I’ve been toying for a little while with the idea that James Ellroy’s historical fiction might be profitably read as genealogical fiction. I haven’t had the chance to develop this reading properly, as it’s outside the scope of my thesis work so anything longer than a blog post probably counts as procrastination for now.
Nightcrawler, written and directed by Dan Gilroy and starring and co-produced by Jake Gyllenhaal, struck me in a number of ways. Its obvious major theme is the morally bankrupt nature of the news media, and TV news in particular. The point is not made subtly: when Rene Russo’s news director asks the company lawyer if they’re covered to broadcast some particularly shocking footage, the latter responds ‘Legally?’ To which Russo sarcastically snaps ‘No, morally. Of course, legally.’
But it is as a satire of a broader, and particularly 21st century, work culture that I found it most interesting. Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom is determined to create himself with the help of online business courses and motivational slogans. It’s as if Travis Bickle’s ‘ONE OF THESE DAYS, I’M GONNA GET ORGANIZ-IZED’ sign was an image macro that linked through to a free webinar on building a business strategy, one so inspiring that any thoughts of assassinating political candidates or liberating underage prostitutes were abandoned as insufficiently in line with his core strengths and goals. (Taxi Driver is an obvious reference point for the film, and for Gyllenhaal’s performance, and not just because someone losing 30 pounds to play a role will always call to mind De Niro — Lou, like Travis, is distinguished by his absolute sincerity and earnestness.)
As a coincidental celebration of James Ellroy’s birthday, this is my first attempt at visualising geographic data from The Big Nowhere using Tableau Public. It is currently limited to showing key locations for Danny Upshaw during the first part of the novel, with the goal of visualising how he moves outside of his own jurisdiction whilst pursuing his investigation into the murder of Marty Goines and subsequent victims. There’s much more to do here, both in terms of formatting and adding data, but after various false starts with other mapping software, I’ve decided to try and document my progress.
Squeezing in a little bit of research on the 1965 Watts Rebellion this afternoon, this article by Donna Murch introduced me to something very exciting (for the music fan in me as much as the researcher) – one of those moments when you discover something you can’t believe you weren’t already aware of. Murch writes:
perhaps the single most compelling primary source for the response of local residents to the Watts rebellion is the documentary film, Wattstax, which centers on the August 20, 1972 Wattstax music festival held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Wattstax, held on the seventh anniversary of the South Los Angeles uprising / rebellion / riots (according, very much, to your politics), was a music festival featuring Stax artists including the Bar-Kays and Isaac Hayes (apparently the concert concludes with a performance of his ‘Theme from “Shaft”‘). The documentary intersperses concert footage with interviews with Watts residents reflecting on the events of 1965. In a slightly surreal juxtaposition, the film was directed by Mel Stuart, whose most notable directing job was Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. (That leads in turn to the pleasing coincidence that Stuart worked first with Gene Wilder, and then with Richard Pryor, who introduces in Wattstax.)
It should hopefully prove to be a useful source for some first-hand accounts of South Los Angeles life in the late sixties and early seventies. But until I get hold of the DVD, I’ll have to make do with the website for the DVD release of the film, which is itself a time capsule of early 2000s web design, and offers the chance to download the trailer in low-res Real Video format – perfect for anyone still on a dial-up modem.
Two-thirds of the way through Perfidia, something else that feels very Underworld USA rather than L.A. Quartet about the novel is the shifting relationships and loyalties between the POV characters. In both The Big Nowhere and L.A. Confidential the protagonists begin with different, potentially conflicting aims (in the case of Bud White and Ed Exley, outright antagonism). But in both cases this resolves into some form of collaboration – towards resolving the central case, and in opposition to Dudley Smith. (It’s not a total resolution of differences, but it’s a sufficient one.)
In the trilogy, loyalties and aims shift from chapter to chapter – compromise, greed, outright betrayal. Above all what we see is change – individuals responding to circumstances, forming new alliances, betraying old ideals; not as a binary shift from was to is, but as an extended series. And each series intersects with those of the other protagonists, forming a complex network. (We might even be inclined to call it rhizomatic…) This of course influences our attitude to the characters – because they are less stable, their desires more complex, they resist identification (despite the fact, rather perversely, that they are perhaps more ‘realistic’ characters as a result).
Dave Klein’s role as a bridge between the quartet and the trilogy becomes more clear in these terms. As he is the sole POV character in White Jazz, we do not experience the same alternation of perspective and constantly shifting pragmatics as in the trilogy. But Klein’s particular status – playing sides off against each other, out for himself and reacting to the new opportunities as they arise – definitely foreshadows the trilogy.
Perfidia is definitely closer to the trilogy than the quartet in this regard. Characters calculate and compartmentalise, chapter to chapter. Ashida shifts from Parker to Smith (and surely away from Smith again at some point…), has an odd bond with Kay – and we’re still not sure what he ultimately wants – or if he is simply attempting to survive, to make himself useful. (A side note: Ashida feels, in the early part of the novel, like a sympathetic character – something at least partially prompted by what he has in common with Danny Upshaw from The Big Nowhere – forensic aptitude, repressed homosexuality. But I’m starting to suspect that this may be a feint from Ellroy…). Kay’s shifts are wilful, sometimes perverse – her desire is simply to Act, to be able to influence the course of events. Parker is, particularly in the middle section of the novel, a mess – lapsing back into alcoholism, not acting in his own best interests. We know, of course, that Parker will ‘succeed’ – that he will become Chief of Police, and will reshape the department. So is this an aberration, brought about in part by the chaos of war? An experience that will further motivate and shape his later success? Or (knowing Ellroy) will we in later novels see the extent to which Parker’s historical success is actually compromised – manipulated at least in part, perhaps, by Dudley Smith.
Interestingly, Dudley Smith, as he pieces together details of Parker’s operation to infiltrate the Hollywood communist cell around Claire de Haven, interprets it as Parker stubbornly involving himself in a misguided ideological crusade. But this picture of Parker – rigid, idealist-to-a-fault, the ‘historic’ view of William H. Parker – doesn’t seem to fit with the Parker we actually follow during the novel. There, the operation appears to be ideologically inspired but quickly gives way to voyeurism, and to the satisfaction of wielding power for its own sake (sadism even?). Smith himself is the most acutely pragmatic character, the most comfortable with these rhizomatic networks of power, compromise and influence. As he terms it, in an opium haze: Thought and Act. The question is to what extent we are going to see Dudley at all wrong-footed or compromised himself in the final third of the novel. His relationship with Bette Davis clearly opens him up to some degree of vulnerability; the armoured-car robbery he masterminded is being investigated, and Meeks in particular is antagonistic. But we know it will only ever be a minor set-back, because we know that Dudley’s fundamental power will be consolidated by the time we get to the quartet (although – Dudley is still consolidating over the course of the quartet, to some extent, and he is already influential within the department, and the city, in Perfidia. Is there necessarily some misstep to account for his relatively slow progress between Perfidia and the quartet?)
An important difference between Perfida and the trilogy is the timespan – the former covers a span of weeks rather than years. Of course, this is partially a practical issue – if Ellroy wants to fit three or four new novels into the period between WWII and The Black Dahlia, he can’t necessarily range as freely across the years in each novel. But then again, that could be addressed in any number of other ways: the new books could contain parallel rather than sequential plots (indeed, they still might); he could have begun earlier, with Bill Parker’s exploits as right-hand man to Two-Gun Davis pre-war, and Dudley Smith’s earlier rise. The compressed time-span is certainly appropriate to the circumstances of the plot – the feverish quality of post-Pearl Harbor LA, characters repeatedly mentioning that they can’t sleep, haven’t slept. Historical circumstances compressing time; disorientation…
With the release of James Ellroy’s Perfidia yesterday, I had the kind of giddy release/launch day excitement for something that I haven’t felt for a while – something that is only heightened by Ellroy’s ambitions for this new series of novels. Perfidia is a prequel to the LA Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz), and there’s the thrill of him returning to mid-century Los Angeles after he’d given every indication his horizons had broadened beyond it, as well as the prequel’s particular pleasure – returning to characters we’ve left behind, or see die, and fleshing out their history. But more than that, it’s clear from the opening chapters that in this new sequence that Ellroy is consciously attempting to tie together the LA Quartet and the Underworld USA trilogy (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s a Rover) into one epic sequence.
This doesn’t just mean cameos from Underworld USA characters (of which there has been at least one already, 60 pages in). It means bringing out significant thematic elements from Underworld USA that were much less dominant in the Quartet. So far, we’ve been told twice that the central LAPD offices at City Hall are riddled with bugs and listening posts, as various factions within the corrupt (pre-Parker) force vie for influence – foreshadowing the obsessive spying of J. Edgar Hoover and Howard Hughes (and indeed nearly everyone else) in Underworld USA. And there are clear indications that we’re going to see the infiltration of various political groups, layers of counter-intelligence operations, and unpleasantly compromised alliances that structure Underworld USA – but transposed onto the climate of the early 40s. If this attempt to integrate the three sequences together works – and it’s a pretty bold undertaking, trying to make these prequels both stand on their own merits, and unite the later novels, without inconsistency or too much contrivance – it’s going to be a stunning piece of work.
There’s much more to say, but for now, the thing that struck me most as I read the first five or six chapters, is the way the initial excitement (of something new from Ellroy, of the return to LA and the near-constant parade of familiar faces) coalesced into something appropriately familiar. It began to feel like the exhilaration and anticipation of the investigator finally in possession of the missing files that are about to blow the case wide open – Doc Lesnick’s psychiatric records in The Big Nowhere, to take one example. That sounds somewhat trite, but it feels visceral. And there’s never a better word than visceral to describe the best of Ellroy’s writing.