In the latest re-release of her cult books, the Los Angeles bon vivant charts the descent of her jet set into middle age and the failures of her generation to look beyond their narcissism to confront systemic social problems.
These stories possess more than a ring of truth—they offer vicarious thrills ... The important thing is, Babitz doesn’t rely on manipulating language or fabricating realities. She renders dead-perfect scenarios of contemporary angst, generously imbued with wit and her characters’ hard-won wisdom.
One of the strengths of this collection lies in her willingness to catalog her own flaws, even when exposing unflattering facets of her personality ... Babitz’s critiques are light, succinct, but unmistakable ... Babitz muses on the ways in which her generation dropped the ball. Comforted by the apparent success of the women’s movement, Nixon’s resignation, and the end of Vietnam War, they 'got sidetracked […] ‘White backlash’ happened.' Police brutality, tense race relations, and disenchantment with the false veneer of progress are contemporary concerns, though Babitz’s light, palliating tone is not ... While her light take is undeniably frustrating, this self-centered framing is human, and uncomfortably relatable ... She may be self-absorbed and occasionally insensitive, but to a certain extent, she is aware of her failings and brave enough to expose them to her reader wholesale along with her effervescent party commentary ... Her writing seems effortless, airy, and conversational—descriptions that serve both as praise by her fans and backhanded compliments by her critics ... In that vein, Babitz is reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald: both writers described the fashionable excesses and wild antics of their youthful generation. Babitz undeniably proves her mettle, artfully weaving references to Marcel Proust, Jean Cocteau, and Henry James without breaking her chatty tone, cementing herself as a Los Angeles intellectual without sacrificing the boho joie de vivre that infuses her work.
To get an idea of how Eve Babitz writes, think of Joan Didion crossed with Cynthia Heimel. To get an idea of what the heroines of her stories are like, think of Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts crossed with the Cosmo girl ... It's tiresome, reading a whole book of stories about ninnies as self-absorbed and self-deluded as this, and some of the shorter tales in this volume are little more than depressing sketches of narcissists in extremis. What redeems the better stories in Black Swans is the ironic tilt Ms. Babitz lends them and her gift for the odd, unexpected observation. Ms. Babitz is adept at drawing the volatile temperature chart of a love affair, and she's nimble, too, at capturing her characters' taste for self-dramatization and hyperbole ... In the end, Black Swans leaves the reader impressed with the author's talents and wishing she would try writing about a less self-absorbed group of people—or maybe take a vacation from L.A.