One does not read Aris Janigian’s newly released novel, Waiting for Lipchitz at Chateau Marmont (Rare Bird Books, A Vireo Book 2016), for its surprise ending. We know that Lipchitz, the Hollywood producer of “quality” pictures, will not show up at the legendary Chateau for his appointment with the protagonist-narrator, a screenwriter who once enjoyed wealth and status in the city of Los Angeles, just as Godot does not show up for his appointment with the two tramps waiting for him on a deserted country roadside, in Samuel Beckett’s famed 1953 play Waiting for Godot.
Waiting for Lipchitz at Chateau Marmont may invoke the play’s title, yet Janigian is right to warn against drawing parallels between the two works. Whereas Waiting for Godot is built on the premise of the utter senselessness of the human condition, and hence the absurdity of “waiting” for anything, or anyone, Janigian’s book is a desperate search for meaning and fulfillment in a city where “art is utterly absent” and “culture long dead.” The once-upon-a-time successful screenwriter is “determined to leave for good this bestial excuse for a metropolis,” and move 220 miles away to Fresno where it is still possible to bring visions to fruition.
As he waits for Lipchitz, the narrator recalls his friend John Hirschman, the once successful novelist, who moves from Los Angeles to California’s Central Valley where he does, indeed, find a home, both physical and spiritual. Hirschman digs a garden in the depths of his farm at the deserted end of the city—It is ironic that one should be forced underground “to let in the light,” muses the narrator”—and is happy piling his herbs, fruits, and vegetables with strange exotic names, in boxes. “It was obvious that Hirschman was not in his right mind,” yet, one gets the sense that Hirschman “had it right.” While on a visit to his friend, the protagonist finds the peace and the quiet Los Angeles denies him. “Wild how well I slept there… I haven’t slept that well in years,” he tells his friend. “There is no greater measure of the soul’s health than how well one sleeps,” affirms Hirschman.
As he orders his third martini—”rnng lte; lks 1:15 ish,” texts Lipchitz–the narrator meditates on the MFA writing programs, “where your chief goal is to ass-lick your way into a career upon graduation;” the rejection of serious books by both the readership and the few remaining bookstores; Amazon and Ebay; the cell phone craze, and so much more that has come to define a culture removed from “our inner reality and all its generative power.” As he sips his drink, he conjures up the city’s different ethnic groups who, instead of coming together to create a mosaic, “are at each other’s throats.” Janigian’s critique of these groups is often harsh, yet his intent is not to put down or to judge any one group. In fact, there is a certain playfulness underlying his most hostile remark. Rather than offend, observations like, Latinos “receding backwards at break-neck speeds to better demolish all their parents built up for them;” or, “the black or African Americans, or whatever they call themselves these days, who . . . have degenerated to what can only be described as a slovenly matriarchy,” delight the reader with their frankness and forceful expression.
What ultimately emerges is the beauty of Janigian’s prose, his joy at having found the right word, the right phrase, or the right rhythm for a sentence. “In fact, there are both men and women whose faces are so frozen by Botox they might already be wearing their own death masks,” yields much pleasure. “I love this book,” says Janigian, clutching it to his heart with childlike enthusiasm.
The Central Valley, with its ability to nourish the soul, may serve as a counterpoise to the “dissolution and death” of Los Angeles, but the book offers no clear-cut dichotomies. Fresno is, in fact, described as being “in the middle of nowhere,” and moving there may well have been “a kind of suicide” for Hirschman. Once as “Bountiful as Eden,” the place has now morphed into a desolate desert, mourns the self-exiled novelist, as he drives his friend through acre after acre of empty dirt. Los Angeles, on the other hand, notwithstanding its darkness, opens up the possibility of “letting in the light.”
Even as he re-considers–”maybe I should have one more drink, maybe the battery on his old Blackberry had died”—Janigian’s protagonist pays the bill in cash, and “snatched [him]self away from the degradation and turned for the street.” The tramps in Beckett’s play may be condemned to the routine of endless waiting. Each of the two Acts ends with Godot sending his messenger to tell them, “Mr. Godot told me to tell you he won’t come this evening but surely tomorrow.” “Well? Shall we go?/Yes, let’s go./They do not move./ CURTAIN.” In contrast, Janigian’s protagonist “hopped (italics mine) in his jalopy and joined the west-heading throng.”
There is promise in the “calm and crisp and youthful” air outside the Chateau. Janigian’s images do, in fact, suggest the spiritual calm of a sanctuary. As he drives west, “The ocean opened up in front of me, a kind of aquatic altar.” His “penitents [may still be] waiting,” but “their turn for the wine and the wafer” will come. There has been an affirmation. And even if the question, “Can I extract myself and fashion a hearth?” remains, Janigian’s protagonist has, for a moment at least, found the “home” he so desperately sought.
My sense is that Janigian himself moves happily between the two worlds. He lives in Los Angeles, but returns to Fresno, his birthplace, for a few months each year to work as a packer and shipper of wine grapes. Fresno probably gives him a respite from the sense of unrootedness that plagues him in the metropolis, but it is Los Angeles that fuels his creativity. Janigian has a deep love for the city he has called home for over thirty years now.