ANYONE seeking a spiritual shot in the arm from Bret Easton Ellis's new book will draw a blank. For the lean, tanned Californians who glide like models on a catwalk through the pages of The Informers, life is only skin deep.
They go to the beach, to parties, sit by the pool, watch videos and drone on about visits to their psychiatrists. Only a new prescription of downers animates them. Apart that is, from the few who have literally turned vampire, lusting for blood while their counterparts pick half-heartedly at mozzarella marinara and garbanzo beans at Spago's, the posers paradise.
LA as hell, hell as America's obsession with surfaces that reflect themselves back to themselves. This is a return to the zombiescape of Ellis's first novel, Less Than Zero, and to the early Eighties, before Aids, before yuppies, before lifestyle became a symbol of national pride. The main difference, apart from The Informers' excursions into American Psycho-style gore, is that this is not really a novel, more a series of tenuously interconnected narratives about non-people. Short Cuts with the humanity sucked out, sometimes literally: 'You were never . . . alive,' says a woman to her estranged husband. 'What was I then?' 'You were just . . . not dead.'
Phatic conversations, catalogues of visual information that fail to signify, cliches in place of observation as the index of truth: Wayfarers, GQ, Vanity Fair, Duran Duran. This is a sour book, but sour is the taste that Ellis savours. In the absence of warmth, he gives us death, which stalks the book like a lost soul, knocking at the plate-glass windows of the bungalows in Palm Springs. A teenager dies in a car crash; his friend, who witnessed the accident, embellishes the story to upset a mourner. Another teenager flies to Las Vegas to visit the scene of the plane crash that claimed his father's life and is fascinated by the description of the mangled body: 'It kind of looked to me like a . . . Darth Vader . . . Yeah, it looked pretty bad but I've seen a lot worse.' 'Like what?' 'I once saw a large group of black ants carry part of someone's intestine to their queen.' 'That's . . .
impressive.' To these jaded, vapid cut-outs, death occupies the same mental space as a Psychedelic Furs concert.
So sour and cynical is Ellis's vision that the traces of emotion that sometimes break the surface come across as cheap sentiment. When a girl breaks down on the phone to her brother, you don't believe her pain. And moments of what might in another context appear as insight shed as little light as a torch down a coal mine.
This is a depressing, oppressive book, but where it fails most is at the level of structure: some bits don't hang together, some are superfluous, lazy even; in some chapters Ellis tugs so hard at self-conscious monotony that he almost parodies himself. There's also the fact that although the effect of an Ellis book is cumulative - you get the point quickly, but to feel the lethal effects of its ennui you have to read the whole thing: parts of this book are just plain boring.
On the other hand, there are also examples of the taut, sustained writing that made American Psycho a seminal satire of a society on the skids. In one chapter, perhaps the best in the book, Ellis exposes a young woman's progression from wide-eyed, breathless ingenue to Hollywood zombie through the subtle changes of tone in the letters she writes to a putative boyfriend. Off to visit her showbizzy grandparents in LA for a few weeks'
breather, she writes: 'I'm not sure how one fits in here. Get a tan? Dye my hair blond? . . . I really feel this hostility toward me.' A few, beautifully compressed pages on, she signs off: 'No one has seen Carlos for weeks. Last I heard he was in Vegas, though someone else told me that they found both of his arms in a bag off La Brea. He was going to write the screenplay with me. I've shown part of it to my grandmother. She liked it. She said it was commercial.'
Ellis is also commercial. Three years after its publication, and despite the critical trouncing it recieved, American Psycho is still selling 2,000 copies a week in Britain. It tapped a vein without resorting to cliches about vampirism. And it will probably endure, as Last Exit to Brooklyn or The Naked Lunch have endured. The Informers, by contrast, is merely a morsel proffered to those of us awaiting his next big book.
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