Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Surface and Substance in Los Angeles

The Hanged Man by Francesca Lia Block (1994)
Harper Collins; Trade Paperback; 137 pages; ISBN: 0064408329

Francesca Lia Block's prose walk a thin line between beauty and narcissism.

That's probably because she writes about Los Angeles so much.

Block's prose are gorgeous, slick, and malleable, describing flowers, supermodels, and urban decay in the same line. While I admired her much more as a young teenager, I still respect her craft.
Block creates glamorous settings and populates her California landscapes with beautiful, troubled people.

She's F. Scott Fitzgerald filtered through MTV. Sometimes it works, sometimes it's overwrought, but it's always engrossing.

What makes me hesitant to read her work, now, is the same thing that originally drew me to her: her style is often more endearing than her substance.

The Hanged Man is one of Block's darker literary outings. It's less whimsical than the Weetzie books (1989 - 2005) and about on par with her newer book of hers, Wasteland (2003). The plot deals with Laurel, a disturbed teen coming to terms with the death of her father.

Laurel's issues range from melodramatic to painfully real: her friends and family are self-involved and emotionally unavailable, she's sleeping with a man so elusive he may not be real, and she's dealing with an eating disorder that's a symptom of a much larger disease.

It's to Block's credit that she not only juggles these issues well but convincingly. She has a knack for writing soap opera issues like pregnancy and molestation believably, even if they're over-used tropes in fiction like this. But her frankness about sex has always seemed refreshing.

Some readers won't be very enthusiastic about her descriptions of jasmine, oleander, and houses with fairy tale towers.

Your mileage will certainly vary.

My favorite of her books is Baby Be-Bop (1995), a story about a gay California punk coming to terms with his sexuality. Again, the subject matter is melodramatic, but it's saved when the story begins to recount the main character's family tree. Suddenly, the book isn't just about modern Los Angeles, but a multi-textured history, from the life of a miserable seamstress to a happy beatnik couple. The book really moves outside of itself.

While Block loves describing California and is, yes, really quite good at it, I wish she would move out of her comfort zone more often. Hanged Man is far from bad, but with a little more weight, it could have been a lot better.

So. Is this book good, fun, both, or neither?

Every chapter of Hanged Man is centered around a tarot card, though I can't say what this adds to the overall story. It's just another of Block's interests that slides into her work, like Greek mythology, fairy tales, and fashion.

Readers unfamiliar with her work should use what they think of this particular motif to gage their interest in the book.

If you already know you enjoy her writing, though, this is another fun outing, with a deliciously dark, nebulous plot.