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SU N S H IN E

OR

NOIR?

black, black sea’,58 Joan Didion found only nausea. More haunted than anyone by Nathanael West’s dystopia, she described the moral apocalypse of 1960s Los Angeles in her novel Play It As It Lays (1970) and her volume of essays, Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968). For Didion - on the edge of a nervous breakdown - the city of the Manson murders was already a helterskelter of demeaned ambition and random violence. Her visceral revulsion was recalled years later by Bret Easton Ellis, L.A.’s ‘bratpack’ writer of the 1980s. His Less Than Zero (1985), a Cainian novel of gilded Westside youth, offered the darkest Los Angeles yet: images of parents who were so hungry and unfulfilled that they ate their own children. . . . Images so violent and malicious that they seemed to be my only point of reference for a long time afterwards. After I left.’59 Finally, sixty years after the first short stories in The Black Mask and The American Mercury announced the genre, Los Angeles noir passes into delirious parody in the over-the-top writing of James Ellroy, the selfproclaimed ‘Demon Dog of American Literature’. Although other contem­ porary tough-guy novelists, including Arthur Lyons, Robert Campbell, Roger Simon, T. Jefferson Parker and Joseph Wambaugh, keep pace with the Chandler/Macdonald tradition on its native turf, Ellroy’s sheer frenzy transports his work to a different plane.60 His Los Angeles Quartet,6 1 depending on one’s viewpoint, is either the culmination of the genre, or its reductio ad absurdum. At times an almost unendurable wordstorm of perversity and gore, Quartet attempts to map the history of modern Los Angeles as a secret continuum of sex crimes, satanic conspiracies, and political scandals. For Ellroy, as for Dunne in True Confessions, the grisly, unsolved ‘Black Dahlia’ case of 1946 is the crucial symbolic commence­ ment of the postwar era - a local ‘name of the rose’ concealing a larger, metaphysical mystery. Yet in building such an all-encompassing noir mythology (including Stephen King-like descents into the occult), Ellroy risks extinguishing the genre’s tensions, and, inevitably, its power. In his pitch blackness there is no light left to cast shadows and evil becomes a forensic banality. The result feels very much like the actual moral texture of the Reagan-Bush era: a supersaturation of corruption that fails any longer to outrage or even interest. Indeed the postmodern role of L.A. noir may be precisely to endorse the emergence of homo reaganus. In an afterword to the fiftieth anniversary

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