brothercyst: L.A. Quartet ramble

Friday, April 11, 2008

L.A. Quartet ramble

[update--I saw Street Kings after work today. Tried to convince several people to go; none would; they were right, it was terrible. But tragic--you could see that it had once been an interesting screenplay, but the actors were so dull and the dialog so lame ("I'm the king of secrets!") and the staging so absurd...ugh. A story in which the twist is that the dirty cops are really, really dirty is kind of entertaining but--eh, it's not important. There was a nice moment when Keanu Reeves is standing in a room with his boss and the boss casually sends a text message to their mutual friend, who's dead and whose cell phone is in Reeves' pocket, and the text message is a request to come kill Reeves. But even that was handled clumsily. New York Times review of Street Kings, starting off with brief Ellroy ramble.]

I have now read the L.A. Quartet by James Ellroy in its entirety. That's The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz. I had read Dahlia and L.A. Confidential before, out of order. They're all amazing and I'm just going to write some stuff, stream-of-consciousness, about them.

I never realized that the prologue of L.A. Confidential is basically the ending of The Big Nowhere--or how thoroughly interconnected the novels are. (It's really like one long novel, with the possible exception of White Jazz, which although it wraps up the lives of some major characters who run throughout the quartet, is the only one written in the first person and has a style that seems to set it slightly apart. It's also the one it took me the longest to get into because the style is initially incredibly fucking frustrating.) I had also never quite realized how much of Ellroy's focus is on repressed homosexuality turned into violence and rage--which is a much bigger, more turbulent element of The Big Nowhere (in which one of the three major characters, and perhaps the most interesting, is a secretly gay cop who's never acted on his impulses) and White Jazz (in which a supporting character is a gay, insane cop, Junior Stemmons, who the protagonist is desperately trying to kill before Stemmons can reveal how corrupt he, the protagonist, is; that was a poorly constructed sentence). I'm thinking about them today because if I have time I intend to go see Street Kings, the fairly awful-looking Keanu Reeves movie, that's based on a sreenplay by Ellroy--although the final movie apparently has little in common with Ellroy's script.

I wrote about this before, but what I like about Ellroy is that he makes information an aesthetic tool in and of itself. The release of information from the author to the reader in a sort of tide, rhythmic and (to me) irresistible. One reason he's able to do this is because he invents so much more information than most authors... the sheer density of incident dwarfs what most authors produce in terms of plotting; how he's able to create and maintain these structures staggers me. He clearly has an addictive personality (I get this not entirely from the books but also from interviews with him, etc) and was a druggie and a criminal in his youth, and that pathology is channeled into his novels. He's plotted this stuff out and worked it out so comprehensively that it's a little humbling.

He's also economical about how he gets information to you and I like how indifferent he is to the idea of "show, don't tell" at least as it's traditionally applied. If he wants to tell you that the sight of a body chopped in half has made Detective John Smith nauseated, what he says is, "Smith: nauseated." You really cannot get more economical than that. But he's not giving Smith short shrift--because you will then have pages of action in which Smith drives all over the city of L.A. and meets various people and interacts with them in fascinating ways and maybe beats some of them quite badly.

The L.A. Quartet is one of my favorite works of art in any medium from the last few decades. If I had a big chart where I categorized what I thought of things, the L.A. Quartet would be one of the few entries under "Fucking Amazing." Other entries might include Oldboy, Peter Hoeg's The Quiet Girl, Bret Ellis's American Psycho, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and maybe one or two other things, possibly some pairing of movies by Paul Thomas Anderson.


Eric Shonkwiler said...

My old housemate had Oldboy but moved out before I could watch it. I thought Assassination was good in a way something can't be if it's "fucking amazing." It lent an atmosphere, a calm. And when it was finished I was content, not blown away. Which can be the right thing sometimes.

Nick said...

Oldboy lends itself to being called "fucking amazing" I think. I also think that about "Assassination" but can see that most people find it too slow and inscrutable to be amazing.

mademoiselle sand said...

I'm sad that street kings seems bad. however i will watch it because of keanu reeves.

Nick said...

He does okay in it, and by that I mean he's Keanu Reeves. He's getting thicker and his face seems a little doughy and pockmarked. He looks good.