By Oscar Villalon
"City of Angels, or the Overcoat of Dr. Freud" has something going for it that other literary works about Los Angeles fail to take advantage. Namely, the unique satisfaction, akin to enjoying a delicious sweet and sour dish, that comes from combining the iconic scenery and gritty vibe of the country's second-largest city with the sophistication of a novel of ideas.
When L.A. serves as a character in a story, it's too often there solely as an example of an approaching apocalypse. And to be sure, Christa Wolf's novel, ostensibly about her time spent as a guest of the Getty Center in 1992, has its moments of darkness. Not only do we see the poverty and the despair that characterize the city, but the novel's unnamed narrator is steeped in a brooding anxiety, too.
She's left an incipient scandal behind her in the now-unified Germany, where a government file will soon surface implicating her as a one-time collaborator with the East German secret police.
That piece of information won't be revealed till about halfway through the novel, but the burden of that knowledge is evident from the beginning of the story. As Wolf unspools what the narrator calls the running tape recorder of her mind, the book ping pongs among what we assume are the significant times and places of Wolf's life. At one moment we're sitting in Santa Monica, taking in the luscious curve of the beach, in another we're in chaotic Germany, just before its partition between the Soviets and the West. In another scene we're driving down sunset-streaked Wilshire Boulevard in a red Geo, then we're in contemporary Germany, where the narrator is ruing the folly of the recent Gulf War. A world-weary tone of skepticism is firmly set and kept.
And then there are the familiar touches of noir, summoned by descriptions of the troubled narrator watching late night T.V. and drinking wine alone in her Santa Monica apartment, or by her routine encounters on the street with the mentally ill and the despondent under sky-blue weather.
But what stands out is how Los Angeles serves poignantly, even nobly, as the space in which the narrator tries to come to terms with her past and her beliefs, even with the very nature of love and forgiveness. Los Angeles, if we needed reminding, is a world-class center of culture, and Wolf's novel, which meditates on history and politics and philosophy, takes us to its vibrant communities-notably that of German expats and emigres. Cast against the cool ominousness and the glamorous beauty of L.A., the witty and learned conversations we witness, and the lives of intellectuals and artists we observe, radiate with a rumpled romance.
This is a cosmopolitan Los Angeles we don't see enough. Christa Wolf's last novel will leave you hungry for more of it.