by James McGirk
After writing a spate of reasonably successful—and very autobiographical—novels, James Ellroy and Martin Amis took the cities surrounding them and used them as test beds, experimenting with new voices and forms and populating this familiar terrain with doppelgangers and villains and foils and sexual obsessions. Amis wrote three novels devoted to northwest London (and the chicer parts of Manhattan) known colloquially as “the London Trilogy”, while Ellroy revisited the Los Angeles neighborhoods he had prowled as a burglar to write his “L.A. Quartet.” Both used cities to refine distinctive writing styles. Yet despite their precocity, these immense literary efforts remain tethered to a biological fact in each of the author’s lives. A fact that pulses through the work and keeps it vital and exciting despite the fact that the novelists have essentially written the same novel over and over again.
James Ellroy’s mother was raped and brutally murdered when he was only ten years old, and the murder remains unsolved. At the time he was about as estranged from his mother as a ten-year-old could possibly be, and claims to have been delighted that she died because he was sent off to live with his father, an indulgent lowlife who passed away not long after. His dad gave him a copy of Jack Webb’s The Badge, and Ellroy became obsessed with a chapter about the murder of Elizabeth Short, better known as The Black Dahlia, a beautiful woman whose unsolved, grisly murder haunted Los Angeles ten years before Ellory’s mother was killed.
Ellroy began his quartet by reconstructing Betty Short’s murder. The Black Dahlia is told from the point of view of a policeman as he investigates Short’s murder. After that Ellroy’s novels become much more ambitious. The second in the series, The Big Nowhere, is narrated by a god-like omniscience, following three characters as they get sucked into a series of strange murders and political intrigue. The third novel, L.A. Confidential traverses eight years of Los Angeles history, ending on approximately the same day that Ellroy’s mother was killed. (Geneva Ellory died June 22, 1958. The last chapter of L.A. Confidential is date-less but occurs after a series of scenes set in April and is titled “After You’ve Gone”). Along the way, Ellroy experiments with techniques to compress information without sacrificing the velocity of his story (i.e. the pie crust), introducing documents, police reports, and newspaper clippings into his story. The final novel in the quartet, White Jazz, abandons traditional narrative completely. It’s impossibly dense with detail and takes the form of a reconstructed file, animated with clipped recollections, and ends with an epilogue that takes his enormous cast of characters and traces their lives back up to the present day.
The prose changes from: “I never knew her in life. She exists for me through others, in evidence of the ways her death drove them” (The first words of The Black Dahlia) to “All I have is the will to remember. Time revoked/fever dreams—I wake up reaching, afraid I’ll forget. Pictures keep the woman young. L.A., fall 1958. Newsprint: link the dots. Names, events—so brutal they beg to be connected. Years down—the story stays dispersed. The names are dead or too guilty to tell.” (First words of White Jazz) The books are so similar: young men obsessed, assembling files, while an unknown killer does horrible things to beautiful women who sometimes live and often die, while the men around them do ugly, conflicted, heroic things.
Taken in one fat dose, the quartet reads as if Ellroy wanted to take Betty Short’s death, take the shock of it, and capture its reverberations through the corrupt police departments, chintzy Hollywood glitz, and lush underworld of the Los Angeles of his youth. Take all of it in, digest it and understand why—why his own life was jangled forever by his mother’s killing. (After White Jazz he went on to write two memoirs about his mother’s killing, My Dark Places and The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women.)
Martin Amis’ life was marred by tragedy, too. His cousin, Lucy Partington, vanished in 1973 (her remains were discovered in 1994, in a serial killer’s basement). And Amis dedicated several of his novels to his sister Sally, who lived a short and troubled life. But if there had to be a single biological idiosyncrasy underpinning the London Trilogy, it would to be Amis coming to terms with being a writer. His father, Kingsley Amis, was, at the time, probably the most important British novelist alive when Martin wrote the London Trilogy. Why else would he spread the apocryphal story about his father refusing to read his early novels? Or tell interviewers Kinglsey hurled the first novel is his unofficial trilogy, Money, across the room the moment a character named Martin Amis was introduced, in other words, the very instant Martin broke away from his father’s high modernist legacy and become postmodern… (Mark O’Connell’s superb essay, “The Arcades Project: Martin Amis’ guide to Classic Video Games,” makes a convincing case for a second biological fact: an addiction to Space Invaders might be lurking beneath the experimentation in the London Trilogy.)
While Ellroy compresses more and more information as the quartet evolves, as if panning the silt stirred up by the Dahlia’s murder for news of his mother, Amis seems to be at war with the very idea of being a writer.
Like The Black Dahlia, Money is narrated by its protagonist, a film director aptly named John Self who (after a prologue by M.A.) tells us: “As my cab pulled off FDR Drive, somewhere in the early Hundreds, a low-slung Tomahawk full of black guys came sharking out of lane and sloped in fast right across our bows.” The story is relatively straightforward: Self spends obscene amounts of investors’ money and consumes grotesque amounts of food and alcohol trying to make a movie, as the entire earth—and even his own body—seem to revolt against his appetites.
Maybe the story about Kingsley throwing Money was true. The language is so florid it is neon purple, so the opposite of the flinty prose preferred in the 1980s and 1990s, that entire book was such a contrarian gesture, such a slap in the face, that even if Amis Senior didn’t actually throw the book, perhaps he should have.
Martin Amis expands his scope in London Fields. “This is a true story but I can’t believe it’s really happening. It’s a murder story, too. I can’t believe my luck. And a love story (I think), of all strange things, so late in the century, so late in the goddamned day.” The narrating voice is now a writer, who is self-consciously writing (and even attempting to sell) the novel as the story unfolds, participating in events and gathering information, incorporating four distinct characters and an approaching apocalypse. His sentences remain florid, and the London neighborhood and even some of the characters are nearly the same but the structure is so much more complicated. It is as if the story is being seen in cross-section, refracted in a box of mirrors.
And then in the last book of the trilogy, The Information, Amis abandons the outward gimmickry of postmodernism and borrows a trick from Moby Dick. “Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing. It’s nothing. Just sad dreams. Or something like that… Swing low in your weep ship, with your tear scans and your sob probes, and you would mark them.” There is a presence narrating the story, an I, but it is pushed far into the background. Instead of intervening directly, the narrator cuts in squibs of information about astronomy (the way Herman Melville used chapters connecting whaling to every instant of human history). Amis expands the scope of his novel to the astrological infinite, which, when refracted against the plot of his story (and writing itself) reveals the one and only insight of postmodernism: that a discrete chunk of information can only describe relationships between other chunks of information. That information says “Nothing.”
Tom McCarthy’s (2007) Remainder was about a traumatized, wealthy amnesiac who remembers nothing of his life before, except for a tiny hairline fracture on a wall. He hires hundreds of people to rebuild his memory from that fracture but can’t quite do it, and the entire production spins apart in the end. Amis and Ellroy skipped the production company. They used familiar locations and reoccurring plots and character types to create an adventure playground, a safe, familiar, but challenging space where they could experiment with painful fragments of their memories, pick them up and examine every frightening facet, and then put them aside.
Ellroy would go on to write a memoir and then tackle a national counter-history propelled by the Kennedy assassination (his American Tabloid trilogy). Amis wrote a detective novel called Night Train and then spent a decade writing non-fiction. These novels belong to a category beyond a sophomore novel. They scour the prose of the authors’ intimately familiar innards and leave behind a machine capable of writing tackling something universal.