Back before the pandemic, I often hid out from my family to write at the University of Washington’s Suzzallo Library. Prior to sitting down, I’d drift through the stacks, picking up books that were talismanic, beloved, atmospherically helpful. I’d haul these volumes to a table and stack them around me like a midden. Within their embrace, I wrote. At the end of each day, I’d leave the books there and go home. Whether or not my writing had gone well, I took some small satisfaction in having left my mark with these book cairns.
A stack of books is an expression of taste—just as a stack of albums used to be. Some of my favorite writers (Geoff Dyer, Hilton Als, Olivia Laing, Leslie Jamison) have written books that operate in some equivalent way: the author constructs a narrative through the act of responding to the artists and art that he or she considers important. Such works are sometimes categorized as a kind of memoir-criticism hybrid, but really they are about deeply personal choices—the types of choices that make up an identity. With Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California, Matthew Specktor has joined these ranks. His is a book that takes seriously—emotionally seriously—its author’s tastes.
Specktor uses a handful of writers, filmmakers, and musicians to explore a specific idea: that failure is the secret story of Los Angeles. He opens the book at a moment of his own abject failure. His wife has just left him for another man, and his daughter spends most of her time with them; his writing is going poorly; he has unsatisfying relationships with his parents; he lives in a one-room apartment in West Hollywood, which is lovely enough by day but at night becomes “a prison, my riot cell, the roof beneath which my preschool-age daughter is not sleeping.” Across the street is the former home of gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, in whose living room F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack, of alcoholism, of failure, in December 1940. With this opening, Specktor is gridding his acreage: Southern California, tragically screwed-up artists, failure, his personal story.
Each chapter thereafter is dedicated to a different has-been, never-was, might’ve-been, or didn’t-care. Some of these artists are little known—indeed, that’s exactly why they’re included here. Specktor’s exploration of the writer Eleanor Perry, for instance, becomes a consideration of the landscape for less fortunate female writers of the 1960s and 1970s; her screenwriting work was overshadowed by her husband’s, and her novel Blue Pages has been forgotten. Specktor interweaves Perry’s story with that of his alcoholic, creative, furious mother and her failed marriage to his father. Reading Perry’s novel, he recognizes “the casual brutality, and the grotesque masculine vanity, the site-specific manners of a late twentieth-century Hollywood divorce.” And of course, he recognizes the demise of his own marriage as well.
Other figures in the book are better known: the novelist and screenwriter Thomas McGuane, the eternal starlet Tuesday Weld. But their successes are not what interests Specktor. Instead, he explores their fuck-uppery and their refusals, their bad love lives and their tendency to prioritize the temporary wants of the self over the more lasting satisfactions of art. In his chapter on Renata Adler, he writes about art making: “You play because the game itself, and only that, allows you to feel alive. And only the presence of the other gamblers, the committed ones who aren’t sharpies or cheats, only that lets you know you aren’t alone.” Specktor here is defending not just his life, a life dedicated to art, but also the structure of his book, which is about that feeling of connection with people who don’t know you exist.
What results is a shimmering panorama of Specktor’s obsessions. If there’s a void at the center of the book—if the author himself never quite emerges as a subject—maybe that absence is just right. This is, after all, a book about Los Angeles, or even more Hollywood, which is the breeding ground, the megaphone, the engine of late capitalism, a nonsystem that siphons money from dreams. We exist in a structure where our personhood is eroded and our individual power is stolen from us. We respond (nonsensically, giddily) by making decisions about taste and asserting them. We become obsessed with this thing, mega-fans of that. We act like our preferences matter, since that is the job capitalism has given us.
But here’s the funny thing—our choices and our preferences do matter, because something has to. Our selves are constructed from the shitty stuff of consumption, but we remain feeling people nonetheless. And so, there’s an honesty to a book like this that seems pure to me. Novels hide their influences—that is, their authors’ habits of consumption—a little coyly. Always Crashing in the Same Car (the title comes from a David Bowie song) turns the dynamic inside out: Here are my influences, here are my fixations, Specktor declares. That’s it. That’s all you get. That’s the plot. The ensuing book is as heartfelt, as tormented, as full of feeling as a love story.
There’s a funny ending to my story about the library. I mentioned to a friend, another writer, that I had been leaving these weird stacks of books behind. “But I’ve seen them!” said my friend. “I’ve looked at those stacks and thought I would like to know the person who made them.” My friend had read me—my taste, my trace, my history—in the lopsided stacks I had built. Specktor allows us to read him in the same way—through the artists he loves.
By someone else’s work shall ye know him.•