How reading Eve Babitz got me through the depths of winter.
The winter after I finished art school and moved to New York, I started telling people I was thinking of having “a California period.” These conversations happened at parties, mostly, in high-ceilinged apartments in Crown Heights stuffy with heat, shoes melting in a salty pile outside the front door; we’d crowd around someone’s open window, smoking and ashing into the succulents, cold air rushing in as quickly as we could exhale. I envisioned a place far away from all this, far from the snowbanks that turned to dirty gray slush and the gloom that pervaded the city at dusk. I wanted Hollywood; I wanted David Hockney. I wanted pools and pool paintings, sparkles and spangled reflections under that hazy golden California light; I wanted to make abstract canvases covered in pink glitter while next to me some turquoise sky stretched off into an Umberto Eco–esque hyperreal.
It’s this sort of enduring fantasy of Los Angeles that reminds New Yorkers that there’s still a place that isn’t here, though to read writers from either city might give you the impression that there are no other cities in the world. In Los Angeles, this works no matter what decade because there are practically no seasons. “If you live in L.A., to reckon time is a trick since there are no winters,” writes Eve Babitz, in Eve’s Hollywood. “There are just earthquakes, parties, and certain people.”
Embedded in the fast company of Los Angeles of the sixties, Eve’s Hollywood—a confessional novel that might also be the best memoir I’ve ever read—is a series of vignettes chronicling Babitz’s haphazard journey from adultish teen to childish adult. She discusses music, literature, earthquakes, trips to Rome (I guess there are other cities besides New York and LA), and the unexpected demands of beauty, with a deft touch on every subject that arises. It’s hard to decide what’s more lovable about the book: the Hollywood gossip and casually name-dropping social milieu her prose still evokes, after forty years, or the tone of the book itself, which feels like one very long brunch conversation with your glamorous older cousin the afternoon following a party she snuck you into. “But maybe winter won’t ever come,” Babitz admits, “and now what, my darling, will you have to drink?”
All this sounds as though Babitz is frivolous, which she can be, if you aren’t looking closely. Her territory is mostly parties and matters of the heart, neither of which are particularly interesting subjects if a writer never skims below the doe-eyed froth of first experience—though Babitz also captures that experience with heady accuracy. Of a first love, she writes,
Cupid let go with a spear dipped in purple prose, not just an arrow, and then he drew another one, so there were two, one conventionally through my heart and the other through my head. They were both about 8 feet long and two inches thick. They were crude.
I half rose up against the impact and he saw me across the room as he came in alone from the stars and then he disappeared.
Eve! How could you not feel seen by her prose? She effortlessly captures the brutality of infatuation with a single, visceral image: the crudeness of the spears of love, how they go straight through the head and heart and send one completely reeling.
But the hardest lovers and the hardest partiers always have the hardiest death drives. My friend Max gave me a copy of Eve’s Hollywood and a baseball bat in that weird cold liminal time of early December, when the days were still getting shorter but before the first real snow. And though I picked up Hollywood looking for escape, encountering the darkness of her perspective behind the dopiness of her prose was an acute form of recognition that felt especially apt in midwinter. “Death, to me, has always been the last word in people having fun without you,” Babitz begins one chapter, titled “Rosewood Casket,” after a song her mother used to sing as a lullaby. From there, she launches into her own personal theory of heaven, which, she asserts, the Catholics came up with to keep the party going on forever. But if you’re not going to get on the guest list through religion, well, “the only way to get around any of the above is to be having your own private party going on with you continuously,” she writes. “So you can change the boundaries of heaven, just so long as you don’t really believe in it or anything that anyone tells you.
“What I wanted, although at the time I didn’t understand what the thing was because no one ever tells you anything until you already know it, was everything,” Babitz continues. “Or as much as I could get with what I had to work with. I wanted, mainly, a certain kind of song.” She explains:
Like scents, certain songs just throw me. And I wanted to be thrown into that moment of perfume when everything was gone except for the dazzle. It doesn’t last long, but in order to have everything you must have those moments of such unrelated importance that time ripples away like a frame of water. Without those moments, your own heaven party can die of thirst. They’re like booster shots, they make you stronger. You know it’s worth the twinge of envy when you’ve recovered from the dazzle because the mystery of life fades when death, people having fun without you, is forgotten.
In just a few sentences, Babitz identifies the one truth that every party girl instinctively knows—that heaven is something you must make for yourself because you’re afraid of the party ever ending; that you always want to be a song because you love life too much and it’s best to exist in the most effervescent inch of a moment if you must exist at all. But you love it so much because you also know that one day, death comes—it’s not just for pure love of life itself. And sometimes, maybe often, you try to dazzle yourself hard enough that for a little bit, you forget about death.
Lately, the passage of a day alone leaves me bruised. There’s simply too much of everything in the world. I feel as thin-skinned as a plum: quick to abrade and quick to bleed. To fight the feeling I’ve found myself living as though the world might end at any moment—perhaps it may—and I’ve found company in fellow party girl Eve Babitz, who understands that joy really only feels like joy because there’s so much around it that isn’t. But unlike some of the cooler party girls who don’t talk about their feelings, Babitz does, effusively. Of the end of an acid trip, she writes: “The dawn came, the sun rose up in unendurable horizons of peach from which I could not take my eyes. All lay in beauty beneath the round orange sun and sweetness filled the air like a lake feels to a fish.”
The insouciance of Babitz’s tone, how she plays it fast and loose with grammar (and, she admits, she never actually learned how to spell) perfectly matches the experiences she’s trying to capture. It even makes its way into her mythos of herself: “I got up the next morning with a hangover and a good idea for a story,” she writes, in one vignette. “The story was written quickly and fell together like a just right deck of cards being shuffled and had the kind of crazy deftness that my other stories had always managed to run away with.” Whether that’s true or not—in the foreword to the New York Review of Books edition, Holly Brubach hopes it’s not—it’s perfectly in line with Babitz’s good-natured, perennially of-the-moment love for life. She’s happy to exist within the bounds of experience, to go straight into the song without bothering to arrange a landscape for it to exist in: “The fear of beauty walked the plank,” Babitz, writes, of her first experience with hallucinogens. “Beauty was all there was.” It seems to me it’s worth remembering this mode of existing.
In my adulthood, I’ve gone to California at least once a year, even before I first read Babitz, and I’m always disappointed. I’m always myself no matter what kind of hazy light I stand under. Last September, I flew west for a few days, not to hook up with an old boyfriend, necessarily, but not to not spend time with him, either. He and I got an Airbnb for the long weekend, up in the hills with a view of the Hollywood sign, and all we did was bitterly fight and do laps at different times in the pool; the water was so blue it made my mouth hurt if I looked at it too long. There was a giant moon painted on one wall of the living room, and the bed had a mattress made of memory foam, and we hardly touched, and it was cold for Los Angeles—one day, it even rained. Not much, just a little spittle that left patterns on the driveway. It was a disaster.
But I still keep coming back to LA; I always keep coming back. There’s something in the fantasy that still appeals to me, even if at the bottom of the pool beneath the spangled light lies my own death drive, if that’s all that’s waiting for me on the other side of the mirror. We need fantasies, it’s true, even if they’re just other ways of divining the present. After all, “without the compromise of fantasy exchange, real life cannot go on,” Eve writes. “It’s another of God’s mean tricks—that if it weren’t like that, nobody’d give a fuck.”
Larissa Pham is a writer in Brooklyn.