The Hilliker Curse

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.

14 thoughts on “The Hilliker Curse

  1. Sorry to hear you’re not well. I hope at least that your vast stockpile will provide some comfort as you recover.

    This book would not be for me. One paragraph and I was mentally throwing it across the room. (The only other book I ever did that to was Catch-22, which probably says more about me than about the book!)

  2. Get well, dear Litlove!! Yes, do take the opportunity to recover with reading!

    Ellroy’s memoir does sound rather odd, but I’ll admit I also read this and thought, ‘This guy would make a fabulous character in a novel.’ Just a ghastly man about the house.

    Idiom is a very funny thing, isn’t it? An American friend once told me she could barely understand a word I was saying.

  3. Sorry to hear that you’re not feeling well. Wishing you a speedy recovery if that’s what you’d like (or a slow one where you get to read in bed and generally get looked after a little). I really enjoyed this review and I wish you’d been at the talk so we could have had your impressions of the insightless but entertaining macho man himself. I love the way you sum up his psychology in a few words. X marks the spot indeed. You see – this is why we’ll never let you give up blogging. Where else would we get to read such entertaining reviews?

  4. But you have put me off, sorry. You have, however, made me very curious about this Gerard de Nerval character who I’ve never even heard of before, so it all balances out in the end! And it’s terrific that you and your husband now have a book you’ve both read to argue about (not that you sound an argumentative couple or anything – it just sounds like a divisive book.)Hope you feel better soon, and enjoy the enforced langour while you have it!

  5. That’s just a brilliant, wholly enjoyable summary of the Ellroy phenomenon. Thank you. PS: And it’s also just such a pleasure to read words which one agrees with, especially when it comes to disliking something ;–)

  6. Got a big chuckle out of Mr. Litlove’s summation. I think the point of the book, for you, is to make you appreciate all that you read in its wake in a whole new way. And I hope you feel better soon!

  7. Oh my, when I saw the cover I thought to myself: Litlove meets Ellroy, whatever can come out of that?? I was sure you wouldn’t like it though, but I doubt you started with a good sample of his writing (and being sick doesn’t help – hope you get well soon!). It’s definitely a male point of view but I don’t think it’s only for male readership because I confess I kind of like it (I enjoyed American Tabloid, Black Dahlia and LA Confidential when I was younger, less shocked by graphic violence etc.), especially the weird language / tirade. It’s like a crazy incantation. I read it in translation because otherwise I don’t get anything at all. Good to know that native English speakers don’t get it either ;)!

  8. Heh, baffled by American slang! That reminds me when my husband and I stayed with some friends of the family in London once and they were making dinner for us and asked if we liked aubergines. Much comedy ensued until the vegetable in question was finally displayed and we discovered it was eggplant. Funny how we can all be speaking English but still not understand each other (though some of those slang words you listed are Yiddish). I hope you are resting and feel better soon.

  9. Ellroy has spent his life searching for the woman who would be The One, in a madly romantic, but often mostly barking mad way.

    That cracked me up.

    And if that quote is typical of most of the book, the bizarre mix of slang from several generations must make for a baffling read indeed. It’s a curious author who will put “Splitsville” and “mainline” in the same series of thoughts.

  10. Charlotte – I got to the end, but I can’t count the number of times I stopped and wondered whether I could bear it. I have now erased Catch-22 off my list, as if it is anything like this, I could live without it. And thank you for your kind wishes. I find my stockpile helps with EVERYthing.

    Karen – thank you! I am feeling a bit better, gradually. And isn’t it hard to know what is going to hit the spot when reading? Part of me is intrigued to read one of Ellroy’s novels, and part of me is yelling ‘Noooo, run away!’

    Gentle Reader – aahhhhhh! thank you! I did wonder. Mister Litlove read it and said he felt quite affectionate towards him by the end, and I thought, ‘Eh?’ so, yes, definitely a gender divide over here. Are you back posting again? I do hope so!

    Doctordi – oh I’d love to see you metamorphose Ellroy into a character. You are quite right, he is rich cannon fodder in that respect. It’s been a while since I remembered that America and the UK are divided by a common language, but this brought it all back! 🙂 And thank you for the kind wishes, I am still a bit under the weather, but hoping to struggle out soon.

    Pete – awww hugs to you! Actually, I really wished I’d heard him talk, and even more so when I’d read the book. It would have been very enlightening, I think. In fact, I should get out more, generally. But I still feel a bit grim – I do like your perspective on the advantages of that. I will focus on it! 🙂

    Baker’s daughter – no you have us just right! We both loathe rows, but we love a good bicker over a book. And Gerard de Nerval is a weird, fascinating, odd, extraordinary writer. The best place to start if you can get hold of it, is with Les Filles du feu (girls of fire, or some such translation), a series of linked short stories about women he has dreamed about and dreamed with (fantasised sounds too scurrilous and crude for romantic Nerval). Otherwise Aurelia is all about the dream world he lived in whilst mad. Pretty much any of his prose is interesting, but approach the poems with caution. Some love them, others find them rebarbative. I’d love to know what you think if you do read him!

    Bee – lol! I know what you mean. Somehow it’s always really comforting to think someone else shares your dislikes! And thank you for the lovely compliment. 🙂

    Ben – lol to you, too! That is one extremely good way of looking at it. I read May Sarton after Ellroy and adored it. So you are quite right.

    Lilian – oh thank you! I am still feeling a bit grim, but trying to take it easy (and so still way behind – aaghh!). It was a very strange book and yet I’m still sort of tempted to read one of his novels. Sort of.

    Smithereens – oh my, I could not possibly understand a book like this if it were written in French! It would be impenetrable! I confess I stood in the bookstore and looked over Ellroy’s novels and thought that The Black Dahlia looked like it was three-quarters English I could understand, and that L. A. Confidential was a little less, and so get the general impression that his language has become more and more stylised over time. I might read one of the novels, though, if I’m in a noir mood…

    Stefanie – Oh I love that kind of story. A friend of mine, Mary, who’d lived in the States for years but is Irish told me about hosting her American friends and how they were befuddled in a restaurant when asked ‘Are you in the queue for the loos?’ Mary translated in the end ‘Are you standing in line for the bathroom?’ It only takes a word here and there…!

    David – lol! Too right! And yes, it was the sense of hybridity of slang, a real mishmash (not that I could place it or trace it) that made it so trippy. I’m reassured if you think you might find it baffling too! 🙂

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