Searching for books to include in an article about alternative Los Angeles novels, I sent out a call for suggestions of “adventurous,” “lesser-known,” “experimental” and or “weird” pieces of literature set in or somehow shaped by the city. Not until I’d piled up a few of those did a relatively well-known title occur to me which could head up and offer a “way in” to the list: Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man. Despite having drawn currency from Tom Ford’s film adaptation last year, it rarely makes lists of L.A. or even Southern California novels. I suspect Isherwood’s English origins and the book’s status as a work of gay literature (because it couldn’t fall under two headings) have something to do with this, but to my mind, these make it exactly the novel-of-place to read. Seeing that place through a foreign cultural sensibility while flying under a separate literary radar altogether allow it to approach the place more obliquely — more interestingly, in other words.
Isherwood sets the novel in the Los Angeles of the early sixties, a Los Angeles he experienced and one I wish I could’ve. (At least I have internet videos.) Just as Isherwood taught at Los Angeles State College, his protagonist George teaches at the fictional San Tomas State College. Just as Isherwood drove almost all the way across town — if you, like me, use a semi-purist 25-mile-by-25-mile definition of town — from his coastal Santa Monica home to his fairly deep-inland school, George commutes with the Utopian of someone raised on European roads. (“It is one of the marvels and blessings of the Los Angeles freeway system that you can now get from the beach to San Tomas State College in fifty minutes, give or take.”) Isherwood preferred and George prefers the company of men, although, unlike Isherwood, George has lost Jim, the one man he especially prefers, to an auto wreck in distant Ohio.
Breakfast with Jim used to be one of the best times of their day. It was then, while they were drinking their second and third cups of coffee, that they had their best talks. They talked about everything that came into their heads — including death, of course, and is there survival, and if so, what exactly is it that survives. They even discussed the relative advantages and disadvantages of getting killed instantly and of knowing you’re about to die. But now George can’t for the life of him remember what Jim’s views were on this. Such questions a hard to take seriously. They seem so academic.
The novel covers just one day of George’s post-Jim existence. (Perhaps it covers the final day of his existence, period; Isherwood writes an ambiguous ending in which most readers seem to see an absolute, necessary finality that I don’t, quite.) I understand Southern California offered more permissiveness than did most of the United States and much of Europe back then, but stern whispers still float thick enough in the air to keep George — a white, 58-year-old, homeowning college professor, but nonetheless gay! — laboring under a burden of secrecy. He only tells his closest friends about Jim’s death, letting everyone else think he moved back to live with his parents. To most of the bits of society that immediately surround him, George just looks like a culturally refined unmarried man who may or may not contemplate death a lot.
I actually feel more resonance with George than I have with most other literary characters, especially the ones crafted to share my age, nationality, professional interests, time period, or sexual orientation. I can’t quite tell you why, though we may have to chalk at least part of it up to the way Isherwood opens up George’s consciousness on the page and thus universalizes him, or makes him universally connectable. Bear in mind, we’re talking about a character who zones out while driving and fantasizes himself as a Big Brother-like dictatorial figure, clutching the world in his iron fist, brutalizing with extreme prejudice those who would persecute him. Or do we all wallow in own versions of this fantasy?
The population will slowly begin to learn that Uncle George’s will must be obeyed instantly and without question.
But does Uncle George want to be obeyed? Doesn’t he prefer to be defied so he can go on killing and killing and killing — since all these people are just vermin and the more of them that die the better? All are, in the last analysis, responsible for Jim’s death; their words, their thoughts, their whole way of life willed it, even though they never knew he existed. But, when George gets in as deep as this, Jim hardly matters any more. Jim is nothing now but an excuse for hating three quarters of the population of America...
In this particular day, George wakes up; drives to school; lectures on Aldous Huxley; argues with colleagues in the faculty dining room (“My God, you sound like some dreary French intellectual who’s just set food in New York for the first time! That’s exactly the way they talk! Unreal! American motels are unreal!”); visits Doris, a dying woman who once attempted to steal Jim from him; makes an extra, off-regimen visit to the gym; abandons grocery shopping for a dinner at the home of his other ex-pat friend, a divorced middle-aged woman named Charley; rebuffs Charley’s drunken advances; darts off to a favorite bar in the middle of night; goes skinny-dipping with one of his particularly enigmatic students; and does or does not die.
I don’t want to get too thematic about this, but Isherwood repeatedly alludes, throughout the course of George’s day, to the question of what it is to be among the living. George defines himself as one of the living against, obviously, Jim, but also against the fast-on-her-way out Doris. Certain things blow gusts of living-ness right in his face: crossing the entire city on a freeway; throwing himself into an impromptu sit-up contest; plunging into the ocean, drunk, in the wee hours; ogling a couple of tennis players; running laughingly to a bar instead of dutifully returning home. George rides these sudden waves of vivid sense experience into bouts of spontaneity. You don’t see many corpses doing that.
George’s perspective dominates the novel, understandably so, but I think as often about his students now as I think about him. Not any particular student, though Isherwood gives the skinny-dipping Kenny Potter and his mildly sour Japanese girlfriend outsize positions in George’s thoughts. I think about his students as a vast generational mass, albeit not quite so vast a generational mass as the one that immediately followed them. A Single Man takes place in 1962, meaning most of the college students in it were born between 1940 and 1944. I’ve often read that, in terms of economic opportunity and not getting into wars, the best 20th-century year to be born is around 1938. Some part of me desperately wants to have been a part of the Silent Generation. They seem to have pioneered a lot of the types of lives that attract me, and they got to do it without falling into the black hole of 1968-y agitation. I’ll have to make do with the age cohort I’ve got, but something about the way George looks at their cars always gets me wishing I didn’t:
There’s the beat-up, not-so-white Ford coupe belonging to Tom Kugelman, on the back of which he has printed SLOW WHITE. There’s the Chinese-Hawaiian boy’s grime-gray Pontiac, with one of those joke-stickers in the rear window: THE ONLY ISM I BELIEVE IN IS ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONISM. The joke isn’t a joke in this particular case, because he really is an abstract painter. [ … ] And there’s the well-waxed, spotless scarlet MG driven by Buddy Sorensen, the wild watery-eyed albino who is a basketball star and wears a “Ban the Bomb” button. George has caught glimpses of Buddy streaking past on the freeway, laughing to himself as if the absurd little sitzbath of a thing had run away with him and he didn’t care.