Thursday, August 16, 2012

American Frankenstein: Bret Easton Ellis and Imperial Bedrooms




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 spent the past few weeks wandering through his novels, alternately amused by his wit (there is never enough emphasis by critics on 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 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 shrinkwrapped from over the bookshop counter when it came out, as if it were hardcore pornography. 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's books there's certainly an overarching notion that identity is nothing more than a role we adopt to move across the surface of this world. Or, more truly, an interchangeable set of roles we change, masks 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 first novel, Less than Zero (1985), and its much-heralded, just-published sequel, Imperial Bedrooms, is named Clay.

To reinforce its veracity as a saturnine midlife return, Imperial Bedrooms builds on references to Less than Zero. From the start of Imperial Bedrooms there's an emphasis this is Clay's monologue for real and not some secondhand author's version or Hollywood homogenisation. With that in mind, best run for the Hollywood Hills, everybody, because the truth is the Harold Robbins of postmodern 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 -- 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 genius in Ellis, however flawed and inconsistent his writing can sometimes be.
The author has been toying with postmodern games that link all his books for some time, culminating in Lunar Park (2005), his mock celebrity memoir. Blurring fact and fiction altogether, the novel is an hallucination of what an autobiography can be. This could be incredibly tiresome, yet another hall of mirrors project that 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 has lost.
As a work of self-criticism, Lunar Park begins dutifully enough with an analysis of the opening passages to Ellis's novels up to that point. This also makes Ellis difficult to review since there doesn't seem much left to say about him that he that hasn't already said. 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 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 his novels. Rereading Less than Zero, it's all the more amazing to witness the consistency of it, something Ellis has had trouble repeating as his books have swollen in length and complexity, then bloated into failure with Glamorama (1998), a ramped-up tale of fashion models who become terrorists.
Despite this misstep, it is nonetheless possible to argue Ellis's greatest progress until now has been as a comic writer, as evidenced by his return to form in Lunar Park. But the fact remains 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. In some ways you can read Imperial Bedrooms as an attempt to shut the door on that forever.
For all its notoriety American Psycho isn't Ellis's 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's Armani-clad serial killer Patrick Bateman dismember yet another body.
Until the torture and murder really set in, however, the biggest shock was how hilarious that book was for the first 100 pages. Rather than blood and guts it featured stockbrokers one-upping each other with the quality of their business cards (fretting over the merits of bone, eggshell and off-white backgrounds), as well as drolly written chapters focused on Bateman's appreciative album reviews of Genesis and Whitney Houston. This is one of Ellis's favourite techniques, placing the comic-book mundane 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's narrators, Clay included, Bateman is 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 clear what Ellis attacks and what he celebrates.
The author plays the complicity card so closely 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 brutalising.
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's typically leached pulp-fiction style. It's especially notable in Ellis's commanding grasp of minimalist dialogue, with blankly counterpointing, 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). 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 adds to a deserted feeling, an LA emptiness. Like everything else in Less than Zero and Imperial Bedrooms, this is a highly visual quality, movie-like, voyeuristic, floating.
Unfortunately, the book 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, seem contrived and false, an over-loud echo of Less than Zero's more muted and believable voids. Ellis has got the voice right in the sequel, but he can't quite catch the old scene's pointless momentum.
And yet there is something strangely spiritual permeating the edges of Ellis's 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 Ellis an essentially romantic artist, and typically death obsessed at that. It's just instead of the mechanistic, Industrial Age clash with science the likes of Mary Shelley originally dealt with in Frankenstein, Ellis is wrestling with late-stage American empire capitalism, television, celebrity, modern drugs, communication and identity itself as products.
It's even possible to say that Ellis's Frankenstein is himself. Which is not so far away from the original theme of Shelley's novel, if you think about it, given that she based her monster on Lord 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 LA, a scene so disturbing I'm not sure I am happy I read it at all, this 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 any more 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 Ellis might enter. A dream world rather than a nightmare, although it is couched in seductively evil terms above and so hardly light yet. The tone of initiation and ritual is similarly hard to miss. 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

* First published in the Australian Literary Review, August 4th 2010.
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