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So What Is this Los Angeles Book I’m Writing?

MacArthur Park

You may have noticed it in various bio blurbs that have appeared over the past few years, but my ongoing projects include a book about Los Angeles. It began as a yearlong series of essays I wrote for the southern California public television station KCET in 2013 and 2014, though revision after revision — guided in part by friends who have much more experience writing books about place than I do — has rendered their content nearly unrecognizable. A sense of the project’s perspective has also come through when I’ve written about Los Angeles for the Guardian, in my Where Is the City of the Future? series on Byline, and even on my Los Angeles, the City in Cinema video essays.

I’ve tentatively titled it A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City. (From what I can tell, if you don’t come up with a subtitle yourself, the publisher will stick you with an even stupider one.) Everyone asks what I mean by “stateless,” and so I’ve explained many times that I use the word for its double meaning, which highlights Los Angeles’ great double-edges: I call it stateless because no one country lays an especially strong cultural claim to the city, and I call it stateless because it hasn’t attained, and may never attain, a basically fixed urban form in the way that New York or Paris or even San Francisco have. (Hence the joke of its unmasterability.) As for “primer,” it comes from a speculative “art” exhibition Dennis Hopper and David Hemmings talked about putting on in the sixties.

You may also have noticed that I don’t actually live in Los Angeles right now. After four years there, I moved to Seoul last November — with an eye toward ultimately splitting my time between the two cities in a kind of 21st-century bicoastalism, but that’s an even longer-range project. Older, more accomplished writers of place have told me, credibly, that you can better write about somewhere when you get outside that somewhere, so I figured I’d do one or two revisions on the other side of the Pacific. One of those older, more accomplished writers in particular gave me another piece of advice that I now think about on a daily basis: if you really figure out the structure of a book, the content takes care of itself.

So here I find myself, in the capital of South Korea, determining the ideal structure for a book, its content already written, about Los Angeles. I’ve wanted to avoid putting myself under the gun of any contractual deadline, but have also come to realize that I could instinctively keep reworking it until the grave. Concepts for books on other cities, not least Seoul, have also taken shape in my head, but if I ever want to realize them, I’ve got to finish first things first. Thus I’ve got to accept the words of Paul Valéry: a work is never actually finished but, cast to the flames or to the public, simply abandoned. And so I’ll complete the last of my own pre-abandonment revisions of A Los Angeles Primer by the end of this year, before casting it into the hands of whichever friend’s agent seems most suited to the book it becomes.

(If you suspect yours is, let me know!)