Monday, March 14, 2011

Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books

Francesca Lia Block has an entry in the modern fairy tale book I'm still in the midst of reading. I haven't gotten to it yet, but with all this thinking about fairy tales, I've been thinking lots ablout Block's masterwork, the five short novels that are collected in the one volume omnibus, Dangerous Angels: The Weetzie Bat Books.

I don't see them brought up in discussions of fairy tales particularly often, which I think is a shame. I really believe they are some of the best YA books of the past few decades and I think in these dark and doomy times we are living in they need to be brought up more often. Sadly, I've seen them mentioned in the paper usually when these delightful and positive books are being challenged by some religious nut job. But, nut jobs aside, I know they're not to everyone's taste.

With the first book, Weetzie Bat, in 1989, Block invented a new literary genre: Los Angeles Fairy Tale Magic Realism. I know some people find them too twee, too glittery, too Californian and I have a tough time disagreeing, as they are all these things. I guess, as with all art, it comes down to whether they speak to you in a deep and real place.

I truly believe they are some of the few modern books that contain real magic. I first heard of them about a dozen years ago and looked at Dangerous Angels in Barnes & Nobel, but didn't have the money to buy it new. The very next day I was walking down Prospect Park West, and someone was having a stoop sale, and there it was with that pretty winged figure on the cover, on sale for $1 (my weird fixation on the image of pretty winged women is a discussion for a different day). I started reading right away.

The five Weetzie Bat books were originally published individually (Block subsequently published a sixth, which I have not read), but I think of them all as parts of a whole. The first book serves as an introduction of sorts. Weetzie is a teen girl living in a magical, now mostly lost, 1980s Los Angeles. Block's prose is simple and glittery, and it tells how Weetzie becomes best friends with Dirk, and cobbles together a family in her magical house (inherited from Dirk's Grandma Fifi) in the Hollywood Hills. The title comes from something Dirk says: "Love is a dangerous angel" (which, of course, it is). In it, all the main (and most of the subsidiary) characters are introduced: Weetzie's great love and life partner, My Secret Agent Lover Man, Dirk's boyfriend Duck, Their children Cherokee and Witch Baby, and Weetzie's parents: Charlie Bat and Brandy-Lynn (who met on the set of a Monster Movie in the '50s).

The books are filled with events, much in the way a fairy tale or an opera is. And like in all fairy tales the happy endings must be earned. The trials the characters go through are dark indeed: some people are dangerous and violent and not to be trusted, AIDS ravages the gay community, drugs dim the beauty and fire of some characters and destroy others: Charlie Bat, Weetzie's junky, ex-screenwriter New Yorker father finally takes too many pills and never comes back (except as a ghost). Depression and despair in the the face of the world's ills plague the characters occasionally. But, the most important thing in the book, and the thing that has gotten the religious nut jobs in such an uproar, is Block's magical vision of family.

Beautiful blonde Cherokee was conceived by Weetzie because she wanted a baby desperately, and so she Dirk and Duck all sleep together so that they would all be her parents. My Secret Agent Lover Man fathered Witch Baby with the wicked Vixanne. But she too was happily absorbed by Weetzie into he household. All of the above happens in the 70 pages that comprise the first book. It's all embedded deeply in Los Angeles with echoes of Marilyn and Jayne Mansfield and the Monster Movies of the '50s and especially of Charlie Chaplin. The soundtrack is likely X and The Blasters and The Cramps.

In subsequent books, Cherokee and Witch Baby become teenagers themselves and have to forge their own paths. We travel to NYC with Witch Baby as she is helped to find her beloved Angel Juan by the ghost of Charlie Bat, we learn more about Dirk and his Grandma Fifi and a genie in a bottle.

They're all pure magic.

I'm beginning to realize more and more, that when it comes to art I live in a place of metaphor. I don't feel super confident writing about the literal in my fiction. And sometimes naturalistic stories feel over-specific to me and therefore unrelatable. Most times they leave me cold. I think fairy tales tell a more truthful story.

The following are the final two paragraphs of The Weetzie Bat books, and they serve well as yet another light in the defense of stories as an essential part of the human psyche:
"Stories are like genies, Dirk thought. They can carry us into and through our sorrows. Sometimes they burn, sometimes they dance, sometimes they weep, sometimes they sing. Like genies, everyone has one. Like genies, sometimes we forget that we do.

Our stories can set us free, Dirk thought. When we set them free."

1 comment:

hellolacy said...

They are too twee, too glittery, too Californian--but that was why they also resonated with me. To this Oklahoma girl they were fairy tales within fairy tales (glittery rock and roll LA taking on a starring role). I read the sixth book and I recommend it.