Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Decline of Elvis Costello

I had the faint hope that Elvis Costello's most recent CD,"The Delivery Man" , would be a solid and tuneful set of punchy rock and roll and sharply writ lyrics as was Costello's previous "When I Was Cruel" from four years ago, but such is hardly the case. Well, no,that understates the disappointment, which was something akin to questioning my tastes when I was in college and feeling compelled, fleetingly so, to apologize for all the positive reviews I'd given his albums in the Seventies and early eighties when I felt I still had some purchase on informing the culture and the people in it about the best work the best of us were doing. Fortunately, I stopped drinking some years ago and avoided anything so rash; I went to sleep and the worst despair was gone, but I was still irked, cheesed off, madder than a wet hen. Elvis Costello has been sucking for years now, and I was tired of waiting for one of those "return to forms" one anticipates aging rockers to do, hoping they live long enough to make one more disc that has half the kick
such musicians might have had back in the day, or the night, or just back when they cared. One way or the other it amounts to waiting for someone to die, yourself or the artist in question. It's a very slow game of chicken.

It's been long enough to wait for Dylan or the Stones decide that they want to make music again that sounded like they still enjoyed their work as much as the money they make from it. Costello isn't that old, and he hasn't lost his talent; his ambition just got in the way of it. The songs are wandering bits of amorphous mood setting, vaguely sad, melancholic, inward drawn. The worst of "Painted from Memory", is irresolutely medium tempo collection of muzaked dirges with Burt Bacharach (both of whom apparently forgetting that Bachrach's work is marked as much by quirky, uptempo tunes) meets the pulseless shoe-gazing sniffling of "North".Costello has been trying to show everyone how much he's matured and grown as an artist and writer, but unlike someone like Paul Simon, who improved dramatically in his solo work after he finally bid adieu to the collegiate poesy of Simon and Garfunkel's too-precious word mongering, Costello tries to get it all in, to say it all in one song, and then again in the song after that. His songs tear at the seams, and there is not the overflow of talent you'd like, but rather an uncontainable spillage. Simon, through "Rhymin' Simon" and onward, knows the meaning of restraint, containment, care in image and metaphor. He remains a songwriter with an especially strong sense of pop structure, a matter that forces him to make each song the best he can do at the moment. Costello is, on occasion, a better melodist than Simon and a more interesting, verbally dexterous lyricist, but it is his lack of care that sinks him here and throughout most of his output in the 90's. Tom Waits, his closet in terms of sheer talent, does the sloppy and the unrestrained with the kind of genius we reserve for Miles Davis and Picasso. Costello is shy of genius, is a brilliant craftsman when he applies the technique and reapplying himself is exactly what is called for. The songs on the new one are unfocused and drift in structure--Costello seems to be trying to convince that playing being indecisive about how he wants a melody to unfold, or what mood and psychology he wants to get across is enough to evoke Hamlet-like assumptions of deep thought and artful equivocation on key narrative points.

He sounds like he's trying to be artfully oblique, but what Costello forgets is that his greatest talent was his ability to absorb the styles of fifty or so years of rock, pop and rhythm and blues styles and then compose a fantastically buoyant music that was at once subtly argued in the lyrics and intensely rocking with the music. Costello must not like to dance anymore, and has entered middle age with some overblown assumptions that he needs to be artier, moodier, more depressed, more diffuse, more obtuse than he was when he was a young punk trying to make a buck off his bad attitude. There are those die-hard fans who would counter that Costello's lyrics are the subtlest and most literary of his career, something I would argue against, but all the same, this is a weak defense of the general torpor that saturates "The Delivery Man". Even if it were so, albums that are more interesting to read than to listen to are fit, on principle, to be used for target practice at the next skeet shoot.

Thursday, December 8, 2005

John Lennon and the End of the Beatles

Today , Thursday, December 8 2005 is the twenty fifth anniversary of John Lennon's assassination by that ignoble cipher Mark David Chapman, and as much as one wants to deny that they remain obsessed with the great glory of their fiery youth, a day of this kind makes me none the less want to meander around the old and overgrown ground of the past and wonder how things might have been different. But the motives are selfish, as they always have been with me, and I am less concerned with the winsome utopia Lennon wanted to bring us to had Chapman not found his gun and his target, but rather with the decline of Lennon's music, post-Beatles. My position is simple and probably simple minded; Lennon was a pop music genius during his time with the Beatles, collaborating or competing with Paul McCartney, definitely at the top of his songwriting and performer game, and with the introduction of Yoko Ono into his life, we see a lapse into the banal, the trivial, the pretentiously bone-headed.

Yoko Ono did much to make Lennon the worst example of wasted genius imaginable. Though he did make some great rock and roll during his post-Beatle time, and wrote and recorded a handful of decent ballads, his artistry took a nose dive he never had a chance to pull out of. He was monumentally pretentious, head-line hungry, and cursed with an ego mania that over rode is talent. He stopped being an artist, and a rock and roller, and became the dread species of creature called celebrity; the great work that made is reputation was behind him, and there was nothing in front of him except brittle rock music with soft headed lyrics, empty art stunts, and drugs, drugs, drugs. A sad legacy for a great man. The fact of the matter is that Lennon's greatness was possible in large part because of his collaborations, full or partial, with Paul McCartney. Both had native musical instincts that balanced each other: the proximity of one to the other kept them on their best game. The sheer genius of the entire Beatle body of work versus the sketchy efforts from both Lennon and McCartney under their own steam bears this out. Lennon never found anyone to replace McCartney, and certainly never had anyone who challenged to do better, smarter work. Yoko certainly didn't give him anything that improved his music, and her lasting contribution to his career is to give him the errant idea that performing under your ability equals sincerity. It equaled excruciatingly inadequate music.

What's amazing for an anniversary as seemingly monumental as this is the paucity of new insights, previously unavailable information, or especially interesting critical estimations of their estimable body of work. It is a topic that has been exhausted, it seems, since scrutiny on all matters and personalities pertaining to the Beatles has been unceasing since their demise. We have, essentially, is reruns of our own memories, repackaged, remodeled, sold to us again, and endless of things we already know intimately and yet consume compulsively because we cannot help ourselves.It cheapens the term, but "addiction" comes to mind.

There is nothing to add to the Beatles legacy except perhaps add our anecdotes to the ceaseless stream of words that seek to define their existence and importance even today. It's no longer about what the Beatles meant and accomplished in altering the course of history or manipulating the fragile metaphysical assumptions we harbor, for good or ill;we've exhausted our best and largest generalities in that regard, and the task will fall to historians, philosophers and marketers after most of us are dead as to what The Beatles and their songs are worth as art and commercially exploitable assets. For us there remains only a further dive into autobiography, where we might yet find some clue and excitement as to how these guys became an informing influence on our individual personalities.John Lennon and the Beatles changed my life in a major and unalterable way during their existence, and this was something I came aware of only after watching two hours of CNN wall-to-wall coverage of the assassination. I broke down, tears came, I was a senseless, doom-stricken mess, even though at the time I loudly bad-mouthed the pasty, hippie-flake dilettantism of his later work. None of what I thought I mattered mattered in that instance.John Lennon was dead and it was like losing some essential part of myself whose loss would never be filled with anything even half as good or worthy.He still mattered to me in my life quite despite the fact that I'd had what amounted to an argument with him over is politics and his music during the length of his solo career, but despite my best efforts to break off into new sounds and ideas and leave Lennon and the Beatles behind, his death hit as would the death of a family member.

 For good or ill, his work and the crude course of his ideas helped in the formation of values and attitudes that still inform my response to celebrity and events, no less than Dylan, and no less than reading Faulkner, Joyce , or viewing Godard films. The deification that he's had since the killing is the kind of sick, fetish culture nostalgia that illustrates the evils of unalloyed hero worship, a need to have a God who once walked in our midst. This bad habit turns dead artists who were marginally interesting into Brand Name , icons whose mention confers the acquisition of class and culture without the nuisance of having to practice credible discernment: every weak and egocentric manuscript Kerouac and Hemingway, among others , has been published, and the initial reason for their reputations, graspable works you can point to, read and parse, become obscured as a result. Lennon, in turn, becomes less the musician he was and becomes, in death, just another snap-shot to be re-marketed at various times, complete with booklets containing hyperbole-glutted prose that , in essence, attempts to instruct me that my own response through a period I lived in is meaningless. Such hype utterly refuses to let newer listeners come to their own terms with the body of work. It is no longer about Lennon's music, it's about the promotion machine that keeps selling him. This is evil. Lennon, honest as he was most of the time when he had sufficient distance from his antics, would have told us to get honest as well and admit that much of his later music was half-baked and was released solely because of the power of his celebrity. This may well be the time for an honest appraisal of his work, from the Beatles forward, so that his strongest work can stand separate from things that have a lesser claim to posterity. Magazines and online media have used Lennon and the Beatles for no than their value as nostalgia icons in an attempt pathetic glimpses of their own history. It's only business, nothing personal, and that is exactly the problem. Risky to assume what Lennon might ultimately have sounded like had he not been killed, since he had the ability to switch games suddenly and quickly so far as his musical thinking went. 

This was a constant quality that kept him interesting, if not always inspiring: there as always a real hope that he would recover inspiration, as Dylan had after some weak work, or as Elvis Costello had after the soggy offerings of Trust or Goodbye Cruel World. Even the weaker efforts of Lennon's' late period were marked by his idiosyncratic restlessness, and the songs on Double Fantasy, domesticated that they are, might well have been transitional work, a faltering start, toward new territory. It's laughable that Lennon might ever have become as lugubriously solemn as Don Henley, but there's merit in saying that Lennon's work might become par with Paul Simon's: Simon's work is certainly more than screeds praising the domesticated life, and he is one of the few songwriters from the Sixties whose work has substantially improved over the forty years or so. If Lennon's work had become that good, on his own terms, it would have been a good thing, though it'd be more realistic to say that a make believe Lennon rebirth of great work would be closer in attitude and grit to Lou Reed and Neil Young, two other geezers whose work remains cranky and unsatisfied at heart. Since his death, it'd been my thinking that Lennon would have transcended his cliches as some of contemporaries had.

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

burning house

i put my glass down on the tablewhen the house was sold and caughtfire then, there should never behot drinks served near loose lace and drapes.we were walking past a burning houseas shadow animals barked at one anotheron the wal in the awful red light, flaming birdswith wings made of flingers flockling toa spot on the ceiling, we kept walkingwe made a phone call, sirens were looked at the reciever and found yourselflost in the small holes in the ear piece, thereare so many voices passing on wires and through
the air that are connected to lives with histories oflove and diaster that all goes without saying whilewe report crimes and sparks we see coming froma wood shingle roof, you tell them your nameand take my hand.there are trucks singing in strident keys
as sparks and smoke make an edge of the night glow
as if something were alive or ceasing to be,
we return home and prepare for bed, i go into the kitchenand find no kitchen, nor glasses
i drank from nor was wearing,
i twist around, the room is dark,i cannot breathe, and your voice is far off likesinging heard through windows in a tall buildingfrom where every burning house can be seen.

Friday, December 2, 2005

An Incident with Small Talk

The quiet of the breath taken, then held, then expelled really like nothing else than a gasp and release scattering the particles into equal portions. The cars parked in the rear chew the asphalt with relish, a stationary address to the puddles formed beneath them (a man with a large hose making it look as though it just rained).
All the way from Michigan the landscape alerted me to a vista fluctuating in a firm allegiance with the exigencies of variety, different lunches in small towns down the stretch, brand-names like home assuaging the intrusion of new accents Though we may be quibbling over the rites of Scrabble the information is good enough to show that the word perambulates does not mean a description of what we did before we learned to walk on the twin limbs under the distinguishing genitalia.
Blood courses coarsely from the lip that caught the ball with the old college try, a hard knock that really rocked some sense into the meaning of duck. Preferring instead the bed of attention, I studied the knot holes in the planks of the ceiling, never high enough to manage the adjustment; I was a bug on my back trying to get up. A quality of life maintained in all courtesy to a hand stretched for all the copper you could spare, no matter, even the meters spit them back.
“Do you want to know a secret” she asked, “Do promise not to tell?”
Her voice was light, a small gasp of air, with shade of a whistle that blowing through her teeth, and I nodded the best I could.
“Well" she began,” one night I was in the Alpha-Beta to buy some wine and this kid who couldn’t have been anymore than eighteen was behind the cash register. I gave him the money and he gave the change and then put the bottle into a bag for me. He sold me wine. That’s illegal, you know? ”
I said that I did know, although it hadn’t bothered me for some time.
”Anyway, his name is Ken and I said I wouldn’t tell anyone. Promise not to tell?”
I said yes, of course, nary a soul will hear of the deed.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Boxes of old snap shots

We are here at a table
full of grown up things
from closets where boxes
are stacked with the hints
of history in receipts,
business cards, flashlights
without batteries.
There is nothing I can say
when there is a blank piece
of paper stapled to another
page from a memo pad
where "hurry" is written
in pencil jags desperate
enough to run off the page
and into another room.
From the kitchen you said
you could hear angels breathing
so slightly out of wind that their
wings move the branches from
the roof, swoop the leaves from the
longest branches, make a cloud
surrender its rain as we
go through the photos of
us gathered around baskets
of colored eggs on a Sunday
after dinner, the sun fading
on the sidewalk and a shadow
creeping over half the
house, all our clothes were
showing the disarray of
being worn all day, it was Easter
in 1963, the angels were there
even then.
Lights dim and go bright again,
a cell phone rings,
one of us steps outside and
chats on the porch and now
we can hear the low hiss of
tires rolling to a halt at the corner
where there are four stop signs
and only one car,
feathers fall from the sky
and makes the skin of
couples walking their dog
crawl like battalions of snakes
creeping their way to the
Irish sea, yes, I see you
holding up a 45 record,
no, I wasn't a musician
back then, I wasn't that old
but you are this beautiful
as yet another box is emptied,
how many cigarette lighters are
held in a bundle with a thick
red rubber band and
how many cigarettes and cigars
do you think they lit
at the bars where the parents
drank on Saturday nights
in the Summer, usually when
it rained and the aroma of
the State Fair would come over
the trees and fill the living rooms
full of farm smells, the world
was a soiled stack of straw.
Yes, that is my Dad,
that's my mom,
no, I don't know where they got
the fake beards
and vampire teeth,
they told me it was
a holiday for dead things
when only ghosts and their
pets walk the supermarket aisles
past cereal boxes and diet plans
before they drift into the parking lot
and float up to the moon’s white corona
to play nursery on the stars
on the stars and sleep
finally in the space between
the earth and the sky,
yes, that’s right,
my father was quite a storyteller,
he could do the impossible,
he stayed married to my mom, after all.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Smoke Alarms

Smoke alarms
in the center of the night
shift gravity with
the shovels full
of noise as the cat knocks
its plate of dried meat
off the balcony,
to the driveway below.

Helicopters scour the ground
with pools of light
that scurrying up alleys walls
and over parked cars,
there are cans rolling
into the streets,
shopping carts
slamming into mail boxes,
this is where everyone wants to be,
tight and napping at the beach
in a corner room,
over a dumpster,
next to chain smoking neighbors.

Nothing to but grumble,
shake my head,
seek your hand, mumble,
light a candle and
curse the darkness.

And just as the night
seemed to blink it's
last straining thoughts of fun
and give in too its darkness,
its warm, heartless interior.

Parties across the bay,
patios that hug shore line,
planks that stick out
like chins needing to be slugged
with a hand that closes and hardens
into the instant weapon that
comes in handy
as it reaches and unstrings
the paper lanterns lighting
hard sand with frantic,
dancing light, fireworks,
boats on the water, enjoying the music,
no one takes tickets in the
middle of the bay,
there are other things
we still aren't done talking about,
snore as we might, dream
where we may . . .

Your news of your mom
dying two years ago
after the phone was shut off
and mail gathered
at the front door,
in a pile, under the slot,
addresses of advertisers
selling shares in futures
no can see anymore,
You hold me
and kiss my hand
and wonder aloud
when the next set of fire works goes off
following the next thing
the cat knocks over
Complimenting a contrapuntal
Groan of guitar
from stereo on the patio
someone was just pushed from
to the hard, packed, cold sand below
why it seems to be still in
the apartment,
the air not moving,
the dark of the room
disturbed only by a television screen
that throbs with images of abstracted passions,
sleek icons wet with desire
that seems a burden in a time
when there is a good guess,
of how much time
there's left to play with
the toys you already have,

I wonder too,
and whistle something
that starts off as Charlie Parker
and winds up a Sousa March,

There are only so many
days left that really have nothing to do
with shopping, I say,

The cat grunts, spits something up,
the fire works stream across the bay,
flames burst from the explosion
and engulf the patio deck the rocket it,
screams from the balcony,
smoke alarms in the middle of the night,
screams, electronic bass and rap assuming
a burnt tinge that colors the holiday, I kiss you,
I wish I was kissing you, wherever you are,

There are lives that haven't touched me yet,
nothing breaks the calm waters,
and no oar violates the lake surface.

There is only noise, commotion,
a city consuming itself,
lurching into the next decade,
empty as a can.


Norman Mailer titled a 1963 essay collection The Presidential Papers, with it in mind to have the miscellaneous essays, asides, interviews, book reviews and poems serve as a set of metaphysical advisories for then President John F.Kennedy. Kennedy was assasinated the same year, however, and Mailer's book is a conspicous artifact of the hopes among true believers that more than Kennedy's body didn't die that fatal day.

Here we are again, in the early evening of November 22, 2005, hazily remembering and half-heartedly feeling bad about it being the 42nd anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It is one of those touchstone events with which we've come to mark our progress both as individuals with ideals ,and as democracy that attempts to overcome its worse habits and to ensure and protect freedom for all Americans. As usual, we come up short--I am constantly doing and saying things that run afoul of my professed liberalism on matters of civil rights and free speech, and as a country we come up short when we match ourselves against every grand themed speech given on patriotic holidays when our mandate from Heaven is declared, affirmed, praised. Coming away from these ridiculously steep points of comparison always lacking in ways one could be more "Christ like" or "Kennedyesque" and feeling horrible, sullen and cynical as a result, I have it in mind to ignore Kennedy's image, his body of work, his good deeds and grand speeches, his movie star looks, all those things that JFK supposedly meant to have America become had he lived long enough to work his reputed magic. It has become something like the worship of the dead, a yearning to mope and whine that our best nature and potential was stolen from us and now lies entombed in the dark sealed enclosure that contains the stilled embodiment of our last best chance to do good work.

It's whining, of course, and it comes across as a collective letting-ourselves-of-the-hook when we look around for who is responsible for the wrong turn History took. It's as if we have had ourselves driven from Eden after another, constantly cast out by ogres, terrorists, assassins, malcontents and psychopaths and insane dictators who have no desire to see the population of a great country re-assume command of their lives and extend our potential to- do- good- by- being -good have the effect of getting people off their knees in the worship of betrayed idealism and instead get engaged with their communities that still require the good graces we used to speak of. I am cranky at the moment and fairly disgusted with all the mewling melodies coming from the ain't-it-a-shame club. Once again, enough of this. Let's close the casket a last time and lower JFK into the ground and get on to doing just a little of those good works we've been wishing someone would inspire us to take on. We have to be our own heroes and move into a future determined to make it work.

The past is a lonely country because everyone who lives there is dead

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Blue Balls

A sex drive that gets
20 miles to the gallon
is nothing to laugh at,

I used to wear pointy-toed shoes
that helped me cut a rug,
a ballet of carpet installers
would have fallen
at your feet, nailing
the red carpet into PLACE,

I’ve got everything I need, and it pisses me off
(only when I laugh, though, only when
the surf is good
and everybody talks
about it and I can’t relate
‘cause I talk and lust and write and read and
sing and have my confusion
compounded by the minute,no the
second no, no worse,
and all I want is really to
everything I need)
I need to keep finding out
what I already know, I have to decipher the lables on the drawers,
do you like me?
I am famished,
I am man,
Hear me roar
While I snap my suspenders.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

David Brooks and the Gangsta Jihad

There's nothing like riots by malcontent Muslim youth in France to motivate a conservative American cultural critic to attack the source for all the World's fall from grace, the music. New York Times staff grump David Brooks was alert enough to realize that the old mainstay, rock and roll, has become a firm and honored part of the entertainment mainstreams, a series of bad boy poses made by professional entertainers. There's nothing menacing about that, and hardly anything in the lyrics to scare anyone, let alone push millions to the ramparts for a day of State Smashing. Brooks finds a new wrinkle and places the blame for the violence in France on hip-hop, where Muslim youth have become enamored of the music and have commenced to make their own kind of gangsta rhyme-busting. Brooks cites his evidence, lyrics from tunes made a near decade ago, and assumes the worse of it all. He has a sure fire image that's bound to be discussed in the circular dread clubs that comprise the Moral Majority; this is a generation of young Arab men who model themselves equally after the likes of bin Ladin and Tupac Shakur.Brooks' principal problem, though, is that scant little of his rhetoric contains a fresh or original bit of perspective or hard thinking. His column, in fact, is something of a used car that keeps getting reconditioned and resold. It runs, yes, but it leaks something awful.

I would be impressed if David Brooks understood and spoke French well enough to comprehend the accelerated rhyme schemes and themes of Gallic gangatisms, but what he cites and objects to sounds like it were handed to him by a young, research assistant.

I can imagine getting a handful of representative CDs , each with notes and hastily translated lyrics. Brooks' shtick is to be the light weight curmudgeon, the junior league Mencken, the mildly offended cultural conservative, and here serves up boiler plate outrage. It comes down to the curse of the columnist who is all writerly finess wrapped around a small store of ideas; the same complaints keep getting used over again, except aimed on another target. Brooks wanted his own foreign menace to hector the readership with, a pop-cultural variant on the Avian Flu. A musical hybrid is going to fuel the destruction of the West.

I've no doubt that Brooks actually believes this and will be able to convince others who are likewise perennially nervous that the threat is real, not metaphorical. Bad sociology or no, we have to remember that the FBI maintained a file on John Lennon. Brooks may be a fool, but it would be a mistake to laugh at him and leave it at that. His kind of aww-shucks conservatism is the kind of low-radar propaganda that helps gets the incompetent and the morally stupid elected.

A lot of middle aged white guys have good ideas and insights about cultural trends and phenomenons originating from places other than Leave-It-To-Beaverland.
I don't buy into the notion that a writer has to be a member of the tribe, so to speak , in order to speak with intelligence about another social group's aesthetic creations; in fact, depending on the wit and resources of the writer, being on the "outside" can be an advantage, since the hypothetical writer in question wouldn't be burdened with investments of identity with the form he (or she) might be trying to write about. A white guy's observations on hip-hop culture, sympathetic but honest to a fault, has potential for being a fun, intriguing, and contentious read.

David Brooks, though, is not one of those white guys, and reminds me that there some benefits to being alive a certain number of years. In this case it's the developing a long memory for what has been presented as sweeping and definitive critiques of popular culture over the decades and recognizing a rewording , a reworking, a laborious rephrasing of standard issue scare-mongering.

Jazz had been demonized, excoriated, condemned, denounced as that element that was the proof of Society collapsing into an amoral morass, rock and roll has been routinely and continuously pilloried as the grossest affront and threat to Morals and Values. And now Brooks dusts off these rickety tropes from the storehouse of Alarmist Invective and frets about how the dark hoards are going to rap and rhyme their way through the Continent intent on nothing less that the destruction of the West. Really, really, this has been said before, it's a routine conservative talking point, and for all the warnings against the influence of nonwhite music on middle class kids that have been issued through the decades, we've muddled on, progressed, survived our own stupidity and to make lives for ourselves.

Brooks is a mouthpiece of a bankrupt set of assumptions, and I can't help notice the timing of his objections to French-Muslim rap; the surfeit of bad news for the White House and the incredibly low poll ratings among Americans, we have the Culture Wars being revved up one more time to send everyone into a panic and tizzy. This time, though, it's not likely to work, as Americans are asking each other why it is things have gotten worse for us with Bush in office. Somehow hip hop, no matter who performs it, doesn't strike one as a compelling reason for why things aren't going right.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Look at that girl

Look at that girl
in the burned out Ford
screaming for burgers.

Stare at the guy
who’s feeling his leg
making sure the in-seam
is still dry.

Gape at the kid
suing his parents
for giving him clothes
instead of the back of their hand.

Check out the calico cat
in love with a bag
that falls apart
at the caress of paws and claws.

Chuckle at the cut
that reduced your stature
and humbled your spine.

Groan when
the hash is slung
on dishes with cracks
deep like rivers and regrets.

Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Brett Easton Ellis

Meghan O'Rourke makes an interesting case for Brett Easton Ellis and his body of work, but I doubt I'll read his newest novel, Lunar Park. Her defense, appearing in Slate, advances a smart and elegant defense made for Ellis and his fellow ‘80’s “Brat Packers” Jay McInerney, Mary Gaitskill, and Tama Janowitz, most tellingly in the collection Shopping in Space: Essays on America's Blank Generation edited by Elizabeth Young and Graham Caveney.British critics all, these American Studies specialists made the case that this “Blank Generation” set of then-young novelists were the most telling and single most important development of the Novel In English, forming a kind of permanent “High Postmodernist” tone through which fiction will give the lie to horrible flatness that is the truth when consumerism irrevocably replaces culture.

A grim determinist view, yes, estimating that inner life is no more than a vaguely self aware mirror that desperately wants to conform to the sheer appearance of beauty and lean design as it’s conveyed by cruel corporations and their marketing departments. It was the perfect line of defense to have in a decade where deconstruction and simulacra were prime subjects in every pedant’s droning mantra. O’Rourke reinvigorates the argument made then as a means of defending Ellis and his new book, and it’s admirable that she nearly had me convinced. What sinks the whole enterprise, however, is an unspoken insistence that graphic and precise descriptions and expositions of what shallow, drooling Pavlov dogs we can be do not suffice as literary art, an art that I would insist get inside situations and personalities rather than hover in godly fashion over the mess. It’s the difference between being in a traffic helicopter over the freeway and actually being behind the wheel, in the midst of it all.

The problem with making a case for a writer who has been on the outs with mainstream critics is that the plausible case gets passed up altogether and overstatement becomes the rule. Gigantism is one of Ellis's flaws, the mistake that accumulation equals worth, value and importance. Sometimes it works, yet even writers who have written long and brilliant books like Jonathan Franzen with Strong Motion will produce a long and profoundly under-edited dud like The Corrections. Franzen needed an honest and ruthless editor to give him back a blue-penciled manuscript with the instructions to make the novel work. Ellis would have benefited greatly from the same advice.

He has always struck me as someone who could be perfectly fine crime novelist, an edgy combination of James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard, if he weren't so busy gussying up his sensationalist subjects with the window dressing of eviscerated narcissism. Certainly his knowing jibes and dissections of ritual consumerism and attending worship of material accumulation have a spot in an America that is exhausting its credit cards to amass more and more of what they cannot take to heaven, but there are limits to how long a reader can gaze into an abyss, or listen to the limitless chatter of character minds that have lost a soul-giving personality. Crime fiction, a form predicated on supreme measures of reserve and clinical flatness, might have been an ideal medium for the rigor mortised humanity he loves to describe constructing the means of their own destruction. The procedural aspects would have imposed some properly ascribed limits on his story lines, and enabled him to write with greater aim.Mailer is exactly right on this point, which is to say that a novelist, even a satirist, needs to be more than a taker of inventories. American Psycho, after all was said and done with brand names, inane opinions on eighties bands, and hack-and-stab remedies for the extreme cases of ennui, is a rather over packed and hastily scribed effort that Ellis needed to finish to fulfill his contract with his publisher. Style and grace, the measures of comedic timing and the required component for wit to sting deeper , is absent from that book, and was in even sparser supply with Glamorama, a large house of a book with many, many unfurnished rooms.

Elements of Ellroy and Leonard are already present in Ellis's work--Ellroy's amoral universe meets Leonard's penchant for sharp observation and satire. The crime genre would have liberated Ellis from struggling to write through his themes under the crushing burden of art, the biggest drag on his effectiveness as a writer. Not that crime novels cannot be artful, as fans of Ellroy , Leonard, James Burke and Mark Costello can attest; the difference is that these writers are artful, describing a skilled application of craft, and not arty, Ellis’s vice, which conveys pose, pose, pose.

To me, Easton Ellis is a more stylized Hubert Selby Jr. Both are cataloging modes of spiritual deprivation.

An interesting comparison and one worth considering. Both are chroniclers of the ways New York will brutalize your soul and kill it, but I'm inclined to give the nod to Selby over Ellis because Hubert used the arc of tragedy to make the violence and desperations of Last Exit to Brooklyn's arresting. One by one, each fantasy and delusion is smashed. It's not a new trick, but it is hard to do believably, and I admire Selby's ability to delicately use a blatant literary device to achieve his drama. Drama is the word.
And I can't consider Ellis as "more stylized" than Selby. Ellis, in fact, is the more conservative prose writer of the two.

I think of Alain Robbe-Grillet, a French "new novelist" who wanted to strip all elements of convenient psychological convolutions, all tangible human feeling, and instead produce a novel of pure, unsullied description. In many ways, Ellis is a very French writer. Remember the last words in American Psycho: No Exit. The fact that Sartre's famous title appears on a sign introduces another tip of the hat to ideas that have seduced Ellis in college, semiotics.

One of Easton Ellis' favorite writers is Joan Didion, who began Play It As It Lays with the precept of writing " a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all....white space. Empty space...."

He admires Joan Didion, which is swell, but the reason he doesn't write like her is due to his awareness that cannot do what she is able do with her characters in her supremely crafted deadpan style. There is a humanity lurking around behind the eyes of her men and women, battered, shattered, horribly damaged with consumption, violence, money and drugs, but there are personalities, beautifully realized, that are imperfectly trying to make do in a world they no longer have faith in. This is a large part of what makes Didion compelling and worth the effort. Finding the moral vacuum in any age has never been a problem for novelists, it's what kind of witness you wind up being once you find it. Didion has that perhaps capacity to be curious about the humanity of her characters. It's a demonstration of narrative mastery that Ellis hasn't shown.

Even Mailer, when he finally came upon his real life White Negro in the form of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore (in The Executioner's Song, changed his style of writing, going from the high rhetoric and flighty philosophizing and fashioned instead a terse style in which his normally ubiquitous personality was absent, leaving only a complex and moving story to tell with every amount of craft he could muster and sustain. Mailer changed his music, his style and his thinking about his particular set of ideas through his five plus decades as a professional writer, which has made him someone worth returning to.

She is interested in what people are doing to themselves as they try to change the world, a curiosity that brings her to the front ranks of non-fiction writers as well. Ellis isn't able to write in any other way, and I suspect that he's fine with that limit, although he does wish to expand the few notes he can play into major orchestrations.

He admires Joan Didion, which is swell, but the reason he doesn't write like her is due to his awareness that cannot do what she is able do with her characters in her supremely crafted deadpan style. There is a humanity lurking around behind the eyes of her men and women ( Didion , among her other many virtues, makes you believe in interior lives among her characters that were formerly vital, but are now vitiated), battered, shattered, horribly damaged with consumption, violence, money and drugs, but there are personalities, beautifully realized, imperfectly trying to make do in a world they no longer have faith in. This is a large part of what makes Didion compelling and worth the effort.

She is interested in what people are doing to themselves as they try to change the world, a curiosity that brings her to the front ranks of non-fiction writers as well. Ellis isn't able to write in any other way, and I suspect that he's fine with that limit, although he does wish to expand the few notes he can play into major orchestrations. His longer books like Glamorama don't expand the style, refine the ideas he's already written. His writing is an Americanization of moldy existential poses.

The compression of crime fiction would have helped him turn his short comings into assets--he would've been in good company with the likes of George Pelicanos and Dennis Lehain--but it's too late for that, I suppose. Ellis will continue to bleat through his rusty trumpet. Ellis has very few pieces of music he knows how to play, which leaves him with some depressing choices when he strives to create yet again: play them louder, longer, faster, and after that, play them slower, softer, briefer. It is all the same stuff with hardly new idea or insight, matters we look for if we continue to read the same authors over time. We've seen a growth in Ellis as a writer, but it's tumorous rather than artistic. A writer's work ought to develop, as opposed to metastasizing