Sunday, June 27, 2010

Caught in the loop

Erica Wagner does a serviceable job of summarizing the new Bret Easton Ellis novel Imperial Bedrooms in the New York Times, in which he brings us to speed on the whereabouts and doings of the characters in in his first book, 1985's "Less than Zero". She does a creditable job as well at highlighting his novelist skills --a talent as a surreal quick sketch artist is duly noted--and furnishes a longer list of matters that have made him , in large part, the most tedious of contemporary novelists. It would suffice to say that Ellis has a love of characters who are impossibly, ruthlessly detached from the violence and decadence they observe or create, and that the trick of having a creation observe himself being observe is a dated use of a loosely construed idea of phenomenology. Comparisons to another novelist who harps on repeated themes, Joyce Carol Oates, are obvious enough --his fascination with the bombed out souls of post-eighties consumers, she on the trials and traumas of women who cannot seem to avoid violence coming upon them--but the qualitative differences are striking. Ellis never really seems to leave the parking lot of his plot lines; his scenes and locations are alarmingly the same, whatever names or coats of paint and layers of wallpaper he applies to them. Oates has, at least, energy and speed of production on her side--while a good many of her books, one after another, seemed composed from compulsion than inspiration, she does connect with novels of real power and psychological complexity, as seen in The Falls and The Tattooed Girl: the idea that victim-hood is something one attracts is a subtle idea on many fronts, and Oates, as subtle intelligence despite her fascination with brutal narrative developments, explores the issues . At her best she is as unnerving as Flannery O'Connor could be in her novel Wise Blood

Ellis prefers flat-affect in his presentations: the detail of a photograph or a bit of video tape, unconsidered, unfiltered, tersely revealed. He has the hope that somethig of Hemingway emerges from his writing and that a greater effect takes hold ; he wants the zeitgeist of his decade, the 80s, to sweep over us. He invites us to weep over the loss innocence.

His obsession with the self-referential was once effective,but the value as irony as been exhausted, what had been taken as an implicit critique of 80's drug-infused egomania seems now like nothing else other than a repeating tape loop of rearranging old ideas. There is little to suggest in the body of work he's published at this late date that he's capable of doing anything other than performing face lifts , elaborate productions and smaller bits of of nip-and-tuck--on the short story that furnished the sketchy basis for his first novel. Ironically, an epitaph for this new book is a line from a song by Elvis Costello, "Beyond Belief", from his album Imperial Bedroom.  The quote itself is less important than the fact that Ellis borrowed his novel's title from an album by a musician who has convincingly gotten over the issues of his twenties and hasn't spent the remainder of his career retro-fitting his old conceits.

1 comment:

  1. For my money, Ellis possesses neither the glitter of Joseph Hergesheimer, nor the galumph of James Branch Cabell. He is an exile from his own apartment and no one gives a enough of a damn to help him find his keys.

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