Two takes on a decadent city; Monday Books

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The Independent Culture
HOLLYWOOD IS blessed with everything the decadent novelist could ever want: beauty, delusion, artifice and, of course, sex in spades. It is home to more nerve-wracked debauchees than either Huysmans or Suetonius could ever have dreamed possible.

Two LA denizens have turned their listless hands to the task of satirising it. Actor-turned-writer Richard E Grant just loves it. Gary Indiana, on the other hand, absolutely hates it. Their respective novels are both witty and, inevitably, romans-a-clef. Each is rather wonderful in its own way, the one amiably jaded, the other boilingly jaundiced.

Richard E Grant I had always somehow imagined as cutting a rather 18th- century dash, rakish and bony and clever, and indeed his novel By Design has more than a whiff of Smollett about it. But, in the 18th century, the peregrinations of a main character like Vyvian would have been expansive. These days, a picaresque novel set in Hollywood is more interested in notions of privacy and deceit, with people fleeing from their past and parentage rather than seeking them out.

Vyvian is invisible, claiming that no one has his address except the US tax office. Yet he knows everyone and manages to inveigle his way into the hidden maintenance caste that makes so much money out of servicing the needs of the Hollywood film-makers and stars.

He decorates the domestic interiors of the great and the good. His "sister" pretends to be deaf and dumb and a masseuse, and so is loved by the glitterati, who are paranoid about privacy. Vyvian's greatest and most saleable commodity is the balm of unimpeachable discretion.

A lot of this is a bit of a tease because we all know that Grant is a friend of the stars and we all want to know which of his stories come from which bits of real gossip. To a lesser extent, this is even true of Gary Indiana, the literary darling of the grungier end of the Los Angeles diaspora. His earlier novels, such as Rent Boy, put him on the map of gay, transgressive writing. He is currently writing a biography of Gianni Versace's killer and has a Truman Capote-like fascination with sensational murders.

Like Grant, he is privy to first-hand LA gossip; like Grant, he makes composite or thinly veiled portraits of real-life Hollywood stars in his latest novel, Resentment. Grant rehearses any number of Tom Cruise stories but calls him "Richard Eagles". And so does Indiana - except that he calls Cruise "Teddy Wade".

There all resemblance between the two books ends. Grant treats us to a jolly romp through Hollywood's more saccharine and forgiveable foibles (culminating in a grandiose film project of Titanic proportions) and writes most of his book in script form. Indiana's take on Hollywood is a satire so insanely and deliciously venomous as to make a scorpion scuttle for cover. It is based loosely on the infamous Menendez trial, when two preppy, privileged brothers claimed implausibly that they had gunned down their parents in revenge for years of alleged sexual abuse.

Indiana uses this grotesque, unfolding TV event to launch a furious, helter-skelter attack on the implausible constructions of Tinseltown. We are treated to a Hallowe'en parade of corrupt therapists, venal showbiz types, pyschotic hustlers, compromised journalists, insane popinjay actors and mulish lawyers. They exist in a variety of locales, from the infamous Chateau Marmont to the hermetic courtroom itself. But most of the narrative - if you can call this kind of exhilarating, unspooling inner dialogue narrative - takes place in the psyches of the "Martinez" brothers and other selected dank holes.

For every cheesy smile in Grant, there's a rictus in Indiana ("This species vomits on its enemies," observes one character in Resentment about an insect. "I wish we could all do that"). The two books are somehow the antidote for each other - although, in the end, Grant's is merely a delightful trifle, a bonne bouche, whereas Indiana's is full of bravura misanthropic touches and the most deadly skill imaginable. This book gleams like the obsidian heart of dead cinematic dreams.

One is a pink pearly shell from the beautiful coast of of Los Angeles, the other an expectorated lump from California's deepest fault line. Grant's book should be read on the beach; Indiana's on the bitch.

Roger Clarke