L.A. Weekly is determining the best L.A. novel ever by holding a tournament featuring 32 of our favorites in head-to-head matchups, until there's only one novel standing. For further reading:
Here are two disparate novels that have little in common stylistically or thematically apart from the fact that they're both set in Los Angeles and often cast a jaundiced and jaded eye at humanity in general, and Angelenos in particular. Both writers vaguely hint that there might be some hope for mankind, but most of their characters choose not to — or are unable to — do the right thing.
James Ellroy isn't interested in telling a simple detective story in L.A. Confidential. Instead, the novelist has bigger things on his mind, using the city's notorious history of political corruption in the 1950s to give heft to a plot that ties together the not-necessarily-separate worlds of the police, organized crime, politicians and tabloid journalists. Whereas a writer like Raymond Chandler used rich, evocative descriptions to palpably bring to life recognizable locations populated by a small group of flawed but generally human protagonists, Ellroy takes aim at a wider number of characters with all the subtlety of a shotgun blast.
Ellroy focuses most on three policemen of wildly varying moralities — straight-arrow Ed Exley, obsessed vigilante Bud White and compromised celebri-cop Jack Vincennes — as they try to solve a shocking multiple slaying and robbery. Although the crime is fictional, the author adds layers of verisimilitude by referencing the 1951 “Bloody Christmas” police-abuse scandal and having his characters interact with such real-life figures as LAPD police chief William Parker and gangsters Mickey Cohen and Johnny Stompanato.
Ellroy's punchy, pulpy and clipped prose mirrors the terse, macho bantering of his characters (and, in fact, is often indistinguishable from it). His writing style is closer to Mickey Spillane's brutal simplicity than Chandler's restrained elegance, and, while Ellroy frequently tries to approximate a noirish, pulp-fiction voice, his ruder attempts at tough-guy dialogue sometimes feel strained through a distancing late-'80s post-punk filter.
Meanwhile, everything's at a distance, at least at first, in Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero. Narrator Clay returns home to early-'80s Los Angeles after attending college for the semester in New Hampshire. Although Clay's only been out of town for four months, it's as if he's a stranger in a strange land when he lands back in L.A. The MTV-addicted locals seem incredibly vapid and absurdly shallow, and they, in turn, regard Clay as if he's from Mars.
In a recurring joke, everyone tells Clay, “You look pale,” now that he's lost his California tan. At times, the labyrinthine lists of streets he has to take to get from West L.A. to the Valley — not to mention his friends' Valley Girl speech patterns and exaggerated expressions of concern about his missing tan — come off like an installment of “The Californians” sketches on Saturday Night Live.
Clay becomes increasingly alienated from the world he used to know, even as he keeps going to parties and hanging out in nightclubs. He can barely relate to his idle-rich peers, even as he dryly notes their near-tragedies:
“Someone named Angel was supposed to go with us tonight, but earlier today she got caught in the drain of her Jacuzzi and almost drowned.”
Clay's time at college was enough to make him an outsider who can bring in the reader into this surreally plastic Hollywood milieu, this “game that moves as you play,” as Ellis quotes the punk band X at the start of the novel.
When Less Than Zero (whose title comes from the Elvis Costello song) was first published in 1985, critics marveled over the rock lyric quotations and how much of the story was set in (and inspired by) L.A.'s vibrant early-'80s music scene, which was still unusual for a mainstream novel at the time. If Ellis' laconic sarcasm and ironic, deadpan prose have actually aged better than expected, his cultural references still remain dodgy and frustratingly inconsistent.
On the same intro page where Ellis quotes the X lyric, which smartly anticipates the shifting natures of the book's setting and characters, he unnecessarily tacks on a hoary line from “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin: “There's a feeling I get when I look to the West.” Ellis is apparently trying to establish that this L.A. landscape is markedly different than a traditional East Coast literary milieu, but in doing so he makes a mistake common to many critics, forgetting that certain otherwise unremarkable rock lyrics only take on a transcendent power when combined with amplified music. Otherwise, when quoted plainly on the printed page, they often sound dehydrated and obviously corny.
This may not seem like a major problem overall, but, in a novel that was initially celebrated for getting musical details right, such inconsistencies still seem glaring. For every incisive quotation from Costello, there's an equally random or obvious reference to the Human League or the Eagles, a kind of musical shorthand that sometimes substitutes for setting a specific scene.
That said, Less Than Zero filled a void at a time when established novelists were still referencing and puzzling over ancient '60s classic rock instead of acknowledging the underground-music revolution occurring under their noses in the 1980s. The book is even more remarkable considering that it was written by a first-time novelist who was just leaving his teens. Ellis' seemingly disengaged, minimalist style might seem coldly repellant first, but it helps set up moments of unexpectedly wry and morbid humor.
Ellroy, of course, was an already established novelist by the time he published L.A. Confidential in 1990, and his confidence and experience combine to make the book simultaneously more sure-handed and yet less naively risk-taking than Less Than Zero. If he's not the first writer to point out that good guys don't always play fair, Ellroy at least says it with hard-hitting panache.
When conflicted cop Jack Vincennes muses about his young girlfriend Karen, he could just as well be describing the symbiotic relationship between the police department and the people of Los Angeles:
“Karen was the audience he'd always wanted to impress. He knew what she could take, what she couldn't; her love had shaped his performance so that all he had to do was act natural — and keep certain secrets.”
Karen is initially fascinated by Vincennes' stories and the dramatic aspects of his life on the force before finding herself repulsed by his violent tactics. She wants to feel safe in his arms without fully knowing the dirty things he has to do.
If the characters' frequent use of ethnic slurs feels excessive, it does set up Ellroy's bigger revelations about institutionalized racism and corruption in the police department and City Hall. It's also possible that such heavy usage is meant to echo the terminology of a more-ignorant era, but Ellroy's neo-noirish descriptions and dialogue are inexplicably cluttered with distracting modern-day expressions. In many ways, L.A. Confidential says more about the time it was written than it reflects the actual 1950s.
For all of its heavy themes, L.A. Confidential reads more like a diverting piece of entertainment than as a definitive and ambitiously literary portrait of Los Angeles. Meanwhile, despite the sometimes self-consciously dorky MTV-era product placements and Clay's prematurely earned case of utter world weariness, Less Than Zero manages to evoke its distinctly weird era with considerably more wit and personality.
The Winner: Less Than Zero
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