Friday, November 06, 2009

Echoes of a master's wordage

If James Ellroy's in town when unexpectedly so still are you; and one of the 'Men in Black' of late 80's Albacon infamy tells you he's got a spare ticket for the gig; there's only one thing to do: be there.

So it was last night I found myself at the GFT for the Glasgow leg of the promotional tour for Blood's a Rover, the latest novel by this master of modern American noir; best known- thanks to Hollywood's stylish 1997 adaption, for L.A. Confidential, a novel of brutal and corrupt law enforcement in 1950's California. I knew very little about this new book, not having kept up with volumes 1 and 2 of the Underworld USA trilogy the completion of which Ellroy trumpets with all the shameless hucksterism of a 2-bit street-corner hustler you might meet in the pages of his wordage.

I'd seen James Ellroy talk about his work on TV, and this same promotional tour had taken him to BBC Radio 4's Front Row only last Monday (Ellroy starts at 14:45 in), so I knew him as forthright in his opinions and entertaining in his wordplay. And the sight of Ellroy squaring up to the lectern like a boxer grabbing the ropes to keep himself from bouncing out of his corner before the next round's bell rings; well, I couldn't but sense that we were to be treated less to a talk than to a verbal doing in the form of an author's reading.

The notion barely formed, Ellroy was off; and nothing could've prepared me for the salvoes of wordage he delivered in those first few minutes. Bam! Take that. Again, bam! And another, and another. Starting slow and building up like a boxer working the speedball, Ellroy threw wordbomb after wordbomb into the mix until he had us at his mercy in a bravura display of the primal power of word and movement in the transports of delight that are the narrative arts.

I can say little more about this great performance; the clip below gives another taste to go with the R4 link above.

OK, I said I could say little more, not no more. What little I can add is that Ellroy's performance was an examplar of Rule of Thumb #1 for GM's and PC's in Matters of Description: Less is More. Sure, it'd take a roleplaying genius of a very rare (if actually extant?) kind to be able to extemporise with the poetic precision and rappers' beat of Ellroy's intensely worked prose. But to be drawn into Ellroy's world the way I was made me acutely aware of several things:
  • Roleplaying description should focus on the barest mininum of crucial attributes, described as briefly as possible so that the immediate effect of the words still linger while that which has been so described plays its part in the story; to use an obvious example:
  1. Sight- raucous gang of men.
  2. Sound- drunken shouting.
  3. Smell- beer and piss.
  4. Then blammo- an attack by suddenly surprisingly sober assailants.
  • Movement and gesture is as important a tool for working on people's thoughts and feelings as are words.
  • There is a certain universality to the kinds of characters who people sleazy underworlds, genres notwithstanding- eg. the snoopers; so modern crime novels like Ellroy's can inspire GM's and PC's both in any game.
These are not novel insights on my part, but I would say that anyone who was interested could bring something new to their roleplaying by tracking down and watching over and again a few times some of these performances by James Ellroy, or by reading some of his books.

The reading over Ellroy opened the floor up for questions, as you'd expect. Away from the honed text long rehearsed to be pitch perfect he must still've been wearing his performer persona to some extent. Even so, he came across as frank, honest and impressively open to his audience; eg. he readily admitted that the stylistic approach he'd taken in The Cold Six Thousand (volume 2 of the Underworld USA trilogy) had been a mistake from which he'd learned due to criticism.

The 'Man in Black' had got his oar in before yours truly realised that the situation demanded blatant self-advertisement. So I challenged Ellroy on his casual dismissal of the electronic media- warriors against which we were all presumed to be by Ellroy in his introduction. Feeling compelled to defend my media I pointed out:
  • It's the power of TV that gives us- his audience, the dynamic visual sense enabling us to walk the streets of America with his characters.
  • That his ever-more telegraphic prose style might be construed as an attempt to give artistic expression to the ever-diminishing attention spans we are told the electronic media inflict upon younger generations.
I confess I was a bit nervous about this but... Well, let me put it like this: I'd like to think that the merit of a question resides in the quality of its answer. James Ellroy's answer to my question was considered, thorough and illuminating. I couldn't've asked for more.

After all the talk about wordage there was signage, naturally enough. I'll be waiting for the paperback omnibus of Underworld USA, so I took along my battered copy of L.A. Noir. Yours truly cleverly forgot his digicam (sheesh, what kind of blogger am I?), so this blurry pic from the 'Man in Black's iPhone is the only record. Ah well. Still, I guess it gives James Ellroy a degree of plausible deniability should he feel the need for it!

James Ellroy is a man who famously has little interest in the gadgets and gizmos of the electronic age. So the small kindness he showed this blogger last night was much appreciated. Remembering as I write this the sight of him surrounded by fans snapping away with phone cameras, I have to ask how Ellroy feels about the way ICT has made his public appearances more immediately the 'property' of fans who hitherto were a mere audience. How, I wonder, might Ellroy's sense of being out of step with the modern world influence his wordage? If last night's performance is anything to go by, it's not for the worse! ;)


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a great evening.Wish I could have seen Elroy.


P.D.S. said...

'Man in black'? You know Johnny Cash? I thought he was dead...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who listens to 'Front Row' on Radio 4. I don't feel quite so old now.

"A bit political on yer ass!" said...

It was great (although it could've been greater for yours truly, but that's another story). Lack of presence notwithstanding, you can get some of the power of his carefully enunciated language from those audio/video tracks. Well worth the listen I can assure you. :0)

The 'Man in Black' is more an archetype than any one individual, howsoever famous they might be. There were a pair of notables in Glasgow when I started circling the city prior to my eventual landing here 20 years ago. Bill here was one of them, funnily enough. ;)