My Dark Places: James Ellroy

James Ellroy, My Dark Places, Arrow Books, London, 1997

Relelentlessly energetic prose, thin with detail and thick with life: as autobiography bordering on fiction, it is largely a conscious reflection upon the thin procedural lines, maps, data of detective work and memory, and the thick emotional heat of memory as powerful as instinct. Though ‘factual’, incredibly fact-stuffed recording of events and contingencies, the end result is a wasteland of strewn debris where everything is disconnected: against the urge for connection, maybe the book’s core theme, is its impossibility as everything is broken, fabricated, boarded over, shabby, forgotten, confabulated, and it’s in a valley full of “shitty lives” and the valley of broken lives, broken streets, promises, plans, hopes, loves is in each of those lives.

Every sentence is one of three things: a fact, an epigram or a mixture of both. And each sentence is as precisely sharp and powerful and efficient as a bullet. Take this: “The murder was an epigram on transient lives and impacted sex as death.”  Sex and death, love and violence are inseparable.  Powerlessness vies with testosterone-driven masculinity that breaks women, consumes and discards them: “You had to control. You had to exert….Booze and dope and  random sex gave you back a cheap version of the power you set out to relinquish. They destroyed your will to live a decent life.”  Cheap, glandular responses to the “shitty life”. Earlier, “Sex obsession was love six times or six thousand times removed.”

This is a deeply, deeply moral book. The honesty of the author’s laying himself out like a corpse on an autopsy slab is brilliant and terrifying. He is the eternal man caught between fierce probity, rectitude, puritantical intensity on the one hand, and on the other profligacy, shitty responses to a shitty world, and  the constant threat of final renunciation of decency and goodness. “I was a moralistic and judgmental zealot operating on a time-lost/life regained dynamic. I expected my women to toe the hard-work line and submit to the charismatic force I thought I possessed and fuck me comatose and make me submit to their charisma and moral rectitude on an equitable basis.”

To understand the world as a function of memory gleaning a body of facts may be numbingly comfortable but it is six or six thousand removes from life, settling for all thin and no thick. In his obsessive (thick) chasing of evidence about his mother’s murder he gleaned millions of (thin) facts, then realised that all these facts as sole carrier of  ‘evidence’ were taking him in the opposite direction of what was driving him on, which was not to find her murderer but to find the woman he had lost, or never let himself know.  His ultimate acts of memory are exquisitively hard, literally physical work involving solitary extended periods in darkness, bringing his whole will to bear on that which he seeks in the fragmented mess of his dark places.

The book consciously and repeatedly comments on the nature of memory. The short Chapter 26 is given over to it. And it is as much about his memory and his dark places as our own. Think for example of how he remembers his mother’s remembering seeing Dillinger’s getting shot, and his conclusion (through various techniques, slants, methods, hunches of memory) of how she did not factually see this at all but constructed the memory from a near truth, her being literally near the shooting when it happened and possibly hearing the shot (memory is a place, remember), compounded with subsequent news reports, gossip, pictures and so on. And to emphasise the explicit recognition that memory is place or places, and also to show the slightly different, less driven tone of his reflective style, of his investigations he says: “My memories were running in straight chronological lines. May fantasies were running as adjuncts and outtakes. I thought I’d be criss-crossing the memory map. I thought I’d be stumbling over real-life minutae. I was on the road to recollection. I’d conjured up Tweed perfume and some period snapshots. I was running a linear flowchart.”  That raising re-membering memory into recollection is important, and the italicised endpiece of the book, an address to his mother, suggests the Proustian magnitude of what a memory of perfume over a memory of a ‘fact’ may bring: I’ll learn more. I’ll follow your tracks and invade your hidden time. I’ll uncover your lies. I’ll rewrite your history and revise my judgment as your old secrets explode. Yes, it is about the process of history itself.

The ‘lies’ he will uncover are innocent lies, a rewording to the denials he exposes in himself and his society as he and it try to construct a memory of good times in a reality of shittiness, For addicts, there is a specific point. Ellroy was in pretty bad trouble with inhalants, alcohol and other stuff. He just stopped. He decided to stop and stopped. He was doing some pretty bad things too and really messing up people. Again he decided to stop being like this, he expressed a will to decency. On his own, by his Self. It is certainly a crucial point to ponder, but Ellroy has a contempt he can only express in passing so low does he value some aspects of modern America: he hates the way what used to be obviously good and bad have been confused in professional jargon and sociobabble and psychobabble; he scorns “twelve steps evangelists”, “therapy freaks”, “dilettantees, incompetents, rock&rollers”.  I don’t think I’d enjoy a curry with the guy, and that he would have contempt and disdain not only for some of my own values and way of life but also those of most people I know. But I do think this is a brilliant book, and  end by repeating that it is a book that like none I have read from recent times is starkly set in a moral framework. I suppose you could just read it for entertainment and nothing wrong with that. But if you engage with it at the sorts of levels I have been trying to indicate, you will have to question not only his values but crucially your own. And the questioning, like memory, will have to be moral.


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