I have to confess I just read with guilty pleasure Michelle Huneven’s second novel Jamesland. Of course, this is a Los Angeles novel, but for the longest while I read I debated with myself, so what’s so L.A. about this novel?
Set in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles, the fiction has three main characters: Alice Bloch, a rather lost young woman who is the great-great-granddaughter of philosopher William James; Pete Ross, a fat 46 year old mentally ill former chef who lives with his mom; and Helen Harland, the new minister of the local Unitarian church. These three become friends, bonding over Helen’s Wednesday night seminars where she has different speakers on the variety of religious experiences rather like an ongoing William James seminar—the author, of course, of the Varieties of Religious Experience. Never being fan of William James, I was amused to find myself in Jamesland—at one point the characters even go to séance.
I thought, couldn’t this novel be set anywhere? Helen is a new minister who goes to some small English town trying to bring God and spirituality back to the congregation who want none of it. Of course, I admitted, I did enjoy about reading about Los Feliz district which is near where I live. Like the characters in the book I, too, have gone on hiking dates in Griffith Park and have gone to those meals in nearby Armenian restaurants enjoying eating exactly the same food as the characters in the book. Huneven, who works as a restaurant critic, describes my favorite meal of lamp chops and rice at the Armenian restuarant.
What bothered me about this book is my suspicion is that really it’s about the restoration of the bourgeois paradise in Los Angeles. How could I, a child of the beats, like such a novel? Alice lives in her great-aunt’s expensive craftman house that she will one day inherit, but has let the gardens gone to seed, never used the fine silver and Limoges porcelain. She’s the bourgeois girl gone wrong: wrong job in a bar; wrong man who’s married. Her predicament is, of course, to go right. She needs to get another job so when someone asks her at a party or on a cruise, "What do you do?" she'll have an answer.
Minister Helen’s predicament is she wants to open her congregation of stubborn secular humanists up to religion that they resist. Finally, Pete Ross, a former chef who owned two restaurants before he cracked up, aspires to have a romance with a bourgeois woman. Well aware that the last thing bourgeois women want is a unemployed fat man who lives with his mom, Pete knows that in order to get his woman he needs to regain his bourgeois status as a man with an accpetable job.
Pete start’s cooking for Alice and Helen in regular Friday evening dinners, and in these dinners they all slowly regain bourgeois paradise. I must confess I fell in love with Pete: so rude but such a good cook! I loved following him around shopping for food, adored the menus and the descriptions of him cooking. Yes, I must confess, I was suckered into rooting for Pete as he has to prove himself in his new job as chef for an expensive new restaurant.
What could be more Los Angeles than this fixation on food that Huneven captures so well? The menus! The farmer’s markets! Opening night at the restaurant! Yadada yah! Yes, it’s a Los Angeles novel about this city’s two great obsessions: exploring 8 million different religions and eating good food. Yes, Los Angeles food has improved in recent years. One can even track bourgeois habits of Los Angeles in its differing attitudes toward food over the decades.
In the 1950s L.A. had only a food "good" restaurants specializing in French food, steaks, and Cantonese. Hippies, those great populizers, followed the beats in exploring mystical experiences from around the world and in eating foods from northern Chinese to Japanese to Mexican to North African to West Africa . Let's not forget two other California populizers: chefs Julia Child and Alice Waters
Huneven has perfectly captured post-hippie post-Child post-Waters Los Angeles 1990s bourgeois cooking based on farmer’s markets and multi-cultural French-Mexican-Asian-North African-Middle Eastern cooking. Yes, Alice and Helen love Peter's meals, each one lovingly prepared. Of course, when Peter meets a Persian rug dealer, he gets a new dish from him, a lamb stew, which he cooks. Yes, these meals are healing for all concerned: they cook and eat their way to sanity! Besides having better food, the new L.A. of Jamesland has much more racial and gender equality than segregated old L.A.--a gay minister substitutes for Harland when she's on vacation.
Jamesland is really a Los Angeles novel after all. This new L.A. of Jamesland has bourgeois Angelinos learning about each others religions in Wednesday night seminars and eating each other’s foods on Friday nights. Pete and Alice find bourgeois redemption. I can live with that. Now if only the Helen Harlands of the world, those stubborn spiritualists, can learn to appreciate secular humanists! The novel's flaw is that Helen isn't portrayed as the flawed comic character she is: one can't push one's spirituality onto others. But generally, this novel is a gentle bourgois comedy that ends well.