Sunday, October 26, 2014

My Heart Cries Out Perfidia

Perfidia
by James Ellroy
Published by Knopf

3 out 5 bullets to the face.

“Hello, Mr. Ellroy.”

“Mr. Kemper, I hear that you are somewhat familiar with me?”

“I am.”

“Please tell me what you know. Be succinct.”

“You are haunted by the unsolved murder of your mother which occurred when you were a child and led you to become obsessed with crime and women. You frequently dreamed of scenarios in which you could save damsels in distress. You let your rich fantasy life rule you and with no ambition or discipline you became a homeless drunk and drug addict in your teens. You eventually hit bottom and got sober. You used your fascination with true crime and post-war Los Angeles to create what you called the L.A. Quartet. You started with a fictionalized version of the Black Dahlia case, and one of the books, L.A. Confidential, became an acclaimed movie. You wrote a trilogy called Underworld USA Trilogy that followed bad men doing bad things in the shadows of recent American history. You investigated the death of your mother with an ex-cop and published the results as a memoir. You wrote a second autobiography in which you admitted that much of what you wrote about your state of mind in the first book wasn’t true. You recently published a new novel called Perfidia that you state is the start of a new Second L.A. Quartet.

“What are your impressions of Perfidia? Please be brief.”

Perfidia begins the day before Pearl Harbor is attacked by the Japanese. Many of the characters are ones you used in other books like Dudley Smith, a corrupt police officer who was a large part of the L.A. Quartet, and Kay Lake from The Black Dahlia. Others are based on real life people like William ‘Whiskey Bill’ Parker, another LAPD officer who would go on to become the chief of police. A new addition is a brilliant police crime scene technician, Hideo Ashida, of Japanese descent. The murder of a Japanese family coincides with the news of the attack, and the investigation takes place as L.A. is consumed by a mixture of patriotism and paranoia. Corruption enters the scene immediately with many people scheming on ways to profit from the war even as the ships are still burning at Pearl Harbor.”

“That’s a summary. I asked for your impressions.”

“There is a lot here to appeal to your fans. The wartime setting with a mystery that blends fiction with history against a L.A. that is completely corrupt is something that you know how to utilize to provide a gritty noir atmosphere. Your plotting with the characters aligning and betraying each other almost at whim is as dense and intricate as ever. Your style of short sentences in a stream of consciousness patter as the perspective shifts from character to character is still sharp, and you retain the knack of writing scenes of brutal violence that seem to pass in moments yet leave lasting effects.”

“That’s the positive side. Please tell me where you think the book was lacking.”

“While some longtime fans will be delighted at the way you’ve incorporated so many characters from your other books, it also brings some of the problems inherent to prequels into the mix.”

“Explain.”

“If you know that a character is alive and has a career with the police department in a book set after Perfidia, than I know that they will not die or lose their job in this book despite anything that may occur. This naturally removes some of the drama.”

“Naturally. Please continue.”

“If not done well, the characters may act in ways or accumulate knowledge that seems at odds with the other incarnation. For example,(view spoiler)

“I understand the point. Move on."

“Usually your books take place over a period of months or years. This allows for on-going events and new information to change the perspectives and motives of characters. Since this novel occurs entirely in the weeks immediately after Pearl Harbor, the time frame is greatly condensed from your usual work yet you incorporate as many betrayals, shocking revelations and changes of allegiances as your other books. This makes all of the characters seem rushed and erratic. Plus, everyone in the book seems to have an amazing ability to look into the future. None of the major players seem that concerned about the war with the Japanese. All of them somehow immediately know that the war will be won and that there will future tension between America and Russia.”

“Are there any other things you consider shortcomings of the book you would like to share?

“You also use some of the same phrases and tricks here that seem in danger of becoming tropes of your work.”

“State some examples.”

“Using short sentences to indicate a series of actions. For example, ‘Dudley winked. Dudley scratched. Dudley howled….’“

“And?”

“And characters making instant judgments and psychoanalysis of each other that is 100% accurate.”

“And?”

“And repeatedly using the word ‘and’ as a way of continuing the flow of information.”

“Very droll, Mr. Kemper. And?”

“And you really got into this thing where a lot of the dialogue is someone demanding information in a blunt and condescending fashion. You used to save that for when one had a definite edge on another, like J. Edgar Hoover interrogating an underling, but it seemed like it happened on almost every page in this book. These conversations also frequently have one person delivering a set of orders.”

“You have communicated your viewpoint, Mr. Kemper. You will write up a review on Perfidia. You will give it no less than three stars. You may bring up the points you have outlined here, but you will still credit my work as still being an enjoyable read. You will also praise my ability to create damaged characters operating in amoral ways for selfish reasons at a street level and use them to illustrate broader themes on subjects like the effect of History on the individual. Once you have completed this review, you will post it on Goodreads. If you don’t do this, I’ll engage in another trope of mine, and have you shot in the face repeatedly. Do you agree, Mr. Kemper?”

“One three star review of Perfidia coming right up!”

Also posted at Goodreads.

The Same Thing We Do Every Night, Pinky - Try To Take Over The World!

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

by David Shafer
Mulholland Books

3 out of 5 self-help gurus would give a seminar based on this book.

This book has been compared to the likes of Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, Philip K. Dick, Neal Stephenson and Chuck Palahniuk. I don’t think that’s doing it any favors because while it isn’t bad, it never got close to those guys at their best for me.

This is essentially one of the fusions in which the author mixes Serious Lit-A-Chur with the DNA of a genre novel which in this case is a conspiracy-cyber thriller with a little sci-fi for flavor. Leila is a Persian-American working for a non-profit NGO in Myanmar when she accidently stumbles on something that triggers the wrath of an operative of a worldwide shadow government. Mark and Leo were friends in college, but their lives have taken them on very different paths. Mark is a bullshit artist who lucked his way into fame and fortune by becoming a self-help guru who advises an uber-wealthy Mr. Burns type of asshole. Leo is an underachieving slacker whose substance abuse kicks his paranoia into overdrive. Circumstances make all three of them aware of a sinister plot involving on-line data collection that is getting taken to a new terrifying level. And of course there is an underground group trying to stop it.

The thing here is that anyone hoping for a conspiracy novel probably isn’t going to be satisfied. Yeah, there are some cool moments, and the evil plan is impressive in its scale as well as its feasibility, but there are no big action scenes of note. Instead the focus is on the thoughts and feelings of the three leads as they examine what they find lacking in their own lives even as they have to deal with the moral choices the situation forces on them.

I was far more intrigued by the personal stories and history of Leila, Mark and Leo than I ever was by the conspiracy story-line which, while ambitious, is still at its heart a secret-group-of-powerful-rich-assholes-try-to-take-over-the-world story. In fact, I probably would have liked this book a whole lot more if Shafer had just skipped the conspiracy and done a whole book about the three main characters somehow meeting up and interacting.

I know that the conspiracy was symbolic, representing the way that some will willingly give up secrets and freedom for a comfortable life, but it kept reading as if were to be taken as seriously like this was a Tom Clancy novel. The clich├ęs of the conspiracy thriller are here, but they don’t feel deconstructed or satiric. That made my brain keep thinking that there would be a car chase or a shootout at the usual places even though I knew that wasn’t the kind of book Shafer wrote.

So the whole thing ended up in a weird one-foot-in/one-foot-out state for me in which I felt like the book was too character driven to be an entertaining genre thriller, but the conspiracy thriller aspects distracted me from the much better character angles as well as some of the broader points he was trying to make. 

Also posted at Goodreads.