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James Ellroy and David Peace: History Repeats Itself

August 24, 2013
James Ellroy and David Peace. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe

James Ellroy and David Peace. Photograph: Eamonn McCabe

I have never liked football, so I won’t be reading David Peace’s latest novel Red or Dead about Bill Shankly’s tenure as manager of Liverpool Football Club, although judging by the reviews so far even the most diehard football fan would struggle to wade through this 700 page plus epic tome. Iain Macintosh reviews the book in the Mirror and slams Peace’s mind-numbingly repetitive prose style. Here is a passage from the novel he quotes from:

Every morning Liverpool Football Club trained in the wind. Liverpool Football Club played in the wind. And Liverpool Football Club beat Arsenal Football Club in the wind. Every morning Liverpool Football Club trained in the rain. Liverpool Football Club played in the rain. And Liverpool Football Club beat Leyton Orient Football Club in the rain. Every morning Liverpool Football Club trained in the mud. Liverpool Football Club played in the mud. And Liverpool Football Club beat Birmingham City Football Club in the mud.

And he adds wearily, ‘It goes on like this all the way down the page with every conceivable meteorological condition carefully catalogued until you’re screaming, “For the love of God, man! Just say FC!”’

I admire David Peace. He has written excellent historical crime fiction, and when I saw him speak in Belfast a few years ago he came across as intelligent and charming. He is well known for being a fan of James Ellroy, and you can some of the themes of Ellroy’s LA Quartet transplanted into Peace’s Red Riding Quartet. Peace’s novel on the miner’s strike GB84 (2004) looks back on that event as a form of endless cycle of conspiracies, not dissimilar, although smaller in scale, to Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy. Of course the similarities in their work go further than just theme and plotting, Peace has been heavily influenced by Ellroy’s sparse, reductive prose style, and this seems to be where he has gone wrong with Red or Dead. Peace has always dabbled with a certain clipped prose, giving the reader fragments of thought and dialogue, and gradually this style has become more concise, and this is where it seems history has repeated itself, and repeated itself, and repeated itself. According to story by Nat Sobel, James Ellroy came across his now signature prose style almost by accident after an editor demanded he make cuts to LA Confidential (1990), but he was reluctant to lose a single character or scene:

James came to my house to talk about what we could do about it. I had the manuscript on the desk in front of me, and as a joke I said to James, ‘Well, maybe we could cut out a few small words.’ I meant it entirely as a joke. But I started going through a manuscript page and cut out about a dozen words on the page. James said, ‘Give me that.’ I gave him the page. And he just kept cutting. He was cutting and cutting and cutting. When he was done with the page, it looked like a redacted piece from the CIA. I said, ‘James, how would they be able to read this?’ He said, ‘Let me read you the page.’ It was terrific. He said, ‘I know what I have to do.’ He took the whole manuscript back and cut hundreds of pages from the book and developed the style. That editor never knew what we had to do, but she forced him into creating this special Ellroy style, which his reputation as a stylist is really based on. It came from her, sight unseen, saying ‘Cut 25 percent of the book.’ He wound up cutting enough without cutting a single scene from that book.

Personally, I think Ellroy’s style had been evolving for some time, and there is a danger to putting it all down to a sudden epiphany. In any event, Ellroy achieved great critical acclaim with his new writing style, and he continued to adapt it with great success in his novels White Jazz (1992) and American Tabloid (1995). Then, in 2001 The Cold Six Thousand was published and this is where many Ellroy fans and critics thought he had taken the style to far. Here’s an example:

He saw Fed cars. He saw Fed surveillance. Feds perched down the road. Feds watched the meets. Feds checked licence plates.

Local Feds – non-FBI – Dwight Holly’s boys.

Wayne Senior was distracted. Wayne Senior was tract-obsessed. Wayne Senior missed the heat. Wayne Senior talked. Wayne Senior torqued Wayne. Wayne Senior worked to impress.

Does this look at all familiar to the quote from Red or Dead? Sure, there is the lack of adverbs, adjectives and conjunctions which is a hallmark of Ellroy’s style but by refusing to allow any modifications to the sentence, he dooms the book to a dreary repetition, just as Peace has done with his latest work. Incidentally, The Cold Six Thousand is also around the 700 page mark, so we have an idea where this style takes us in terms of length. I know fellow Ellroy fans who gave up reading the novel halfway through. I have read it twice now, and I like it, but that’s because it covers five years of fascinating American history from 1963 to 1968. The story is strong enough to forgive the stylistic indulgences and there are moments in the novel where the style actually helps the action come alive. Still, it’s a grueling read and Ellroy has practically disowned it in some interviews. In his latest novel, Blood’s a Rover (2009), he returned to a more engaging style. Many fans breathed a sigh of relief, perhaps Peace should do the same. Even football fans would admit that the game can be boring at times, but its easier to forgive occasional stretches of boredom in a ninety minute football game than it is in a pretentious magnum opus about the sport. Besides, a boring game might come alive suddenly, Peace seems to have to a style too rigid for that to happen.

One issue in which there seems to be a big difference between Ellroy and Peace is the two men’s political views. Despite both men writing of the past as a web of conspiracies Ellroy is a conservative, a Tory in his own words, whereas Peace is a man of the left. An article in the New Statesman about the politics of football sums up Peace’s intentions with Red or Dead:

In an interview in the forthcoming edition of the Blizzard, a quarterly in the vanguard of the new, post-Hornby football writing, Peace describes Red or Dead as “a Socialist Book. I think Shankly’s socialism was fundamental and integral to every aspect of his life and work. It was about equality, on and off the pitch, and working for the people and the supporters of Liverpool. It was about communal work for communal success. And I do admire this and lament its absence.” But this is no tiresome jumpers-for-goalposts pining for the muddy pitches, questionable tackling and even more questionable haircuts of a purer, irrecoverable past. As one reviewer has pointed out: “This isn’t a book about the way things were or the way things are. This is a book about the way things should be.”

The irony is Peace may have inadvertently conveyed the worst of socialism. Through its repetition, ideological lack of imagination or pragmatism, and complete contempt for what the reader wants Red or Dead is the least communal book imaginable. Iain Macintosh concludes his review of the novel:

And so Iain sighed. Iain closed the book. Iain lifted the book above his head. Iain brought the book down on his head with as much force as he could muster. Iain slipped into the sweet, sweet embrace of unconsciousness.

Peace is a great writer, but it seems like he deserves a critical drubbing for Red or Dead. You never know, maybe he’ll receive a phone call from a fellow writer from across the pond who’ll tell him, “Don’t worry pal, I’ve been there.”

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