Reviewed by Adrienne Walser
The Oracle of Los Angeles knows that traveling the city transforms you. She knows that as you crisscross freeways, circle cul-de-sacs and solve roundabout puzzles, take one-way streets, ascend secret stairs, fly down bike paths, encounter valleys and hills, that you get mixed up, disoriented, reoriented and transformed. To help you, her Initiate, find your way, the Oracle provides four small magical books: Incantations for Navigating the Cardinal Directions of Los Angeles—of the North, South, East, and West. As she makes her magic and sends you forth into the city, she calls on the Spirits of Los Angeles to help her tell the tales.
The Oracle knows Los Angeles has history. She knows Los Angeles is a story underway, under revision, an unwieldy fraying fabric of loosely connected tales: A Secret Staircase, A Hidden Goddess, A Smiling Virgin, A Pointless Mistake, A Revealing Roach. She knows you and Los Angeles are always in the process of coming together and drifting apart; you sometimes keep it together and sometimes fall to pieces. The Oracle and her city are tough but generous. Both know that ugliness and beauty are inextricable, that fires make for gorgeous sunsets and that parking nightmares can teach patience. She knows that magic is anywhere and anything. You can be born again in the ocean or in the hotel hot tub. The Oracle knows about poetry and storytelling, screenplays and scripts, she knows about the narratives you tell yourself and are writing in and with the city.
“Go. Keep going,” she tells you.
To light your way through the city that is labyrinth, adventure, and test, the Oracle invokes the Spirits: “Hail, Guardians! We call you.” They offer protection, but you are on your own; a map and the Egyptian psychic will not give you the answer. And neither will the Oracle—she knows you must find your own way as she did. You must pay attention to “the seemingly pointless mistake” and be open to all ways.
The Oracle knows the Los Angeles freeways and streets are not empty lonely places: they are familiar spaces and psychic portals. She knows that “you’ve driven these roads before. In the middle of the night. To see your parents. To see your lovers.” A lot happens to you in your car in the city. When you live in Los Angeles long enough, you come to understand—as the Oracle does—that the 10, 5, 1, 101, 110, 201 and the 405 are potential magical moments, routes you chose with a sense of purpose, occasions for messy heart-to-heart conversations, necessary ways to work, dark night-spaces of burning desire, sites of break-downs, exhilarating communal movement across space and time.
The Oracle urges you to head North where “you will be strong and free of worry. For that is the promise of the North, the strength to overcome your mistakes.” The Oracle suggests you “start inside yourself, inside your cells, start inside the city, start at the center”—inside El Pubela de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Àngeles. As you climb stairs, hike trails, hear music at the Hollywood Bowl, eat oysters with the Porn Star Secret Goddess in the Valley, enter the ancient Angeles forest, or gaze through the Observatory telescope, you leave your history behind. Heading north on the 5 you escape the gravitational pull of the city and leave behind “all the times you fucked things up, all the things that scare you.” The Oracle prophesizes that North’s “burning fires will cleanse you, and light your way forward.” If you keep going, the Oracle is happy to show you, her Initiate, the way—to Big Sur, Mount St. Helens, Mt. Shasta, and the North Pole. She knows that as you make your way back home, having absorbed the strength of the North, “you will forget about all the times you failed to meet your expectations” and feel safe in quitting your day job.
The Oracle explains, that “when the world thinks of Los Angeles, it thinks of the West.” People travel here in search of a story, seeking rebirth in the bright city, but as the Oracle knows, you must contend with its layers and shadows. She knows the Tar Pit wolves were here long before you, that 100 tons of Ice Age fossils were found in the pit. She reminds you that this place is old, that the mammoths caught in the black tar and the bones of wolves are specters of you; like them, you might get stuck, your bones joining theirs deep in the earth—or you might become lost in the shadow of the Screen Actor’s Guild building. The Oracle shows you how the Spirit of the West mixes material and water and imagination, which you see as you wander around The Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Oracle sings siren songs of the city, urging you to see the Donald Judd sculpture, “celebrate the material culture drawn from around the world,” and pay homage to the forest of lamps that are “torches lit by transformations in oil in tar, radiating ancient life out into our new city.” It is in the West the Oracle illuminates what feeds our tastes and what lies beneath the city surfaces.
You will find the true spirit of the South at the center of the asphalt labyrinth where you will encounter the Minotaur and be tested by three towers—towers of oil, concrete and steel, broken pottery and glass. You travel down streets and see grandmothers, bouncy castles, jacaranda, and the Wall of the Mural of the Snarling Skull. You hear ice cream truck jangles and church singing with tambourines; you eat Carne Asada with radishes and lime. Resting on a sloping bus bench, you look into the eyes of the Virgin of Guadalupe and she smiles at you. The Oracle understands, “you thought you might be able to squeeze your dreams in on the evenings and weekends.” And it is here in the South that you remember “you missed your court date and now the state wants $800 in blood. Even though it was only a traffic violation.” It occurs to you that you’ve fallen hopelessly behind, wasting years of your life on the wrong kind of love.” But now—because of the Oracle’s gentle guidance—you realize you know the way. You find The Temple of the Imagination in Watts. The Oracle declares, “For the Labor of the South is resistance. / And to unlock / the Secrets of the South / you must confront / the Minotaur.” You are the Minotaur now. And you can destroy the entire world. The Oracle urges you to chant the Spells of the South to murder the specter of your own self-doubt and find your agency.
As “you’re following trails through Mt. Washington on a mission to find your next clue,” you find on Avenue 50 an old key on a towel where a vendor is displaying jewelry. The Oracle advises you buy it, “knowing the key has the power to change everything.” The Oracle watches you on “the 4th of July and you’re on the 110 going east. The signs say north but it’s really east, and it’s the oldest freeway in the world.” As you are looking for answers at “couple’s counseling in the fancy relationship center off old town Main Street,” a cockroach who survives a fall tries to tell you something: “Western Civilization is trying to destroy you,” and you realize you’re searching for “the One who will solve all your problems.”
The Oracle sees you driving not into the sunset but into the sunrise, which takes you backwards; she guides you further East to Palm Springs, Joshua Tree, Death Valley, and Black Rock City. She sees you “tumbling through octagonal portholes into unfamiliar worlds that terrify you,” but knows you will survive your car break-down in the desert, leave behind “ghosts of your past / civilizations / tables / pianos / cell phones and Sallie Mae,” and then return home where you will encounter the Breathing Garden and rise up a living earthly thing and begin the revolution.
The Oracle of Los Angeles is flesh and blood like you; her body and yours are imbricated in the city that is an energized grid of moving stories and bodies. She knows that as you write your story, you become aware of the stories of others—and that this is part of the magic. She asks you to consider not only your story, but whose stories are whose, and which ones we share. She and the Spirits and Guardians of Los Angeles illuminate the ways you inhabit places and the ways places inhabit you. Empathetic and wise, the Oracle understands how changing directions is necessary and helpful. Using her magical arts, she charts our movements as we cross paths and make contact in this city. And what the Oracle does not know, she imagines because she understands that in Los Angeles we are making it all up and we are making it all true together.
Amanda Yates Garcia, Incantations for Navigating the Cardinal Directions of Los Angeles—of the North, South, East and West. 2013.
Reviewed by Adrienne Walser