Monday, October 15, 2007

Why Should I Read...?

L.A. Confidential
James Ellroy, 1990

Last week we looked at a masterpiece of stylistic understatement, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential is about as different as it’s possible for a book to be, but for connoisseurs of style it’s equally rewarding. It’s the third of Ellroy’s “L.A. Quartet” which tracks the fortunes of a number Los Angeles policemen in the 1950s. So far, so genre.

Two things set Ellroy apart from other writers of the “American cop” novel. The first is his extraordinary verbal pyrotechnics. He makes absolutely no concession to the reader, using a fragmented sentence structure which gives an urgency and immediacy, sometimes at the expense of intelligibility. And then there’s the slang, the 1950s LA street-speak which at times represents the entirety of the dialogue. As a Brit, I didn’t have a clue what was going on for the first 50 pages (and this is a hell of a risk for an author to take: contemporary American readers may have an easier ride, but not much easier, I suspect…). But the language is so pulsating, so vibrant, that you want to hang on. Eventually a kind of sense emerges. You realise that “statch-rapo” is someone who commits “statutory rape”, sex with a minor (the kind of thing that happens a lot in Ellroy’s LA). By page 75, you’re understanding almost everything: by page 100, the style and the language don’t even seem noteworthy. The reader has internalised it, and recognises that this is the only way Ellroy’s story can be told.

The other defining characteristic of Ellroy’s work is its unremitting bleakness. We can compare Ellroy with Raymond Chandler, one of the progenitors of the noir tradition in which Ellroy is working. In Chandler, we have a flawed good guy trying to get by in a world which has corrupted his ideals: in Ellroy, there are no good guys. The only difference between the LAPD and the city’s underworld, with which it is utterly complicit, is that the cops wear uniforms. It’s a given that the cops are on the take. The characters who hold out against this are invariably flawed in other ways. This, again, is an immense risk. Who do you root for in a story like that? (The answer is, that as the story unfolds, some of the characters do come to have a kind of warped nobility, which sets them above those who are merely warped).

Ellroy, then, is the most risk-taking of writers. He doesn’t seduce with the beauty of his prose, and he doesn’t give you anyone to identify with. It goes without saying that he doesn’t give saccharine happy endings. Even if his books were crap, you’d have to admire him for that. But his books aren’t crap: you may feel you need to take a shower after 400 pages of his sordid world, but his work is technically magnificent. His realises his grim vision with economy and, ultimately, considerable clarity.

How has it influenced me?

Ellroy is a comparatively recent discovery for me: of the noir school, Chandler has been much more influential. I admire the bleakness of Ellroy’s vision, without feeling remotely tempted to try to copy it. He is instructive as a world-builder: he is taking the reader somewhere as profoundly “other” as Middle Earth or Imperial Rome. For all his stylistic bravura, he does it the good old-fashioned way—he doesn’t explain what’s going on, he lands you in the middle of his world and lets you find your own path. 1950s LA is not a place where anyone gives you anything for free, and neither does Ellroy.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

I’m tempted to say there is only one: “Don’t try this at home....”

There are perhaps a few other observations:

If your story really does demand an unconventional telling, don’t be afraid of it

There is nothing inherently wrong with risk-taking—but make sure you understand exactly what the risks are, and why you think they’re justified

Establishing your fictional world is as important for contemporary fiction as historical or fantasy—because in all fiction the world you are creating is illusory and imaginary


David Isaak said...

Ellroy is wonderful. Have you read his autobiography, "My Dark Places"? As grueling as any of his novels.

Tim Stretton said...

From what I know of Ellroy's life, I can imagine that "gruelling" understates the case. I knew the book existed... I'll have to track it down.