Friday, April 15, 2011

Nina Eliasoph

Nina Eliasoph is associate professor of sociology at the University of Southern California. She is the author of Avoiding Politics and the new book, Making Volunteers: Civic Life after Welfare's End.

Recently I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
I picked up The Long Goodbye at a yard sale a few years ago, but didn’t open it till last week. It is, of course, a detective novel from the 1950’s, by Raymond Chandler. It later became a movie. I really hate suspense. Whenever I encounter any suspense in a book, I have to read the last few pages first, before I can enjoy the rest. But in this one, the suspense is quiet and sneaky, and it’s not what makes you lap up each page. It’s the prose--the narrator’s fine powers observation and his breathtakingly perfect selection of words. This narrator is a very precise observer of a seedy and sinister Los Angeles of his era, but he's probably not entirely reliable. Could I, a social scientist, write like that? Social scientists, alas, are not supposed to construct unreliable narrators to tell their tales. I think in my next book, I will.

I’m also reading The History of Forgetting, by Norman Klein. So far, it’s pretentiously written, and the author is glorying in an apocalyptic vision in a way that strikes me as irresponsibly overstated. Like The Long Goodbye, it also takes place in Los Angeles. It’s about the urban landscape of downtown, till the mid 1990’s when the book was written. At that time, downtown was full of empty scabby parking lots, chain-link fences, and blank spaces where buildings used to be. Klein argues that this perverse development was inevitable in Los Angeles. He says, rightly, that LA developed by tricking people into coming here, tricking water into flowing here, projecting itself into a future through tricks on the silver screen. He is wedded to the idea that change here happens only in a bi-polar way, lurching between the desolate “noir” LA of The Long Goodbye, Chinatown and City of Quartz, and the manic LA of relentless sunshine and light blue Barbie convertibles whizzing by the beach. As an entire city, we are, he says, compelled to forget the past, collectively, in just the same way that individuals repress pasts that discomfit their present, so we constantly bulldoze and kill familiar spaces, leaving gaps like missing teeth on the streets.

The problem with the book’s argument is that since I moved here in 2004, downtown has filled in, with upscale condos and some affordable housing. In the 1990s, LA built a subway system which continues to expand, and there are plans for bike paths and little parks. Since the book was written, the snow peaked mountains around Los Angeles have once again become visible after having been hidden by smog for forty years.

I’m starting a new research project about bike activism in Los Angeles, and that is part of why I’m reading all these books about LA. I’m wondering if there has been anything that one could call progress. Something has changed, and it’s not just light and flowers, but it’s not just horror, either. The same flimsy light green, light pink and light yellow buildings are here. It’s eternally flimsy but still here, for now. All over town are traces of earlier settlements, and despite Klein’s grim view of it, the fact that they keep getting covered up not all just covering over misery and terror, not just all repression of a terrifying past. For example, what used to be a hot dog stand on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue is now a Thai restaurant with a giant sculpture of a hot dog still proudly displayed on the roof, but the poor fiberglass hot dog's jazzy zigzag of mustard has turned a grayish-green, and the restaurant does not serve hot dogs. The happy hot dog remains, but now there is a garden in the internal patio, and an immigrant family is working hard, cooking non-hot dogs. The flimsy building is still standing and still full of busy, imperfect, creative, messy humans. It’s hard to write a book of journalism or social science that captures that busy, bumbling, imaginative stream of human imperfection. You need an unreliable, imperfect narrator.
Learn more about Nina Eliasoph's Making Volunteers at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue