Saturday, September 26, 2015

CBR7 #5: LA Confidential by James Ellroy

LA Confidential was a present from my boyfriend, a James Ellroy junkie, so the pressure for liking this book was already high. And since I'm a bit of a contrarian (A bit?! my boyfriend would say), I'm predisposed to dislike things that others so vehemently love. I'll find the holes to poke through, the flaws that are there -- whether intentionally placed or not -- and I'll do my best to skewer the book/movie/show that others love so much. Because I'm a bitch. There's a reason why I was first drawn to Pajiba, and it lies in its original tagline -- Scathing Reviews. Bitchy People. This motto properly encapsulates me in my heart of hearts.

Yet every now and then, there are universally beloved works that sneak past my walls of resistance, and this book is one of them. Generally, I have a rule about reading books, especially fiction. The rule is I finish them. So when I started reading LA Confidential, I knew I couldn't give up on it, despite my trouble with the zig-zagging slang and the curious, seemingly nonsensical wordplay. I hated the short sentences, and the elimination of punctuation, proper grammar and just... words. I hated that I didn't get it, and I absolutely hated the liberal use of sexual and racial invectives -- probably accurate to the period but for my 21st century (Asian, female) ears were difficult to swallow.

Then midway through Part One, my brain clicked and began comprehending the sentences. I didn't have to reread a paragraph five times to get it, and I started to understand Ellroy's style, his use of punctuated sentences favored with evocative vocabulary choices. He wrote the way we speak, if we were disillusioned policemen from the 50s. Layers of competing politics, allegiances and context could reside in a single paragraph, and if I wasn't paying attention, I'd miss it. In a 2009 interview, Ellroy objected to describing his sentences, sometimes comprising only four words, as minimalistic. "Minimalism implies small events, small people, a small story," he said. "Man, that's the antithesis of me."

For those who don't know LA Confidential, the plot is definitely not minimalistic. It follows the point of view of three cops in LA and spans the 50s: Bud White, a hardened short-tempered police officer who really loves beating on wife-beaters; Ed Exley, an ambitious war hero who lives in the shadow of his older, dead brother and has some serious Daddy issues; and Jack Vincennes, a Hollywood wannabe who loves getting papped as he's apprehending celebrities for innocuous drug usage. None of these three men really get along, but they are brought together by the Night Owl massacre, a shootout that left a lot of dead bodies and zero leads. This case, which initially appeared to be solved and closed, had to be reopened years later, and it might be connected to a smut distribution case. (It was amusing to me that pornography distributed in magazines was illegal in LA in the 50s – a laughable notion today considering its proximity to San Fernando Valley, the porn capital of the world.)

Halfway through reading the book, my boyfriend asked me who my favorite character was. I found that a very tough question because all three are decidedly selfish, amoral, and exasperating in varying degrees. Forced to pick, I said I preferred Jack Vincennes, because he was honest about his attention-whoring personality. I could probably also get with Bud White because he was "one of the people," in the sense that he sympathized with the victim, but I couldn't shake the sense that his hero complex was totally condescending in some regards.

But I was adamant that Ed Exley was definitely the one I disliked the most. He was nakedly ambitious, yet dishonest about his desires. He might have been the most moralistic man in the precinct – doing "the right thing," so to speak – but I hated his intentions for doing them. What happens if his end goals don't intersect with what is morally right? What happens then?

In a primitive sense, the three men personified Freud's primary three concepts. I haven't studied psychology enough to know the ins and outs of it, just the rough edges. But Jack is the id -- he wants a measure of fame and comfort in his life, and he doesn't mind that the path to this is paved with regrets; Ed, the ego, in his relentless, calculating quest for the top job in LAPD while also utterly conscious of how society views him and his famous father; and Bud – who cannot let a grudge go – is the preachy, self-aware superego. What's right is right, what's wrong is wrong, and when Bud does something that he knows is wrong, he twists himself up in self-loathing; Bud is a coil wound so tightly that the spring threatens to snap at any moment.

By the end of the book, some of my pre-conceived notions for each character had been turned on itself – the anti-hero theme is strong in this, and there's nothing more I love than a complicated character that makes sense. Which is why I'm disappointed that Ellroy didn't afford that same consideration to the women in his book. He said in that 2009 interview that all his books were about "bad men in love with strong women" and I can understand that LA Confidential is set in a period that is very a white man's world. But the two main female characters were short-shrifted. Depicted as either a damsel in distress or a femme fatale – sure staples in the crime genre – Ellroy, self-described as the "greatest crime writer ever," could have fleshed them out without quite so much flesh. (Also, this might be more of a plotting issue, but I can't imagine why there aren't more than two or three women in LA for all three men to sleep with. I mean, come on, seriously?? Go sleep with different people, guys.)

Either way, this will not be my last Ellroy. He seems like an immensely interesting person (the 2009 interview is really worth reading in full), and I'm especially curious about how he'll write about his murdered mother in a fictionalised and memoir form.

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