchitz, almost everyone exists in that interregnum between here and there, except perhaps for the captains of Hollywood industry, the people who have made it, the machers, the moguls, the Academy voters, the people with the clout. In this novella, almost everyone who is not in is in a state of dépaysement. Whether or not Janigian is clear on this, whether or not his racist Jewish antihero knows that Hirschman’s dépaysement corresponds to his own, does not matter. The reader will fill in the blanks.
After having finally moved away from Los Angeles, I now have the emotional and physical distance to see it for what it is and what it is not — not that I ever really saw it only or primarily as an entertainment industry town. Quite to the contrary, it seems to me that perhaps 17 out of the 18 million people living in greater Los Angeles have little or nothing to do with the film or TV business, and thank god for that, because life is so much richer than the dream factory. While it may not always look pretty, Los Angeles is a fascinating patchwork of many different social and ethnic groups, with a population that is increasingly diverse and colorful — which is to say, the white man’s burden is that he is now in the minority. To me Los Angeles is richer for its disparate communities, where everyone is looking for a friend, a conversation, a meaningful human moment.
Thanks in part to its very diversity, Los Angeles has fostered many worthwhile novels, but Hirschman and his friend seem to agree that nobody has yet written a serious literary novel set there. Hirschman points out that “anyone who ever starts to write about it ultimately ends up writing about himself.” While it’s true that some protagonists are merely thinly disguised versions of their authors, there have been plenty of novelists who made Los Angeles come alive, from Nathanael West and Raymond Chandler to Joan Didion, Walter Mosley, Steve Erickson, Thomas Pynchon, John Rechy, T.C. Boyle, Charles Bukowski, John Fante, Edward Bunker, and most recently, Brando Skyhorse. And this is certainly not an exhaustive list of “serious Los Angeles novels.” Steve Erickson’s Zeroville to my mind is certainly among the strongest contemporary contenders when it comes to a robust Los Angeles literary novel, and his fiction is far from narcissistic navel-gazing — a relief in this culture that so loves looking at itself with admiration, quite as if Hollywood is the center of the world.
What Waiting for Lipchitz asks is this: Can one think in Los Angeles? Is Los Angeles a place for serious reflection and literary creation? Or are we distracted by too much hype, sunlight, and bling? Janigian’s antihero carved out a career writing screenplays, bought a house in the hills, lost it, and now that he is verging on a nervous breakdown, there he is, whining at the Chateau Marmont, wallowing in Weltschmerz. While his ennui is what makes the character interesting, it’s tough to feel sorry for the guy; he just doesn’t come off as an underdog, because he’s got choices — in fact, he has made a choice: he’s put down a deposit to go live in effing Fresno. Will it really be that bad, you ask?
Many residents dream of leaving Los Angeles; most never do. Aris Janigian, who moved to Los Angeles to study psychology and was a humanities professor at Southern California Institute of Architecture from 1993 to 2005, spent 15 years in Southern California, published his first two novels, and with his wife began raising their two daughters before returning to his native Fresno.
Among the pleasures of Lipchitz are the book’s expert descriptions of Fresno farming culture. In Bloodvine and Riverbig, Janigian wrote of folk who work the soil, brave the seasons, and endure the unpredictable ravages of nature. Here again we read of the minutia of produce, viniculture, and varietal growing when Hirschman, who has developed his green thumb, talks about such tomato varieties as Brandywine, Black Krim, and German Green, and a range of melons that includes Klondike Blue Ribbon, Charleston Gray, and Moon and Stars. Bloodvine and Riverbig seem to be the first two installments of a potential trilogy about Janigian’s alter ego Andy Demerjian, a kid from an Armenian Fresno farming family who goes to college but returns to the homeland to continue eking out a pastoral existence. Lipchitz only skims the surface of that rich terrain.
Janigian isn’t a lazy writer; he does some heavy lifting to avoid stale prose and gives his characters heft as people engaged with the world. The question is, where is he taking you? At the end of Lipchitz, you may not reach any conclusions. Perhaps the fact that the book has given us plenty to think about, to like and dislike and quarrel with, is enough.