LA CONFIDENTIAL

By Maggie Stiefvater

Published: February 12, 2012

There are two things 13-year-old Weetzie Bat loves more than anything: her charismatic father, Charlie (»the love of my life«), who leaves her family just before the novel’s start, and the city of Los Angeles, the pink-hued and merciless dreamland in which she lives. In »Pink Smog: Becoming Weetzie Bat,« nearly everything about Weetzie changes – except for her love of these two things. In fact, these two bedrocks become inextricably linked as Weetzie learns to use Los Angeles and the lessons it has taught her to cope with her father’s departure. Charlie’s absence would be difficult enough on its own, but Weetzie also has to deal with a new school, an alcoholic mother, the first flutter of adolescent attraction, a boy who may be either an angel or a surfer, and a next-door neighbor who is either a witch with a passion for voodoo or a psychotic girl with a hateful agenda and a pair of chow chows.

To readers unfamiliar with Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat books, this description may sound more like a dream than a plot summary. To Block’s longtime readers, however, it should have the ring of familiarity. Block is well known for instilling her contemporary stories with a dose of magic realism, and »Pink Smog,« a prequel to the original Weetzie Bat novel, continues in this tradition. It’s a device that works well when dealing with Los Angeles, a city that is as much invented as constructed. As Weetzie would have it, »When the sun goes down and the sky flares, it is really beautiful, like magic. However, the lush-plush-peony-rose of the LA sky is a byproduct of something that may be killing us all, little by little.«

Weetzie’s Los Angeles is a pretty but terrible place, full of rippling pools, nodding palms, sweating soda cans and yellow Thunderbirds. It’s an Eden populated with failed starlets, anorexic outcasts and washed-out teachers, as well as Staci Nettles, a well-endowed classmate with cherry lip gloss and »perfect little white fangs.«

This is a city terrified of aging, and Weetzie, as LA personified, shares this fear. The problems that plagued her filmmaker father and former starlet mother arose because they »got old,« she confides to a cute boy she meets, the curiously named Winter. But the idyllic and possibly imaginary Winter announces that he, at least, will never get old. Weetzie regards adults and confident teenagers with suspicion, trusting only the childlike and helpless. Her two friends at school are the timid Lily Chin, who »had a faint layer of dark down all over her body, like a baby animal,« and theostracized Bobby Castillo, who forms an unofficial anti-mean-people club with Weetzie.

Meanwhile, the forever young Marilyn Monroe is Weetzie’s idolized heroine and the source of some of the most disturbing material in the novel. »I love how sad Marilyn’s eyes look, even when she’s smiling,« Weetzie says. »I love her body that just looks like it wants to give itself to everyone like a present.« Weetzie’s unhealthy self-esteem and relationship to others seeps through the narrative. Her mother, Marilyn, Los Angeles – they are all the same in Block’s floating tale.

And float it does. In both »Pink Smog« and »Weetzie Bat,« the story roams without urgency through a nebulous dreamtime. Characters appear as needed, trivial events become giants, tragedy is miniaturized and coated with soft glitter. The novel slides and shimmers through Weetzie’s mother’s rescue from drowning, Weetzie’s hazing at a new school and the discovery of her father’s possible affair.

Stretching over these events is a roughly structured treasure hunt. It highlights Block’s worst weakness and greatest strength: skimming the surface of a thing. Like »Weetzie Bat,« »Pink Smog« sparkles and obscures; it’s a glorious mirage, like the city it pays homage to. Readers are never quite allowed to be sad. However, while »Weetzie Bat« reads like a fairy tale, one extraordinary event after another without pause, »Pink Smog« struggles to find a balance between dream and reality. When a white-turbaned man in a Mercedes materializes to deliver the first treasure hunt clue to Weetzie, our suspension of disbelief fails:

»All I could make out clearly were his eyes,« Weetzie notes. »They looked like they had seen everything there was to see.«

»You must not be afraid,« he tells her, tossing out a mysterious shiny silver envelope onto the sidewalk before speeding away.

Reality intrudes in the form of barely suppressed fears of child abduction and perverts in German cars. When Weetzie muses, »Something needed to start making sense,« the reader is too starkly reminded that things haven’t been.

Still, »Pink Smog« gleams, if not as brightly as its predecessor. This is the story of a girl learning to accept that she can change only herself. Ultimately, Weetzie decides, »the worse things get, the more you have to make yourself see the magic in order to survive.« The Weetzie of »Pink Smog« has not yet become as magical as the girl in »Weetzie Bat,« but fans of the first novel should find plenty to appreciate in her evolution.

(Maggie Stiefvater is the author of the Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy, the Books of Faerie and most recently, »The Scorpio Races.«)
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Things aren't easy for young Louise "Weetzie" Bat. Her father and mother fight incessantly and she's tired of the bullying at school. When her father leaves, her life seems to crash down around her. Her father was everything to her, and now he's... more

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