brothercyst: Ellroy

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


I've been rereading L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy. This is an amazing novel. One of the best from the last few decades, I believe.

(First, a note:

If you have only seen the movie, you have no frame of reference on the book. The movie is excellent, but it has nothing on the breadth and depth of the novel.

Remember the insane shoot-out that ends the movie, where they're trapped in a deserted motel with hordes of dirty cops trying to bust in and blow them away? That's the prologue in the novel. From there it goes in bizarre directions. The film is a noir, a police thriller, set in the real world - LA of the 1950s. The novel verges on gothic horror and seems to take place in this nightmare landscape. The central plot eventually leads to a serial killer who's making a "child" out of the body parts of other children... a plot thread that never even appears in the film. These are entirely different animals.)

Ellroy is a remarkable writer. He writes almost without adjectives; what he gives you is pure information. Information struggling to make sense of itself, to break apart and recombine in startling forms. The novel is a mudslide of information, a torrent of lurid factoids washing over you until suddenly, horrifyingly, they start to make sense in ways you didn't expect and they tell you something not only about what has happened in the novel but about Ellroy himself.

The novel has an aesthetic of information. There is no "elegant" prose here, and no attempt to satisfy demands of a traditional literary aesthetic. Information has its own inherent appeal. The structure and creation of a narrative, an almost unbelievably complex plot, the coalescing of a thousand disparate data fragments. There is an aesthetic appeal in the sculpture of a story. Especially such a story as dense and almost pathologically composed as this one.

Pathological: yes.

Ellroy throws so much incident and information at you. It's like he can't stop. I saw him talk at college once and he said the outlines - the outlines - for some of his later books like American Tabloid ran 400 pages. I am reminded of the Marquis de Sade in 120 Days of Sodom... the pure pathology rising to the surface... after a while de Sade just eschews narrative entirely and the novel just becomes a list of tortures... matter-of-fact, item after item, horror after horror. Pathology. (And yes, I know that de Sade apparently intended the list only to be an outline for the narrative he would later eventually fill in... but he never filled it in. The list was what he really wanted to write.) At times it's like Ellroy can't bother with narrative for a while, he just has to get that fucking information out, so the novel just becomes a list of newspaper clippings describing what happens to the characters over the years. Yes, years. An important character gets put to death as two other major characters watch, and we only read about it in a newspaper clipping.

Also, there's the voice. Ostensibly L.A. Confidential is written in 1950s cops-and-lowlifes slang, but it might be truer to say that Ellroy has taken that voice and chopped it up with cocaine and snorted it in huge gasps. He's created an argot here, almost like the Burgess of A Clockwork Orange. All his characters are fiends for something - power, revenge, sex, heroin, dogs, death - and his prose is an analog of their thoughts - factoids strung together with semi-colons, colons, commas, and dashes, desperately trying to fit into each other in service of getting that character whatever it is that he (it's always a he - Ellroy just doesn't seem to have it in him to write from a female perspective) craves.

And it all comes together at the end. There is hardly one climax to the novel - there are small climaxes, then bigger ones, creating a sort of crescendo of violence and vengeance and revelation that thrills me on levels that are both visceral and cerebral (it feels strange to consider this an "intellectual" novel, but by the definition of "intellectual," I think it is).

Does Ellroy have anything new coming out in the near future? I thought there was a follow-up novel to The Cold Six Thousand pending, but I haven't heard anything. Six Thousand and American Tabloid were good, but not as deeply satisfying as L.A. Confidential or, to a lesser degree, The Black Dahlia.


Josh said...

Couldn't agree more with your take on LA Confidential.

Not sure if you saw this but Ellroy wrote an essay for the LA Times magazine a few weeks ago.,0,1600869.story?coll=la-home-magazine

In it, he said, he's working on the sequel to The Cold 6000. He doesn't give a time when we should expect it.

NickAntosca said...

He does say it will be his greatest novel ever, though.

Thanks - I actually hadn't read that. The guy has a seriously intense mind.

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