“Off the record, on the QT, and very, very Hush-Hush”: How the Public Sphere Keeps the
Post-Modernity of 1950s L.A. Confidential. by Andrew Kelly 1950s Los Angeles: a metropolis of horizontal urban sprawl and physical disconnect – a city devoid of a true centre. The location of James Ellroy’s novel L.A. Confidential is perfectly suited for the ideology that it exudes. A revision of traditional noir detective fiction, Ellroy’s account of corruption in the 1950s Los Angeles Police Department is permeated by a post-modern sensibility. His jarring narrative reveals a world in which identity and truth are questioned, and morality and justice are clouded in ambiguity. The protagonists are loathsome people trying to construct themselves as heroes. In the novel, truth itself becomes so confused with lies, false evidence and differing perspectives that it loses any semblance of absolute nature and becomes entirely relative. However, this reality, or rather the lack thereof, is hidden by the press, by the courts and by public officials that constitute a public sphere to simulate a world of truth. This public sphere frames the exploits of law enforcement as a spectacle between the binary forces of good and evil. A proliferation of scandal endorses the moral reality that is supposedly transgressed, while the construction of a fantasy park affirms, by its own falsity, the existence of a real world beyond its walls. Underneath the arbitrary constructions of these simulacra lays a post-modern absence of reality. The primary mission of the powers-that-be – whether police, press, politicians or patriarchy – is to keep said absence strictly confidential. The narrative Ellroy employs is a stylistic assault on a coherent, ordered reality. The prose is disjointed into sentence fragments, similar to short-hand notes nearly as
2 though one were reading the character’s stream of consciousness – albeit in the thirdperson. As each chapter revolves around either Exley, White or Vincennes the reader is privy to multiple perspectives on single situations. Immediately from the Bloody Christmas affair, Exley’s spin on events is highlighted in the records he kept: “He wrote on the back of official departmental forms – version one, the truth…the Department needed to save face…He wrote down version two…Ed wrote out number three” (Ellroy, 31-32). Augmenting the “multiplicity of truths” are the frequent interruptions in the narrative by newspaper and tabloid articles, as well as police reports (Schmidt-Nowara, 122). Noticeable biases, agendas and confused or mistaken facts cloud the authenticity of such documents, thereby impeding the reader’s ability to know the world of the novel. Not one of the three central figures around which Ellroy bases the novel is the traditional heroic type of the detective genre. He revolts from the genre convention of the dependable protagonist, blurring the hero with the anti-hero (Schmidt-Nowara, 120). As the Appendix reveals: Exley is a cowardly type that acts on self-interest, White is a vicious thug sometimes more akin to a criminal, and Vincennes is a drug-user that ruins lives for his own profit and fame. Peter Schmidt-Nowara argues that the characters, via their respective quests for heroism, a family, and dignity, betray a modernist vein in Ellroy’s writing that seeks to fulfil a normative whole (Schmidt-Nowara,126). However, this is not the case. Despite their guilt, they do not look for a pre-existing or absolute identity. Rather, they embrace a performance-based identity similar to that championed by Queer theorist Eve Sedgwick. She argues in her work “Queer and Now,” that performative acts define oneself not only in terms of sexuality but also, in terms of “other identity-constituting, identity-fracturing discourses” (Sedgwick, 542). Exley revels in the
3 fluidity of his identity and his ability to define himself by acting on “[h]is stage: a corridor off the Homicide pen” full of interrogation rooms (Ellroy, 120). Vincennes is also constantly aware that his identity is “carefully constructed” by his daily performances (Ellroy, 194). Ellroy’s central characters do not reveal a modern sway in his writing, rather, they typify the post-modern embrace of definitional acting. The impossibility of being the absolute man is acknowledged – even the existence of such a thing is denounced in the novel’s fictional tabloid Hush-Hush Magazine, along with justice, as “a sometime thing” (Ellroy, 253). In the novel, justice, similar to identity, is a mere construction. Borrowing from Jean Boudrillard, it (justice) is a “simulation” that hides the absence of a real moral code or absolute law (Boudrillard, 382). However, this “simulation” is not meaningless as it serves the imperative purpose of appeasing the general public will. In order to keep public belief in the systems of order and power, stable binaries must be maintained: “the press and the public demand justice” (Ellroy, 198). They demand a clear division between good and evil, whether such division is reality or not is irrelevant. As with the spectacle of wrestling, Roland Barthes states, “what the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself” (Barthes, 12). As long as the public is provided with such an apparent image of justice – a “rhetorical amplification” – it remains satisfied (Barthes, 13). The justice system is constructed and maintained by the press in a parallel model to that of Barthes’ wrestling ring. As when the wrestler enters the ring there he assumes an archetypal character, a “transmutation” (Barthes, 14) occurs in Exley from “coward” (Ellroy, 238) to “hero” (Ellroy, 250) upon being viewed through the lens of the press. The
4 press elevating one to an ideal plateau works for the same social benefit as the spectacle of the wrestling ring: What is portrayed by wrestling is therefore an ideal understanding of things; it is the euphoria of men raised for a while above the constitutive ambiguity of everyday situations and placed before the panoramic view of a univocal Nature, in which signs at last correspond to causes, without obstacle, without evasion, without contradiction. (Barthes, 14) In showcasing justice and the police department as spectacle, the press constructs a false pseudo-reality, but, in doing so, it reaffirms society’s belief in a base reality that is actually absent in the world outside the “ring”. Such a post-modern lack is masked by Exley’s father’s “Dream-a-Dreamland”. Representative of Disneyland, this fantasy park is an imaginative world that, while serving as simulacra to the outside world, is actually “saving the reality principle” (Boudrillard, 386). As rape victim Inez Soto is confronted with the “wonderful dream” of the fantastical world, she is disheartened because it affirms, in its contrast, that the everyday world is “a hundred times more real” (Ellroy, 184). In allowing people to forget the worries of the “real” world, it constantly confirms that a “real” world exists to forget. In actuality, the “reality” they leave behind upon entering the park is just as imaginary and constructed as the park itself (Boudrillard, 386). The majority of newspaper articles that intersperse the novel, representing what the novel’s society is reading, contain substantial reference to the planning, construction and opening of “Dream-a-Dreamland”. Again, the press here propagates the existence of a cohesive “real” in order to satisfy the same public that sought an edifying spectacle.
5 Scandal permeates nearly each page of L.A. Confidential, similarly serving to satisfy the public of a stable order. The Hollywood stars, the paparazzi, the tabloids such as Hush-Hush Magazine: all are complicit in the cataloguing and proliferation of scandal. Such an endorsement and announcement of scandal by the public sphere plays a major role in confirming the supposed moral law that it transgresses. The post-modern society of constructed law “can only function behind a moral superstructure, and whoever regenerates this public morality (by indignation, denunciation, etc.) spontaneously furthers the order of capital, as did the Washington Post journalists” with Watergate (Boudrillard, 387). Ellroy uses newspaper clippings to do the same task within L.A. Confidential with publications decrying the Bloody Christmas affair and the District Attorney Election scandal (Ellroy, 76, 90). The latter instance of the Election scandal is a completely fabricated affair defacing one candidate with the sole purpose of revealing the relative virtue of the other. Yet both scandals serve to augment the moral law that they each transgress. However, as the transgressed law is an arbitrary invention, the “scandals” are not such thing at all. Rather, they are mere means through which the law is created and upheld. The scandal magazines like Hush-Hush serve as a police force in and of themselves, upholding the border’s existence by announcing its transgression. Father, Preston, and son, Edmund, Exley act as more direct agents for the maintaining the systems of control in Los Angeles as well as order in the city. One a policeman, the Police Department itself is a construct to suggest natural morality, one a construction magnate, the very concept of which is to build one’s own “reality” – the Exleys seek to strengthen the institutions of society upon which their power is founded.
6 As the line between illusion and real theoretically disappears and everything becomes simulation, Boudrillard claims that: The only weapon of power, its only strategy against this defection, is to reinject realness and referentiality everywhere, in order to convince us of the reality of the social, of the gravity of the economy and the finalities of production. (Boudrillard, 392) Such a weapon is revealed, though in different forms, by the respective Exleys in their climactic confrontation. Preston reveals a plan for his prospective freeway contract. A deal that would combat the uncontrolled horizontal sprawl of “L.A. grown huge” that threatens the centrality of the social order. With this issue on the rise, Preston ensured that there would stand “Exley Construction containing it” (Ellroy, 347). Preston’s work to construct his stable reality of order and connectivity consummates in his freeway plan. It allows him to control the chaos much in the same way his son seeks to control it in Edmund’s pursuit of “absolute justice” (Ellroy, 347). Further worthy to note is that as Edmund lives, he cannot achieve teleological, absolute justice – not with Dudley Smith autonomous from Edmund’s constructed order of morality. This same lack of control over the world of varying truths creates an anxiety in Exley. He attempts to exercise temporary control through his cataloguing of facts, but especially through the power of his investigating gaze and dominating the woman. Lynn Bracken, one of the surgically altered prostitutes recalls that “E.E. makes loves like my Wendell, like he never wants it to end, because when it ends he will have to return to what he is” (Ellroy, 407). The desire for control over the female is part of all three detectives’ attempts to perform aptly as the male heroes. Such an attempt is explicitly
7 manifested in Jack Vincennes’ obsession over the bizarre pornography. Following his investigation of the porn, Vincennes spies on a party of the surgically altered prostitutes. Seeing the constructed beauty “he knew he’d never forget the women…He couldn’t stray his eyes from the women” (Ellroy, 180). Both in his viewing of the pornographic photographs and his voyeuristic watching of the women at the party, Vincennes exercises a power found in “scopophilia” (Mulvey, 126). It endows Vincennes with a power and a control that he lacks in his daily world. However, such power is as temporary as the voyeuristic gaze that enables it, thus Vincennes’ relentless pursuit of the pornography’s source and his need to “investigat[e] the woman, demystify her mystery” (Mulvey, 127) in order to retain control and power. Control over an illusionary and simulated order, as with Exley’s pursuit of “absolute justice”, proves infinitely elusive. In James Ellroy’s reconstruction of 1950s Los Angeles, no reality exists – no truths, no absolutes. However, there are constructed institutions of power, morality and society. To create order and maintain control a real is created, which eventually becomes the real in the minds of society. This artificial reality, posing as natural, is constructed by the press and the public sphere through a series of simulations and deceptions. Ellroy’s story takes the reader behind the artifice of semblance and exposes the “truth” that is kept from the public’s eye. He uses his detectives to unearth the inside scoop that is held confidentially from the knowledge of the masses. Anti-heroes, blurred revelations, questionable narratives and staged justice reveal the anti-teleological, anti-utopian and anti-totalised nature of a post-modern world. Ellroy’s narrative digs beneath the pacifying construct of the public sphere while coyly reminding us, as Hush-Hush Magazine
8 reminded its readers, that we “heard it first here: off the record, on the QT, and very, very Hush-Hush” (Ellroy, 254).
9 Works Cited Barthes, Roland. “The World of Wrestling” English 393 – Course Reader. Ed. Christopher Bongie. 2007: Kingston. pp11-14 Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Simulations” Literary Theories: A Reader & Guide. Ed. Julian Wolfreys. New York University Press, 1999: New York. pp381-394 Butler, Judith. “Critically Queer” Literary Theories: A Reader & Guide. Ed. Julian Wolfreys. New York University Press, 1999: New York. pp570-586 Ellroy, James. L.A. Confidential. Random House Group Ltd, 1990: Great Britain Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” English 393 – Course Reader. Ed. Christopher Bongie. 2007: Kingston. pp125-129 Schmidt-Nowara, Peter. “Finding God in a World of ‘Leg-Breakers’ and ‘Racist Shitbirds’: James Ellroy and the Contemporary L.A. Crime Novel” Western American Literature, (36:2), 2001 Summer, pp117-33. Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Queer and Now” Literary Theories: A Reader & Guide. Ed. Julian Wolfreys. New York University Press, 1999: New York. pp537-552
10 Appendix Plot Summary of L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy Spanning the events of nearly a decade inside the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1950s, L.A. Confidential is a detective story of epic scope. Packed with intricate plot twists and an overabundance of minor, but key, characters, the novel is quite difficult to briefly summarize. However, at its core the story revolves around three police officers: Edmund Exley, Bud White and Jack Vincennes. Exley – son of a legendary cop-turned-construction-mogul – is a brilliant, ‘by-thebook’ officer with an unyielding ambition to advance in the Department and out of his father’s shadow. Hailed as a WWII hero, Exley remembers his act of heroism as actually one of cowardice and is driven to atone for his past. White has none of Exley’s brains, but makes a name for himself with his unsavoury tactics and punishing brawn. After watching his father beat his mother to death in front of him when he was a child, White is obsessed with helping and protecting women. Vincennes is a famous narcotics cop who makes a second living tipping off tabloid magazines with leads on celebrity busts. He also is trying to atone for a past in which he shot and killed two innocent civilians while intoxicated on duty. The plot begins on Christmas Eve, 1951 when drunken officers beat up defenceless suspects in lock-up. Exley, the young watch officer that night, testifies against those involved – including Bud White and Jack Vincennes – for a promotion and becomes uniformly hated by his fellow officers. Exley is rewarded with Homicide work, White (rescued by Department figurehead Dudley Smith) is assigned to Lt. Smith’s anti-Mob unit, and Vincennes is
11 demoted from Narcotics to Vice. Exley’s first case is the “Night Owl Massacre” – a publicity-fest that everyone wants solved immediately. Three black men are brought in as suspects, but as he interrogates them Exley finds that they raped a girl that night. They are still charged because they had time to commit both crimes on the same night and their car was found with the murder weapons inside. The arrested men escape, Exley chases them down and impulsively kills them in cold-blood – warranting further praise as a hero. Meanwhile, White stumbles onto a series of murdered women that leads him to a prostitution ring that surgically alters its girls to look like movie-stars. He falls in love with one of them – Lynn Bracken, but he never stops obsessing over the murders. Vincennes is faced with a bizarre pornography ring selling violently crafted photographs that resemble murder scenes. Specifically, the murder of his tabloid contact Sid Hudgens and the murder solved years ago by Exley’s father Preston that made his career. Like White, Vincennes becomes obsessed with his case, as well as the pictures themselves. Years pass by, accounted for by various newspaper articles that provide exposition for the skipped time. When the narrative picks up again: Exley is the Captain of Internal Affairs (an unprecedented climb), his father is completing his Dream-aDreamland (Disneyland) and is running for Governor, White is still working under nowCapt. Dudley Smith’s thumb and Vincennes is all but washed out from the Department as a drunken disgrace. New witnesses come forward to clear the so-called Night Owl killers, saying the three men were with the raped woman all night long. The case is reopened with Exley again in charge as the Massacre looks less like a robbery and more like a disguised execution. It is revealed that the prostitution ring is tied in with the pornography and the porn is related to a victim in the Night Owl Massacre. The three
12 detectives combine their investigations and eventually discover that Captain Smith has been taking over the Mob and he ordered the Night Owl killings to secure hold of the prostitution, porn, and drug trades. They move to arrest Smith but all witnesses/his accomplices are killed either in the cops’ pursuit or by Smith himself, and all evidence is destroyed. However, in the process, White unearths the murderer behind the prostitute slayings – meaning that Exley’s father caught and killed an innocent man for the similar murder years before. The trio catch the killer but White is crippled and Vincennes is killed. Exley confronts his father about the news, and moves to go to the District Attorney with the information – but his father commits suicide. The story ends out of sorts with Exley yet again awarded as a hero, but this time alongside the untouchable mastermind, Dudley Smith.