Reviewed by Nicholas Havey
City of Angles
by Jonathan Leaf
March 2023, Hardcover, 288 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1637587881
Dating in Los Angeles can often feel like going on a general audition. Normal questions are interspersed with probes designed to assess whether you can help someone in ‘the industry.’ If you aren’t in ‘the industry,’ people explain it to you, often without prompt, monologuing as if they are self-taping; recording the time they spent with you in a mental catalog they can send to an agent, a producer, or anyone else they think can help them get ahead. Jonathan Leaf’s debut, City of Angles, feels a lot like these dates.
We open on Vincenza Morgan, an aspiring young actress, who just so happens to have a corpse in her trunk. It’s a classic noir trope and rightfully so – the tension is immediate. As we untangle the strings that connect Vincenza to the man dead in her car – her lover, and one of the biggest stars of the screen – we explore Los Angeles and the entertainment industry. Along the way, we are introduced to a handful of suspicious characters: the up and coming director and producer who has something to gain and everything to lose from the short film she’s shot with Vincenza and her now-dead costar, an enterprising young screenwriter who is lovestruck by our leading lady, and a cult like stand-in for Scientology that Leaf masks with a transparent sheet. We are also mercilessly beat over the head with pedantic and unnecessary-to-the-plot asides about show business.
Much like the received pronunciation that most actors speak with, affecting an accentless and placeless tone to their speech, Leaf’s writing is voiceless and waiting for stage direction. Characters move seemingly without motive and, if their names were removed from the page halfway through the novel, it would be unclear who was doing what. The result of the thin characterization that is so common on first dates, Leaf asks us, the reader, to build our own backstory for his characters, inventing reasons we should believe their actions to be logical.
The lack of depth of characterization is perhaps best exemplified by Leaf’s depiction of women within City of Angles. Women are described somewhat collectively through the identification of their ‘rigid’ breasts, their too-tight skirts, and their excessively flirtatious manner of behaving. Identifying one bombshell who uses her looks and wiles to get what she wants (here, Vincenza) might work if every other woman was not also painted as conniving and out to hurt men purely for her entertainment and self-aggrandizement. Herein lies one of the other main issues with the book: Leaf is so determined to criticize, or better yet takedown, the perceived ‘cancel culture’ of the #MeToo era that he did not accomplish much else narratively. Arbitrarily placed one-offs about going to a ‘woke’ college and out-of-place asides about what can and can’t be done anymore, lest one be held accountable for their actions, confuse and distract from the plot. Sure, Leaf hits the notes one might expect of a noir, but it is more in the style of someone bashing their hands across the keys of a piano than it is a carefully executed opus. By the time the killer is revealed, you’ve likely already forgotten who they were.
Finally, while ostensibly a contemporary noir set in present-day Los Angeles, Leaf can’t quite decide when the book is set. Erratic yet impossible car chases through the most congested areas of the city might dazzle if they weren’t absurd. Key plot points require teleportation, magical thinking, or 4 uninterrupted hours of driving, and entertainment details feel woefully outdated and misinformed (no one is hired to do script punch ups with no other credits to their name). City of Angles may have gone in for the part but it didn’t land the role.
About the reviewer: Dr. Nicholas Havey is a Senior Manager at First Book, a nonprofit social enterprise focused on improving educational equity, a thriller and mystery writer, and a lover of all, but particularly queer, fiction. Nicholas’ other reviews of fiction are featured in Lambda Literary, Rain Taxi Review, and The Washington Independent Review of Books, and his reviews of academic work appear in a number of peer-reviewed journals.