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

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