I finally read Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991) earlier this year. It had been on my bookshelf for ages, but I was rather intimated by its reputation for gory violence, so I put off reading it. Friends of mine who read the novel said it made them feel physically sick. Anyway, having read it, I can see why American Psycho is considered such a brilliant work, but I did feel Ellis went too far with the gory images. Patrick Bateman is an investment banker in late 1980s New York. By day he obsesses over his routine, which seems to include very little working and mostly indulging his taste for clothes, drugs and fashionable restaurants. Bateman’s string of consciousness narration can go on endlessly about these things and to the most minute detail. There’s a great deal of black humour here. Bateman and his colleagues swagger around like pre-Revolutionary French Aristocrats. There is another side to Bateman that he hides from his colleagues and from his fiancee. Whether he is acting the role of a yuppie or that of a serial killer, Bateman seems to be the walking embodiment of the banality of evil. Be warned, this novel is not for the squeamish, and it tends to get more violent as it goes on. There is a startling twist in the conclusion (which I won’t give away here). I will say,however, it’s not the sort of twist that throws attention from one suspect to another, but rather one that questions the status of the entire text. It’s what you might call Keyser Soze syndrome, although American Psycho was published four years before Soze appeared (or did he?) in The Usual Suspects. Reading this novel after the 2008 economic crash only adds to it prophetic feel, although perhaps Ellis’ negative view of Wall Street and consumerist society is just too simplistic.
For me, the highlight of the novel was the short essays on Bateman’s favourite pop groups– Genesis, Whitney Houston and Huey Lewis and the News– which appear sporadically in the narrative, although I was left slightly puzzled as to the reason for their inclusion. Was Ellis trying to say that Bateman’s love of music was every bit as shallow and consumerist as his other obsessions (some of Bateman’s musical analysis is hilariously superficial) or does it point to a deeper side to him? According to this essay in The Tech it is definitely the former: ‘Being a vapid soul, he likes only the most vapid bands [...] By taking these pop bands so seriously, so analytically, Ellis succeeds in showing just how soulless and transparent these bands are.’ Still, if the essays are deliberately flawed, they are still as well written as anything you would find in a music magazine, and are a joy to read in what can be a gruelling book. Below, I’ve quoted some passages on music from the novel and embedded the relevant group’s music video.
My favourite track is “Man on the Corner,” which is the only song credited solely to Collins, a moving ballad with a pretty synthesized melody plus a riveting drum machine in the background. Though it could easily come off any of Phil’s solo albums, because the themes of loneliness, paranoia and alienation are overly familiar to Genesis it evokes the band’s hopeful humanism. “Man on the Corner” profoundly equates a relationship with a solitary figure (a bum, perhaps a poor homeless person?), “that lonely man on the corner” who just stands around.
The ballad “Saving All My Love for You” is the sexiest, most romantic song on the record. It also has a killer saxophone solo by Tom Scott and one can hear the influences of sixties girl-group pop in it (it was cowritten by Gerry Goffin) but the sixties girl groups were never this emotional or sexy (or as well produced) as this song is.
Huey Lewis and the News
“Give Me the Keys (And I’ll Drive You Crazy)” is a good-times blues rocker about (what else?) driving around, incorporating the album’s theme in a much more playful way than previous songs on the album did, and though lyrically it might seem impoverished, it’s still a sign that the new “serious” Lewis – that Huey the artist – hasn’t totally lost his frisky sense of humour.
The controversial appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission brought to mind two novels I read recently. Both could be described as Eurosceptic thrillers and feature the European Union greatly increasing its powers through the office of an EU President. I first wrote about Eurosceptic crime fiction for the British Politics Review and examined this increasingly promising genre through the works of conservative writers such as Andrew Roberts, Michael Dobbs and Alan Judd. Since then, I’ve been on the lookout for anti-EU novels by authors on the other side of the political spectrum. I’ve haven’t quite found them, but I have discovered an interesting diversity of opinion, i.e. degrees of Euroscepticism.
Firstly, we have the Icelandic thriller Vulture’s Lair (2012) by Hallur Hallson. The 2008 economic crisis was particularly severe in Iceland, and their poor financial state prompted Iceland’s political class to discuss the possibility of joining the EU. This prospect seems to have filled Hallson with dread. Set in a dystopic future where the Icelandic Republic has been abolished and become a mere province in the ‘Great European Empire’, Vulture’s Lair includes a myriad of sub-plots, which mostly revolve around Krummi, a patriotic fisherman who begins the narrative making a minor protest in Brussels against EU regulations. Krummi is eventually spurred on to uncover a vast conspiracy with parallels to the assassination of JFK.
Perhaps something is lost in translation, although its impressive to think that one in ten Icelanders have written and published a book, but I struggled through large sections of this novel. Hallson seems much more at ease propagating nationalism than other Eurosceptic writers I have read, and the novel is just bogged down by too much preachy flag-waving. That being said, there are some wonderfully diverting passages on Icelandic poetry and folklore, and the plot really picks up to an exciting climax if you can wade through the first two-thirds.
Do you remember Nigel Farage’s ill-judged comments about people not wanting Romanian neighbours? Adam Lebor’s The Budapest Protocol (2009) provides a nice antidote to them. Another dystopic thriller set in a Europe where the EU has greatly increased its power and the first directly elected President of Europe holds crypto-fascist views, Lebor wrote The Budapest Protocol to highlight the plight of the Romani or Roma people in Central Europe. Indeed, a donation of every copy sold goes to the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims in Torture. In the novel, Alex Farkas is a British journalist based in Hungary, much like Lebor. After the murder of his grandfather, Farkas begins to investigate a conspiracy centered round the titular document, which turns out to be an agreement signed by Nazis in the last days of the Second World War to create a Fourth Reich through a new economic empire (if you think that’s far-fetched read some of Lebor’s research on this issue). Part of the narrative concerns sinister plans to implement a mass sterilisation of the Romani population under the guise of being a fingerprinting program. Lebor is a writer who writes movingly and sympathetically about ethnic minorities. The appendix documents real cases of abuse against the Roma people including sterilisation.
All in all, two very interesting Eurosceptic thrillers. Although if any readers could highlight some more examples from this small but growing genre I’d like to hear from you.
WordPress have notified me that it has been five years since Chris Routledge and I started the Venetian Vase together. At first the stats were low. It wasn’t until I wrote a piece on the wonderful book A Friendship: The Letters of Dan Rowan and John D. MacDonald 1967-1974 that we started to build a readership, and I began to see blogs were a great place to publish original research. Thanks to everyone whose either been regular reader or just dropped by, and here’s to the next five years.
Perhaps it’s a sign of old age, but I’m looking forward to reading the critical reaction to James Ellroy’s new novel Perfidia almost as much as I’m looking forward to reading the novel. Ellroy has always been a canny writer in generating critical interest. On the one hand he is a wild man figure, the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction decked out in garish Hawaiian shirts, spouting outrageous right-wing views and howling like a dog. And yet to many critics his writing transcends the crime genre and becomes something much more powerful. In France, his books are read as social commentary, and his deep knowledge of poetry is all too often overlooked despite frequent poetic allusions in his novels.
Ellroy’s skill as a publicist has been to merge these two roles, so the reader, critic or interviewer will never quite know how he will react and whether or not he is being sincere, or performing, or both. In his essay ‘Where I Get My Weird Shit’, Ellroy describes a period in the mid-1970s when his search for creative inspiration coincided with some of his worst experiences of drug and alcohol abuse:
I read books and shagged epigrams and insights. T.S. Eliot. Highbrow shit. “We only live, only suspire, consumed by either fire or fire.” A classy fuck flick: The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann.
The Eliot quote, taken from ‘Little Gidding’ in Four Quartets, was to be the epigram of Ellroy’s unpublished novel ‘LA Death Trip’. The novel was extensively rewritten and re-titled Blood on the Moon (1984), with the Eliot epigram dropped in favour of a quote from Richard II. The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann (1974) was a hardcore porn film directed by Radley Metzger and starring Barbara Bourbon in the eponymous role. I will leave it to Ellroy to describe the plot to you:
Pam Mann’s a horndog. She’s a passive punchboard and a seductress. She’s a nympho candide. She’s the poster girl for ‘70s excess. She fucks half of New York City in one day and comes home to fuck her husband. He’s the best. She really loves him. Her day was satire and a goof on inclusion. Sex is everything and nothing.
I haven’t seen the film (you’ll just have to take my word on that), but I have read up on it and there is a further twist (no pun intended) to the ending which I won’t reveal here. One of Ellroy’s first jobs was at the Porno Villa Bookstore, but he was fired after stealing from the till. Really, when you can’t trust pornographers what’s the world come to? Let’s assume Ellroy came across The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann while he was working at the Porno Villa. It clearly left an impression on him, not just due to the ample charms of Barbara Bourbon, but because it was a memorable film with a strong story. Years later, he would weave the themes of pornography and voyeurism into his work. There are innumerable examples from his novels. The snuff film which features in the second Lloyd Hopkins novel Because the Night (1985) is memorably grisly.
The Eliot epigram from ‘Little Gidding’ never appeared in one of his novels; however, a writer as powerful as Eliot could easily influence Ellroy’s work in more ways than a mere epigram. Eliot, incidentally, was a keen reader of crime and detective fiction, so Ellroy’s admiration for him seems apt. As David E. Chinitz wrote in A Companion to T.S. Eliot (2009), Eliot may have preferred genre fiction to more serious, literary forms:
The fiction he (Eliot) admitted to reading was of another sort: the comic stories of P.G. Wodehouse, and the detective novels of Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie and others. Eliot was in reality no friend of the sacralization of high culture that readers came to associate with him
I believe that the image of Ellroy (even if it is very carefully crafted by the author) working at the Porno Villa and jumping between porn and T.S. Eliot for creative inspiration as he nurtured his dreams of becoming a great crime writer, should appeal to fans of books of all genres.
I have found a trailer for The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann. Apart from the grating narration, it does seem like a very good, Woody Allen-like, film:
I mentioned in a previous post that I’ll be talking about George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman Papers on Wednesday, August 6th, 1pm, at Waterstones Liverpool One as part of their ‘Lunchtime Classics’ series. Here’s the itinerary of speakers, and works they cover, in the series: All talks begin at 1pm.
Weds 4th June: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Presented by Glyn Morgan (University of Liverpool).
Weds 11th June: Exegesis by Philip K. Dick. Presented by Nicole McDonald (University of Liverpool).
Thurs 19th June: House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds. Presented by Dr Will Slocombe (University of Liverpool). In Association with CRSF (Current Research in Speculative Fiction).
Tues 24th June: Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams. Presented by Lee Rooney (University of Liverpool).
Weds 2nd July: Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole. Presented by Bethan Roberts (University of Liverpool). 250th Anniversary Special.
Mon 7th July: Waverley by Walter Scott. Presented by Dr Diana Powell (University of Liverpool). 200th Anniversary Special.
Weds 16th July: The Napoleon of Notting-Hill by G.K. Chesterton. Presented by Leimar Garcia-Siino (University of Liverpool).
Tues 22nd July: Fountains of Neptune by Rikki Ducornet. Presented by Maria Shmygol (University of Liverpool).
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, the chances are you read the work of James Ellroy, and if you’re an Ellroy fan, I have a question – have you heard the name Randy Rice? I began my PhD on Ellroy by studying the hundreds of interviews Ellroy has given over the course of his career. One name popped up regularly in Ellroy’s recollections: Randy Rice. Rice was Ellroy’s closest friend during his years of drug and alcohol abuse. They shared many of the same vices, but when Rice got sober this gave Ellroy the confidence to follow his lead. Despite this, I didn’t think Rice warranted much attention in a study of Ellroy. He appeared at first to be merely a footnote in Ellroy’s life. It was only when I was editing Conversations with James Ellroy (2012) that I began to think otherwise. Rice seems to be a ubiquitous presence in Ellroy’s life in the 1970s, and an allusive presence in his early novels, and in this blogpost I’m going to examine the level of his influence on Ellroy.
However, I should confess what I don’t know about Rice. I don’t know his date of birth or what he did for a living (I would guess, like Ellroy, he was unemployed for long periods of time). I’ve not been able to find a photograph, so I’ve no idea what he looked like. All I know for sure is that he was Ellroy’s friend, and this is, I believe, what’s important. Interviewer Paul Duncan described Rice as a ‘childhood friend’ of Ellroy’s, and this French website puts the year they met as 1961. In his second memoir, The Hilliker Curse (2010), Rice pops up briefly when Ellroy describes how he once sold his own blood plasma, got drunk on the money with Rice at the Pacific Palisades, and then woke up days later in bed with a woman who ‘weighed three bills easy’. To make matters more surreal, he discovered he was in San Francisco and had absolutely no recollection how he had got there. In an interview with Martin Kihn, Ellroy describes how he was living on the rooftop of Rice’s apartment building ‘at Pico and Robertson in West Los Angeles’ in 1975 when he began screaming uncontrollably and suffering hallucinations. Rice called an ambulance and, by doing so, may well have saved Ellroy’s life. A doctor diagnosed Ellroy has having post-alcoholic brain syndrome, ironically a consequence of the sobriety Rice had urged him to pursue. In the documentary Feast of Death (2001), Ellroy describes how he invented ‘Dog Humour’ with Rice. Ellroy fans will recognise Dog Humour from his interviews, book readings and even sections of his fiction. It has to be seen to be believed, but I would describe it as Ellroy developing his own schtick by being deliberately provocative and offensive in every conceivable way: sexually, politically, racially. Once every possible taboo has been broken the reader or audience will realise Ellroy is being tongue-in-cheek, relax and enjoy the humour on its own level. To be clear, I enjoy Dog Humor, and I don’t think for a moment that Ellroy is a bigot, although I can understand why some people have jumped to that conclusion.
Rice’s influence on Ellroy in formulating Dog Humour indicates that he was to have a considerable, but until now, unseen effect on Ellroy’s writing career. In an interview with Don Swaim, Ellroy said he and Rice would ‘spend HOURS hashing over the Black Dahlia case and talking about crime fiction.’ In Ellroy’s debut novel Brown’s Requiem (1981), which is dedicated to Rice, the titular character Fritz Brown’s closest friend is an unemployed alcoholic named Walter. For all his flaws, Brown regards Walter as an extraordinary person:
Walter has taken fantasy into the dimension of genius. His is pure verbal fantasy: Walter has never written, filmed, or composed anything. Nonetheless, in his perpetual T-Bird haze he can transform his wino fantasies into insights and parables that touch at the quick of life. On his good days, that is. On his bad ones he can sound like a high school kid wired up on bad speed. I hoped he was on today, for I was exhilarated myself, and felt the need of his stimulus: the power of a Walter epigram can clarify the most puzzling day.
As Ellroy based Brown on himself, there is no doubt in my mind that he based Walter on Randy Rice. At the end of the novel, Walter dies of cirrhosis of the liver and Brown is left devastated. In Ellroy’s second novel, Clandestine (1982), there is a minor character named Randy Rice, a mailman who provides the leading character, Freddy Underhill, with some information pertaining to a murder investigation. However, Rice’s appearance is fleeting and Underhill’s friendship with a fellow police officer who is killed in action may have been more closely based on Ellroy’s friendship with Rice. In an interview Rodney Taveira, Ellroy describes how a visit to the cinema with Rice gave him the inspiration for the character of Danny Upshaw, an investigator who begins to doubt his sexuality, in the novel The Big Nowhere (1988):
Here’s the genesis of Danny Upshaw: my buddy Randy Rice and I went to see the William Friedkin movie Cruising. So he’s a young cop, presumably heterosexual, played by Al Pacino, and there’s gay killings in Greenwich Village circa 1980, pre-AIDS and all that.