Last updated January 15, 2009 1:46 p.m. PT
Fans of American writer Nathanael West might read Maria Semple's debut novel "This One Is Mine" (Little, Brown, 289 pages, $24.99) as homage to West's dark classic, "The Day of the Locust." Both novels are set in L.A., and both writers successfully flayed the artificial skin of that city, revealing an underbelly of sickness and death.
There are other parallels between the two. Both feature cowboy-boot shops on Sunset Boulevard, and there's a thread of Homer Simpson running through the work. Homer Simpson in "The Day of the Locust" is similar to, and a likely inspiration for, the character in the TV show, "The Simpsons." There's a Homer Simpson Chia Pet in a character's apartment in "This One Is Mine." Semple, it turns out, is dating a writer for "The Simpsons."
This would all make a strong case for homage, except that Semple, who once wrote for television ("Arrested Development," "Mad About You"), has never read "The Day of the Locust." During an interview in the lobby of her Seattle condo, Semple said she stayed away from other fictional depictions of L.A. while writing "This One Is Mine."
"There are two ways a writer can go when they realize they are getting into a specific genre," she said. "And that is to read it all, or to consciously not read any of it."
That's a hard enough task with a city as iconic and central to the American imagination as L.A. Despite shutting out all influences, Semple's novel fits well alongside the work of other writers of the genre, from West to Joan Didion to Steve Martin. But her story of marital disintegration, social scheming and economic disparity is neither bleak (as West and Didion can be) nor fluffy chick-lit.
Semple takes Hollywood stereotypes -- a wealthy music producer who is by all accounts a jerk, and his languishing wife -- and makes you care about them. She's unflinching, but compassion isn't sacrificed. Just when you've written off the jerky husband, and begin to cheer for his wife's impending adultery, he has a life-changing experience at a sweat lodge, and you're rooting for him to save the marriage instead. It doesn't sound like this kind of character turnaround could work in print, but Semple's prose pins his psyche to a board as if it were a butterfly. Even the Hispanic nanny doesn't come off as a stock character. "LadyGo" incongruously wears T-shirts lettered with phrases like "Hold my purse while I kiss your boyfriend," and she apes her employer's snobbery.
Semple's motivation was to write a novel that she herself would want to read.
"That made the process as easy as it can be," she said.
Rather than taking inspiration from other L.A. writers, Semple's inspirations were Victorian.
"I'd just had my kid," she explained. "I wanted to read, but the attention span wasn't there. I could read trashy books, or I could go back to the books I loved."
She returned to classics: "House of Mirth," "Portrait of a Lady," "Middlemarch."
"I wanted to write a crazy book," she said, in defense of her character portrayal, which some critics describe as unsympathetic. "I wanted my characters to act in a psychologically accurate way. Characters are only interesting to the extent that they go for it. I don't think they're unsympathetic just because they're going for it."
The plot works well for all its twists and turns down Mulholland Drive. Pacing in some of the final scenes feels too rushed, however, and one character's surprising denouement is related as a long speech instead of in scene, a far less satisfying experience. But the devastating, poetic finale makes up for it, and gives us a reason to anticipate Semple's follow-up novel.
Don't expect another L.A. roller coaster, however. Semple has defected permanently to Seattle, attracted by the "lack of pretension," she explained.
"L.A. is so deep in show business. You can quit it, but it's the culture down there."
Her manner reflects this transition, as she exhibits both the confidence of a studio writer accustomed to high-pressure deadlines and the more laid-back persona that Seattle promises to nurture.
Her next novel will be set in Aspen, where she grew up.
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