L.A. Confidential

LA Confidentialbook by James Ellroy

Annotation by Neal Bonser

First off, and I feel I have to address this, this is the first time I can remember that I’ve read a book when I had seen the movie version first. It’s been a while, but I couldn’t help seeing Kevin Spacey’s face whenever Jack Vincennes spoke, or Guy Pearce or Russell Crowe. I don’t think it detracted from the experience exactly. But it certainly transformed my visual experience of the novel. I’m left wondering what visuals would have been left in my head by Ellroy’s prose had these actors’ faces not been previously implanted. What is the importance of the visual evoked in a novel?

I think it must be very important. How many times have I seen movie versions of novels I’ve read and either been happy or disappointed (usually disappointed) by the visuals of the movie and how they compared to what was already in my head? It really is an impressive accomplishment to evoke such strong images in the reader’s head using the black and white page and a collections of letters and words and sentences. I suppose it is in, what we are so often taught, the specificity of detail. When I think about my own characters, some of them are very visually present to me and some are not. It makes me want to revisit those that I can’t picture clearly and clarify that image for myself, or how will I ever make that image sharp for the reader?

I really enjoyed the clipped sentences and straightforward prose that Ellroy employs in this novel. It was evocative of that noir mood, easy to read and it provided a momentum to the prose that made me want to keep reading. While Nicholson Baker’s prose wore me out after ten pages (sometimes two), Ellroy’s prose pulled me along for the ride. Is this a personal predilection or something inherent to this style of prose? Michael Chabon’s twirling, beautiful prose doesn’t wear me out. So it’s not as simple as sentence length. But there’s something very satisfying when reading Ellroy’s unadorned, to-the-point sentences. And maybe unadorned is the wrong word. Ellroy certainly employed unique vocabulary within his clipped sentences. The sentences themselves, even as they changed points of view, remained similar in their style, so the voice was consistent even as the point of view changed. The characters are made distinct through description and action, not the nature of the prose. This is interesting to me. As I have personally explored the nature of the narrator in third person work, I realize that the narrator in L.A. Confidential is present purely as voice. We’re pretty much directly in the head of the point of view characters at all times. No pull back. No distant perspective. But that voice is always there. That clipped sentence style of hard-boiled (sorry for the cliché) prose. It sort of pleases me that this book kind of confirms one of my hypotheses about what a narrator can be in third person work.

My favorite thing about the book though, is probably the plot itself. In spite of it seeming a little bit overcomplicated and maybe even confusing at times, it was always compelling. I remember hearing somewhere that literary fiction is character based and popular/genre fiction is plot based. I suppose that’s true to some extent in an overgeneralized sort of way. But plot is important. Make me want to turn the page. (Help me make my reader want to turn the page!) Plot evolves from character, I suppose. But plot also reveals character. I’m not sure what I’m saying here, except I enjoyed reading this book on the very simple level of the pure enjoyment of reading. Wow, what a crummy sentence. Ellroy would hate that.

What Ellroy wouldn’t hate is that I came away from this book re-inspired to keep my plots moving. I also am reminded that simple sentences are not unadorned sentences. I like straightforward prose (perhaps because I don’t have it within me to write otherwise), but when traveling in that (dare I say it?) minimalist vein, word choice is critical. Oh great gods of prose help me to not forget the sentence. Hallelujah. Amen. In a, you know, secular, desperate writer, sort of way.

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