BOOK REVIEW / Life in a zomboid dystopia: John Walsh delves into the mad, bad, blank world of Bret Easton Ellis's latest book: The Informers - Bret Easton Ellis: Picador, pounds 9.99

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Bret Easton Ellis has come a long way since he wrote Less Than Zero as a class project while at university: four novels, huge advances, reviews that range from the patronising and admiring to the aghast and stupefied, a strike by the outraged printers of American Psycho, accusations of being morally bankrupt, emotionally sterile, gimmicky, psychotic, talentless. It's perhaps unsurprising that, at 30, he seems to have temporarily ground to a halt. His new book, The Informers, reads like a compilation of striking effects from his earlier works.

Take food. In American Psycho, the sophisticated palaver that attended the business of eating out was a key signifier of consumerism run riot. When Patrick Bateman, the psychopath, begins to go mad, there's a chilling moment when he stares uncomprehendingly at a plate of hors d'oeuvre and can no longer work out what to do with it.

In The Informers, this moment is replicated a dozen times. One character finds himself holding 'a drink I don't remember ordering'. Another orders milk and a pastry, 'which I don't eat, unsure of why I even ordered it'.

Waiters reading this book will seethe with recognition.

But then blankness, blandness and blindness are chronic conditions in this novel, or collection of stories. A wife is ticked off by her husband for her 'moronic gaze'; she mentally compliments her teenage lover on his 'blue eyes so vague and blank they are impossible not to fall into'. Behind their Wayfarer shades, everyone sports some variant of 'that blank stare'. A rare sighting of somebody without sunglasses - a Hispanic girl, who is almost run over in the street - still focuses on her 'vacant black eyes and that calm bored expression'.

The casual interchangeability that was a key feature of American Psycho is constantly reiterated. Characters' names recur through the stories, but you rarely feel that this 'Tim' or 'Graham' or 'Martin' is the same as the last one you read about. They do the same things, but, hey, so does everybody else. Even when the narrator seems to be female, there are no ontological fleshmarks to suggest a personality. And most of the time the characters are insultingly incurious about each other: 'My own daughter,' says one, of an acquaintance, 'has met Sheila and may also be an anorexic'. Describing his flatmates, a voice says 'Christie is my girlfriend, a model who is, I think, from England'.

Life, in Ellis's zomboid dystopia, exists as an endless round of dinners in Westwood Village, pool- and beach-side posings, videos, uncomprehended tears, beautiful weather, movie chat, half-heard music, and enough drugs - Valium, Nembutal, marijuana - to keep the participants in a state of permanent non- being, a kind of psychic flotation tank. After a while, the reader joins in, lulled to semi-consciousness by the endless repetition of 'dude' and 'tan' (every character, without exception, is 'tan') and 'MTV'.

So much of this stuff is familiar from the previous books, however, you start to wonder if Ellis is stuck in a time warp - but he cunningly pre-empts you by setting the novel (or at least the first story) at 'the end of summer, 1982', and can roam freely among the sense-data of a time when things like MTV and Valley girls were hot and controversial.

What's new? Well, Los Angeles isn't looking too great; there are tumbleweeds on the dirty boulevard, there are rats in the pool drain. And Ellis is more concerned here than before with the reek of sour relationships, especially with the problematic bond between parent and child; several stories involve father-son dialogues in which tweaks of cruelty are added to their mutual hosility and incomprehension. A father and son on holiday in Hawaii (the former laddish; the latter mortified) discover that they just don't like each other. In a moment of apparent yielding, the father daydreams about his son asking him to join him in the water - but only so he can have the pleasure of ignoring the little bastard. Elsewhere, characters half-discuss the probity of having feelings, as if practising some strange new etiquette.

When one hears that his friend's father has died, he says: 'You had a dad? .

. . Wow. I guess I'm sorry. . . Should I be?'

Ellis also takes bolder chances with his narrating voice. One story, 'Discovering Japan', gives you the voice of a rock star-cum-rapist who looks at the glory of the Nippon empire and thinks: 'Jesus. All these fucking gooks.' Another offers the spectacle of a West Hollywood vampire, complete with coffin and bloodsucking cronies with pet bats, whose old-style creepiness is no match for the sassy 14-year-olds from Studio City with heroin in their veins. These tales are, I should point out, told for laughs.

That is more than can be said for the nastiest tale, in which a 10-year-old abduction victim whimpers and groans in the bathroom for days on end, until the nice-guy narrator abandons the prickings of his conscience and stabs him to death.

By this stage we've completed the book's retrospective journey from the listless exchanges of Less Than Zero to the heart of American Psycho. All that's been added is the odd perfunctory prompting of decency, soon stifled by the prevailing nihilism. Ellis is, without question, a serious and important writer in a tradition stretching back through Last Exit to Brooklyn, to the Hemingway of The Sun Also Rises. But you get the distinct impression from The Informers that, for all the energy with which he satirises his crew of existential wraiths, he may be getting just a little tired of it all.

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