Catie Disabato’s Novel ‘U Up?’ Renders LA’s Magic In Dark Bars And Chaotic Text Messages

Brielle Schiavone

One of the first things Catie Disabato did when she moved to Los Angeles after college was make a second home for herself in the city’s bars. Like many young transplants, she was working in Hollywood at a glamorous address (on the Paramount lot) for almost no money ($10/hour), and her apartment reflected that reality, so there was no point in hanging around at home if she didn’t have to. Plus, she was new to the city and looking to make friends, so when work ended for the day, she would haunt her locals, buying only what she could afford, which usually wasn’t much. “I would go to The Mandrake and eat pretzels for dinner, because that was the bar snack,” she says now. “Or I would go to a Mexican restaurant and eat chips for dinner, because you could order a margarita and get chips.”

The hours spent bellying up to those bars are part of what inspired Disabato’s second novel, U Up? which follows a young queer woman named Eve as she drinks and snorts her way through east LA’s rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, while mourning the one-year anniversary of her friend Miggy’s death by suicide, as well as searching for her best friend Ezra, who has mysteriously disappeared. 

If you live near Eve’s LA, the book is something of a gutshot: a reminder of the smokiest, booziest parts of pre-pandemic late-night life in all of its messy, chaotic glory. Eve drinks midnight boilermakers at Highland Park’s La Cuevita and has more the following afternoon at a strip-mall dive called The Drawing Room; she quaffs mezcal margaritas and eats queso at the hipster restaurant El Condor (formerly a neighborhood spot known as El Conquistador) before going to a crystal meditation session, and catches her ex-girlfriend mid-hookup at a lesbian ‘90s dance party held at Verdugo Bar. 

If you are me, the sensation is doubly intense, because Catie’s one of my best friends; we’ve actually done shots at The Drawing Room together and debated the merits of another round at La Cuev. I learned how she pronounces her last name by listening to her shout it across the bar while closing hundreds upon hundreds of tabs (“Dih-sa-bay-to, with a D”). I could see a version of our lives and the lives of our friends reflected on every page of the book, rendered in loving, glowing, sometimes almost cruelly evocative detail. 

That resonance is on purpose, Disabato says. She decided early on in the writing process that the book would be what she calls “fake autofiction:” “[Eve] goes to the places I go; she talks to the people I talk to. Her life is one that could have been mine, but never was,” Disabato explains. 

The idea of writing autofiction at all was at least partially inspired by the writer who gave Eve her name: Eve Babitz, one of the form’s foremost practitioners, whose novels and essays about Los Angeles in the ‘60s and ‘70s are some of the sexiest and funniest writing ever done about the city. “I wanted something that felt like autofiction and that read in some ways like an Eve Babitz book, very deliberately,” Disabato says. “I wanted it to take place in a social scene, and in a party scene. I wanted the vibe of, everybody’s a little bit famous and everybody knows everybody, and everybody’s kind of fucked up in the same ways, and hurting each other in the same ways, but obsessed with their own self.” 

Brielle Schiavone

Babitz also eventually coined the phrase “squalid overboogie” to describe her experience of the drugged out ‘70s, a feeling that Eve the character might well relate to. In addition to all of the booze, and the coke she uses to cut it, Eve also snorts cascarilla, a powder that keeps her from seeing ghosts.

Did I forget to mention that Eve is a medium? Eve can see and speak to ghosts that haunt Los Angeles, which expands the scope of U Up? beyond the mostly-white queer twentysomething milieu on which it focuses. Eve’s LA, like the actual version, is both haunted and haunting, full of histories that people like to remember and glamorize—mostly those of dead white women—while also acknowledging the generations of Black and brown people who have lived and died on this land.

Eve is, somewhat understandably, overwhelmed by trying all of those stories, especially on the anniversary of a loved one’s death; she can barely handle her own emotions, let alone those of her friends, so forget about those of ghosts who are hungry for human company. And so she spends much of the book doing anything she can to numb herself to them, whiting herself out with drugs and alcohol as seamlessly as she can. 

For Disabato, the allure of writing a bender book came from a desire to write about the perils drug use from an emotional angle, rather than a physical one. The way she sees it, “The problem is why [Eve is] doing drugs, and not the drugs themselves. Those things obviously dovetail, but for Eve, her problem is less of a substance addiction, and more of an emotional addiction to refusing to engage with the reality of her relationships.”

Despite the fact that Eve is drunk or high for basically the entire book, other characters “don’t call her out for her drinking; they call her out for the reasons that she’s drinking,” Disabato points out. “And they call her out for her emotional instability, her inability to be there for friends, her volatility. They don’t say, ‘You’re doing too much cocaine.’ They say, ‘You’re not being a good friend to people.’”

It particularly matters that she’s messing things up with her friends, because her friends are Eve’s de facto family: The people she loves but also the people she relies on, since she doesn’t have much of a relationship with her parents. “Thing that I hint at but don’t say outright in the novel is that Eve is estranged from her family because of the fact that she’s a witch,” Disabato explains. “In the same way that a queer person of a previous generation would have been estranged from her family.” 

And without a stable family structure, “Eve is seeking a kind of love from her friends that she shouldn’t be looking for in them,” Disabato says. “She’s looking for something that does not acknowledge the way people grow mature and change over the course of their twenties.”

Eve’s queerness isn’t a point of conflict in the book; it’s something she and everyone around her are comfortable with. But it’s notable that though the women she hangs out with are, by and large, not straight, the places they frequent are straight bars that are hosting one-off queer gatherings. This reflects the reality of Los Angeles, where there are plenty of bars catering to gay men (hello, West Hollywood), but the last lesbian bar closed in 2013. That detail wasn’t intentional, Disabato says, but it makes sense to her that Eve and her friends have to “carve out space” in the straight world, rather than having queer spaces of their own to inhabit. 

“I think that’s what my experience of queer spaces in LA was, as a white cis woman,” she says. “I found people creating space in otherwise straight spaces. And the pathos around that existed, but it was relatively limited.” 

“I never really went to bars for queer women,” she continued. “I went to spaces that people had carved out, and that was just the way that it worked. I don’t think that Eve is thinking more deeply about than, these are the spaces we carved out, and that’s where I go, ’cause there is enough of a community that she just goes where the community goes.”

But still, the lack of literal infrastructure has an impact. So much of U Up? functions like a second coming-of-age story: Eve’s already done the teenage drama, the coming out; now, at 28, she’s trying to figure out what kind of future exists for her in a world that has no lesbian bars, has only recently legalized gay marriage. At one point she recalls a fantasy she’d had about Ezra and his girlfriend Nozlee getting married, saying “I actually had allowed myself to imagine officiating their wedding, getting seminude FaceTime calls from them during their honeymoon. I’d given them, in my mind, a straight person’s dream life with space for myself inside it.” 

Brielle Schiavone

“If there were a space that was made for her,” Disabato says, “Then maybe she’d stop moving around so much.”

One of the things that facilitates Eve’s restlessness is, of course, her phone, which connects her to a version of all of her friends’ lives as they unfold, and allows her to always be in several rooms at once. So figuring out how to show readers her text messages was an important part of writing and designing the book. “A lot of our conversation now — and I’m not even talking about Covid — a lot of our conversation happens on the phone,” Disabato says. “There’s a stream from life into phone into life into phone, and it’s a false dynamic between the two. The phone is a tool, the phone is an instrument, the phone is a conduit, but it is not a separate entity or a separate place.”

“I live in my apartment, and I live on my phone,” she said. “And those are two separate places that belong to me, but in the same way that my porch and my bedroom are two separate places that belong to me, and that are different places. What happens in real life and what happens on the phone are the same thing.”

But weirdly, there’s not a commonly accepted visual language for text exchanges in books yet. Typically, writers and designers mimic the conventions of dialogue, showing only what’s being sent in the moment, but Disabato wanted there to be a sense of the ongoing conversations, what had been picked up and put down with the phone, the same way I might pick up my phone to text her about something I’d just read and see that our last conversation was about how I’d liked a movie she recommended. 

So when Disabato sold the book to Melville House, “We worked hard, once the draft was accepted, to try to figure out how we were going to visualize the texts,” she says. “They ended up less literal and a little more graphic, which I think is actually a good reflection of the way we absorb these messages — we’re not thinking, I had this conversation in person and this one on my phone. We’re like, these are the things my friend has said to me.”

Ultimately, U Up? is so much about conversations — the ones we have and the ones we don’t, the ones we have in order to cover over the ones we want to skip. The way we communicate ourselves through our Instagram posts, and in answered and unanswered texts, and the drinks we order at bars, the way we know what to order for one another when it’s our turn to buy a round. (Catie wants a dry white wine, unless she wants a negroni or a martini, for the record.) Here’s Eve checking her phone early in the book, in a bar bathroom, about to do some coke, summing up life in the 21st century with perfect clarity:

“I had three new texts. Nozlee had texted me back “lol” and then “hey can we talk?” and I thumbed her away, not ready to hear her side quite yet. Second, some incoherent nonsense from Lydia, who was with a group of our friends at a whiskey bar downtown. Then also a complaint about Lydia from Georgie; they were in some kind of cold war. I scrolled, I opened my text thread with my ex, Bea. I closed my messaging app. I opened Instagram, I closed Instagram, I opened my text thread with Bea. I wanted to, I shouldn’t, I did.” 

U Up? is out today via Melville House. Order a copy here.

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