LARB Quarterly, no. 37: Fire
May 2023144 pages
LARB Quarterly is our signature print magazine featuring original fiction, essays, and poetry. Fire is the first installment in our “Elemental Year” collection. Purchase a copy of Fire or subscribe to get this issue plus the next four issues of LARB Quarterly. Join as an LARB member for a subscription, access to events, a tote and more!
Featured Writers and Poets: Etel Adnan, Alla Gorbunova, Jaime Lowe, Tongo Eisen Martin, Vladimir Sorokin, Bud Smith, Claressinka Anderson, Sharon Kivland, Tina Chang, Jessica Abughattas, Megan Pinto, and more.
Featured Artists: Herve Guibert, Curtis Cuffie, and more.
Near Sunset Junction, around the new year, an aspiring pop star—or someone who works for her, or a sympathetic friend—spray-painted a QR code onto the sidewalk, alongside a line from her recent release:
I don’t wanna die in L.A.
Her name is Hunter Daily. Her mother once starred in a Nic Cage rom-com called Valley Girl. Her father, the enfant terrible poker player Rick Salomon, produced movies and was married to Elizabeth Daily before marrying and divorcing a string of other actors.
Hunter sings, “There’s more to life than palm trees / And looking good at parties […] Take me, this city makes you crazy / And I won’t say I hate it / ’Cause I love it just the same / But I don’t want to die in L.A.”
For most people here, the glitzy palm-tree version of L.A. is a relic suspended in amber, maybe still glowing in Malibu or somewhere west of La Brea. But only as a remnant. I don’t live in Daily’s Los Angeles, and I don’t particularly want to die there. And yet, I like the song. It’s pleasurable to conjure that bubble and then to resent it a little.
Pop-star aspirations and an attachment to sunshine and noir—Daily’s snuffing of those glamorous fumes—are woven into the texture of the city. If you live here, you know the release that comes from speeding out the curve from the McClure Tunnel and turning up the volume. You know the incandescent rage of Bad Religion’s classic punk anthem “Los Angeles Is Burning”—“palm trees are candles in the murder wind.” Freedom and anger. It’s a heady mix that’s baked into the Pacific Coast Highway.
I’m a lifelong California girl with just two decades in Los Angeles. In the same way that only you get to criticize your family, I feel vaguely entitled to obsess over the noir history and the cults and the tech-bro California ideology. I get to resent the beautiful actors, the loony wellness trends, and yes, even the hours of my life spent on the 5. And I still get to love it and claim it all as my own private contradiction. Since I noticed it on the pavement, I’ve had “Die in L.A.” on gentle rotation.
A darker soundtrack has always echoed through L.A. I’d rather dwell on how we live with it than try to drown it out. And a significant part of how I have lived with all of the challenges of this place has been by engaging it as an editor and a writer for the Los Angeles Review of Books. For almost a decade, as a member of the community of arts and letters that LARB brings together, I’ve participated in conversations and reflections on this city and how it opens out onto the world beyond. After the 2016 election, writers and artists and academics gathered at an independent bookstore in Los Feliz to share words that we then circulated and published, in a moment that felt lifesaving. I am incredibly grateful that the Los Angeles Review of Books is now my full-time gig.
Sometimes locals still joke that they’re surprised that Angelenos read. They get to make that joke. But the city, as the nation’s biggest midlist publishing market, has had a vibrant book culture for decades, ranging from the big-ticket L.A. Times Festival of Books to the indie Beyond Baroque to a dynamic public library system to independent presses like Tia Chucha, Kaya Press, and Les Figues. Right now, though, media outlets and writing centers and arts organizations and schools are struggling and closing all around us. The book industry still publishes tens of thousands of books a year, and people still care about books. But as the polycrisis rolls on, nothing makes economic sense, and book supplements and literary magazines continue to fold. As an editor, I feel that I’ve been handed something fragile and precious, as I try to keep the conversation alive.
Like Hunter says, there’s more to life than palm trees, especially in the times and spaces where we pause to reflect and to reconnect. Books and stories can provide an escape from the harrowing news cycle; talking about books can be a dreamspace apart and outside that helps get us through. At the same time, sustained inquiry and in-depth research—the truth itself—needs the ecosystems of knowledge that exist only through books. Talking about books is evanescent and fun, and it’s deadly serious. It’s leisure-class fluff, and it’s everything that holds meaning, all at the same time. Just like this crazy city.
As I step into this new role, our mission remains to bring the complexity and radiance of Los Angeles to the world and to bring the world to Los Angeles. The LARB Quarterly will be a magazine that puts this Pacific Rim megalopolis on the map, a magazine of Los Angeles but for the world, a magazine that finds the universal in the local.
Last year, the Quarterly asked questions, like: Do you love me? Isn’t it uncanny? Are you content? This year, we plan to cut through the increasingly fractured, atomized publishing landscape by cutting close to the bone, by writing into what is inarguable, essential—what is elemental.
Throughout 2023, the Quarterly will explore how the elements that comprise everything—fire, earth, air, and water—shape us, and how we can harness them in turn. First is the Fire issue, a theme that in its literal incarnation has become all too present in the lives of Californians, whether those driven from their homes by the wildfires that seem to be ever-spreading, or the incarcerated people conscripted to fight those fires, or those who merely breathe in that detritus on their way to work or school. But fire is also personified in stories of grifting, gambling, urban despair, political assassination, everything that goes up in smoke—and, of course, love, dreams, and more deepfakes.
I don’t want to die in Los Angeles, but I want to drive right out to the edge of the Pacific Coast Highway with “Die in LA” at full volume, and I want to invite the world along for the ride. Another Angeleno friend and writer likes to say that the future happens here first. You can love it from afar or hate it up close or remain committed to your deep and productive ambivalence about it, but you should definitely read about it.
An undergraduate student at UCLA sent us her self-produced, pitch-perfect spoof of The New Yorker called The Angeleno. Samia Saad, who included no social media handle or email, made the glossy deepfake “to satirize the ridiculous monopoly the East Coast has on ‘high-end’ literature and journalism.” It was accepted into her undergrad art show, but its circulation stopped in a manila envelope delivered to my desk. She thanked us “for all the phenomenal work you do proving that there is a vastly talented community of writers and a readership in Los Angeles and up and down the Pacific coastline. I only gripe that your existence takes a bit of the punch from my satire by rendering part of it untrue and obsolete.”
The editors of the Los Angeles Review of Books would like to invite Samia Saad of The Angeleno to make fun of us, any time, on her way to becoming a senior editor at The New Yorker—and to pitch us, too. We hope Samia Saad continues to mock everyone in her way, and we want to reach all the readers and writers who understand that the things that burn you up are also the things that keep you warm. Borrowing a metaphor from Sharon Kivland, from her French Revolutionary calendar diary in this issue, “Saltpeter is incendiary, Greek Fire, but also preserving.”
Whatever you listen to on PCH, whatever dark romance you have with the places where you want to live and die, and however the elements inspire you, I hope you’ll spend time with the Los Angeles Review of Books and all of our programs, come hellfire or high water, this year.