There’s a kind of writing about LA that I am a sucker for. Gossipy, lyrical, with a surface of affectless simplicity but an undertow of melancholy that can be personal (bad love affairs, damaged families) or institutional (the death of old Hollywood, the birth of the new) or, best of all, both entwined. It is reserved in its affiliations, not susceptible to moral fervour, lightly amused by what it observes but not given to wisecracking (it is not Nora Ephron, who I am a sucker for but in a different way). It has the measure of the city’s miraculous lucency and compulsive self-invention.
Joan Didion did it; Eve Babitz specialised in it. It is usually written by women, and ones whose beauty puts them half inside the gilded world of celebrity while their cynical intelligence puts them half outside it. Although the matter of their beauty is rarely explicitly discussed, it’s either implicit in their stories (the interesting things that happen to them are often the kind that beauty can facilitate) or announced in cover photos (Babitz in her bangs and black bikini, cat-faced Didion simmering over a cigarette). Miss Aluminium, a memoir of Susanna Moore’s life from childhood to her early thirties, is that kind of book. I, of course, adore it.
Moore is best known for the 1995 thriller In the Cut, which by contrast is a distinctly East Coast affair, set in New York, with allusions to Henry James and with a Shirley Jackson mean streak. It’s also filthy (‘I could feel the quickening between my legs, the contracting of muscles, the belligerent glad rush of blood’), while in Miss Aluminium Moore makes constant reference to her younger self’s naivety and even prudishness. The book is, in part, an explanation of how a girl, whose limited sexual knowledge was ‘so wildly inaccurate, if not fantastical’ as to ‘cost me years of sexual pleasure’, could grow up to write one of the world’s few genuinely hot novels.
Miss Aluminium starts in motion. ‘I took nothing with me when I left. No photographs, no books, no souvenirs of childhood,’ Moore writes. She’s 17, and has just been exiled from the family home in Hawaii by her stepmother and sent to live with her grandmother and aunt in Philadelphia. From there she goes to New York, then Chicago, and eventually on to Los Angeles, her reinvention aided by eight trunks of cast-off clothes from a wealthy hometown friend, who also pulls strings to get her jobs (including the position of Miss Aluminium, bringing pageant glamour to metals trade events).
The sense of movement is so insistent, it takes a while to register that Moore is not engaged in an arc but an orbit. The chronological procession of her story is repeatedly broken by interludes returning to Hawaii and her mother Anne’s death. Moore is 12 when her mother dies suddenly in her sleep, and part of the shock is that Anne didn’t get to herself first, having made multiple suicide attempts, had long stays in psychiatric institutions, and manifested increasingly odd behaviour. The breakdowns are possibly caused by Moore’s father — a ‘pleasure-loving and weak’ man who makes no effort to conceal his affairs.
These unstable parents are Moore’s training in psychology:
“I had learned to rely, not without reason, on my ability to interpret the slightest word or gesture, in part as a means to control chaos, both actual and psychic.
Not that acuity can offer total protection from other people. There is a first husband (‘I said yes, not realising that my loneliness was so great that I would have married the first man who asked me’) who seems merely dull but is much worse. A modelling career helps her to escape, but puts her in the way of a rapist fashion designer.
Men in Hollywood are unabashedly predatory. Warren Beatty inspects her legs before hiring her as a script reader, although she reports: ‘I was not in the least offended.’ She does not retcon her past for modern norms, and nor is she defensive of the old mores she acted under. She simply explains how it was, and what she did. Partly, this is to do with what she calls ‘the myth that I was creating of and for myself. If I was superior to self-pity, I was also superior to consolation’.
There are points when the recitation of Hollywood names (Jimmy Stewart, Audrey Hepburn, Joel Schumacher, Jack Nicholson, Mike Nichols, Didion herself) begins to lose its glamour and feel like… just a list. But then Moore will deliver some divinely human glimpse of a starry acquaintance, or an elegantly devastating scene of her mother, and the spell of her voice is back as strong as ever. Miss Aluminium ends before she really becomes a writer, but with her poised for that part of her life to begin; its ravishing execution is testament to how fine a writer she became.
Susanna Moore talks about her book on our Book Club podcast: spectator.co.uk/susanna.