The Great Los Angeles Novel?

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I’ve long insisted there is no such thing as the Great Los Angeles Novel, that the place resists a comprehensive overview. That’s not necessarily the case, or so the argument goes, for other cities: New York, with Manhattan Transfer and The Bonfire of the Vanities, Chicago with Studs Lonigan and The Adventures of Augie March. All of this presupposes that the great (that is to say, defining) novel can be written, that it is other than a shibboleth. I don’t believe that either, not really, not when the novel is, at heart, an instrument of voice. Such is especially the case when it comes to Los Angeles, collage city, decentered and chaotic, girded in a scaffolding of myth. What are these myths? We can recite them together: speed and light, sprawl and disconnect, a culture of reinvention and exoticism. It’s not that they are untrue — how can they be? — but that they are not true enough. In their face, the most authentic Los Angeles literature becomes the most specific, that of daily life, of daily interaction: Wanda Coleman, with her angry love letters to a city that both beguiled and disappointed her; Bernard Cooper, with his essays about coming-of-age, and coming to terms with himself; Amy Gerstler and D.J. Waldie and Luis J. Rodriguez, approaching broad questions through the lens of the particular, peeling back the layers, all those Southern California tropes.

And yet, if we agree there is no defining Los Angeles novel, where does that leave Mildred Pierce? James M. Cain’s fourth book, first published in 1941, turns seventy-five this year, and it remains as essential, as authoritative, as anything ever written about the place. The story of a “grass widow” who throws her husband out for infidelity, Mildred Pierce is all sorts of things: a proto-feminist novel (albeit written by a man), a searing inquiry into class and aspiration, Southern California-style; an evocation of the small-d democracy that is Los Angeles’s greatest legacy. It is also a book that walks the line between nuance and melodrama, a social novel in three neat acts, like the Hollywood movie it would ultimately inspire.

Cain, of course, arrived in California to write for Hollywood. One of the ironies of his career is that he became a novelist instead. In his early forties, a refugee from both the newspaper business (he had been a reporter at the Baltimore Sun before writing editorials for Walter Lippmann at the New York World) and the New Yorker (where he spent nine months as managing editor), he published his first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, in 1934. “A lot of novelists start late — Conrad, Pirandello, even Mark Twain,” Cain told the Paris Review just nine months before his death at eighty-five in October 1977. Novel-writing, he said “has to be learned, but it can’t be taught. This bunkum and stinkum of college creative writing courses! The academics don’t know that the only thing you can do for someone who wants to write is to buy him a typewriter.” Postman was followed in 1936by the astonishing Double Indemnity: the two made a “pair of native American masterpieces,” as Ross Macdonald once described them, “…back to back.” Propulsive, gritty, stripped down as skeletons and sharp as razor blades, the two novels were transformative in their impact, influencing, among others, Albert Camus.

Mildred Pierce, published in 1941, was Cain’s last great book; it may be the finest thing he ever wrote. Unlike its predecessors, it is expansive, taking place over a number of years, set against the backdrop of the 1930s. (One key scene occurs during Los Angeles’ New Year’s Flood of 1934.) More to the point, it is a naturalistic portrait of a woman who turns not to murder but rather to her own resourcefulness. It is not a noir, in other words, although Cain is often characteristically hard-boiled. “They spoke quickly,” he writes early in the novel, describing a dispute between the title character and her faithless husband Bert, “as though they were saying things that scalded their mouths, and had to be cooled with spit.” Even so, this is just a set-up for what comes next: “Indeed, the whole scene had an ancient, almost classical ugliness to it, for they uttered the same recriminations that have been uttered since the beginning of marriage, and added little of originality to them, and nothing of beauty.” For Cain, then, the drama of Mildred Pierce is by turns personal and archetypal, a mix of melodrama and tragedy built out of the detritus of suburban culture — divorce, domestic strife, the indignities and aspirations of class.

Such a double vision can be read as emblematic of Southern California, where the intimacies of daily life are at times difficult to tease out from the larger tropes. It’s not that they’re not here, just that we are conditioned not to see them, not to recognize the territory through such a focused lens. Like Phyllis Nirdlinger of Double Indemnity, Mildred is a character on the make, although her motivation is not dissatisfaction but necessity. She had kids, a mortgage; it is the center of the Depression and her skills are limited. She takes a job as a waitress, goes on to open a restaurant, enduring the judgment of her daughter Veda, who seeks the path to a higher social plateau. This is where Cain’s genius for the particular emerges, allowing him to trace the subtle tension between a suburb such as Glendale, where Mildred lives in a modest house, and neighboring Pasadena, which is as close as Southern California comes to old money. Similar oppositions persist to this day.

Cain was always great on social details; just look at his essay “Paradise,” which H. L. Mencken published in The American Mercury in 1933. There, he describes Southern California as a watercolor that “blurs here and there, and lacks a very clear outline.” He’s not being critical, just realistic, for it was in the 1930s that Los Angeles came into what we might refer to as its modern form. “Now then,” he writes, “put in some houses. Most of them should be plain white stucco with red tile roofs, for the prevalent architecture is Spanish, although a mongrel Spanish that is corrupted by every style known on earth, and a few styles not hitherto known. But you can also let your fancy run at this point, and put in some structures ad lib., just to exhibit your technique.” What Cain understands is that, in such a culture, real estate is everything; it’s no coincidence that Mildred’s erstwhile husband Bert made his money (mostly squandered) as a developer. Even the visual absurdities of commercial architecture are freighted with significance. “If a filling-station occurs to you,” Cain continues, “a replica of the Taj Mahal, faithfully executed in lath and plaster, put that in. If you hit on a hot-dog stand in the shape of a hot dog, prone, with portholes for windows and a sign reading ‘Alligator Farm,’ put that in. Never mind why a hot-dog stand should have portholes for windows and a new line of alligators: we are concerned here with appearances.”

Mildred Pierce, though, is not concerned with appearances; it is about more universal necessities: family, commitment, identity. It is about work and money, the indignities, small or otherwise, we visit upon each other and ourselves. It is a middle-class novel, set in a location where the middle-class is largely taken for granted if not outright overlooked. It is a piece of popular fiction, both predictable and surprising, that elevates to the level of literature. How does Cain do this? By not writing down to his characters, for one thing. On the last page of the book, Mildred is back where she started, in her house with Bert. “Come on, we got each other, haven’t we?” he exhorts her. “Let’s get stinko.” She agrees. It is the perfect ending to a novel that is exquisitely paced and rendered, that portrays its characters as grown-ups who know, as deeply as they know anything, that there are no resolutions, no epiphanies, just a certain weary resignation, that the best they can hope for, if they’re lucky, is companionship — which makes Bert’s invitation as real, as stirring, a declaration of love as Mildred, as any of us, are likely to find.

Cain learned much of this in California, although the power of Mildred Pierce is that it simultaneously reflects and moves beyond its place. The story it tells could happen anywhere yet at the same time is specific to the landscape, an expression in three dimensions of Wallace Stegner’s formulation of the state as “like America, only more so.” Certainly, Cain picked up on Hollywood’s love of melodrama, its demand for three-act structure, all those protocols of popular storytelling, and adapted all that to his own, considerably more ambitious, ends. Still more, his decision to explore the minutiae of domestic detail reflects the odd role literature plays in a region that, even now, remains resistant to defining itself through such a lens. How does one write a true, a resonant, Los Angeles story when the narratives by which the city knows itself are (too often) larger than life? The only strategy, as writers from John Fante through Maggie Nelson and Claudia Rankine have recognized, is to zero in on the particulars, to avoid the tropes, the generalities, for the more elusive movements underneath. The literature of Los Angeles, like the city itself, is the stuff of collage; there is no master narrative that explains everything to us. None, that is, except for Mildred Pierce, which in the most straightforward scenes and language, articulates the anxieties and aspirations of Southern California, the peculiar urgencies of place.


Image of Kate Winslet from the 2011 HBO television adaptation of Mildred Pierce.