What should I read next? It’s a question we all ask ourselves time and again. Even with the countless essays, novels, screenplays, poems, and transmedia pieces to discover, to fall in love with or to detest, it can be a challenge to choose. Enter Expo Recommends, a curated selection of readings brought to you by the editors of Exposition Review.
This month, we have Expo’s Managing Editor Rebecca Luxton.
Living in Los Angeles, it’s hard not to live, breathe, and generally consume all things Los Angeles. I’m a born and bred Californian—obviously and openly so—which means that even when living across the country, in the frigid drafts of a Boston winter or the grimy stillness of a New York night, I preferred to read work that reminded me of the waves and the water. That pregnant pause before the Earth starts to quake. The heady, sedating effect of sunlight. Even thousands of miles away, these things are hard to let go of.
After three full-time years back in the Golden State, I finally feel as if I’d never left. Surprisingly or not, though, my tastes haven’t changed. Below, read about four of my favorite works that capture the essence of Los Angeles and refuse to let it go.
The Informers by Bret Easton Ellis (Fiction)
This short story collection has been printed with numerous different covers, but I think this one most accurately depicts the subtle dread and flattened affect that, to Bret Easton Ellis, defined 1980s Los Angeles.
In thirteen short stories, Ellis paints the portrait of a desolate, desperate, and—worst of all—indifferent city. Either it’s an indictment of the materialistic, solipsistic ’80s, as some critics posited when it was first published in 1994, or it’s pulp fiction at its finest—destruction porn.
Through his characters and their blasé, disaffected narration, we’re forced into the role of voyeurs, peeping in at the best, the worst, and the totally apathetic people who make up this city. The real story, The Informers seems to argue, is that these characters just exist. And in only one piece, “The Fifth Wheel,” does a character even begin to grapple with an ethical dilemma.
Perhaps the message of this collection is that what’s on the surface—specifically, Los Angeles in all its wicked glory—is all there is. (Bonus: In “The Secrets of Summer,” my personal favorite, we get a delightful vampire story.)
Hidden Bodies by Caroline Kepnes (Fiction)
Full disclosure: I picked up this book because (spoiler alert) it’s about a serial killer and, as everyone who knows me is aware, I loved American Psycho. Hidden Bodies is actually the sequel to Caroline Kepnes’s first book, You, which left me utterly endeared and fascinated by its protagonist, the enigmatic thirty-something Joe Goldberg.
After… moving on, shall we say, from his ex-girlfriend Beck (the subject of You), Joe meets a new girl, Amy, who skillfully wraps him up in a whirlwind romance—before robbing the bookstore he manages and skipping town. Eventually, Joe tracks Amy down to an improv class at L.A.’s Upright Citizens Brigade, a popular school for aspiring comedians.
Throughout both this book and its prequel, it’s weirdly vindicating to see Joe blatantly using social media for its least-discussed, but most obvious purpose: stalking. It’s an update to the old “psycho-killer-qu’est-ce-que-c’est?” trope. For the most part, Joe hawks his creepy wares in the digital landscape—though from time to time he finds himself in a back alley off Hollywood Boulevard, too.
Of course, when he arrives in the City of Angels, Amy is nowhere to be found. Instead, after making new friends in very high places, Joe finds himself experiencing the rich hipster side of Los Angeles life. Meanwhile (of course) he’s haunted by the specter of his past. It may sound a little clichéd, but let’s be real—that’s part of the charm of every great LA novel.
Speaking of the greats…
Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion (Fiction)
Originally published in 1970, Play It as It Lays is the quintessential Los Angeles novel, as iconic as the author herself, sleek and tight-lipped in the driver’s seat of her quintessential California car. You know the photo:
This purposeful, terrifying, unforgettable book begins with the beautiful but aging actress Maria Wyeth—while confined to a psych ward—giving us the “facts” of her Hollywood life, which seems to have more in common with sleepwalking than any kind of consciousness.
Set in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and the desert where the protagonist’s director ex-husband films a movie, Didion’s landscapes are bleak and grim, more Death Valley than the Valley (Valley of the Dolls also comes to mind). In a world where conversation is reduced to the merits of different sorts of lemon juice, where everyone is on barbiturates and abortions are performed in houses in Encino and any crime can be erased, with enough money and prestige, Didion’s narrator is slowly bleeding out.
“To look for ‘reasons’ is beside the point,” Maria tells us in the first chapter, on the first page, of this haunting book. So don’t—just read it.
The Hilarious Funeral in L.A. by Jan Worth-Nelson (Poetry)
In case you haven’t noticed, I’m clearly a fiend for fiction, but Jan Worth-Nelson’s insightful commentary on life, death, and the ludicrous waste of it all in her poem The Hilarious Funeral in L.A. is more than enough reason for my recommendation. Her images of condo carnage and catered chimichangas, juxtaposed against remembrances of “the dead guy” and the author’s concept of her own morality, evoke a familiar feeling in me: like the city of Los Angeles, and perhaps also California herself, the existence of death is not open to debate or our pitiful attempts at understanding. We must simply observe, go with the flow, and read powerful poetry as often as possible. (Click here to do just that, and read The Hilarious Funeral in L.A. in our IX Lives digital issue now.)