A VISIT TO HUXLEY’S WORLD

A book club meets in the au­thor’s for­mer L.A. res­i­dence to con­nect more deeply with ‘Brave New World’

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - By Agatha French agatha.french@la­times.com

Seated on a ve­randa high in the Hol­ly­wood Hills, a few book club­bers who had gath­ered to dis­cuss Al­dous Huxley’s “Brave New World” in the au­thor’s last Los An­ge­les home craned their necks.

They weren’t peer­ing at the soft­en­ing evening sky or at the Hol­ly­wood sign, which loomed so close it looked like white plas­tic lawn fur­ni­ture, a prop to rest a drink on. The oc­ca­sional he­li­copter had al­ready torn past, mo­men­tar­ily drown­ing out voices (“a hum­ming over­head had be­come a roar,” as Huxley de­scribes their sin­is­ter ad­vance in the novel’s cli­mac­tic scene), but that hardly mer­ited a pause in con­ver­sa­tion.

No, dur­ing a deep-dive into one of lit­er­a­ture’s most com­pelling dystopias, some­one had spot­ted a drone.

True, surveil­lance is the ter­ri­tory of a dif­fer­ent lit­er­ary dystopia, Ge­orge Or­well’s “1984,” but for a moment the in­tru­sion felt eerie. Was it watch­ing us? And what would Huxley have made of a drone hov­er­ing over his roof?

Be­cause a book club at Huxley’s house held the ro­man­tic prom­ise of some­how con­nect­ing to the au­thor more deeply, we were look­ing for him ev­ery­where.

A reader in at­ten­dance, Hi­awatha Bradley, ven­tured that the opi­ate of the masses “just has to be tech­nol­ogy,” adding, “your brain is wired to the phone.” Alex Hoff­mas­ter drew a par­al­lel be­tween so­cial me­dia and “Brave New World’s” drug Soma, which keeps so­ci­ety numbly happy and sub­servient. The dopamine hit of a text alert, the Pavlo­vian thrill of a retweet, are mod­ern ad­dic­tions. Was that Huxley’s pre­science reach­ing across the veil? A brave new world in­deed.

How did roughly two dozen peo­ple find them­selves in the unique sit­u­a­tion of dis­cussing “Brave New World” at the home of the au­thor? Never un­der­es­ti­mate the power of a book club.

This par­tic­u­lar group, based in San Fran­cisco, has been around for less than two years and of­ten brings in au­thors to dis­cuss their work, in­clud­ing Jade Chang and Laura Al­bert (the real JT Leroy). They had sci­en­tists from Berke­ley’s SETI re­search cen­ter weigh in on Cixin Liu’s science fiction novel “The Three-Body Prob­lem.”

When the chance arose to take up “Brave New World” in the very house where Huxley lived, owned by a friend of book club or­ga­nizer Sarah McBride, it was time for a pil­grim­age. Bay Area mem­bers flew from Oak­land to Bur­bank, and a num­ber of lo­cals rounded out the party.

“To be dis­cussing the book in a place that was sig­nif­i­cant to the au­thor,” said McBride, felt like “an ex­tra-spe­cial trib­ute.”

Huxley moved to Los An­ge­les in 1937, five years af­ter pub­lish­ing “Brave New World.” He worked as a screen­writer, stud­ied Vedanta Hin­duism and fa­mously be­came an early pro­po­nent of psychedelic drugs, which he wrote about in “The Doors of Per­cep­tion.”

“L.A. at that time must have been like Paris at the turn of the cen­tury,” mused book club mem­ber Aida Jones as a tiered foun­tain gur­gled from the other end of the pa­tio. Huxley moved here af­ter his pre­vi­ous home in the canyon had burned down in a 1961 wild­fire.

This was the house where, on his deathbed, Jones an­nounced, “his wife gave him a shot of LSD to his throat.” It was some­what dis­cor­dant to think of Huxley expiring on the premises while nib­bling book-club fare like cheese doo­dles and salami, but we were there, af­ter all, with a pur­pose, and it was clear that peo­ple had a lot to say.

McBride mod­er­ated the dis­cus­sion, which touched on the ma­ter­nal bond and au­then­tic at­tach­ment, Christian al­lu­sions and even the role of scent in the novel, but re­turned again and again to Huxley’s strik­ing pre­science.

Huxley was on the mark about “our ap­petite for re­al­ity tele­vi­sion,” said Steven Wong; Jones added that “he fore­saw the birth con­trol pill.” Rocket travel, ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing, vir­tual re­al­ity, an­tide­pres­sants and even the Kar­dashi­ans were all ar­gued to find prece­dent in the novel.

But the moors of his era had pre­vented him from imag­in­ing one kind of so­cial change.

“It’s a pretty sex­ist world,” said Ge­of­frey Fowler. Josh Levine agreed: Huxley “could imag­ine so much, but he couldn’t imag­ine equal­ity.” Kate Con­nally, who’d been pass­ing out the evening’s “Soma” (white wine), thought Huxley’s lead fe­male char­ac­ter Len­ina “de­served a deeper por­trayal. She’d be played by like, a Kather­ine Heigl in a Judd Apa­tow movie,” she said.

McBride men­tioned a cou­ple of ru­mors about Huxley’s promis­cu­ity later in life. “So, when he lived here?” asked Con­nally. A few peo­ple gig­gled. It was one of the few times the fact that we were at Huxley’s for­mer home was ad­dressed di­rectly. Later, when Miryana Is­abella Babic al­luded to a “the­ory that part of the house is haunted,” and McBride of­fered to show me the room where Huxley died, I felt voyeuris­tic but ea­gerly said yes. Huxley — a half-blind English­man, ever in the musty suits of an aca­demic, at 6 feet 4 tow­er­ing over the rest of us both phys­i­cally and in­tel­lec­tu­ally and tow­er­ing, to some ex­tent, over dystopian fiction — maybe I’d get a sense of him there. It was dark at this point, the hills across the canyon an inky black.

I shuff led into a bed­room, taste­fully dec­o­rated, and felt noth­ing. No spirit of Huxley lin­gered. Luck­ily his work is eas­ily found.

It had been a won­der­ful nov­elty to talk about a book he’d writ­ten in a home where he’d lived, and though the con­ver­sa­tion was eru­dite and dis­cussing works of art is vi­tal, there’s no closer con­nec­tion that I know of — across decades, even death — than the page. I’d taken “Brave New World” out from the li­brary for a re­fresher; it “Brave New World” was wait­ing at home on my couch.

“The strange words rolled through his mind,” he writes of his tragic hero, John the sav­age, dis­cov­er­ing poetry for the first time. “Rum­bled, like the drums at the sum­mer dances, if the drums could have spo­ken … beau­ti­ful, beau­ti­ful, so that you cried … be­cause it talked to him; talked won­der­fully and only half-un­der­stand­ably, a ter­ri­ble beau­ti­ful magic.”

Yes, there he is. There.

Pho­to­graphs by Ge­naro Molina Los An­ge­les Times

MEM­BERS of the San Fran­cisco-based book club gather on the ve­randa of the Hol­ly­wood Hills house where Al­dous Huxley lived.

JOSHUA LEVINE brought a copy of Huxley’s dystopia “Brave New World” along with notes he made for the dis­cus­sion.

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