Off the Grid: Mapping L.A.’s Edgelands with Writer Geoff Nicholson

With his new novel, <em>City Under the Skin</em>, the British expat and longtime Angeleno may have invented a literary genre: cartographic noir

[Los Angeles magazine and Los Angeles Review of Books today launched their first collaborative multimedia project, “Geoff Nicholson Maps the Territory.” It features photographs by Michael Schmelling, video by LARB AV, and a story by Anthony Miller. The LARB presentation can be viewed here.]

The Map
I’m standing in a patch of overgrown scrub next to an overpass of the Hollywood Freeway, concrete above and below. I have driven past this spot who-knows-how-many times without giving it any thought, but for author Geoff Nicholson it’s more than a mere waypost—it’s an urban ruin that merits our attention. If drivers notice us at all, they likely regard us as lost. In a way, we are. We are trying to lose ourselves in the middle of the city in order to see it.

“Walking is the gateway, if you like,” Nicholson explains. “It’s not in itself that fascinating. It’s where it takes you and what you see and observe while you’re doing it.” He has become an authority on walking while residing in a city that long ago gave itself over to the automobile. Nicholson and I traverse a two-or-so mile swath of Hollywood on a Wednesday afternoon in May, not for any purpose other than to better apprehend the city around us, to ponder what it might be communicating to us, to get it under our feet, perhaps even under our skin.

Nicholson’s latest novel,The City Under the Skin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), is an excursion through a city of secrets, scars, facades, hidden depths, “images” that may or may not be authentic, and people with their own traces and ruins left within it. If “cartographic noir” can be considered a genre, Nicholson may well have established it. The story features all manner of maps, not all of them drawn on paper. A young man working in a map store located in an “Arts and Crafts Zone” sees a woman shed her clothes and glimpses what he perceives to be a map on her back. The clerk, Zak Webster, a self-styled “urban explorer” who reads the world as an unfolding series of maps, is given to making declarations like: “A map doesn’t even have to be ‘true’ to be useful” and “Getting lost is a form of mapping.” Fittingly, his pursuits in the novel cannot be mapped according to that archetypal noir route where the plot turns on dangerous broads and dead bodies. One of the most crucial revelations in Nicholson’s book hinges on a tattoo of a compass rose, that directional flourish adorning most maps and globes.

A deranged tattooist has been scrawling maps, or parts of one, on the backs of kidnapped women, then leaving them to wander the city. A killer (and map collector) named Wrobleski begins to abduct these women so he can decipher this strange epidermal rebus. “That’s a very scary and powerful and deeply unpleasant thing to do, and it’s permanent in a way that a cellphone app never is and never will be,” says Nicholson of the desecration of these women’s bodies with these carnal engravings. “To have a map on flesh is about as intense and scary a thing as you can imagine.”

The city in Nicholson’s book is not Los Angeles but is in a kind of dialogue with it; shorn of Los Angeles’s identifying landmarks, it still resonates on a particular frequency for readers of sunshine and noir. The map store recalls the bookshop out of Raymond Chandler’s (and Howard Hawks’s) The Big Sleep. The name of the dive bar, The Grid, besides having a perfect moniker for a map-minded drinker, seems also like a sly homage to The Scope in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.

Nicholson, a native of Sheffield, England, has been an Angeleno for around a dozen years. He is the author of some 20 books of fiction and nonfiction, the last six written while living here. Taken together, Nicholson’s contemplations of pedestrianism—The Lost Art of Walking and Walking in Ruins—start to do for perambulation what Robert Burton, one of Nicholson’s heroes, did for dejection in The Anatomy of Melancholy. (There is a good deal less Latin, obscure classical allusion, and footnoting to be found in the Nicholson volumes.) There is some melancholy in Nicholson’s work as well; in Lost Art of Walking, Nicholson says that he began his walks to curb his depression not long after relocating to Los Angeles. Having accompanied him on a few previous wanderings, I know that his treks can start as odysseys to find some obscure architectural or cultural landmark: the site of a photograph, the home of an artist, writer, or fellow flaneur, or locations from the 1971 last-man-on-Earth film The Omega Man. The excursions have even been known to involve a quiet bit of “creative trespass.” 

Before undertaking any journey, one must set out a route. A map, much like a novel, is many documents at once: a tangible artifact of a journey, a record of a specific geographical location within a given historical moment, an aesthetic object to be coveted. Maps can be followed religiously or disregarded as quickly as instruction manuals. Much depends on the nature of the map and its reader. The name of the map store in City Under the Skin, Utopiates, is said to be derived from an Oscar Wilde quotation, but it’s difficult not to think Nicholson wasn’t also trying to suggest something more Marxian about maps becoming “opiates” for seekers of destinations — both geographical and spiritual. “As I say more than once in the novel, maps never mean the same thing to everybody,” says Nicholson. “They’re always in somebody’s interest — and it may not be yours.” While undoubtedly true with oil maps, tourist maps, and maps of imperial conquest, it does make me wonder what agendas lurk underneath the seemingly innocuous pages of the Thomas Guide.

Nicholson has long found maps a fascinating subject. Here’s how he had one character describe them in his 1997 novel Bleeding London:

Maps are euphemisms, clean, clear, self-explanatory substitutes for all the mess and mayhem, the clutter and ambivalence and blurring and intermeshing weft and warp of the real places they purport to describe. They are fake documents, pathetic simplifications and falsifications.

“I’ve always liked maps a lot, whether I use them for walking or not,” says Nicholson. “I remember the first time I ever went abroad, I went to France, to Nancy, and the first thing I did was go and buy a map at the local tabac. I was with a group of jeunesse people in a hostel and everybody thought that this was a terribly odd thing to do. It seemed to me that when you move to a new place it’s very interesting to see it laid out like a plan.”

City Under the Skin opens with an epigraph from one of the two novels Nicholson says he most often rereads, Heart of Darkness, in which Marlow reflects on being a young man with a “passion for maps,” pointing to the most inviting blank spaces on a map with the intentions of going to those locales when he grows up. “I’m not sure I ever put my finger on the map and said, ‘I want to go to L.A.,’ but I always had that sense of looking at maps and wanting to get outside of my own neighborhood, my own town, my own country,” Nicholson says.

He describes one pedestrian experiment where he spotted the distinct shape of a martini glass in a map of New York City’s East Village and followed its pattern through the city. He toasted each end of his promenade with a martini. “There was absolutely no sense while walking this route that one was walking that shape,” he says. “There is that disconnect between what a map looks like and the experience of what walking that map looks like, and I find that intriguing.” Philosopher Alfred Korzybski observed, just as Nicholson’s character Zak does, that the map is not the territory.

“I’m very aware at this point that an interest in maps is an interest in a dying, antiquated technology, and I don’t see it coming back like vinyl,” Nicholson says. “Who needs a map anymore when you can look at your smartphone?”