on 8 August 2011
He's crazy, of course - we all know that, because he revels in telling us why - but I doubt there's another author on the planet who can write with Ellroy's intensity.
Even a starry-eyed Ellrovian like me can see the flaws in this account of Ellroy's long history of fraught relationships with women. It's sometimes pretentious, often frustrating, and more than a little self-indulgent. There are some self-justifying passages, and a lot more self-lacerating ones, which I found impossible to read without a twinge of voyeuristic guilt. But a great stylist is at work here, so there's often real power in the writing. The prose is pyrotechnic: freed from the constraints of crime fiction (which he writes in a ruthlessly stripped-down way), Ellroy conjures up strange metaphors and alliterates gleefully; at other times he just gets straight to the point with one crackling line ('Every acknowledgement of my flowering heart gut-shot me with gratitude').
There are superb setpieces. Ellroy describes being left to wait in the street, aged ten, while his father was with a woman: in the hour that he was alone, he managed to get drunk, and started his career as a window-peeper. As a young man, he spent his evenings either hanging around the stage door of the LA Philharmonic, where he tried to get the attention of lady cellists, or cruising for prostitutes on Sunset Strip. Years later, he had a breakdown on the book tour to promote The Cold Six Thousand: at manic speed, he describes cracking up on planes and in blacked-out hotel rooms, frantically checking his skin for cancer and his eyes for signs of impending blindness ('My bowels swelled. I defecated and became convinced that I had colon cancer. The stewardess knocked again... I tremble-walked out of the john. I was sweaty, my fly was down, passengers eyed me weird'). After agreeing with his second wife that their failing marriage would be an open relationship, with new partners allowed, he spent months secretly pursuing another woman, unable to tell his wife the truth, equally unable to stop obsessing about his new love.
Ellroy admits that in the past he has exploited the fact of his mother's murder (he was a child when she died) to increase his notoriety, and he criticises his earlier autobiographical work (My Dark Places) as self-serving. For all its honesty, though, this new memoir is novelistic, given structure and narrative drive by a skilful writer, which makes it feel like an entertainment even though it isn't, or at least shouldn't be. So I'm left with a question that's probably unanswerable: should reading the latest book by my favourite author make me feel this uneasy...?
on 30 September 2011
The thing about writing in the style of egotistical rant is that you need care little for literary convention. Of course, sometimes this can be groundbreakingly experimental and done with memorable effect, or it can be an excuse for writerly laziness. I found this memoir to be an exhaustingly repetitive self-indulgence, which said very little. Lust, marriage and even love were all recognizable, as was psychotic obsession and mental collapse, but so what? There was nothing here that made me see the world differently or delighted me with its ingenuity or perception. The only thing I can say in its favour is that I felt a compulsion to finish it. Perhaps I was driven by a masochistic need to have confirmed that the book would subside to banal anti-climax and tedium.