Review – Anolik, “Hollywood’s Eve”

Lili Anolik, “Hollywood’s Eve: Eve Babitz and the Secret History of L.A.” (2019) (read aloud by Jayme Mattler) – One of the reasons my birthday lecture this year was quite long was because I tried to explain my interests and methods. My chief area of interest is what I call intellectual history in the vernacular- ideas produced, propagated, and/or applied by people outside of the academy and academy-adjacent spaces (establishment literature, etc). I want to get at just not what people believe and why, but how ideas, people, and circumstances interact. I think that to really get a grip on that, it’s imperative for scholars to look beyond histories of academic ideas (as fruitful as such histories often are!). I think you can get a better idea of the dynamics of thought by examining it in the wild, so to speak, in the vernacular.

So, I wind up studying various corners of thought and discourse, from military planning to cults to “extremist” political ideologies to various literary movements. Here’s the thing: the people who write about these things tend to be… enthusiasts. They really love the topic, whatever it is, and feel both giddy liberation and grinding resentment towards “conventional” history for relegating said topic to the margins. They, in short, “geek out.”

I won’t deny that it is fun to dip into the worlds of seventies head scifi writers, backwoods occultists of old upstate New York, and underground fascists, especially when compared with another go-round with the usual cast of characters from Socrates to Foucault. But… I’m here for the relationship of ideas to each other, the dynamics of how they grow, spread, change, die. I’m not here to geek out over the mere existence of weird shit. I know there is such a thing as weird shit. I’ve known that forever. I want to parse it, get what makes it tick. And for the love of the dialectic, I am not looking to get converted to enthusiasm myself, to defend the honor of sovereign citizens, of Rastafarianism, of counterinsurgency theorists, and I’m annoyed when writers imply I ought. Let’s put it this way: I often look to histories of crime for insights into social history and even organizational dynamics, so I get annoyed when books about famous criminals, crimes, or gangs linger on the details of murders and shortchange the social structure and culture questions involved. 

You would be surprised how little sympathy this problem gets, even from friends who are generally “on side.” I have made my peace. 

All that is to say, when someone promises me a “secret history” about a rediscovered cultural figure, my hopes get high despite themselves, and are almost often disappointed. As it happens, I think the author of this “secret history of LA” through the lens of the life of an Angeleno writer/socialite was written by someone who I think has actually done some fine vernacular history. Lili Anolik hosts the “Once Upon A Time…” podcast, which tells interesting stories about recent cultural history with great big heaps of crunchy context, just like I like it. The two seasons so far are “Once Upon a Time in the Valley,” discussing the San Fernando Valley porn industry and the Traci Lords scandal, and “Once Upon a Time at Bennington College,” which focuses on a time at my now-gone alma mater’s soccer rival when three major figures of Generation X literature — Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Lethem, and Donna Tartt — were all on the same freshman class in the eighties. I often disagreed with her stances, and she is no uncertain terms an enthusiast, but that did not impede my enjoyment or the degree of insight gleaned, a rare feat. I eagerly await a third season. 

I also was pretty eager for this book, Anolik’s biography of Eve Babitz. I do love a good, highly-contextual biography, a real “life and times,” and Babitz certainly had a lively life, lived in interesting times. She was a Hollywood brat who started cruising various scenes in the early sixties. Both beautiful — and, reader, both Anolik and her interview subjects talk a lot, a LOT, about Babitz’s breasts and their magnetic quality in particular — and bookish, witty and knowing from an improbably young age, she involved herself in a who’s who of Los Angeles cultural figures between the sixties and the eighties. Artists and rock stars (she was a lover of Jim Morrison’s), movie people and writers (Joan Didion acted as a mentor and eventual enemy), and more than anything just people on the scene — behind the scenes people, hangers-on, dealers, gurus, randos — she knew them all, and they all knew Eve. 

She made art, posed for photos (including a famous one of her playing chess naked with Marcel Duchamp, who was dressed), designed album covers, but her longest-lasting cultural contribution was her writings, short story collections and novels that were more or less “gonzo” or “new journalism” about the scenes she was on but with a shellack of fictional deniability on them. They’ve been getting attention again, with books like “Eve’s Hollywood” and “Slow Days and Fast Company” (the latter is supposedly the best – with my luck, I picked up a remainder of the former before listening to this book), long out of print, getting re-released as NYRB Classics. The imprint is a little ironic- Babitz was always a defender of LA against New York, and New York-based critics often weren’t kind to her. But so it goes! Anolik did a lot to help restore Babitz to the public eye, too, with a big story in Vanity Fair a few years back. 

Part of the story Anolik tells here is about how she tracked Babitz down for her profile. It wasn’t easy. Babitz’s fortunes began a long decline starting in the mid-seventies. She had always used drugs, but lost control over habits. Money troubles mounted and her books both got worse, and less popular. With help from her impressive cast of friends, she was able to keep more or less afloat, until sometime in her fifties she suffered a horrible burn accident, which she miraculously survived but suffered from for the rest of her life. Between this, and the fading of her world, she had become a recluse by the time Anolik found her. Anolik had to bribe Babitz, in her seventies by then, with meals, like a feral animal, to get her to open up, to eventually tell her side of the various stories and sit for the Vanity Fair photographer. Babitz died in 2021. 

Here’s the deal: I like Anolik’s writing. I know she’s capable of telling stories that engage me. But this did not quite click. And I’m aware of the many obvious reasons why it would not. I’m a man, who tends to conceive of his world in political and historical terms, a New Englander, a guy very content to let the culture pass him by and I have been that way the whole time. Eve Babitz was more or less the opposite of that- a woman and one known for her feminine wiles, an aesthete and socialite with almost no interest in politics (apparently she became quite the Fox News junkie in her old age but that’s neither here nor there), Anolik describes her as a true Southern California girl, and someone with her finger on the pulse during a very interesting time. 

Well, I won’t deny that there are aspects of Babitz’s whole thing that strike me as a little trite. But I don’t want everyone to be like me. I like that there’s aesthetically-minded people in the world, people not fretting about power and time, non-depressives! I’m glad not everywhere is New England, and I actually like Los Angeles, for a fairly simple reason: put me anywhere physically safe and with enough resources, and I will find things to do. I’ll find routes to walk (not as impossible in LA as they say- just unpopular), books to read, places to eat and have a beer (I like the food in LA, the burritos, sushi, Korean places). I might even find friends, because, again, I don’t want a whole world of me. I do prefer New England, but that’s mostly because the mental transaction costs are lower. Things make sense here, due to habituation of nothing else. Everywhere, New England very much included, sucks at least a little. 

What it actually is with me and this book, I think, is the point I began with. We actually don’t get a secret history of LA- we don’t get much analysis beyond the idea that Babitz prefigured writers like Bret Easton Ellis (not my favorite), was just as good as Joan Didion (believable, even without having read any extended work of hers yet), and deserves more recognition. To me, the book is strongest when Anolik discusses Babitz’s literary accomplishments (and later, failures). She has a good critical eye, even where I disagree (profoundly, in some cases, like her love for Ellis and disdain for Hunter S. Thompson- more on the latter anon). But she really doesn’t connect it to much other than to Babitz’s personal journey, and to a sort of vague defensiveness — the seemingly inevitable defensiveness in vernacular or simply unusual intellectual or cultural history — that Babitz and her interest in stars, aesthetics, gossip, etc. is just as good as anything else in the sphere of literature, and anyone who thinks otherwise is just a lame snob, and likely, a New Yorker. 

It’s less that I disagree with this opinion — I have read no Babitz and cannot say how good she is — but I will say that the conflict Anolik conjures doesn’t interest me much either way. But that would constitute taking a side, I think, as far as the Anolik of this book is concerned, and not the right one. I —should— be interested in Babitz’s personal life, her lovers and friends, her lifestyle, the small LA moments she records etc etc because to do otherwise is to not understand that this is actually the content of literature, and not to face the extinction of various (East Coast-associated) literary verities. Pointlessness is the new having a point. 

Well… let’s put it this way. I’ve been thinking about literary minimalism recently. I don’t know if Babitz counts, but the writers around her whose work I do know, Didion and Ellis, both have substantial minimalist works. As you can tell, I am not a minimalist. I like adjectives, adverbs, asides. I’m fine with long sentences and paragraphs as long as they’re interesting, and to me, insight into a dynamic, preferably one involving power in some way, is more interesting than, I don’t know, what sort of outfits are popular at which Hollywood bar during which summer long before I was born. That being said, I think there’s a time and a place for minimalism. And I think that time and place maps onto when minimalism is important in material objects- to accomplish a purpose, to achieve efficiency and to do so under a variety of circumstances. The smartphone, the katana, the submarine… the literary equivalent of that. Something sufficiently interesting or pointed where you want or need the prose to be completely out of the way. Minimalism is one strategy, I think, to get at things hard to express. Of course, it is also a shortcut for those simply unable to express things to the extent you’d think a professional writer should. I think this is why so often minimalist stories are often about, to borrow a phrase, less than zero. It’s lack of talent, and/or a slothful and vain disdain for an interesting world, masquerading as a considered aesthetic choice. 

It could very well be that Babitz either isn’t a minimalist or is a good one, expressing something ineffable about the lived experience of a place. But the idea that this is what literature should be, and the highest, maybe only thing it can be… that’s a wrong idea, and frankly an ugly one, and I think the ramifications of the idea helped make this book not just “wrong” — that’d be more or less fine — but less engaging than it might otherwise be (it’s still reasonably engaging, for what it’s worth, it’s just that explaining why it fails at times is complicated). Anolik roundly denounces most of Babitz’s peers in the “new journalism” movement. Didion and Capote deserve it, Wolfe deserves more than Anolik dishes out. Hunter Thompson doesn’t, not on literary grounds, and the specific way Anolik denounces Thompson, as someone whose work will prove ephemeral because it concerns the actual history of the period in which he lived, as opposed to, I don’t know, vibes or some shit… that made it very hard to read the rest of this in a generous spirit. 

Anyway, I’m probably making this sound worse than it is. Much of the book is a reasonably engaging narrative about a lady who lived an interesting life that reflected some major social and cultural changes in her time and place. But it is, in its way, representative of some of the challenges of doing the sort of work I do, with the motivations I have. ***’

Review – Anolik, “Hollywood’s Eve”

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