In “Asteroid City,” directorial control competes with the free play that gives life to cinema.
City of Angles
By Jonathan Leaf
(Bombardier Books, 2023)
I have no fond memories of Los Angeles. In my few visits, it has struck me as dirty, noisy, underdeveloped but overwrought, a city desperately striving to be significant, contrasting poorly even with such upstarts as Phoenix and Las Vegas, both of which at least know what they are and are content to be it. I’ve often wondered how it is that much of our national culture comes from a city like LA, where the very cracks on the sidewalks are insecure.
Jonathan Leaf’s new novel, City of Angles, gives some answers to that question. The book is at once a rollicking takedown of the City of Angels and a study of culture: the tending—or neglect—of the soil of humanity. Culture is a many-faceted word. It means simultaneously the intellectual, moral, and aesthetic environment we inhabit and the physical tending of the soil to produce crops (like in “horticulture”). And it is no accident that both of these words come from “cult.” To cultivate something, to devote our lives to tending it, is to give to it our piety. It is, in a way, to worship it. When we cultivate something worthy in a right way, our worship rises upwards like incense to the God worthy of our worship. When our cultivating efforts center around something unworthy, however, the smoke crawls down and chokes us.
You’ll find, of course, no such etymological meanderings in Leaf’s fast-paced comic thriller, but he clearly knows the connection between attention and worship—and the consequences of worshiping something that isn’t worthy.
The plot borrows heavily from classic noirs: a body turns up in the trunk of an aspiring starlet, who insists that she has no idea how it got there. From here, Leaf spins a tale that leaps from the Santa Monica palaces of celebrities to county prisons, from grubby apartments where everyone is grinning their way to their big break to the whitewashed rooftop deck of a sci-fi-inspired cult. Everywhere the rankness of Hollywood, where everyone is edging for something and even the simplest of interactions has an angle, is on display.
This is a thoroughly postmodern noir, however. There’s no Virgil to guide us through this Hell. We don’t have even the cold twentieth-century comfort of Sam Spade’s black humor or Philip Marlowe’s ice-water veins; everyone here is implicated, either in the murder or in the subsequent scramble to cover it up. The romance of the classic noir adventure is the detached detective, who won’t do more than roughly kiss the auburn-haired secretary until the murder is solved. There is little romance in City of Angles, but there is fun: the fun of seeing just how deep our characters (we cannot call them heroes) will dig themselves in before realizing that the very soil is poison. Fanaticism, dogmatism, corruption: all these ancient vices, it turns out, are but a hair’s breadth away from us all.
The novel’s cast of characters is large but deftly drawn. Leaf manages to give his legions of slender, well-endowed starlets enough character that I did not mix them up (something I have certainly done with Raymond Chandler’s women). His men run the gamut of insecurity, from a swaggering A-lister who cannot quite snag his Oscar nomination to a harried mid-level bureaucrat in a Christian Science–esque cult. Everyone here is hiding something: a failed audition, a missing person, a cheap apartment (with or without a lover in it), a Midwestern childhood, a nose job, a gun under the bed. With all these secrets rotting out their souls, what’s one more dead body?
There are, in fact, three cults in City of Angles. There is the Christian Science knockoff, called the International Church of Life, known as the Church, whose tentacles bind many of our characters. The Church is everything we picture a cult being: rapacious, controlling, vindictive. It determines to whom its congregants speak, decides how they spend their time, doles out opportunities in exchange for vast sums of money. It brainwashes people, ensuring that they never question its message, never resist its power, never even encounter anyone outside its scope. It promises redemption from an imagined danger—when a prophesied man-made environmental disaster devastates the earth, a flight to space will be available to the worthy—but daily requires its members to give up their humanity.
Then there is Hollywood itself, a cult of bodies, beauty, and power. All Hollywood offers in exchange for untiring service is a chance: a chance to be famous, to be adored, to be honored. City of Angles goes into wearying detail about what exactly Hollywood requires of its devotees, from unending physical enhancements to “professional” sexual exchanges and routine betrayals of trust. There are no moral laws in this world; anyone you help up might turn around and cut you down. But to stop climbing is to die.
And there is one last cult at work, one last carefully tended moral environment that sucks out life in exchange for vague promises of happiness. Just when we, the readers, begin to feel superior to the hapless scraps of humanity in City of Angles, Leaf takes care to remind us that we too are implicated. The only reason Hollywood exists is because we allow it to do so. This whirligig of sex, power, and money depends on us; the whole spectacle would vanish in midair if we all just took our attention elsewhere, cultivated something else. But we won’t.
We are all, in a way, citizens of the city of angles, the city that promises much but demands ever more, the city that says that the only way to happiness is through ever-greater conformity.
City of Angles is not a study of the term “culture” but of culture itself, the making and metastasizing of a moral environment, and the way that environment shapes what grows in it. In a way, Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture, written in 1947, would be a good, if unexpected, companion to City of Angles, or, perhaps more accurately, a good antidote. Pieper reminds us that culture must be built. It does not simply happen; rather, it comes about only through rigorous effort. And if, as Yeats warned, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” the worst will determine the culture.
“Leisure,” Pieper writes, “is the centerpoint about which everything revolves.” Our culture depends on how we choose to spend our leisure time—and by leisure time Pieper does not mean the time in which we have nothing else to do. Leisure, according to Pieper, is the space in which we encounter “the universe and [our] experiencing [of] the world in an aspect other than its everyday one.” Our culture believes wholeheartedly in the modern philosophy of “total work,” that notion in which we are defined by our work and leisure is merely that space around work, where we take advantage of the pleasures our work made possible. Leisure, for our culture, is escapist. It is a blank space we have to fill, with experiences, food, drink, pleasures of various kinds. This makes leisure the ultimate commercial opportunity, because someone has to tell us what we want to consume, and then sell us those things. Hollywood is happy to be that someone.
This is the true cult of City of Angles: the cult of consumption, the cult that tells us that if we keep taking and taking, eventually we’ll get something valuable, something we want to keep. Leaf makes a compelling argument in his novel that this cult is the most dangerous of all, because it is the one that truly captures our souls. The International Church of Life is vulnerable; a courageous district attorney could take it down. Hollywood’s rulers are, in the end, vulnerable: when the tides turned, Harvey Weinstein’s friends and hangers-on abandoned him. But as long as we all consent to being defined by what we consume, the cult of consumption is an unassailable tower.
City of Angles is a study of culture negativa. It is a tale of false worship, of the misplaced piety that sucks out the soul instead of sustaining it. The cheap content churned out by Hollywood, it turns out, is made from the shreds of people. There is nothing growing here, nothing truly cultivated; there is only consumption. What we commonly call “culture” is, Leaf reveals, more akin to anti-culture: a frenetic self-sacrifice, the haphazard subjection of everything transcendent to the material; the unavailing offering of our creative powers to the demands of the lowest appetites.
Leaf’s book ends more like a Tom Wolfe novel than like a true noir. The ending is messy, muddled; none of the characters are able to fully disentangle themselves from the cults that bind them. Most people don’t get what they deserve, for good or ill. The wicked prosper, or at least do not suffer; the good . . . well, there are not really any good people in this story, so we wouldn’t need to worry about their fate, except that they are us. And the great culture-making machine, that hideous distortion of true cultivation, chugs on.
J. C. Scharl is a playwright and poet whose work has been featured on the BBC and in magazines and journals on both sides of the Atlantic. Her verse play Sonnez Les Matines is available through Wiseblood Books.
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