I am poorly, boo hoo! I’ve been valiantly holding off a cold for a week or so (my menfolk have both had it), and thought I was doing just fine. Then WAM I have the full works, sore head, sore throat, sore tummy and a general feeling that all is not well with the world. Plus, I am now behind on everything – students, emails, comments, blog reading, reading, writing…. I am not the world’s greatest patient, and can only think about all the useful things I could be doing if I were up and about.
But anyhow, as I’m stuck in bed I might as well try and tell you about one of the strangest books I think I have ever read. It all began when Mister Litlove read a glowing review of The Hilliker Curse in The Economist. Had I ever heard of a crime noir writer called James Ellroy? He’d written L.A. Confidential, which had been turned into a film and was also well known for The Black Dahlia. I’d heard of L. A. Confidential, at least. Well, Mister Litlove said, he’d had a very odd past; he’d been overly attached to his mother who had been murdered when he was still a young boy. Because, in a fit of temper, he’d wished her dead shortly before this event, he felt he was responsible for it and had gone off the rails. And then it had affected all his relationships in his life and he’d recently published a memoir talking about it in depth. ‘I thought it would be right up your street,’ he said.
So, when I next had a trip to the bookstore and saw the book there, I cunningly thought I might as well buy it because if Mister Litlove wanted to read it too, it would slip under the marital radar. As I was paying for it the bookseller said to me, ‘Did you hear him speak at the Union?’ I was amazed, and suddenly realized I had a signed copy in my hands. ‘I had no idea he’d been in Cambridge,’ I said. The bookseller had been completely wowed by him. ‘Gave the best performance I’ve ever seen. He read a little bit from the book but most of the time he just talked so eloquently. He had the audience in the palm of his hand. Have you read his other books?’ I admitted I hadn’t. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘this explains them all.’
You can imagine I was very curious about the book when I brought it home and started to read it almost immediately. But what a shock this book was. First of all the language was extraordinary. People ‘grok’ and they ‘glom’ and they ‘yuk’. They talk about ‘schtick’ and ‘schlong’. I had absolutely no idea what any of this meant unless the context gave it away, and quite often it didn’t. I needed a dictionary of American slang and a lot of patience with the staccato, telegraphic style that tripped me up all the time. Here’s a taster for you, as he describes his first wife, Helen:
‘She was the eldest of four. Dad squandered the family fortune and pushed Mom to Splitsville. Helen spent her late teenage years in Kansas City and Lawrence. She lettered in tennis at KU. She got a Master’s degree at Cornell and played cowgirl cutup. Paris was next. Woo! Woo! It’s Hurricane Hélène! She’s rugburned from rambunctious ruts and sordid sorties at the Sorbonne! She’s fragging frisson-frazzled frogs en masse! She wears a black beret and mainlines espresso! She’s a diiiiirty au pair girl! She’s a bohemian banging Bathsheba! She exhumes Existentialism as a one-wench show!’
I said to my husband: ‘Is this a boy thing?’
The whole book is a one long verbal tirade, in which Ellroy never pauses to really stop and think about anything he’s done or is doing, which is in itself intriguing as what he does is also very, very strange. He doesn’t actually say much about his mother, which was a shame as I really wanted to know what happened to her. But it seems he’s already written a memoir about trying to find who killed her (unsuccessfully), so he never goes over that ground. But even before she died, he was gearing up to be a peeping Tom and an obsessive over women.Ellroy followed women he saw on the street, he fantasized about their lives, he broke and entered into their homes so he could be among their possessions. And he nearly killed himself with drink and drugs. Writing seems to have been his salvation; it stoked his huge alpha-male ego and channeled his neuroses and just happened to make him rich and famous too. But it also seems to have held his warped perspective in place rather than providing any cure.
Ellroy has spent his life searching for the woman who would be The One, in a madly romantic, but often mostly barking mad way. It helped if the woman reminded him of his mother, or of one of the women he fantasized about when young. Thus he felt that he had ‘summoned’ the woman, or that there was something divine or fateful about their union. Then he was jealous and possessive and often no longer interested in sex, and the women, as women so often do, hung about and tried their very best to make it all work despite feeling increasingly trapped in an unhealthy situation. Ellroy has been through a couple of wives, a couple of mistresses and now apparently has found The One. Ha! I say, in cynical style. I give it three years.
Not that James Ellroy is the first to behave this way. Back in the nineteenth century, a certifiably mad poet named Gerard de Nerval did pretty much the same thing, obsessing about women who reminded him of his lost mother, and infusing a series of unfortunate and often indifferent beauties with her ghost. Nerval spent his life in and out of mental asylums, writing extraordinary (but gorgeous) stories and travel accounts and poems that messed with time and folded back in and onto themselves, collapsing often onto the contours of the one face that he was chasing but was doomed never to find.
Which just goes to show that the unexamined life always repeats on you, that repetition itself is the x that marks the spot of buried treasure – or trauma – from the past. Mister Litlove is reading The Hilliker Curse at the moment and I asked him what he thought of it. ‘It seems like he’s stuck in adolescence,’ he said to me. And I could see that, the huge performance of macho masculinity, a lot of breast-beating, a vain and preening ego and all puffed up over intolerable depths of anxiety. It is a strange book, very unresolved, and dissatisfactory in many ways, but then I appreciate a bit of insight, so it was probably never going to be quite my thing. But The Economist loved it, and the man in the bookstore loved it and you might, too. Don’t let me put you off.