Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul

Istanbul: Memories of a


By Orhan Pamuk

Faber, 348pp, $45

You need more than a map to understand a city. You need a soul, a voice.

Of course, Lou Reed's New York is a very different place to Woody Allen's. The Baghdad of fairytales does not have the same exotic lilt to an American soldier. The London of Charles Dickens and his line of influence through contemporary writers such as Martin Amis and Zadie Smith is not the London of a terrorist. But their visions all tell us a story, of one kind or another. And in this way a city accumulates into something path-ridden and alive that we can "read".

For the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk that crucial city is Istanbul. I've visited the place myself, and been taken with its minarets, mosques and fish markets, its sprawling yet oddly gnarled agglomeration of West and East, the traffic and apartment blocks, the call of muezzin to prayer. For all that, I'm not especially inclined to dive into a book of such ethereal, encyclopedic ambition as Istanbul: Memories of a City. At times, I must confess, this book was simply too much. It drowned me in its depths.

But Pamuk had me by the soul well before. Almost a year ago I read his novel Snow, the story of a failed poet and would-be journalist who travels to the "wild east" of Turkey to investigate a series of female suicides in an Islamic border town.

By the time I had finished it I wanted to weep, and was possessed by the urgent sense that Pamuk - who writes with all the sweep of the great 19th-century Russian authors - was one of the most important novelists working today.

His non-fiction work Istanbul is just as magnificent, though clearly aimed at a narrower audience. Essentially, it is a history of the city twined with a memoir of family and growing up that ends with a stunning chapter on first love - and failing to understand its force until that force has come and gone.

"If we've lived in a city long enough to have given our truest and deepest feelings to its prospects," Pamuk writes, "there comes a time when - just as a song recalls lost love - particular streets, images and vistas will do the same." In this sense, Istanbul is a young man's book, and a boy's book too, encircled by grief and age. It is, in short, the story of how and why Pamuk became a writer.

It's hard to quote Pamuk economically and get inside the wave-like, gathering style that can suddenly grip you for pages at a time. Certainly he is not a "perfect" writer. He can be repetitious and overdependent on riffing flows of detail that build into a poetic mass or suggest undisciplined obsession. He nonetheless succeeds in making what should be a weakness or an overbearing stylistic tic into something strangely right for him, circling things over and over until, at last, he lifts up or plunges down into the spiralling intensities and insights you keep holding on for.

Istanbul is about loss; about growing up in the shadows of the Ottoman Empire, where a once great city is now poor and ashamed; about growing up in a family whose wealth is dwindling, squandered by a kind but philandering father (to whom the book is lovingly dedicated).

It is also about a detached mother who imparts a sad sense of reality to her dreamy son. And it is about lost love and who Pamuk might become: a painter, then an architect, then something else he hopes might be true to the "first life" of his imagination; his sense of self divided in a city trapped between the continents, neither Western nor Eastern.

"Happy people in Europe and America could lead lives as beautiful and as meaningful as the ones I'd just seen in a Hollywood film," Pamuk reflects. "As for the rest of the world, myself included, we were condemned to live out our times in places that were shabby, broken-down, featureless, badly painted, dilapidated and cheap; we were doomed to unimportant, second-class existences, never to do anything that anyone in the outside world might think worthy of notice: this was the fate for which I was slowly and painfully preparing myself."

Yet on a depressed ferry ride across the Bosphorus, among workers and old women, Pamuk has an epiphany: "Was this the secret of Istanbul - that beneath its grand history, its living poverty, its outward-looking monuments and its sublime landscape, its poor hid the city's soul inside a fragile web? But here we have come full circle, for anything we say about a city's essence, says more about our own lives and our own states of mind. The city has no centre other than ourselves."

Istanbul is a cry against the city itself and all that it contains being forgotten - and a curiously stormy revenge against those in the world who would do the forgetting. At the same time, the writer guiltily admits to thrashing about in its fallen realms and refusing to fall with it. An impossible task finally, but Pamuk goes at it for all his, and everyone else's, life is worth.

- Mark Mordue

* First published in Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum Books pages on August 13th, 2005.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Dylan on Dylan

Dylan on Dylan

Edited by Jonathan Cott

Hodder & Stoughton, 2006

Lately I've begun to think that Bob Dylan does not exist. That the boy who made him up might still be dreaming. And we are all inside his dream.

Born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota on May 24, 1941, the man we now know as Bob Dylan was raised in the nearby mining town of Hibbing, the elder of two brothers to Jewish parents Abraham and Beatrice. Hibbing is right up on the Canadian border and very cold; the boy liked listening to a lot of radio at night: Hank Williams's country, Muddy Waters's blues, Presley, Holly, the birth of rock'n'roll.

This feeling for the magic of radio, for the transport of music, probably explains Dylan's recent decision to do programs for XM Satellite Radio, running with a theme for each show: the rain, fatherhood and weddings, thus far inspiring song choices from his personal record collection.

Unexpected career moves such as this, along with last year's four-hour Martin Scorsese documentary,No Direction Home, and the 2004 publication ofChronicles: Volume1, a fragmentary memoir told in free-flowing Kerouac-like reveries, have contributed to a reassertion of one of the greatest artistic careers of this past century.

That Dylan's last two albums, Time Out of Mind(1997) and Love and Theft (2001), have been two of his best - the former acclaimed by critics as the first masterpiece of rock'n'roll as seen through an old man's eyes - has only intensified this renaissance.

The forthcoming release of Modern Times in August, completing what the singer apparently regards as a trilogy of recordings, seems destined to send this latest Dylanfest into overdrive.

Yet through it all Dylan remains as enigmatic as ever.

As fellow songwriter Tom Waits once observed: "With Dylan, so much has been said about him, it's difficult to say anything about him that hasn't already been said and say it better. Suffice to say, Dylan is a planet to be explored. His journey as a songwriter is the stuff of myth, because he lives within the ether of the songs."

Hundreds of books have nonetheless been written about Dylan, and thousands of articles. One of Dylan's favoured masks has been that of the put-on artist and barbed surrealist, particularly in his younger days when journalists must have quaked at meeting him head-on.

Change, evasion, contrariness, aimlessness and sudden return - these have become Dylanesque traits, from his folkie beginnings to the rock'n'roll dandy of Blonde on Blonde (1966) to the Rimbaud of rock who produced Blood on the Tracks (1975), to the born-again Christian of the early 1980s to his startling comeback in recent years as a latter-day Wyatt Earp of wisdom and regret.

Mapping this elusive and mobile persona across such a vast canvas is no easy task. But in Dylan on Dylan, editor and long-time Rolling Stone contributor Jonathan Cott does an admirable job through a well chosen array of interviews that chart Dylan's career from go to whoa and then some. Where many such collections feel Googled-up and bagged together,Dylan on Dylan excels for quality, chronological pace and genuine rarity as well as contrast and insight. If you're a fan, it's an essential buy.

The multi-faceted nature of a book that is mostly made up of Dylan's own words gives a surprising feeling for who he might be. Even when his attachment to the French poet Rimbaud's dictum "I is another" takes a fascinating turn as he tells his most obsessed fan, A.J.Weberman (famous for trawling through Dylan's garbage), "I'm not Dylan, you're Dylan."

In what is perhaps the most famous interview of them all, Nat Hentoff's 1966 Playboy article, Dylan responds to a question about jazz music and its fading appeal to young people with typically obtuse fire, as well as the kind of Beat-inherited, rapping style that energised his music and indeed his entire life and the cultural dreaming he propelled when an entire generation called "the '60s" found its finest voice:

"I mean, what would some parent say to his kid if the kid came home with a glass eye, a Charlie Mingus record and a pocketful of feathers? He'd say, 'Who are you following?' And the poor kid would have to stand there with water in his shoes, a bow tie on his ear and soot pouring out of his belly button and say, 'Jazz. Father, I've been following jazz.' And his father would say, 'Get a broom and clean up all that soot before you go to sleep.' Then the kid's mother would tell her friends, 'Our little Donald, he's part of the younger generation, you know.' "

- Mark Mordue

* This story first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum Books pages, June 24th 2006.

Friday, October 8, 2010

OUT OF THE FRAME - A look at the Reportage Festival in 2008 and the ongoing state of photojournalism today

'I smell dead people. Do you?" The Australian photojournalist Stephen Dupont is sitting in a London bar with another "conflict photographer" who admits to the same problem. No matter how many showers they take, no matter how often they wash their clothes, no matter how many miles are put between them and their work in Afghanistan and Iraq, they still smell dead people all around them.

It is almost five years since Dupont told me this story. Five years since I saw him in a rage at the opening night for Reportage, the photojournalism festival held at the Academy Twin Cinema in Sydney. Dupont's photos had been poorly cropped for the big screen. Worse than his anger was the look in his eyes: a bugged wildness reminiscent of James Woods's character in Oliver Stone'sSalvador, or Dennis Hopper's unforgettable scenes in Apocalypse Now, both of which depicted the gonzo "reality" of the war photojournalist as a whistle-stop away from madness.

This seemed not only bad for Dupont, but bad for his work, too. It did not make me want to spend more time with him. Nor did it surprise me to hear of his near-death encounter by suicide bomber in Afghanistan this year, something he coped with by continuing to photograph the event as he walked around bleeding - only mildly wounded but traumatised by the deaths of the 15 others he was travelling with.

Today Stephen Dupont is a different man: no longer interested in "just being an ambulance chaser" - calm, even amused with himself as he completes the finishing touches to his role as guest curator for the 2008 Reportage Festival. "Yeah," he cracks, "that's why I've come back as the curator, because they cropped my f---ing photos."

Dupont is excited because it feels as if "it's the first time the event can truly be called a festival", with seminars and talks, an associated exhibition at the Australian Centre for Photography, and the inaugural $10,000 Reportage Nikon Photo Documentary Grant, which will "fund a photographer to research, create and produce a new and compelling social documentary work in Australia".

These come on top of the Cinematic Showcase that screens a cross-section of the world's best photojournalism: in-depth visual essays and storytelling that, for the most part, you will never see in newspapers or magazines - if anywhere. Among the highlights are John Moore's Pakistan On The Brink, a series that depicts what Moore calls "the Talibanisation of Pakistan", including a sequence on the unfolding assassination of Benazir Bhutto, which won him the 2008 Photojournalist of the Year Award from the National Press Photographers Association of the United States; Seamus Murphy's After Kennedy, a lyrical, Kerouac-inspired road trip into contemporary America that Dupont describes as "pictures of feeling rather than pictures of shock"; Stefano De Luigi's Blindness, a stunning reportage on the living conditions of blind people throughout the developing world; and Dean Sewell's Homeless, which goes deep inside the life of a homeless man in Sydney for an entire year.

Founded in 1999 by Dupont and three other photographers, David Dare Parker, Jack Picone and Michael Amedolia, Reportage was little more than a glorified slide night before it graduated to the old Valhalla cinema in Glebe. Jacqui Vicario took over as director of the event, transferring it to the Academy Twin Cinema, negotiating corporate sponsorship and developing it into what will be the bienniel centrepiece for photojournalism as an art-form in the Asia-Pacific region. Though she is critical of "superstar photographers who can forget they're meant to be behind the camera", Vicario admits: "I do sometimes find it more interesting why they did a story, and what they encountered along the way, than even the actual photos themselves."

Dupont is obviously one of those superstars, working on assignment for the likes of The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vanity Fair and Stern. His contacts and reputation have undoubtedly enhanced the strength of this year's Reportage as an international event. And he is unapologetically open about the Vietnam-era, combat-photo romanticism that inspired him to pick up a camera: Don McCullin's "dark and brutal photography", as well as the images and autobiographical writings of Tim Page, "a real McCoy from that period", not to mention the basis for Dennis Hopper's character.

Though not a part of this year's Reportage, Page has been involved previously and is repeatedly referred to as "the godfather" of the °SOUTH photo collective that includes Dupont and another Reportage participant, Ben Bohane.There is a hint of moral force, even mystic consequence, accorded to Page's presence, as if the current generation of Australian photojournalists are the inheritors of a deeper historical fate by association. "Almost like a circle has happened," as Dupont puts it.

On the phone from Queensland, Page exudes a mix of dark stoner meanderings and high-impact clarity that does not disappoint. How are online and digital innovations changing things? "It's instant whatever today - but is it gratification or degradation? I don't think we've seen how virtual it can go yet. I don't even know what people dream of these days," he says. "But you can't stop it any more than you can stop an oil company or a B52 bomber," he laughs. "If only 1 per cent of the population sees my photos though, then I've won. It's much less than that, of course, but you've got to give yourself some hope. One frame does get frozen in people's minds. Slowly, slowly, catchee monkey."

Reportage has grown at a time when photojournalism is in crisis. The days of the pictorial feature essay and mass-market magazines such as Life (which ceased publication in 1972) are long gone. The golden age of photojournalism from the Spanish Civil War through to Vietnam - when a single image had the power to zero in on the public imagination and "win the war of hearts and minds" (as American government propagandists of the 1960s put it) - also seems to be fading.

Page says: "Reportage is the perfect aquarium for all these desperately swimming fish. We refuse to give up the ghost." But the defiance has a David-and-Goliath ring to it.

The print media is in decline as it copes with online competition, falling sales and ageing readers, surrendering itself to sound-bites and softer news in keeping with lifestyle and marketing concerns to capture a younger audience. News organisations are moving towards having all their photographers shoot on digital video for streaming over the internet. Though the technology of HD digital video cameras is still years behind the quality of stills cameras, it is already possible to take grabs from a video for stills reproduction that adequately serve online and basic newsprint demands.

Online slide shows are celebrity skewed if possible, while "multimedia" is the infotainment buzzword, with photojournalists pressured to mix stills with video and sound (interview fragments, ambient environmental recordings, and voice over, all of which will be used at Reportage).

According to John Moore, "this can sometimes make you feel as if you are competing with yourself. Instead of doing one thing well you end up doing three things in a mediocre way, recording sound while you are seeing great picture opportunities pass you by."

Moore is not opposed to such innovations, and in mini-documentaries such as Frontline Helmand, created in the field "live" with British troops in Afghanistan last year, he demonstrates where this recombination of stills, video and sound can take online news. That said, it is obvious where his heart lies. You do not film video the same way you frame and shoot still images, and most photojournalists still seem to believe in capturing a moment for consideration over and above the multimedia hype.

Against this pressure come interesting statistics that should also qualify the rush to embrace video and multimedia. Santiago Lyon, the director of photography at Associated Press, told a Mediabistro conference this year on the future of photojournalism in the digital world that "something like 70 per cent of people who start a photo gallery will finish it. There's something magnetic about the power of the still image … even in this day of video and 24-hour TV news cycles, something about a still photo allows you to concentrate and absorb it."

As hopes for showcasing photojournalism move online and out of the print arena, much-vaunted multimedia news and documentary websites such as Mediastorm are emerging as beacons. The founder, Brian Storm, calls the blend of stills with recorded sound "captions on steroids", a neat slogan, but the working photojournalist also needs a dose of financial adrenaline to help us see the bigger picture. This crisis in working conditions and exposure has been intensified by the so-called citizen photojournalist, anyone with a mobile phone or digital camera who is on the spot as events are unfolding. Recently this has meant anything from the tsunami in South-East Asia to the London bombings to the leaked snapshots from Abu Ghraib.

News events are increasingly likely to come from amateur sources. This raises the question of reliability: who is supplying these images and how true are they? So far the sheer speed at which events are covered is serving as a security screen, but a fear remains that a big news organisation will be badly burnt, despite talk of software that will detect digital alteration.

It is our visual culture, then, that has become the battleground. What separates the great photojournalist from Joe Blog and the orgy of incidental images we swim in may well be the storytelling impulse itself: the desire to bring a feeling and a meaning to the moment. In this new war to win hearts and minds, Seamus Murphy observes that "how you say something is often as important as what you are saying, especially with images".

He knows all about post-modern debates over aestheticising suffering. "But I don't think it's any less truthful to make something poetic or beautiful. Is it aestheticising suffering, or are you actually giving people more dignity? Hopefully, a beautiful picture will draw you in. Hopefully, it haunts you. And because it haunts you, it doesn't leave you."

*This article was first published under the title 'Frontline shots with true aim' in the Sydney Morning Herald Arts pages on October 8th, 2008

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Daniel Lanois Live at the Basement

The Basement, Sydney

Daniel Lanois is a strange kettle of fish. You wouldn’t call his voice magic, but there’s a lot going on in his mind and how it’s tuned. Does it bear repeating he is best known as a producer, mentored by Brian Eno, crucial to career-changing work from U2, Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris? You can hear that tonight in the songs: the rotating surge and lift-off of U2, the stark night-time lope and regretful swing of Dylan: it fogs your thoughts with who has influenced who.

Initially, though, things are solid rather than inspired. The sound is also oddly dense for such a master of space and rooms. Third song in it shifts. Lanois starts talking about growing up in Canada, about indigenous people in Australia and back home. He lived close by the Six Nations Reservation and played in a bar there: “I would look into the sunken eyes of my compadres and imagine what it was like to dream of other possibilities.” Still Water begins. In its refrain of “sad eyes, sad eyes” Lanois finds a voice inside him like sweet blotting paper.

Time again Lanois hits these moments: On Do or Die, with its ringing guitars and war drum patterns that sound like Native American ghosts, then something more modern and military, before the whole song takes off like an eagle and dissolves in a ripple of furious electric notes that suggest classic Neil Young. On Cool, with its teenage strut and spacey guitar and submarine beat that seems to grow older as the song moves along, till your out on some lost highway somewhere between Dorothy’s Kansas, Barney Kessel’s jazz guitar modes and Paris, Texas. Or maybe that was just the flashing lights of a cold Ontario night passing me by?

He tells a story about his father being a fiddle player, then strays into a new song: “I dunno what is life and what is shadow”. Often the band is singing along with him and it feels less like a solo show than a group effort, until you see how intense Lanois gets inside his guitar, pushing at the band and pushing at himself even harder.

Jolie Louise, sung in Quebecoise French nods again to Lanois’ roots. It could be a joke, a lumberjack love song from a cartoon, but he pulls it off. There are more songs in French, some fine steel guitar instrumentals, and songs that are just okay. Lanois keeps going for something big anyway, as if determination and belief will get him there and sometimes it does. I'm amazed a how historical he is: Quebecoise to the bone, teenage with icy landscapes and dark-eyed fires, adult with where he came from and the uncertainty of where he might be going. Great with what he falls short of achieving - all the while he goes all out to try and get there.

- Mark Mordue

* First published in Drum Media, Sydney 14.04.06

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

American Frankenstein: Bret Easton Ellis

If I were to have a nervous breakdown and come apart, I can see how reading too much Bret Easton Ellis would help me along. I’ve been spending the past few weeks wandering through his novels, alternatively amused by his wit (there is never enough emphasis on just how funny he can be), depressed by his detachment, and ultimately disgusted, somehow soiled, by the violence he elaborates with such clinical precision.

More than once it has crossed my mind that the body of his work is a preparation for suicide: of an individual, and of a culture. His message is simple – either we pull the plug, or someone should do it for us.

American Psycho (1991) remains the most famous expression of this bleak and relentless ethos. There’s still a ‘Category One – Restricted’ sticker on my copy, which I had to buy shrink-wrapped from over the bookshop counter like hard-core pornography when it came out. No doubt this arcane process gave the item a degree of groovy cultural voodoo all its own: a marketing triumph in the age of appearances.

In Ellis’ books there’s certainly an over-arching notion our identity is nothing more than a role we adopt in order to move across the surface of this world. Or more truly an interchangeable set of roles, masks that we wear, as we pass from place to place, scene to scene. Until it’s clear we are not anything at all. Which may be why the star of his very first novel Less than Zero (1985) and its much-heralded new sequel, Imperial Bedrooms (2010) is named ‘Clay’.

In order to reinforce its veracity as a saturnine mid-life return, Imperial Bedrooms builds on references to Less than Zero as a book (sensationally published when Ellis was a 21 year old writing student and quickly acclaimed as ‘Catcher in the Rye for the MTV generation’) and its disappointing adaptation into an anti-drugs film for disaffected youth – as well as the supposed experiential facts behind it all.

From the start of Imperial Bedrooms there’s an emphasis this is Clay’s monologue for real, and not some second-hand author’s version or Hollywood homogenization. A writer friend, then the movies, stole away Clay’s teenage character and that of his peers, Blair, Trent and Julian. Now Clay’s back in town, a scriptwriter working on a project called The Listeners, and everyone is older and colder.

That Bret Easton Ellis actually wrote Imperial Bedrooms in the wake of yet another disillusioning attempt to translate one of his books, the short story collection The Informers, into a film of the same name, is yet one more suggestive layer or palimpsest to the narrative. Both Clay and Ellis want revenge on a world that tries to simplify and tame them, a world they want to dominate.

With that undercurrent in mind best run for the Hollywood Hills everybody, because the ‘truth’ is the Harold Robbins of post-modern oblivion is back in town, as this superb Ellisian opening declares:

“They had made a movie about us. The movie was based on a book by someone we knew. The book was a simple thing about four weeks in the city we grew up in and for the most part it was an accurate portrayal. It was labelled fiction but only a few details had been altered and our names weren’t changed and there was nothing in it that hadn’t happened. For example, there actually had been a screening of a snuff film in that bedroom in Malibu on a January afternoon, and yes, I had walked out onto the deck overlooking the Pacific where the author tried to console me, assuring me that the screams of the children being tortured were faked, but he was smiling as he said this and I had to turn away...”

As for the morality Ellis espouses behind his work – the antagonism to materialism and narcissism that obsesses him to the point of a fetish (what an irony) – it once again climaxes in self-dispersing acts of violence, momentary ecstasies that allow us to bathe in a sex-and-death abyss where we finally recognise ourselves. Maybe.

Which means that although Imperial Bedrooms is promoted as a sequel to Less Than Zero what it feels like is a prequel to American Psycho, and part of some larger meta-novel that Ellis has been weaving for an entire career. When this larger vision is glimpsed it’s possible to sense a genius in Ellis of the grandest scope, however flawed and inconsistent his writing can sometimes be.

The author has been toying with post-modern games that link all his books for some time now, culminating in Lunar Park (2005), his mock celebrity memoir. Blurring fact and fiction altogether, that ‘novel’ is an hallucination of what an autobiography can be, with an imaginary movie-star wife and children, an oppressive suburban existence, and what appears to be a haunted house, sutured into the genuine details of Ellis’ life and career. A serial killer who appears to have been inspired by Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, also emerges. The ghost of Ellis’ dead father also haunts him in the book, as does the approaching menace of a news story about ‘lost boys’ who disappear, never to be seen or heard again.

This could become incredibly tiresome, yet another hall of mirrors project which numbs us as we are taken for a wildly distorting turn through literary puns and cross-references. But Ellis saves himself by being amusing, then eerie if overly inclined towards a Stephen King pastiche, and finally distressingly poetic as he reaches out – futilely – for an imaginary son he will never connect with. Ellis dedicates the novel to his father Robert Ellis.

As a work of self-criticism Lunar Park begins soberly enough with an analysis of the opening passages to all Ellis’ novels up to that point in time, part of a number of critical re-evaluations and confessions he performs. This also makes Bret Easton Ellis difficult to review since there doesn’t seem much left to say about him that ‘Bret Easton Ellis’ that hasn’t already said here by him. I had, for instance, also considered beginning this review with a comparative analysis of the openings to Less Than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms. It’s the type of comparison that not only seemed obvious but necessary given the fact Less Than Zero has one of the most brilliant openings in modern American fiction:

‘People are afraid to merge on the freeways in Los Angeles. This is the first thing I hear when I come back to the city…’

Of course it’s a young Dante wearily entering Hell. Once that journey was taken, the been-there, done-that feeling would cast a foreboding over all of Ellis’ novels to come. From a drug dealer nick-named ‘Dead’ in Less than Zero to a body so crushed it is initially mistake for a ‘flag’ when it is first spotted in Imperial Bedrooms, the amount of actual murder and soul murder in Ellis’ books leads to a body count and world view that sticks to a netherworld pattern.

Re-reading Less Than Zero now it’s all the more amazing to witness the consistency of it in tone, plot and vision. Something Ellis has had trouble repeating as his books have swollen in length and complexity, bloating out into failure with Glamorama (1998), a ramped up tale of fashion models who become terrorists – if you want to swallow that trip.

Given this misstep it’s nonetheless possible to argue Ellis greatest progress has been as a comic writer – as evidenced by his return to form in Lunar Park. But the fact remains that Ellis burst out of the box with Less Than Zero in a fully formed state and he remains little changed as an American Existential stylist whenever he leans toward tragedy. That’s devastating to see from the outside; it must be tough to negotiate from his perspective as an author. In some ways you can read Imperial Bedrooms as an attempt to shut the door on that dilemma forever.

For all its notoriety American Psycho certainly isn’t Ellis’ best novel, largely because it’s too epic, teeming with everything he has to offer as a writer. The Ellis aesthetic here is more, and more again. To the point where you wish an editor had cut the book in half instead of letting Ellis’ Armani-clad serial killer Patrick Bateman dismember yet another body and gorge us with another shopping list of details. The opposing argument also applies, that the excess is a necessary accompaniment to the themes.

As an attempt to re-write Crime and Punishment for Wall Street in the ‘80s his creation of a reverse Raskolnikov (filthy rich, no guilt, no desire to be caught) still seems on the money, if not more so today. To think that once upon a time his obsession with designer labels and fine restaurants appeared absurdly overdone.

Until the torture and murder really set in, however, the biggest shock is how hilarious that book is for the first hundred pages or so. Rather than blood and guts it features stockbrokers one-upping each other with the quality of their business cards (fretting over the merits of bone, egg-shell and off white backgrounds), as well as drolly-written chapters focussed on Patrick Bateman’s appreciative album reviews of Genesis and Whitney Houston.

This is one of Ellis’ favourite techniques, the comic-book mundane placed beside the vicious. A running gag where an advertisement for the stage-show Les Miserables keeps cropping up is another sardonic example in American Psycho. Ellis loves working off this accumulated detail, until the funny becomes nasty and he buries you.

Like all of Ellis’ narrators, Clay included, Bateman is also ‘unreliable’. In his discussion of American Psycho in Lunar Park, the equally unreliable Ellis observes:

“…if you actually read the book you could come away doubting that these crimes had occurred. There were large hints that they existed only in Bateman’s mind. The murders and torture were in fact fantasies fuelled by his rage and fury about how American life was structured and this had – no matter the size of his wealth – trapped him. The fantasies were an escape. This was the book’s thesis. It was about society and manners and mores, and not about cutting up women. How could anyone read the book and not see this?”

To call American Psycho a pure satire, though, is a little kind as it’s never been entirely clear what Ellis attacks and what he celebrates. The author plays the complicity card so close to his chest my suspicion is he’s not really sure where he stands. Maybe that’s the necessary truth of his oeuvre as he lacerates everything and everyone, including himself. The rage and fury, the wit that can curdle into something so black humoured you wonder what the hell you are laughing at? It’s not just satirical – it’s brutalizing. That Ellis admits having based Patrick Bateman on his own abusive, status-obsessed father just makes this fury all the more palpable.

Imperial Bedrooms once again confirms that rage in Ellis’ typically leached pulp-fiction style. It’s especially notable in Ellis’ usually commanding grasp of minimalist dialogue, with blankly counter-pointing, single-line riffs of conversation that carry on like something out of an Albert Camus novel then slide off into the scripted camp of an episode of The Young and the Restless (a soapie tone Ellis only seems half in control of, with results that are part satirical and part lazy writing, as if the former might hide the latter in this sequel). Some of the grim verve and witty use of mis-heard ‘conversations’ that Ellis made play of in Less than Zero is also missing here, as if the additional heaviness of the sequel has also made the dialogue slightly more leaden too.

Together with Clay’s point of view and alienated scenes that tend to run for barely more than a page at most – and which Ellis has rightly called “controlled cinematic haiku” – the amount of white space on the page nonetheless adds to a deserted feeling, an L.A. emptiness. Like everything else in Ellis’ Less than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms this is a highly visual quality, movie-like, voyeuristic, floating.

Unfortunately the new instalment does not sustain its opening rush, and its plot devices featuring drug debts, elite prostitution, threatening text messages and a blue jeep that follows Clay around all seem contrived and false, an over-loud echo of Less Than Zero’s more muted and believable lifestyle voids. Ellis has got the storyteller’s voice right in this sequel, but he can’t quite catch the old one’s pointless momentum.

And yet there is something strangely spiritual permeating the edges of Ellis’ writing in Imperial Bedrooms. A shimmer, spooky and beautiful – and available in only the slenderest of his passages – that implies some regard for the haunted, and even the transcendent that has always been present in his work.

Indeed if one were to select a genre for Ellis, modern horror would seem most appropriate, conjuring as it does the attendant clash between technology and spirit, surface and soul. Which of course makes Bret Easton Ellis an essentially Romantic artist, and typically death obsessed at that. It’s just instead of the mechanistic, Industrial Age clash between God and science that the likes of Mary Shelley originally dealt with in Frankenstein, Bret Easton Ellis is now wrestling with late stage American Empire capitalism in decay, with television, celebrity, modern drugs, and communication and identity itself as products. It’s even possible to say that Ellis’ Frankenstein is himself. Which is not so far away from the original theme of Mary Shelley’s novel, if you think about it, given that she based her own monster on the poet Byron and his tormented image of himself.

Very late in Imperial Bedrooms and flowing on from a deeply disturbing scene featuring a young male and female paid to be beaten and sexually violated at a desert ranch house outside of Los Angeles – a scene so disturbing I have regrets I ever read it – this cinematic reverie emerges:

‘The sky looked scoured, remarkable, a cylinder of light formed at the base of the mountains, rising upward. At the end of the weekend the girl admitted to me she had become a believer as we sat in the shade of the towering hills – “the crossing place” is what the girl called them, and when I asked her what she meant she said, “this is where the devil lives,” and she was pointing at the mountains with a trembling hand but she was smiling now as the boy kept diving into the pool and the welts glistened on his tan back from where I had beaten him. The devil was calling out to her but it didn’t scare her anymore because she wanted to talk to him now, and in the house was a copy of the book that had been written about us twenty years ago and its neon cover glared from where it rested on the glass coffee table until it was found floating in the pool in the house in the movie colony beneath the towering mountains, water bloated, and then the camera tracks across the desert until we start fading out on the yellowing sky.’

Within this strange luminescence one senses another realm that Bret Easton Ellis might enter. A dream world rather than a nightmare, although it is couched in seductively evil terms – and so hardly light yet. The tone of initiation and ritual is similarly hard to miss above. One might extend this to the act of writing and reading itself. And ask if Ellis is indeed his father’s son, or someone else?

- Mark Mordue

* A version of this essay was first published in The Australian Literary Review on August 4th, 2010

Friday, August 27, 2010

28 thoughts

Coffee, rain, umbrellas, grass damp as the sea,

shells washed in wind,

trees sad as limbs we befriend.

The white car, small as acceptance.

The ocean, grey as a breathing, flurried, stone.

It stands up to kill you,

You who stand,

ready to snap in the wind.

Wotya gonna do?

Put Moses and his curses into your hands?

Yeah. Plant wood in the dirt,

ask for water to be turned into sky?

It won't save you.

Inside, glass and radio are gawking.

A question rises.

It's gargled,

on the letter "G"

like "geeeeeeesss-uuuss".


I state the argument:

This stem, what is it, paraffin-laced, on my throat,

made of words and burning uses?


Nah, this is tidal, lapping, cool as lake-water on a


It laces me with a green-blue wanting sinewed into


But I splash for freedom, kill a friend for the rush.

Sail away, casual, like a cheap fisherman, handreeling

the slick.

I know behind me, a light, blood-thick, muddy fear

is keeping me to the knotted whisper.

Yes. Yes.

Crocodiles bark amid my reaching limbs.

But back here on the coast, deadstone leaves sing

from my touch.

The sky blows down, wet as a winter glass, milk as

wire, even pulse.

Yes. Yes.

I am. I said.

I and I. I and I. Babylon.


I am dancing, fine as lemon, crazy as a gin, to the


Yes. I answer the snow-want.

Yes. I answer the burnt bitter autumn.

Yes. I touched your leg. I hurt flesh with want.

Yes. I beg sleep, I live the late morning.

Yes, I poison apples.


Water and vinegar, thief of clocks.

I will tell time by your demise.

I will tell time.

Look upon this.

Reflect. There are no eyes.

I will tell time.

- Mark Mordue

First published April 2001 in Quadrant, thanks to Les Murray, Poetry Editor.

* Photo sourced from http://www.semiconductorfilms.com/root/Black_Rain/black-rain-2.jpg

Friday, August 20, 2010

Bad Juju

Bad juju. Friday, August 20, 2010. It’s the night before the election. My youngest son has a stomach bug and has been vomiting all afternoon. A friend calls drunk from a Thai restaurant: “I reckon Abbott is going to get in. You know what, good luck to him. He wasn’t afraid. And all those Labor fuckers were too afraid.”

I think he’s right. I think come Saturday night the Liberal’s Tony Abbott will be our next Australian Prime Minister. This scares me. Like seeing him jump off a stage after changing a scoreboard from ‘151’ to ‘152’. He says “152 reasons to vote Labor out”. That’s 152 refugee boats in case you were wondering.

It sounds hysterical but these gestures have more in keeping with the Klu Klux Klan or 1930s Germany. Abbott, of course, is no Grand Wizard, no Adolf Hitler. That’s ridiculous to say. But it’s way too easy to appeal to the cheapest seats in the house, to play off racism and fear and feed it. Everybody is lowered. You start to see the snakes moving when you’re low enough to crawl in their company. Let’s face it, we can be a racist, reactionary, small-minded country when the mood takes us, and there’s something in the air right now that’s ugly and not going to go away.

This lowering has been the great disease of this election. Everyone has lost faith with the leaders and the main parties, and worse still with politics itself.

I hate the disenchantment and cynicism that has universally infected the conversations I have about who we might vote for in 2010. I don’t think I have seen our democracy in a more debased condition. It’s almost as if tomorrow doesn’t matter to anyone. As if nothing makes a difference because, yes, they’re all the same. And yes, you hear that cynical patter about politicians every election – it’s just that this time around it feels like it’s become ingrained into our being.

The most important moment in this election so far has been the fight to win Masterchef. The best political program outside Q&A has been The Gruen Factor because it recognized how central marketing and the media are to our lives now – and it at least looked at them critically as well as amusingly. Not that I found much hope in that.

I was none too impressed with ALP leader Julia Gillard in comparison to Tony Abbott either. She appeared to be running a visionless campaign, making robotic and cynical moves. How did she and her party let boat people become an issue - again? Then I saw her on last week’s Q&A. All of a sudden she seemed like a leader, like her ideas and her acts had a deeper purpose and logic. I was almost shocked – ‘the real Julia’ at last. But it was too little, too late. Days later on the 7.30 Report she had a duller mask in place, back in neutralizing second gear.

Should she feel bad about knifing Kevin Rudd? No. He dug his own grave and she was the person in line to take the chance that came her way. The real poison in the ALP is the NSW Right and its numbers men who will see out not only Federal but State Labor in a way that not only loses elections, but rots the whole idea of whatever that party was founded on. Can anyone watch TV shows about for Prime Ministers like Curtain and Chifley, or even Bob Hawke for that matter, and not wonder if there is anything is left of the Federal Labor party now worth being faithful too?

And yet this week on Q&A Tony Abbott looked completely out of Julia Gillard’s league by comparison: he was stiffer, dumber, far less articulate – the half-reasonable reasonable face of zealotry in restraint. It hardly seemed to matter. I mean really, how many people watch Q&A?

In fact, how many people spend more than five minutes on national politics or what any national leader has to say? It’s all sound-bytes and media snippets and glib puns, stage-managed appearances, voice and gesture training, every policy compromised by another poll. It was interesting to hear one of the analysts on the ABC say that what the politicians don’t hear behind these surveys and polls are people saying, ‘Yes, we think this or want that, but what do we know? That’s what we expect our leaders to tell us.’

It has nonetheless become clear to the point of insulting that the two major parties are using marketing and polls to target the swinging voter or what lately gets called ‘the floating voter’. That is they are targeting the person who votes not by conscience or belief or loyalty or concern, but by what is in it for them.

Votes like these can either be bought or chased up through negativity. Or both. Someone should read the political pollsters some Greek mythology and take note of the tale of Narcissus. He drowned by looking at himself for too long in a pool.

The media are accomplices to this selfishness and stupidity. Indeed I think they have created the broader culture in which our feelings of political hollowness are now being so profoundly felt. I am therefore thinking if a major newspaper collapsed and disappeared tomorrow in Australia, would it matter any more than the collapse and disappearance of a major political party? There is some type of evaporation of purpose occurring, a weird form of suicide in the body politic that affects us all.

It seems, then, that the best we can be hope for in this election is that our worst is not realized. This of course echoes the Irish poet Yeats in his apocalyptic poem The Second Coming: “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Maybe we really do get the leaders we deserve.

- Mark Mordue

- M