Sunday, December 29, 2013

"We're self-absorbed and confuse our lives with history" Discuss

"`We should have had a child together.'
"Jack squeezed her arm, soft. `I remember the first time you said that.'
"`When was it?'
"`Fall '54. The Army-McCarthy hearings were on TV.'
"`Why do we remember things that way?'
"`Pure arrogance. We're self-absorbed and confuse our lives with history.'"
James Ellroy, Blood's A Rover

That exchange comes near the end of James Ellroy's "Underworld U.S.A." trilogy of novels (previous volumes: American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand). The trilogy begins with an introductory note that reads, in part:
"America was never innocent. We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets. You can't ascribe our fall from grace to any single event or set of circumstances. ... Mass-market nostalgia gets you hopped up for a past that never existed. ... The real Trinity of Camelot was Look Good, Kick Ass, Get Laid. Jack Kennedy was the mythological front man for a particularly juicy slice of our history. He talked a slick line and wore a world-class haircut. He was Bill Clinton minus pervasive scrutiny and a few rolls of flab."
Taking the two passages into consideration, how would you characterize Ellroy's view of history? Are the two selections consistent? Did Ellroy's conception of American history change from 1995, when American Tabloid appeared, to Blood's A Rover (2009)? Did Ellroy become more introspective, perhaps? Is the snippet of dialogue, set in 1972, from Blood's A Rover a rueful commentary on the tumultuous years covered by the book and on Americans' attitudes towards those years?  Extra credit if you've read all three novels and can cite examples.

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Blogger John McFetridge said...

Yes, I think like a lot of people Ellroy is getting more introspective as he gets older. It would be hard to imagine the ending of Blood's a Rover in any of his other books.

December 29, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

There's even a bit of romance toward the novel's end and, so help me, brief scenes in which children do cute things.

But Jack's line here suggests that Ellroy has achieved some sort of introspection without, however, taking the easy, arrogant way out of claiming that now he has discovered what's important. He's a bit like a John Lennon but with more brains.

I saw Ellroy read at the Free Library when Blood's A Rover first appeared. He did his schtick in a big way, but he also claimed he was happy with his new woman. Maybe there is something to this introspection/maturity thing.

I'll look forward to his next set of novels, set around World War II, I have read.

December 29, 2013  
Blogger Unknown said...

Well, for the record, I have not read Ellroy. You convince me that I need to correct that error.

As for history, by coincidence I am reading a book about Roosevelt, Wilson, and the Progressives of the early 20th century. The bleak portrait of the Progressives sounds like a perfect companion piece to the cynical historical perspective you seem to attribute to Ellroy.

With apologies for offering the non sequitur (i.e., Progressives), I am making a note to myself: read Ellroy. Thanks!

December 29, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., with apologies for diverting attention from your non-sequitur, you may recall my lavish praise for Kevin Starr. One in his seven-volume series on California's history is about the Progressive Era. I look forward to reading it.

Ellroy's flamboyance and his telegraphic style may not be for everyone. But he is an intelligent, a serious, and an interesting author who thinks deeply about history, even if one would not gather this from casual discussion about him.

December 29, 2013  
Blogger Dana King said...

I've read Ellroy's trilogy, though out of sequence. (COLD SIX THOUSAND, BLOOD'S A ROVER, AMERICAN TABLOID) so I may not have the clearest idea of his evolution. I think he does have a keener understanding of American history, and of the true ethos that has driven American society and history, than do many others. His manner of expression can be over the top, but I suspect this is his way of drawing attention to it. (And, frankly to himself; he loves his bad boy image.) Even if one discounts half of what he says--2/3, even--what is left is disturbing, and probably closer to the truth than people want to believe.

I read AMERICAN TABLOID this summer, traveling for work. I can remember exactly where I was sitting when I read the intro Peter cites in the post, it struck me so. (Panda Express, Albuquerque airport.) It sums up a great deal about recent American history too many people either don't want to think about, or don't want the rest of us to think about.

December 30, 2013  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

I agree, Dana. I really like the way Ellroy pulls all the strings together and then let's them fray again. Usually history is studied in categories. Even the news is in categories.

I've spent a few months fascinated by how we could have so much Rob Ford-drugs news in Toronto with no mention of organized crime.

December 30, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, I like the way over-the-top tabloid newspapers tend to be the only reliable sources of news in his novels.

I don't know the details of Rob Ford's career, but I suspect an Ellroy would wrinkle his knows in contempt at the fun people have making fun of him without, however, discussing organized crime.

December 30, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, here's part of what I wrote after I saw and heard Ellroy read a few years ago:

"He ... invited `the most invasive questions' the audience could come up with.

"These questions naturally concerned sex and money, and Ellroy neatly, gracefully and amusingly sidestepped them. A showman he is, and one who, at least last night, knew for every second exactly what he was up to.

Whether he deliberately crafted his image or not, he sure as hell takes careful care of it now. And I don't know to what extent his fiction is truth, but it certainly seems plausible. I wonder how his future fiction will deal with public figures in this age of the insincere public apology.

December 30, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I should add that while I don't presume to judge whether Ellroy has keener understanding than other writers do of American history, he certainly takes a more serious and lively interest than many do.

December 30, 2013  

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