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2 July 2015

Keeping it real: All Involved by Ryan Gattis

This novel about the 1992 Los Angeles riots holds itself to a standard of verisimilitude – of the raw, unvarnished, authentic – that is is deeply immersive and deathly dull.

By Leo Robson

All Involved
Ryan Gattis
Picador, 384pp, £12.99

The title of this well-meaning, hard-working book provides a clue to its intentions and its problems. “All involved” is Los Angeles street slang – “the polite way”, according to one of Ryan Gattis’s 17 narrators, of saying, “I’m into some gangster shit.” It also serves as a pithy description of society, what another narrator calls the “big black fact” that “the littlest pieces add up together”.

Gattis is writing about the 1992 Los Angeles riots, in which the acquittal of policemen who had beat up Rodney King prompted, or provided an excuse for, six days of anarchy and menace. He might be expected to balance documentary realism and analytical detachment, to offer a fly-on-the-wall aesthetic subtly inflected with the long view, but just as the meanings of his title have no area of overlap (it’s merely a verbal coincidence), he never finds a tone that suits his dual ambition.

For the most part, the wall-fly dominates and the novel holds itself to a standard of verisimilitude – of the raw, unvarnished, authentic – according to which the HBO crime drama The Wire would be found a little sanitised and Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing is practically a sitcom. The result is deeply immersive and deathly dull. Since the majority of the narrators are gang members and the novel is confined to a few Los Angeles neighbourhoods, there is a great deal of repetition, in terms of both the characters’ world-view – cynicism about public institutions, pessimism about personal prospects – and their sensory experience. Breath is at different times wasted, held, caught, taken, or stolen away; lungs are heavy, dry or not working, or they crinkle up; stomachs turn, jerk, ball up, “actually” convulse, drop “like I’m riding a Knott’s Berry roller coaster”, turn into pretzels, rumble “like motherf***ers”, or seem in danger of having their eject button pressed.

Gattis’s preferred method of forging intelligent distance from all the “fires on top of fires” (and other “Gaza Strip shit”) is to have his present-tense narrators momentarily take their mind off their circumstances and lay down a few thoughts. In a novel so devoted to the here and now, the effect can only seem artificial. One of the interludes, a reflection on the failures of Los Angeles multiculturalism – “You plunk a bunch of people down from all over everywhere, keep them in their corners and don’t let them mix and figure shit out” – ends abruptly with the words, “Wait, where was I? Shit.”

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The novel is divided by day and each day comes with an epigraph. The first thing we read – apart from a brief historical note (“The Facts”) – is Thomas Pynchon writing in the New York Times in 1966 about the aftermath of the recent Watts riots, which also took place in Los Angeles:

The neighbourhood may be seething with social workers, data collectors, vista volunteers and other assorted members of the humanitarian establishment . . . But somehow nothing much has changed. There are still the poor, the defeated, the criminal, the desperate, all hanging in there with what must seem a terrible vitality.

It’s a vivid piece of op-ed writing and you would be forgiven for thinking that the epigraphs exist to provide a broader context against which to read the characters’ more blinkered or survival-minded testimonies.

Instead, Gattis has chosen to double up. About 100 pages in, he lends Pynchon’s thoughts to Lil Creeper, a character who on one page thinks that submarines are equipped with “Paris scopes” and on the next says, “After Watts, the same thing happens as before . . . and still nothing changes” – before calling the riot he is moving through “a bank loan. With interest.” Then he disparages the city’s collective memory: “It never learns nothing.”

The moments that trespass on the territory of the social sciences, however stilted or ludicrous, nevertheless come as a relief – from a dogged gangland-reprisal plot that seems intent on following eye-for-an-eye logic until the whole of Los Angeles is blind; and from action sequences that repeatedly expose verbal description as ill-equipped to capture the kinetic. (“I’m breaking between houses, trying to bust out on to the next street, hop a fence,” and so on.) Rational thought is on better terms with the written word and so Gattis’s writing is most appealing in its least visceral – and typical – passages.

In the novel’s ongoing fight between raw material and clarifying pattern, truth and literature, there are local victories for both sides but literature suffers the knockout punch. After all the emphasis on futility, on how nothing ever changes, on how “public servants” don’t serve the public and the awful is just “how it is”, Gattis suddenly produces a note of determination: “LA . . . won’t stop. It can’t. It’s a survivor . . . It will push right through these flames and come out the other side of them as something broken and pretty and new.” This seems to emerge from a desire not to celebrate underclass resilience, or to acknowledge the stubbornness of human optimism, but to deliver a satisfying final cadence: an ending that sounds like an ending.

Leo Robson is the NS lead fiction reviewer