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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 370-372
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Julian Murphet. Literature and Race in Los Angeles. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. x + 203 pp.
Literature and Race in Los Angeles might better be titled "Race in Los Angeles Literature." Julian Murphet's forte is literary analysis, strongly informed by the Marxist tradition of criticism from Lukács, Brecht, and Adorno to Jameson. Onto their methods he grafts de Certeau's attention to the "practice of everyday life," Bakhtin's chronotope, and, most usefully, Henri Lefebvre's threefold taxonomy of space: discourses responsible for the representation of space, symbolic/representational spaces, and everyday spatial practices. The apparatus is bulky, but it yields some interesting results, as in a chapter on "neo-noir" fiction that reads Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins series as a response to James Ellroy's construction of African-American Los Angeles from the perspective of white law enforcement in the postwar/pre-Watts rebellion period. Juxtaposing the outsider anxieties of white lawmen with the lived experience of the private detective, Murphet probes the intersection of race, masculinity, and justice in the genre. A later chapter on contemporary "multicultural" poets Wanda Coleman, Luis J. Rodriguez, and Sesshu Foster opposes their descriptions of the destitute third-world enclaves created by global capitalism and local disinvestment to "the comfortable vision of [LA as] an integrated 'mosaic' of cultures" (142), increasing the gulf already apparent in the chapter on neo-noir historicism.
Murphet's extraliterary descriptions of the city draw almost exclusively from "LA-School" critics Mike Davis, Edward Soja, and Michael Dear, a trio at once influential and limited in scope and program. Thus, in a book that seeks to puncture "official myths" of LA, Murphet in turn offers several myths of his own and too many unwarranted assertions. Moreover, some of his key claims are not accurate. The enabling premise of this study of "minoritization" is that Los Angeles is "the first continental US city in which whites have fallen short of an outright majority" (1), yet a look at the 1980 census shows that while the non-Hispanic White population of that city had just dipped to 47.8% of the total, it was at or below 25% in Detroit, El Paso, Miami, Newark, and Washington DC, less than a third in Atlanta, under 40% in New Orleans and San Antonio, and 43% in Chicago. Even if the unit of measure is the metropolitan statistical area, Miami, San Antonio, and El Paso were majority minority cities before Los Angeles became one.
Murphet's interest in minoritization and racial tension makes Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 a fitting subject for his final chapter. Anna Deveare Smith's dramatic embodiment of contemporary Los Angeles—literally: it is a one-woman show—renders "the social as a [End Page 370] swarm of differences united by crisis" (150) in the aftermath of the April 1992 uprising; victims, activists, apologists, mediators, and public intellectuals all have their say. Twilight's documentary status raises questions that ought to be of primary concern in a book like Murphet's: on what basis does Smith choose which of her many interviewees to present in order to represent the city? How does she determine which passages are most representative of her subjects? I cannot think of another work in which the literary and political meanings of representation are so closely identified, but no sustained analysis of the way in which they affect each other is ventured. Murphet notes that Smith speaks of Twilight as "a very active negotiation [of difference] rather than an image of us just holding hands" (147), but does not trace that negotiation among the many different voices in the play that surely do not have equal insight or authority.
Murphet is in fact less concerned with what Smith does in Twilight than with her failure to provide "a privileged social agency in which the possibility of effecting political change is identified" (152). This objection is symptomatic of two larger difficulties with the book: Murphet's determination to reduce race in Los Angeles to a struggle...