Los Angepocalypse

Many of you have asked for the syllabus from my Los Angeles apocalypse course that I’m teaching this spring, so I’m just gonna give you the course description and course readings below. Last year I taught a course about violence in the deserts of the American west and I was far more prepared for that course because I’d just completed an entire field exam reading list on the subject.


This is a digital double exposure of two photos I took in LA: one is the northeast side of the 101 on fire in the Hollywood Hills, the other is the Santa Monica pier, as seen from the south side of the beach.

This LA course came about because I knew I wanted to teach a class on Los Angeles. I’ve been in love with this city for a long time and I once taught two composition courses related to LA that were the best courses I’ve ever taught–Race & Class in LA in the fall, then Los Angeles & the American Dream in the spring. My USC students often tell me they wish they could explore more of Los Angeles, but they frequently end up trapped in the bubble that is their university campus. They live in the historic South Central neighborhood of LA without knowing much at all about South Central’s history.

Usually when I ask people for reading recommendations re: Los Angeles, I get a list of books authored by mostly white folks that focus primarily on drugs, hollywood, fame, etc. Joan Didion, John Fante, Bret Easton Ellis, Nathaniel West, Raymond Chandler. When I ask for films, I get Mulholland Drive and Sunset Boulevard. I love those authors and I love those films, but I started wondering what a syllabus comprised of only writers of color would look like in this LA context. Because the most recent census data tells us that Central LA is 46.1% Latinx, 8.2% Black, 16.2% Asian, and only 26.4% White. And South LA, where is USC is located, is 56.7% Latinx, 38% Black, and only 2.2% White.

I grew up with an idea of LA that is popular in a particular cultural imagination. One that sees LA as mostly white. But LA is not and never has been mostly white, and I wanted to build a syllabus that reflects the LA I’ve come to know since I actually moved here three and a half years ago. An LA that most people who actually live in LA know, but and LA that doesn’t usually make it into popular cinema or Best LA Fiction lists, with some exceptions.

I spent the beginning of June making a reading list of all the books I could find that take place in Los Angeles, then I spent the rest of the summer (and the rest of the year, really) reading those books and trying to choose the most compelling ones. There were certain authors I knew I wouldn’t do, so I didn’t even read those books a second time, but I’ll include them on the list below:

Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion
Ask the Dust, John Fante
Day of the Locust, Nathaniel West
The Barbarian Nurseries, Héctor Tobar
The People of Paper, Salvador Plascencia
The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler
Tropic of Orange, Karen Tei Yamashita
Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler
Less Than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis
If He Hollers Let Him Go, Chester Himes
Gold Fame Citrus, Claire Vaye Watkins
Bathwater Wine, Wanda Coleman
The White Boy Shuffle, Paul Beatty

I knew I needed some kind of theme to tie all these texts together, and my favorite four texts all had some kind of satire, surrealism, formal experimentation, or speculative components. So I decided on apocalypse. Our understanding of apocalypse is going to be a loose one, not a traditional one. It’s really going to be a study in disruption and (re)imagining more than anything else. So after many months of combing through texts and crafting a description, choosing poems and essays and novels and films, here’s what I came up with:

 Los Angepocalypse

“The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself.” — Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

“Every American city boasts an official insignia and slogan. Some have municipal mascots, colors, songs, birds, trees, even rocks. But Los Angeles alone has adopted an official nightmare…” — Mike Davis, Ecology of Fear

Course Description
An apocalypse signifies the complete, final destruction of the world. But how and why does apocalypse happen? The Book of Revelations identifies the four horsemen—Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death—as the signs of apocalypse, but there are more subtle warning signs that precede the end of the world as we know it. Literature, film, and television have often used Los Angeles as a site for exploring these more nuanced signs, causes, and effects of the apocalypse. In this course, we will explore those signs as they appear in a variety of texts that revolve around some kind of apocalypse, whether it be global or local, societal or personal.

Apocalyptic Los Angeles is at once familiar and strange. LA’s downfall in novels, films, and television shows is often the result of natural disaster, race riots, ever-escalating class conflict, or any combination of the three. This course will follow the arc of any good disaster film. We will begin by establishing normalcy so that we can understand Los Angeles pre-apocalypse. First, Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle will introduce us to neighborhood tensions in LA that escalate to the point of an identity crisis that sets the stage for impending chaos. After we get the lay of the land, we’ll move on to the more surreal texts like The Tropic of Orange and The People of Paper, whose many protagonists tell a communal story of Los Angeles as it begins to fall to pieces. Finally, we’ll close with Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, a dystopian future vision of LA as it exists after the apocalypse. Our novel reading will be punctuated by the films Blade Runner and Elysium, both of which present life in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, as well as selected episodes of Fear The Walking Dead, the brand new AMC show set in LA.

Just as important as exploring how a world arrives at the apocalypse is considering how the world survives the apocalypse. If we make it out alive, do we rebuild? What does a post-apocalyptic city look like? How are people affected by the ultimate destruction? Our texts will give us a few clues and along the way, we’ll read criticism by Mike Davis and others who write about the bristling cityscape that we call home.


The White Boy Shuffle, Paul Beatty
The People of Paper, Salvador Plascencia
Tropic of Orange, Karen Tei Yamashita
Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler


Blade Runner, dir. Ridley Scott, 1982
Elysium, dir. Neill Blomkamp, 2013


Fear The Walking Dead, created by Robert Kirkman & David Erickson, 2015


“Beyond Blade Runner,” from Ecology of Fear, Mike Davis
“Los Angeles Plays Itself,” from City by City (out from n + 1), Dayna Tortorici
“Postcards From The Future,” from BOOM: A Journal of California, Kristin Miller


“The California Crack,” Wanda Coleman
“Yellow Light,” Garrett Hongo

More than any class I’ve ever taught, I really want the students to shape the trajectory of this course. I want them to take us in directions they want to travel. I am going to make them research and present on events, places, people, words in the texts with which they are unfamiliar. I want them to learn the history of LA, as it pertains to each text we look at. I don’t want to define any one thing, place, or idea for them. I want them to define apocalypse. I want them to tell me where we should look and why. I want them to come to their own understanding of Los Angeles because I want this place to mean something to them.

Anyway, if you have further suggestions for readings/viewings, let me know. I can always squeeze smaller stuff into my syllabus. This is by NO MEANS a thorough reading list. A lot is excluded because I only have so much space in the semester. But I want to give them a longer list of suggested readings they might pursue for their final paper or outside of class at the end of the semester if they’re still hungry for books about Los Angeles. I’m definitely going to direct them toward Claire’s new novel, Gold Fame Citrus, because that book marries this course with the desert violence course I taught before it. It is the perfect book. It is everything I feel about the spaces I care for most.


Semester begins tomorrow. It will be my last semester of teaching for at least a year, if not two, because next year I go on fellowship. Here’s to endings. And beginnings.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *