Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Saturday, August 9, 2014

And now for something completely different

I think I may have mentioned my awesome husband a time or two previously. He has just finished reading a new novel that is slated to be on bookstore shelves one month from today, and I was really pleased when he accepted my invitation to write a guest post about it for The Literary Amnesiac. In fact, he had an even better suggestion. This will be more than just a guest post. Take note of this historical moment, as it marks the beginning of a new chapter for us: we are now co-bloggers! Without further ado, here is my husband Sam:

I binge-read James Ellroy one summer a few years back. I began with The Black Dahlia and kept on going until the end of Blood’s A Rover, an epic journey of violence, betrayal and conspiracy spanning 26 years and several radically different prose styles. It was fantastic. I loved the brutality and horror of Ellroy’s America, the spring-loaded compression of his sentences, the way he puts you inside the heads of even the most depraved and amoral characters. Like many readers, though, I felt his novels became slightly less compelling when they moved away from postwar Los Angeles and into the rather colorless and repetitive milieu of 60s and 70s espionage.

So I was thrilled, as an Ellroy fan, to be given a copy of Perfidia a couple of months before its publication date, and doubly thrilled when I discovered that it was set in LA in December 1941, with a cast of characters whom I already knew from the previous seven books. Even more excitingly, Perfidia is the first installment of a new LA Quartet, focusing on events leading up to those described in The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Perfidia is a huge, sleazy, rocket-fuelled behemoth of a book. I would have no trouble hailing it as a return to the heights of LA Confidential – perhaps even surpassing them – were it not for one small problem: like Kathy, I am a literary amnesiac, and the years have dimmed my sureness about just how good each of those books in the first LA Quartet really was. I mean, I remember loving them at the time (less so The Black Dahlia, which was too much of a conventional serial-killer tale for my tastes), but I can’t recall exactly when and how Ellroy’s prose style began to mutate from classic modern noir to Hemingway-haikus-on-heroin.

So I now feel eager to reread those books, not only to compare them with Perfidia, but to see how the characters and backstories mesh. Because the four main characters of Perfidia have all appeared in previous novels: Kay Lake was in The Black Dahlia; William H. Parker was in LA Confidential and White Jazz; Hideo Ashida was apparently ‘referenced’ in The Black Dahlia, though I must admit I don’t remember that; and Dudley Smith, of course, was an important and unforgettable presence in The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential and White Jazz. And, remarkably, all four are compelling, fascinating, deeply odd yet strangely sympathetic people. (Well, all right, describing Dudley Smith as ‘sympathetic’ is perhaps pushing it, but he does have a kind of evil charisma.)

They’re not the only familiar names here either, as Perfidia features a grand total of 40 characters from previous Ellroy novels. And no, I didn’t count them myself: satisfyingly, the author provides a list of dramatis personae at the back of the book, a list that is also useful for distinguishing between invented characters and those based on real-life figures.

On that subject, there is something slightly disturbing about Ellroy’s use of ‘actual persons’ in his fiction. Obviously, the likes of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and William H. Parker are long dead and unlikely to sue, but I don’t know how their families would feel about the way they’re depicted here (getting droolingly drunk, beating the crap out of people, screwing murderers, etc – no spoilers there, because you don’t know who’s doing what to whom). Moral considerations aside, however, it is an amazing achievement on Ellroy’s part to meld the actual and the fictional in this way, so that we can be inside their heads, inside their beds, and both types of character feel equally ‘real’ to us.

As for the plot… well, it begins with the apparent ritual suicide of a Japanese family on the day before the Pearl Harbor bombing and spirals into a three-week tsunami of lies, frame-ups, racial tension and sociopathic killing, where the lines between good and evil are not so much blurred as smeared with blood and machine-gunned.

And that description makes me suddenly aware that this may not be everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, maybe it’s just a Boy Thing? I should ask Kathy, I suppose, but she claims she has read only one James Ellroy book: The Black Dahlia. I’m pretty sure she read The Big Nowhere too, because I remember her being underwhelmed by a scene that I absolutely loved, but she denied this. Then, the other day, she picked the book up and read the first few pages and said, ‘Hmm, this seems very familiar… maybe I did read it before?’ Anyway, my guess is she wouldn’t love Perfidia the way I do.

Oh, that’s another thing: if you’ve never read any Ellroy before, this is perhaps not the best place to start. Despite its high quality and the fact that it predates the other seven novels chronologically, it would probably just seem too weird to a first-timer. Ellroy has honed and boiled down his style over the years, to the point where it can appear offputtingly fragmented and staccato. Once you’re used to it, however, it’s actually hard to read other writers because they seem to waste so many words. But my point is that Ellroy breaks most of the so-called rules of good writing: he often tells, rather than showing, and he makes little attempt at verisimilitude in his descriptions of actions or portrayals of character. He doesn’t try to convince you that these people are real or that these things are really happening – because he doesn’t need to: he knows they are real. And his conviction is contagious.

It’s even more impressive when you consider that the likes of Lee Blanchard (The Black Dahlia), Scotty Bennett (Blood’s A Rover) and Pierce Patchett (LA Confidential) must have been fully conceived with their backstories in mind when Ellroy first wrote about them.

So, yes, I now desperately want to reread the first LA Quartet. The only annoying thing is that I’ll probably have to do it all over again (with Perfidia added on) when the next one in the series comes out. Because Ellroy took five years to write this novel and my memory is not good for more than about five weeks…


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