It’s fitting that Eve Babitz christened the protagonist of her third autobiographical novel Jacaranda. If you have ever spent a spring in Los Angeles, you have seen the city transformed by a riot of purple blossoms in April. Jacaranda season paints the town periwinkle—an inescapable whimsy. Purple canopies line the streets. Bell-shaped and fragrant, fallen blossoms settle on the roofs of parked cars and carpet the sidewalks. While L.A. and palm trees are synonymous for the rest of the world, Angelenos think of Jacarandas, bougainvillea, and oleander—colourful and fragrant, boldly flirting with danger.
Recently re-released by Canongate, Babitz’s 1979 Sex and Rage: Advice to Young Ladies Eager for a Good Time charts the highs and lows of the effervescent Jacaranda Levin who ditches her childhood catching waves in Santa Monica for wild child parties in Hollywood. Losing herself in the potent cocktail of men, drugs, and hard liquor, Jacaranda wakes up in the tail end of her twenties only to recognise the false veneer of her “dear friends” and her utter lack of a plan. When a fierce New York literary agent with a “cement voice” takes an interest in her, Jacaranda must take initiative, deciding whether to pry herself free to become a writer or sink down deeper into the quaalude haze that is expected of her.
People have always underestimated Eve Babitz. As one of Hollywood’s It Girls of the 1960s and 70s, Babitz has been remembered more for her antics than her art. She is The Girl in the Photograph. The Girlfriend. The Party Girl. Perhaps it’s the resurgence of 70s style that cued the Babitz renaissance. Perhaps we were looking for something deceptively featherlight in trying times. Yet, balancing references to Proust, Matisse, and Henry James’s Daisy Miller alongside Flying Down to Rio and Morocco, Babitz is no lightweight. Instead, she’s an amalgamation of our cultural consciousness funneled through a delightfully chatty Angeleno.
I like to think of Babitz’s style of writing in cinematic terms. Cinematography, literally “writing in motion,” is the only way to describe Babitz at her best. Plot-wise, the novel is one long tracking shot as Jacaranda whirls from one extreme to the next, shifting from Santa Monica to West Hollywood to New York and back, seeking solace in “honest labor, finely crafted novels, and surf.” Like a film, the detailed costuming of her character is just as important as what she is doing. Babitz gives us a close-up of Jacaranda’s purple satin shirt and snug satin pants, the little black thrift store Dior with its square neckline, the way she wears her sun-bleached hair long and tangling, the exact shade of her purple eyeshadow (grape).
Meeting Max Winterborne—the one man Jacaranda can’t have—we’re given the same sensory experience we’d find in a darkened movie theatre. Max “was a carburettor backfire in the driveway, an old green Jaguar with wooden paneling inside, and a dog named Diogenes,” stepping out of the elegant car “like a tall drink of water, like Cooper in Morocco; all he needed was a straw fan and he’d be complete.” He enters the novel like a leading man, but we’re quickly told he’s dangerous in the campy style of Old Hollywood foreshadowing. Exasperated by the mention of someone he doesn’t like, he stamps on a ceramic ashtray like Rumplestiltskin, smashing it to pieces. Babitz continues, giving us a close-up of his profile against the riot of oleanders blooming outside the window:
Her mother had always warned her about oleanders; they were poisonous and one was never to eat them. The white flowers threw Max’s elegant silhouette into a sort of bas-relief, like Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, in Florence, golden. The sunshine was golden. The cigarette smoke and coffee smelled golden.
Then Max sighs, bringing us back into the non-diegetic action, and asks if she’s coming to his party. And it’s not the only time Eve puts her innate understanding of Hollywood pacing and theatricality to use. At an invite-only house party in Venice, she sets the scene: Jacaranda “could feel the rancid tension in the air beneath the lopsided yellow moon’s malevolent regard… ‘earthquake weather,’” she writes. “The perfect night for a loud crack or a gunshot to go off.” And then it does. A sound so loud it triumphs over the loud music. The sound of a fist violently meeting flesh. Babitz describes the rise of “a hushed musical gasp” coming “from the people beneath the clash of the Temptations’ stereoed desires” until “a circle backed away from a body, which lay, bloodied on white, sprawling, fallen.” While I cannot give it justice in fragmented quotations, each line is a tight play-by-play of mounting tension, of prophecies come to pass—a rock’n’roll fairytale.
While Babitz’s Los Angeles is utterly debauched, there is a certain innocence to her imagery. The first of Babitz’s novels to be written in the third person, Sex & Rage maintains this signature style. Playful and exuberant, the tone is at once mythic and conversational. She employs a stylised narrative voice that evokes a dreamy, sun-soaked fable: Jacaranda and her sister April “grew up at the edge of the ocean and knew it was paradise, and better than Eden, which was only a garden,” and Jacaranda herself was clean and pure, “as if she’d washed up on the shore, a piece of driftwood with blonde seaweed caught at one end.” She makes bold statements, believing in embodying the driftwood and yet so sure she could also believe in “bold adventuresses, cigarettes, and [suffering] from one too many of anything” in the stark light of the morning after. Her fairytale simplicity extends to the brigade of “dear friends” who live “on a drifting, opulent barge where peacock fans stroked the warm river air and time moved differently from the time of everyplace else,” and “everything was better on the barge, the same kind of ease seemed to scent the nights.” Even Jacaranda’s daring escape — choosing “to drive out into the streets on fourteen White Ladies, on vodka and vodka and vodka,” rather than continue fraternising with Max’s toxic jetsetters — was described as “jump[ing] off the barge into the crocodile-loaded river and wash[ing] ashore, somehow.”
Jacaranda is a cipher for Babitz’s own insecurities, but even Jacaranda is not quite enough. In her quest to assure her legacy, Babitz sprinkles in her own tongue-in-cheek cameo. Drifting through a dinner party, it is a print of ‘Duchamp Playing Chess with a Nude,’ featuring Babitz’s naked body that attracts all the attention—though it shares billing with Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg, David Hockney and John Altoon. Shut out of the vernissage by her lover, Walter Hopps, when his wife flew back into town, Babitz agreed to pose for the picture by Julian Wasser. “Not only was it vengeance, it was art!” Babitz told Paul Karlstrom of the Archives of American Art in 2000.
Sex & Rage captures that spirit of madcap irreverence, charting those years when youth feels indestructible and teetering on the edge of catastrophe is just another Tuesday night.