The Alternate History of Los Angeles

In ELADATL: A History of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines, Sesshu Foster and Arturo Ernesto Romo imagine the City of Angels as it might have been.

eladatl, sesshu foster, arturo romo
Jeff Clark

Sesshu Foster and Arturo Ernesto Romo’s ELADATL: A History of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines is unlike any book I’ve read before. Like the contents of a wonder cabinet that fell off the back of a speeding truck, bounced across a freeway, and cartwheeled down a ravine, its amusements and artifacts have been jumbled and juxtaposed.

What is it, exactly? A revolutionary pamphlet? A fanzine for the discerning dirigible enthusiast? A transmission from the future warning us about environmental catastrophe? An epic poem like something Homer might’ve written if he’d had access to a mimeograph machine and psychedelic mushrooms? Is it all these things?

The book begins with a broadcast from “pirate radio Ehekatl.” A reporter has been sent to track down the “long-rumored but never-before sighted” location Sky City, somewhere near Los Angeles. As she pilots the dirigible Agnes Smedley (named for the American writer, communist sympathizer, and suspected spy) across “the devastated West,” the ship is buffeted by “atmospheric disturbances that maintain the conglomeration of debris in the stratospheric rings—agglutinated by force—careening through the upper atmosphere, encircling the planet.” A gigantic sky gyre of trash, in other words.

From there, ELADATL settles, briefly, into the saga of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines, a once-mighty network of dirigible stations ranging from El Sereno to Burbank and beyond, including international service with stops in Ho Chi Minh City and Shanghai as well as the “only service remaining (at one point) to the Miami sea towers of sunken Florida.”

Still, if Foster and Romo frame their book, in part, as the story of a company, they have something much less linear in mind. There is no particular narrative line to follow, no heroic protagonist, no baron of industry. It’s more a grab bag of reports and accounts. Strange things happen in ELADATL: A giant kraken descends from the clouds to crush a zeppelin with tentacles that may or may not be made of papier-mâché; an air war breaks out between dirigibles and zeppelins; the Virgin Defacer, a graffiti artist, mars images of the Virgin of Guadalupe around East L.A. Meanwhile, a series of letters outline conspiracy theories involving the FBI and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s SWAT team. The novel also offers a stinging excoriation of the privileged political class.

And all that only scratches the surface.

One chapter is composed entirely of quotes—some appear to be real, others not so much. Cesar Chavez describes his favorite way to cook chicken, while Harry Truman spits bluesy lyrics and Ulysses S. Grant offers a pancake recipe. The company archives disgorge correspondence between ELADATL higher-ups and reports by various agents and investigators assessing the quality and efficiency of the dirigible lines.

Then there’s the visual material, which includes a pair of 10-page inserts, or collages, of ephemera from the ELADATL offices. We see advertisements and newspaper clippings, tokens and a day pass, photos of the earliest pilots, and schematics for airships. It’s a futuristic scrapbook as historical document of an imaginary company.

These are some of my favorite parts of the book.

Foster and Romo end ELADATL with several appendices. One, “What Is the Purpose of Mystery,” consists of an imagined interview in which the late Oscar Zeta Acosta—the infamous Dr. Gonzo in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegasponders such questions as “What is the purpose of ‘death’?” Other appendices gather customer letters and customer complaint forms as well as a sample menu for “Dirigible flights longer than 30 minutes,” featuring “Mexican Hot Dogs”: a “Farmer John weenie wrapped in flour tortilla with mayonnaise.”

At one point, we learn about the Zoltan Monsanto Institute for Cognitive Dissension, which offers the position of Poet of the Universe, an “all-expense-paid two-year award.” This is meant as a tribute to a vision of poets as “acute folders inside an origamaic universe.” And that’s it, really.

The ideas Foster and Romo are exploring start as diffuse snatches of political outrage, personal vignettes, and flights of dystopian whimsy bound in the fantastical history of an airship enterprise. And yet, as these various elements fold in upon one another, something complex takes shape: a feeling of wonder and joy at the beauty of human invention, which swirls up through the anxiety and dislocation that comes with collapsing ecosystems and the corrupting influence of capitalism to embed an idiosyncratic and deeply personal history of East Los Angeles.

City Lights Books


City Lights Books

Mark Haskell Smith is the author of six novels, including Moist, Salty, and Blown, as well as three nonfiction books, most recently Rude Talk in Athens: Ancient Rivals, the Birth of Comedy, and a Writer’s Journey Through Greece.
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