20 Novels That Dared To Define A Different Los Angeles
Anyone who’s lived in Los Angeles knows that the best parts of the city are those that exist beyond the periphery of common associations with it—beyond the traffic, the TMZ bus tours, and the smog. L.A.’s true identity, while often marred by the absurdity of Hollywood, is one shaped by an incredible, thriving—and tragically little-known—culture. And one of the richest and unrivaled attributes of the city is the depth and breadth of L.A.’s literary legacy. Want to fall in love with this city? Begin with the books that are set here.
Thanks largely to the efforts of those who dared to take on Los Angeles as subject, Angelenos have a city identity and collective narrative that rivals no other. Imagine Los Angeles without its literary lore: what would it be like to live in Bunker Hill without John Fante’s Ask the Dust? Or to walk through downtown without Raymond Chandler’s influence? Would the landscape of Los Angeles be as wonderfully bizarre, fabled, and surreal without Steve Erickson’s Zeroville or Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice?
The following books serve as proof that Los Angeles is a city far beyond its all-too-common clichés; it’s a city capable of inspiring, enchanting, challenging, and rewarding even the most jaded and relentless critics of all: writers. Here are 20 novels that dared to define an entirely different L.A.:
When a young Asian American law student learns of her grandfather’s death, she’s transported through the history of his life—from his service in WWII to the small business he owned in the racially-diverse Crenshaw District—uncovering truths and mysteries of L.A. that span Japanese internment camps, the Watts riots, and downtown garment factories. The result? A sweeping view of Los Angeles that’s rarely in the spotlight.
Often considered the best novel about Hollywood ever written, Fitzgerald’s last and unfinished work tells the revealing story of Hollywood mogul Monroe Stahr (based on real-life producer Irving Thalberg). The novel is frequently heralded for fearlessly exposing the studio system at the height of its pre-WWII success.
British novelist Evelyn Waugh expected Americans to hate this biting satirical work set in an L.A. cemetery. Waugh intended it to be a scathing assault on Anglo-American culture, but to his dismay, US readers were the book’s biggest fans. While Waugh makes his aversion to Hollywood and US consumerism known, this wry and witty small novel is cracklingly funny, quirky, and entertaining.
While not as widely read as sci-fi legend Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World, Ape and Essence is a terrific and terrifying dystopia tale from an author who knows the genre well. Set in Los Angeles, and told through the guise of a film scenario, readers are sent to the year 2108, where a ‘rediscovery expedition’ is underway to figure out what’s left of humanity in the 22nd century.
This rollicking L.A.-based novel (now a Paul Thomas Anderson film) is a psychedelic mystery that only genre-defying mastermind Thomas Pynchon could create. With protagonist detective Doc Sportello at the helm and on the case, drugs, mysteries, and incredible Pynchonian-descriptions rein in this fiercely ecstatic, hallucinogenic whodunit novel set in late 1960s Los Angeles. The fictional Gordita Beach is based on Manhattan Beach, where Pynchon lived in the 60s and 70s.
In this L.A. classic, black war vet Easy Walkins is down on his luck—freshly fired from his job and without a solution in sight—that is, until a man approaches him with an interesting proposition: find a blonde bombshell in one of the city’s many jazz nightclubs.
In this novel by local author Steve Erickson, Vikar Jerome, an ex-communicated seminarian, journeys to L.A. in 1969 to discover the place where movies—his favorite thing of all—are made. Rest assured: this isn’t any ordinary tale of Hollywood pilgrimage, as Vikar uncovers a sensational dream-like Los Angeles wherein residents live and breathe film, whether they consciously realize it or not. In this dark film-fueled love letter to Los Angeles, Erickson draws the city as a surrealistic landscape unlike any other.
Gunner Kaufman, a shy black surfer teen growing up in Los Angeles, is suddenly relocated from Santa Monica to urban West L.A. in Paul Beatty’s excellent coming-of-age novel. Beyond its impressive prose, this book takes a fearless, refreshing look at racial divides in the city.
If you’ve only seen the movie, it’s time to read Janet Fitch’s beautiful famed novel that tells the tale of Ingrid, a poet imprisoned for murder, and her 12-year-old daughter Astrid, who spends her adolescence navigating a string of foster homes. An Oprah pick, a major film, and a definitive Los Angeles classic.
The subject of excess is a well worn L.A. trope, but it’s perhaps never been explored more frighteningly nor ominously than it has in Bret Easton Ellis' tour de force of 1980s L.A. materialism. Protagonist Clay returns home to Los Angeles during a college winter break and promptly embarks upon an odyssey of indulgence with his entitled, drug-addled and disillusioned peers, delving into the dark side of L.A. 'more-ism.'
While searching for an apartment, tattoo artist Johnny Truant stumbles upon the mysterious academic study of a film with a bizarre plot: a family discovers, upon return from vacation, that their Virginia home has spawned logic-defying new spaces within its walls. Danielewski, acclaimed novelist and long-time Angeleno, masterfully implements typographical and narrative experiments in HoL to bring readers along for a multi-faceted, inventive ride that spans L.A. tattoo parlors, film theory, and metaphysics.
Based on a true 1940s cold case of a murdered actress, The Black Dahlia is a legendary L.A.-based work that delves into the lives of the police officers handling the case. Crime, passion, suspense, ambition, and a sinister view of L.A.—this is classic Angeleno crime noir at its best.
One of T.C. Boyle’s best known works, The Tortilla Curtain takes L.A.’s class divide to task when his characters, two homeless illegal immigrants and a wealthy liberal couple, collide in a life-changing encounter in Topanga Canyon. Boyle’s novel is about many things—environmental activism, survival, the American Dream—but it’s also a great synthesis of L.A.’s own conflicting attributes.
It’s safe to say that this seminal text, published in 1939, revolutionized how the world viewed the film industry—and those clamoring to be in it—by painting a darker portrait of Hollywood. West’s text, set in Depression-era L.A., exposes life on the very fringes of the movie business, following a band of struggling film hopefuls who learn the crushing reality of "making it" in The Industry.
In La Medusa, avant-garde author Vanessa Place explores the elusive city via this wholly original narrative. As told through the eyes of protagonist Medusa, an all-encompassing presence that might be a brain or the city of Los Angeles itself, this arresting experimental voyage channels James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Marcel Proust in equal measures. Pro tip: Place is cofounder of award-winning Les Figues Press, a local experimental publishing house all Angelenos ought to know and lovingly support.
Bukowski’s alcohol-soaked tales of debauchery aren’t for everyone, but the author gets credit for gifting Los Angeles with a legendary beatnik down-and-out narrative of its own. Post Office follows Bukowski’s fictional alter-ego, the indelible Henri Chinaski, as he navigates work at a Los Angeles post office, women, and an impossible number of hangovers.
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John Fante’s beloved book Ask the Dusk does more to combat persistent stereotypes of Los Angeles than a million Thought Catalog think pieces combined. Struggling writer Arturo Bandini sets out to make it in Depression-era Bunker Hill while simultaneously falling for an irresistible but mentally unstable young waitress. This is raw, gritty, straight-from-the-gut writing on life in L.A.—and author Charles Bukowski cites it as his biggest literary influence.
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We have this atmospheric, genre-defining classic to thank for making Los Angeles synonymous with noir. Chandler’s unforgettable 1939 crime mystery—the first to kick off the iconic detective Philip Marlowe series—is often included on the list of top 100 books of the 20th century . Want a closer look? The folks over at Esotouric Los Angeles offer a comprehensive Chandler-inspired bus tour of downtown L.A.
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Hollywood isn’t all glitz and glamour—or is it? Joan Didion’s singular novel follows disenchanted actress Maria Wyeth, arguably one of the most compelling heroines of 20th century existential literature, as she grapples with the bleaker realities of life in Hollywood. This sparse, fierce, and infinitely readable novel will make you look at Tinsel Town and the stars who comprise it in an entirely different light.
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Cain’s iconic novel tells the story of Mildred Pierce, a divorced woman in Depression-era Glendale, as she embarks upon a solo journey of survival through the various social classes and constructs in 1940s L.A. What's more, Mildred Pierce is a comprehensive overview of L.A.-as-place, simultaneously highlighting the city's many contradictions and undeniable allure. In short: this novel remains one of the most insightful fictional works of the city to date. (If you only know the story through the 1945 Joan Crawford noir film, the book's plot might surprise you.)