Imagining Orange County

Its not the O.C., not Disneyland, not Newport. Eight writers imagine the real place you call home

Admittedly, OC hasn't exactly been Greenwich Village—though this is changing, this is changing—and so some of the best writing about the county is by people who aren't from here, literary tourists who came, saw, held their noses (generally), wrote and split. Other works have been written by pop writers who tend to embroider the clichés about the county in sociologically instructive, if not aesthetically interesting, ways. And then there are the writers I'm most interested in, those who have lived and breathed the county, who care about a sense of place, who to greater or lesser degrees have tried to imagine the county both macrocosmically—as a place depleted of history and nature by out-of-control development, as surging economic juggernaut, as new template for the American Dream, as consumer paradise/nightmare—and microcosmically, as a place where OC happens to particular people, to characters who feel joy, pain, bewilderment and hope in the peculiar way we do in this very interesting and very weird place. What we're going to be trying to get at here is what OC is according to the people who have most deeply imagined it.*

Maybe we can get a few of these questions answered.

II.

EXQUISITELY BORED
IN CALIFORNIA.

When the sun shines, things'll get moving
You feel close to the stars.
There are good times walking in Laguna
But it rains in my heart.

Pete Townsend, "Exquisitely Bored in California"

Not counting Disneyland, or The O.C., or ads in Vogue advertising high-end stores at South Coast Plaza, the rest of the world knows about Orange County chiefly from stories such as Michael Chabon's "Ocean Avenue," a tenderly satiric compendium of hilarious clichés about Laguna Beach residents that's so spot-on observant you forgive Chabon for mocking South County's yuppie class (circa the mid-1980s) so brutally.

In it, Bobby Logan is having a sunny lunch with his physicist friend Albert and Albert's new 22-year-old wife at a fashionable seaside Laguna Beach café when Bobby's ex-girlfriend, Suzette, unexpectedly glides in. Suzette, sporting "one of those glittering, opalescent, Intergalactic Amazon leotard-and-tight combinations that seem to be made of cavorite or adamantium and do not so much cling to a woman's body as seal her off from gamma rays and lethal stardust," looks like "she weighs about 75 pounds," with "a face hollowed and somehow muted, as do the faces of most women who get too much exercise, but there was a sheen on her brow and a mad, aerobic glitter in her eye." Bobby feels compelled to say hello to Suzette, however, because "a certain tyranny of in-touchness holds sway in that part of the world—a compulsion to behave always as though one is still in therapy but making real progress, and the rules of enlightened behavior seemed to dictate that he not sneak away from the table with his head under a newspaper—as he might have done if alone—and go home to watch the Weather Channel or Home Shopping Network for three hours with a 12-pack of Mexican beer."

Bobby and Suzette broke up because the Balearic restaurant they had started in San Clemente went belly-up after a really mean review in the Los Angeles Times. As a result, Suzette "went a little nuts," disappearing "into the haunts of physical culture. She worked out at the gym, went to Zahava's class, had her body waxed, and then, to top it off, rode her bicycle all the way to El Toro and back. When she finally came home, she was in a mighty hormonal rage and suffered under the delusion that she could lift a thousand pounds and chew her way through vanadium steel."

A business failure is all South County superficial couples need to break up, of course, so they do, but with a twist: Suzette moves out and takes with her only Bobby's belongings, including his beloved "collection of William Powelliana," for which Bobby retaliates by taking and selling (for $4,000) Suzette's prized collection of 1958 and 1959 Barbie dolls. Rancorous lawsuits and countersuits follow, the relationship devolving—not that it had ever really evolved in the first place—into gargantuan pettiness. But Bobby can't put it behind him—it's probably that touch-me-don't-touch-me outfit of hers—and even though Suzette throws a cup of coffee in his face and leaves the café (she likes scenes), Bobby follows her out, catches her and plants a kiss on her "hollow cheek," thus starting a new chapter in their sick/childish little union.

The story's a perfect one of its kind, as deft an ironic commentary on laid-back OC yupsters as Woody Allen's take on Hollywood in Annie Hall and no doubt was all New Yorker readers (it was originally published there) thought they needed to know about the county. But exquisitely bored Californians come in more shapes and sizes than Bobby and Suzette, so let's expand the syllabus.

Another satire about the county, this one much more biting—an entirely bizarre, hilarious and horrific story—comes from another outsider, David Foster Wallace, whose "Girl With Curious Hair" taps into the South County spoiled-rich-kid sex-and-drug-nihilism that's familiar to anyone who's heard rumors of the Newport Beach party scene and knows the Haidl rape case isn't entirely atypical.

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