With its perma-summer, its dramatic scenery, and its status as the capital of the entertainment industry, L.A. is the quintessential Californian dream town. Even the smog contributes to the city’s vibe by providing breathtaking sunsets. It’s no wonder so many classic books have been set in La La Land, and it was a serious challenge to narrow them all down into this list. But we persevered! Here are our picks for the best books set in the City of Angels.
The Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West
Nobody is better at wringing laughter out of dark cynicism than Nathanael West. He’s like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s evil twin—both men wrote about the inherent emptiness of debauched living, but West was brutally unsentimental about it. The Day of the Locust digs deep into the seedy underbelly of Hollywood, exploring characters who have been utterly corroded by their own hopes and dreams. And yes, you will end up laughing at their desperate lives. It’s impossible to avoid it, so just let it happen.
The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler
Chandler is Los Angeles’ unofficial biographer. No novelist has become so intertwined with the legacy of the iconic city. The Big Sleep kicked off his wildly popular Philip Marlowe series, and cemented Los Angeles as the world capital of noir fiction (just think how many great mysteries—real and fictional—call L.A. home). The novel is packed with Chandler’s terse observations, such as “dead men are heavier than broken hearts,” or “it seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in.” His wit was truly drier than the Mojave Desert.
Sharp Teeth, by Toby Barlow
Thanks to its obsession with plastic surgery and self reinvention, Los Angeles is, in essence, a city of shape-shifters. So it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to throw some werewolves into the mix too. Barlow’s entrancing free verse poem Sharp Teeth details a lycanthropic takeover of the city, and its effects on the sheep among the wolves. Spoiler alert: the book is freaking brilliant.
The White Boy Shuffle, by Paul Beatty
Gunnar Kaufman is your average outcast teenager until his mother moves the family from Santa Monica to a bad neighborhood in West L.A. Transformed by his new surroundings, Kaufman begins to accumulate social capital, eventually becoming a kind of messiah figure for his downtrodden peers. If it sounds like an uplifting story, it’s really not. Scathing, satirical, and the kind of funny that makes you want to cry, The White Boy Shuffle inspires a bundle of conflicting emotions. Premier among them is envy: Beatty’s prose is sharp, inventive, and just plain awesome.
Play It as It Lays, by Joan Didion
With her trademark intensity, Didion delves into the story of Maria Wyeth, a failed actress who suffers a nervous breakdown. She admires strong personalities, but can’t seem to forge one within herself, and drifts in and around Los Angeles looking for an identity. It’s the classic story of the wasted Hollywood starlet who sinks under the weight of her own dreams, told with Didion’s unwavering brevity. Yup, it’s pretty tragic; but you won’t be sorry you read it.
The Hours, by Michael Cunningham
Are we sensing a pattern here yet? Los Angeles basks in light as if the sun is its personal spotlight, and the perpetual brightness begs to be contrasted with dark themes, repressed desires, and broken characters. And boy, does The Hours have all that in spades. Though only partially set in L.A., the book is well-served by the blindingly sunny weather, and the long shadows it casts.
City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, by Mike Davis
In this captivating history, Davis exposes the social forces behind Los Angeles’ development into the jumble of contradictions it is today. Packed with thought-provoking musings on why LA is regarded as simultaneously a utopia and a dystopia, Davis’ tome still generates controversy and discussion almost 25 years after it was published.
What’s your favorite book set in Los Angeles?