On the night of March 3, 1991, George Holliday, woken by police sirens, looked down from his Lake View Terrace, Los Angeles, apartment to see a group of LAPD officers attempting to subdue the driver of a car following a high-speed chase. Holliday grabbed his video camera and filmed the scene that followed. Two Taser blasts, 33 baton blows and six kicks later, Rodney King was taken into custody. One more unprovable case of police brutality was transformed by Holliday’s surveillance into some of the most incendiary footage ever broadcast on American TV.
The power of these images was displayed a year later, when four police charged with beating King were acquitted by a majority-white jury. The riots that followed lasted six days, led to the direct deaths of 53 people and caused more than a billion dollars in damage. For almost a week, whole sections of Los Angeles were given up to lawlessness.
All Involved does not take on these events so much as plug its stories into their current. The city, with its battlefield sensoria of smoke and bullets and crews of looters, is the real-life gaming environment through which the novel’s characters move. Meanwhile, the narrative is structured in such a way as to draw energy from the surrounding havoc. It is built from 17 first-person accounts – men and women, black and Latino, nurses and firefighters, dealers and addicts, gang members and civilians – in which each individual’s story is linked to one or more of the others.
The tremendous tension and vigour of the whole emerges from this creative decision. It’s like a marathon in which each character is allowed to sprint because they can pass the baton to the next when exhaustion sets in. Add to this dialogue, both internal and external, that takes on the demotic tint and breathless perception of whatever consciousness is being inhabited at that moment, and the final effect is jittery, amphetaminic: bad speed as a prose style.
For many in these pages, the riots bring to mind Machiavelli’s 500-year-old precept: “Never waste the opportunity offered by a good crisis.” Anthony Smiljanic of the LA Fire Department says as much to a friend as the city ignites around them:
You know what’s hilarious though? What the news thinks of all this burning. The guys on television go on and on about how they can’t believe people are torching their own neighborhoods. They think it’s sad, some kind of thoughtless, primal rage thing. It’s not. It’s mostly planned and it’s one of three things – grudge, mayhem, or insurance.
By the time this insight arrives, halfway through the book, the reader is only too aware of the truth of the Croatian fireman’s complaint. What Gattis’s panoptic approach allows is a series of fictional case studies that complicate the implicit racism of that media narrative. In much the same way that HBO’s The Wire depicted Baltimore’s black criminal underclass as a disciplined, well-organised and enthusiastically entrepreneurial mirror of mainstream American capitalism, All Involved brings a subversive sociological eye to its portraits of South Central LA.
Take Lupe Vera, aka Payasa. She’s a young Latino woman whose brother Ernesto is attacked and left for dead in the opening pages of the book, an episode whose savagery is consciously superfluous to requirements. He’s a civilian, but his younger brother is a gang member: Ernesto is targeted in lieu of the real thing. Payasa is gang-affiliated but not actively involved in the violence around her – until now. Having discovered via some clever detective work the identity of those responsible, the avowed lesbian dresses herself in a suitably lascivious outfit and lulls the killers into a goggle-eyed stupor at a neighbourhood party before shooting them down.
Payasa’s act of vengeance is not the end of the story, rather it’s the beginning of a whole new set of escalations. One of the pleasures of All Involved, if the word can be used of such a novel so relentless in its depiction of destruction of life, property and the civic fabric of LA, is watching the narrative flick back and forth between the characters and their various fates. In this respect, the work shares more with filmic and televisual treatments of urban life in America: the aforementioned The Wire, or Paul Haggis’s ensemble drama of 2004, Crash.
The comparison can be taken even further: All Involved is a signal document of the “literary” novel’s slow ingestion by a culture of the visual. Note the tightness with which Gattis clinches to first-person perspective. Note the number of chapters that end with the fadeout of a character being killed. It is not drawing a long bow to regard this tendency as one linked to console shooter games, especially since Gattis, in his role as a creative writing academic, has written, lectured, and evidently thought hard about the relation between immersive gaming and fiction.
And while Gattis claims the usual suite of research assistance in writing the book – various long-form nonfiction accounts of the historical moment, the peerless reportage of the LA Times – the most spectacular find he acknowledges is hours of cam footage of the riots uploaded to YouTube. Born in Illinois, raised in Colorado, Gattis first experienced the riots on TV as a young man; if there is an underlying aesthetic to this book, it is the unmediated online evidence of the riots anonymously gifted to the author.
So, while All Involved comes ready-wrapped in blurbs from David Mitchell, Dennis Lehane and Joyce Carol Oates celebrating the energy, verve and historical verisimilitude achieved by the author, it’s hard to escape the feeling that these stories have been stuffed into an oddly shaped envelope. You may admire the street poetry of the language Gattis employs, but haven’t you heard it done better on TV? The novel we’ve inherited puts a suit on even the wildest and most unruly social forces; the camera simply records. And as George Holliday and his Sony Handycam has proved, there is immense power in that uneditorialising eye. AF
Picador, 480pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 2, 2015 as "Ryan Gattis, All Involved". Subscribe here.