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Ellroy Contradictions

July 23, 2018

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter…

I recently asked James Ellroy “What role does contradiction play in the noir universe?”  On such matters, Ellroy is characteristically curt and vague—satisfying the question with a throwaway line, occasionally suffused with an even briefer anecdote that is often never completed, and instead rudely interrupted by one of the Demon Dog’s trademark guttural grunts.

Contradiction, as any longtime fan and student of Ellroy knows, is as emblematic and germane to the Demon Dog as his over-the-top egotism, profanity, and love of promotion, and no interaction with Ellroy would be complete without it.

To try to understand—or even map the terrain of—Ellroy’s contradictory nature, it helps to look deeply at the genre which gave the Demon Dog a career.

In film noir, the contradictions are abundant:  The cop who is often as corrupt—or even more corrupt—than the criminals he pursues…The politician who publicly chastises incompetence while privately struggling to contain his own staggering ineptitude…The young married couple who hide a seething mutual bitterness and boredom (with attendant infidelities) behind a fatuously felicitous front.

Implicit within noir’s many contradictions (or perhaps the very backbone of such dissonance) is the disingenuous duplicity for which Ellroy has no tolerance…  This is an important matter to him—disingenuous people behaving disingenuously populate every single book he’s written, whether it’s demented Black Dahlia patriarch Emmet Sprague touting his bravery (when in fact, we learn Mr. Sprague is quite the usurious coward) or the willful parental dismissal embedded within the ambiguous paternity of the Herrick and Kafesjian children from White Jazz.

Noir depicts human existence as a disillusioned trek through corrupt, incompetent and decomposing societal systems.  Narratives are highly ironic, and as American philosopher Robert Pippin has noted, character focus is typically on that of a deftly deceptive, cunningly crafty anti-hero, who is also quite ruthless.  This anti-hero bears more than a passing resemblance to a young Lee Earle Ellroy, bombing around and making mischief—in between library book binges—in late 1960s L.A.

Noir also explores the constant theme of being trapped—either by a brutal bureaucracy, or even a self-bondage—trapping yourself within the confines of the public image you have constructed of yourself.  With Ellroy, that image is clearly his ubiquitous Demon Dog persona—an act so practiced and second nature to him, that it was (unfortunately and unnecessarily) a distracting, fourth-wall-shattering, and all-but-primary character in his last two novels Blood’s A Rover and Perfidia.

Ellroy has said in countless interviews that ever since he was a child, he’s craved attention.  As he mercilessly details in his autobiography My Dark Places, Ellroy went to great and often ridiculous lengths to make a spectacle of himself as a boy.  In a 2001 60 Minutes interview, Ellroy told Charlie Rose that his younger self was the “poster child for the ‘if-you-can’t-love-me-notice-me’ chapter in every child psychology text book.”  In the same interview, while discussing his tumultuous twenties, Ellroy describes his self-esteem then as “low, but obsessively optimistic.”  Rose notes the contradiction, and Ellroy affirms it, explaining away the deadlock with “I had this crazy notion at the height of my self-degradation that I was a pretty smart guy, and a capable guy underneath it all.”

To consider Ellroy’s behavior under a noir context, film noir often features characters with no conscious idea of why they act as they do.  And while these characters might protest otherwise, as Pippin has noted, the films often present evidence indicating that any rationalizations for their motives often run perpendicular to their actions.  In other words, a contradiction.

A common noir motif is a character’s quest to make the intentional look accidental.  This is a plot cornerstone for Billy Wilder’s 1944 noir Double Indemnity, which Ellroy has listed as one of his favorite noirs. Could Ellroy’s contradictory nature then simply be a low-key dimension of his Demon Dog persona?  An intentional gimmick dressed as spontaneity? Ellroy has defined his famous act as “a calculated character that’s about 7% of who I am.”

Heraclitus wrote that “Character is fate.” Ellroy parodied this notion once to filmmaker Reinhart Jud when the Demon Dog said “Character is fake.  And the ‘character’ of my characters influences what’s going to happen to them.”  Could this also include James Ellroy himself?

Ellroy has stated many times that he created the Demon Dog persona as a promotional tool to boost book sales and raise his media profile.  Looking at the persona from a noir perspective, it seems like Ellroy has become lost (or rather, submerged) in the act… A few manipulative actions have snowballed into a monstrous—and quite demonic force—that even Ellroy can no longer control.  Noir often shows us this same paradigm—an endlessly ricocheting collision between the stubborn stasis of the past, and an unstoppable and uncontainable future.

Ellroy’s contradictions may also be the Demon Dog’s mimicry of the alienation and tension noir leaves spectators with, when they see characters also struggling ambiguously and quite deliberately without any of the familiar psychological characteristics moviegoers are accustomed to.  As Pippin has noted, what so often happens in these moments of dissonance, is that your own self-ascribed character traits are unrecognizably different from how you interpreted and presented them as, and are thus not nearly as immovable and unchangeable as you thought.

Such dissonance has fueled the long-standing argument that film noir is in fact not a legitimate genre, and instead, an ever-evolving celluloid concept that incorporated retroactively the insight and wisdom of its critics and analysts.  Ellroy himself seemed to reference this very point when he told Ron Hogan in a 1995 interview, “every interview I give is an opportunity to puncture the myth I’ve created about my work and refine it.”

The anthropologist David Berliner has argued that contradictions are an integral component to the human experience.  In fact, Berliner believes the psychological dissonance created by contradictions just may be a necessary catalyst for kick-starting imagination and progress.  We have all seen this process at work in nature, when opposing fault lines collide, and only a violent earthquake can resolve the impasse, giving way to new, though tenuously unified ground.

Berliner goes on to argue that such progress is a product of the brain’s efforts to resolve such oppositions, or—phrased another way—to establish closure. Ellroy readers will recognise closure as the fatuously expeditious and dismissive concept that Ellroy has labored to destroy for nearly 40 years.

I don’t recall the first moment I encountered Ellroy’s direct contradictory nature—whether it was an interview, a videotaped book introduction, or one of the countless websites devoted to the Demon Dog—but when I met Ellroy for the first time in 2009 on his Blood’s A Rover tour, I was already well versed in Ellroy’s elliptical and contradictory public persona.  On that particular evening, October 22, 2009, after spending the better part of an hour absolutely excoriating the Internet and all things cyberspace, the Demon Dog incredulously invited all of us to be his Facebook friends. (This was, of course, before Ellroy’s memorable admonishment of and exit from the social media juggernaut.)

In a brief afterword to the recently disgraced Bill O’Reilly’s 2002 book The No Spin Zone, the Demon Dog explicitly stated that he tuned in nightly to O’Reilly’s Fox News program while holed up in Kansas writing The Cold Six Thousand. Personally, I’ve never cared for Mr. O’Reilly. But, up until then, I had seen and read enough Ellroy interviews to believe the Demon Dog proudly lives sans television. This is something that Ellroy has repeated ad nauseum in the years since (“I don’t own a fucking television!”).

Religion is yet another matter in which Ellroy is a chaotic mass of contradictions:  Ellroy is a devout Christian who has made his zero-tolerance abhorrence of atheists and antitheists clear on countless occasions.  And yet—if you spend any length of time with Ellroy, you will invariably hear him quote from legendary antitheist (and fellow Vanity Fair scribe) Christopher Hitchens—who authored an exceptional 2007 book baring the bluntly Ellrovian title God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  Hitchens, who died in 2011, was famous for absolutely demolishing his opponents in a debate (a signature move that came to be known as the Hitch Slap). It really would’ve been something to see Ellroy spar with Hitchens, as each man was as relentless as the other, neither willing to give an inch.

Blood’s A Rover was partially inspired by Ellroy’s torrid affair with a Jewish Marxist atheist named Joan—a woman who did such a number on the Demon Dog, that she (and her fictional counterpart) would inspire the apostatic shifts which dominate Rover’s latter half—when Ellroy’s tough guy right wingers get swept up in radical left-leaning causes and improbable inter-racial relationships—jarring contradictions to their former racist and right-wing selves. Though, as with so many of Ellroy’s characters, their misdeeds of the past will ultimately return to violently claim them, drowning out and expunging any new-found progress.

I asked Ellroy about the Joan juncture recently.  “How did you reconcile [Joan’s atheism]?  Because you’ve always had a legendary intolerance for atheists.”  Ellroy laughed, “I wanted it, man!” he said. “I wanted it!”  There’s certainly no denying that intense romantic desire will make even the staunchest men break their own rules, which in noir is a move that often precipitates their total destruction. The fragility of character is on display here, as this ultimate temptation (Joan) eventually reveals how unstable and unreliable those rules were all along.

Ellroy also told me that the pastor at his L.A. church advised him that “If you’re going to call someone a ‘cocksucker’, or ‘motherfucker’, at least follow it up with ‘God bless him,’ and you’ll be absolved.” I’ve seen the Demon Dog put this perverse reverse blessing into practice many times… “He’s a cocksucker, but God bless him.”  

Ellroy’s longtime publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, even poked fun at and implicitly referenced their famous client’s contradictory ways with their introduction to an advanced reader’s copy of Blood’s A Rover, calling the book an “incendiary stand-alone sequel.”

The Demon Dog’s contradictory nature finds its way into social settings too.  I had dinner with Ellroy at a swank Denver steakhouse in August, 2016, and as we each sawed our way through 26-ounce Cajun Delmonico, I couldn’t resist asking Ellroy about his brief stint as a vegetarian.  “Weren’t you a vegetarian for a while?”  “I was,” he replied.  “I love all animals…”  Extolling the virtues of vegetarianism while wolfing a monstrous cut of steak—as Ellroy’s GAY Edgar Hoover might say “I will not comment on the attendant irony.”

After experiencing Ellroy’s signature brand of literary virtuosity, particularly his compulsive focus on inexorable violence and bleak outcomes, an easy criticism of Ellroy is to call him a pessimist—plenty of people already have—and the Demon Dog counters such labeling with a stern rebuke (“I am not pessimistic, I am optimistic! I ignore the world to stay optimistic.”)  Interviewer Nicolas Alvarado recently suggested that Ellroy read relentlessly pessimistic philosopher Emil Cioran. Ellroy was so offended by the suggestion and Alvarado’s aggressive tone that he terminated the interview abruptly and stomped out of the room. I asked Ellroy about this interview recently, and reminded him how he walked out. Ellroy claimed not to remember, but looked somewhat embarrassed when I told him the interview was available on YouTube. “Great!” he said, with an almost exhausted dissatisfaction.  “That’s just what I need!”

When you sit at the right hand of the Demon Dog, it’s a shotgun seat to a wiillld ride through the sordid back alleyways of history… It’s also a prime perch to witness Ellroy’s contradictory nature in full force. I see Ellroy at least once every month, and all too often, half our conversations are about books he’s currently reading or re-reading.  And yet, Ellroy has endlessly told interviewers that he doesn’t read the works of others, despite also being a generous blurber. While promoting The Hilliker Curse, he told TIME magazine’s Rebecca Keegan that “you have to read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read and read, and as you read for enjoyment and edification, unconsciously, you assimilate the rudiments of style and technique… it’s an informal education that is oddly formal,” when she asked him if people are born good writers, echoing Stephen King’s oft-repeated point that “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or tools to write.” Keegan, seeing a contradiction, then astutely asks Ellroy what exactly he reads, citing how the Demon Dog’s office contains just multiple copies of his own novels.  Ellroy admits that he “hasn’t read in a very, very long time… I fear and dislike intrusions… I live in a world of my own cultural creation.”

In an examination of Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 noir Out of the Past, Robert Pippin offers an analysis of the film’s ill-fated protagonist, Jeff Bailey, that applies so unmistakably well to Ellroy, it’s difficult to remember these words were written about a fictional character:  “Jeff is a victim of his own actions, and his own actions are so both multiply and obscurely motivated, that they are barely ‘his own’, but they still remain his, attributable to him.  In all these senses, he is trapped by himself, by what he does, and who he happens to be.”

Jason Carter

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