Thomas More’s original ideal society, the island of Utopia, is really ‘nowhere’ or ‘no place’, though a ‘nowhere’ quite specifically somewhere in the New World. I only learned this a couple of years ago when I read More’s classic work while researching a book about the sale of London Bridge to America. The bridge now stands in Lake Havasu City. En route to see it I spent a week in Los Angeles, and it was there, at a drinks party in a geodesic dome in the Hollywood hills, that someone suggested I read Alison Lurie’s novel The Nowhere City (1965). Initially it was the title that grabbed me. But from the opening page, with its clipping from a real newspaper report about a class of schoolchildren trying to recreate the first Thanksgiving feast on a Californian surfing beach, I was entranced.
The Nowhere City is set in Los Angeles and each of its four sections is named after a different area of the city. The novel’s lead characters are a young married couple, Paul and Katherine Cattleman. Paul is a Harvard historian ‘with a readiness for small adventures’, who decides to take a financially lucrative year-long contract with a dubious military electronics firm in Los Angeles. He aims to ‘observe the future’ in California, store up a little cash and finish his thesis. But Paul is every bit as priapic a history man as Malcolm Bradbury’s Howard Kirk. Once out west, he is instantly distracted from further study by the shapely figure of Ceci O’Connor, a free-spirited shoplifting waitress who reads Samuel Beckett, paints abstract expressionist canvases, smokes pot and lives in a beatnik colony out in Venice Beach.
While Paul embraces all the sun-kissed pleasures his new environment has to offer, Katherine hates Los Angeles. Her revulsion expresses itself immediately, and physically, through painful sinus
attacks that begin the moment she steps off the plane. Employed as a secretary at a local university, she works f
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