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The Informers.

When Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero was published back in 1985, William F. Buckley Jr. called to ask if I'd chat about it on Firing Line. I had a broken arm and a broken mind, and saw no reason to bestir myself from my bed of pain to talk on television about a black popsicle of a novel in which a guy named Clay comes home to Los Angeles from Camden, a Bennington sort of Eastern college, to spend Christmas vacation with his well-heeled zombie support-group watching MTV, blowing lots of coke, cruising in sporty cars to noisy clubs, plugging each other in like electric guitars and finding themselves still so bored that they gang-rape a young woman, cut off her breasts and stick candles in her wounds. Thus I missed my first chance as an Old Fart to disdain the Way-Cool New and Totally Grody.

By the time of the next Ellis, The Rules of Attraction (1987), instead of a puppy-novelist, we confronted an epicycle of the Ptolemaic system of hype, according to which the heavens move in eccentric orbits around a vacuous editorial need for gas. Thus the Brat Pack, a cohort of New York literary teeny-boppers with names like Bret, Jill, Jay, Meg, David and Tama, some of whom had gone to Bennington, most of whom festered in nests like Nell's and all of whom showed up in one another's books and blurbs, for which they got more than their fair share of buzz. Well, thought the Old Fart, young writers have always herded together, moving like thick-skinned ungulates over the inky savannas, dodging potshots from great white hunters at self-important periodicals. It was the same in Paris before the French Revolution, when everybody wrote pornography, and again after World War II, when everybody was Absurd. It happened in nineteenth-century St. Petersburg, when Belinsky got mad at Gogol, for which Dostoyevsky was almost shot. And in turn-of-the-century Kent and Sussex, where Joseph Conrad, Henry James, H.G. Wells and Ford Madox Ford combed each other's thinning hair. And in China not much later, with Kang Youwei, Lu Xun and Ding Ling. Not to mention Bloomsbury, about which we have heard too much already. Plus: the Algonquin Round Table, the French Riviera, the Partisan Review, the North Beach Beats and all those cold warriors of the Congress for Cultural Freedom bought and paid for by the C.I.A.

What you do is wait around to see if any of these ungulates turns into a unicorn. Bret, Jill, Jay, Meg, David and Tama would either grow up to be more interesting than their immune systems and their urine samples, or they wouldn't. Meanwhile, was it really necessary to review a novel in which Ellis went back to Bennington - excuse me, Camden - to set up shop in the big holes in the tiny heads of Sean, Paul, Lauren and Victor, none of whom ever went to class, read a book, mustered a fierce feeling or surprised a coherent idea because they were all too busy doing drugs or committing suicide? Stoned, horny, ungrateful, uncomprehending, everybody in The Rules of Attraction seemed incapable of love, art, politics, unselfishness or even enthusiasm. It's taken most of us most of our lives, and several momentous occasions, ever to feel as bad for fifteen minutes as these kids have apparently felt since Pampers.

Of course, upon the occasion of American Psycho (1991), dropped by Simon & Schuster, picked up by Vintage, picketed by NOW, it was impossible not to express an opinion. Meet Sean's older brother Patrick, a 27-year-old Wall Street broker who went to Exeter and Harvard instead of Hollywood High and Camden. When Patrick in his Ralph Lauren silk pajamas isn't listening to Whitney Houston or Les Miserables on his Sansui stereo system with the six-foot Duntech Sovereign 2001 speakers in Brazilian rosewood, or eating quail sashimi and chocolate chip sorbet at a minimalist bistro, or snorting cocaine at the latest downtown armpit, or buying, on his way to a masseuse or the tanning salon, magazines like Esquire and Lesbian Vibrator Bitches ... what this Patrick does is torture dogs, pop the eyes out of homeless beggars and dismember yuppies.

There is no reason this couldn't have been funny: if not Swiftian, at least a sort of Bonfire of the Vanities meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And for the first 200 pages, some of it actually is. Ellis has an ear for the homophobic and misogynistic fatuities of his social set, and an eye for their A. Testoni loafers, their Oliver Peoples non-prescription glasses and their minoxidil. Since everybody looks alike, they're always mistaking one another for somebody else. I like the scene at the Chinese laundry, where they can't wash the blood out of Patrick's clothes. The TV talk show he watches each morning also amuses: "Deformed People:" "Dwarf-Tossing," "Teenage Girls Who Trade Sex for Crack" and "Has Patrick Swayze Become Cynical or Not?"

Satire means never having to say you're sorry. Besides, isn't Ellis also Political? When Patrick tells people that he's "into murders and executions," what they hear him say is "mergers and acquisitions." And when he makes obscene telephone calls to Dalton girls, what he whispers to them is, "I'm a corporate raider. I orchestrate hostile takeovers. What do you think of that?" To which one of the girls, unfazed, replies, "Dad, is that you?" In other words, when American Psycho then goes on at lip-smacking length about the rape of an Aspen waitress with a can of hair spray, the nailing of Bethany's fingers to a hardwood floor and the sodomizing of a severed head, it is really a critique of the Fetishism of Commodities. And I am really Antonio Gramsci.

Are we having fun yet? So there was Antonio Gramsci on a summer morning in Jerusalem, on the balcony outside my King David Hotel room, waiting for Shoemaker-Levy 9 to interface with the sixteenth-century ramparts of the luminous Old City, having already consumed remarkable new fall novels by David Grossman and Nadine Gordimer and John Irving, picking up The Informers as if to punish myself for a diet of so much excellence. I know you don't care where I was when I resorted to the new Ellis, but I mimic his situational aesthetics. Each of the dozen or so Living Dead who speaks to us in The Informers will insist on explaining his or her exact whereabouts in Wasteland Los Angeles in the Go-Go-to-Nowhere 1980s.

Mostly young, invariably tan, they all wear Wayfarers sunglasses and talk a sort of lobotomized Hemingway, flat and affectless, like box scores or stock quotations, which makes it hard to distinguish one yeast infection from another, especially when everybody drinks Absolut, Stoli, apricot-apple juice and Tab; and everybody smokes either Benson & Hedges or clove cigarettes, when they aren't tripping out on pot, coke, Librium, Valium, Darvocet, Quaaludes, nitrous oxide or animal tranquilizers; and everybody who isn't eating at Spago, Chasen's, the Polo Lounge or Canter's Deli drives a B.M.W., a Mercedes, a Porsche or a Jaguar down Sunset to Malibu, Encino, Studio City or a place on Melrose where you can see Janet Leigh get stabbed over and over again in the torn-curtain scene from Psycho; and everybody listens to Madonna, Boy George, Fun Boy 3, the Beach Boys, the Go-Go's, the Cars and Oingo Boingo; and everybody reads Vanity Fair or Vogue or Penthouse or the Calendar section of the L.A. Times, but mostly GQ. Nevertheless:

Graham deals dope, before and after his father dies. Christie sleeps mostly with Graham, but sometimes Martin. Martin makes music videos, with a bayonet under his bed. Bruce writes for Miami Vice and goes to zoos. Cheryl is a TV newscaster whose favorite movie is Flashdance. Peter murders a kidnapped little boy in a trailer-park bathtub. Tim's really pissed off because a waiter put garbanzo beans in his salad after being told specifically not to. Tim's father listens to Stephen Sondheim. Bryan, the rocker, hurts groupies, but only in Tokyo, so maybe it doesn't count. Sean's not in L.A., either; he's back east at Camden, where he doesn't answer any of Ann's letters, perhaps because he's wondering what happened to Patrick. Jamie and Dirk are vampires.

Vampires? Yes: a bowl of Anne Rice Crispies, just add Tab. I mean, Graham and Christie are a fun couple, and so are Graham and Martin. And The Informers is full of scintillating chitchat. For instance: "I don't go out to Palm Springs anymore because whenever I'm there I feel very wasted and it's a drag." And: "You never grasp anything, Tim. You look okay, but nothing works." And: "I know what the word gone means. I know what the word dead means. You deal with it, you mellow out, you head back to town." Or (my personal favorite): "You were on edge last week. I couldn't deal with you just sitting in a chair saying nothing and holding that giant avocado." But Jamie and Dirk are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of this Piglet. I was about to suggest that you close your eyes and hold your nose while I quote a passage of the sort that gets Ellis in trouble with everybody except Norman Mailer. But now I see from a comparison of the bound galleys with a finished copy of The Informers that this very same passage seems to have gotten Ellis into trouble with his editor as well. It's a day at the office for our Jamie. According to the galleys:

... and then I scream and jump on her and rip her throat out and then I fuck her and then I play with her blood and then I rip her entire pussy out, actually detach the entire thing from the body, intact, and I suck her stomach, ropes of intestines, from the giant red-black cavity I created, wiping mounds of flesh all over myself, using it as a lubricant to jack myself off with and then after that basically everything's okay.

Whereas, according to the bound book:

... and then I scream and jump on her and rip her throat out and then I fuck her and then I play with her blood and after that basically everything's okay.

I am, of course, scandalized. All the famously feckless, hardbody, postmodern, creepshow, nihilistic slice-and-dice has been ... wished away. Readers of the finished copy will never know the cheap thrill of Eros in a Cuisinart. Those ropes! That lubricant! How Dostoyevsky!

Anyway-cool, like, uh, Dracula. A Gramsci would pounce: "Vampire Capitalism!" Plus, maybe: "Money makes you dumb!" But Gramsci never saw one of Martin's music videos; his cell wasn't wired for cable. What Ellis has digitized, instead of a novel, is a video. He channel-surfs - from bloody bathroom to bloodier bedroom; from herpes to anorexia; from dead rats in the swimming-pool drain to black ants carrying sections of someone's intestine back to their queen to Egyptian lizards who eat poisoned cockroaches and die all over a $5,000 Betamax - and we're back again at our own boredom, on Michael Landon's yacht. Jacking off by remote control! No wonder Kurt Cobain checked out.

On the other hand, I suppose Ellis could be saying that L.A. sucks.

I read this stuff so you don't have to. Having done so, the Old Fart has three thoughts:

[sections] Poor Bennington. First, Ellis. Then Jill Eisenstadt, whose own Bennington novel, From Rockaway, was better than The Rules of attraction because it spent more of its time in blue-collar Brooklyn than in white-shoe Vermont, even though Ellis appeared as a character, as Eisenstadt would likewise show up in Ellis, reciprocity being cute. And, finally, Donna Tartt, who in The Secret History calls Bennington Hampden instead of Camden, but where we also catch a glimpse of a student dope dealer with mob connections who will remind you of Ellis, who must have been more interesting on campus than he is in novels. At least in Tartt, during the first third of her 524 pages, we actually spend some time in a classroom, listening to a professor, and students even discuss books, as if there were a point to college, and abstract ideas about beauty and terror and the ancient Greeks are entertained, as if there were something else to do with a mind besides blow it. But The Secret History descends from its hothouse Dionysian revels to incest and murder and hyperventilation, none of which seemed necessary back when Mary McCarthy and Randall Jarrell were writing their novels about Bard.

[sections] Poor L.A. First Charles Manson. Then those pretty-boy voids, the Menendez brothers. Then a summer movie like Speed, which however entertaining has a secret subtext: They'll do anything to discourage public transportation in Los Angeles. And finally a novel like The Informers, the return of the bloodsucker preppies. Joseph Wambaugh, James Ellroy and Walter Mosley write brilliantly about L.A. But none of them dropped out of Bennington. Between them, Mike Davis in the pages of his City of Quartz and Anna Deveare Smith on stage in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 have given us entire operas of a Pacific Rim multiculture. But they've never been to Nell's. Such children of Hollywood as Jill Robinson, Nora Ephron, Brooke Hayward and the late Johanna Davis managed somehow, after the abyss winked at them, to levitate. But they've trafficked with no vampires. Once upon a time, back when she imagined Maria in Play It as It Lays, Joan Didion must have felt as bad about Southern California as Ellis does. All of us did who grew up there, flunking volleyball and puberty rites. It's like that Pop Art you find, not only at the studios but also at the Temporary Contemporary in L.A., past the kosher burrito stand - so many spiders, somehow gaudy, in the sand; so much bloody butter on a crust of Dread; the nameless blue-eye willies. But Didion moved on from the Third World of women to such Third Worlds as El Salvador, Cuban Miami and the burning walls and broken tile of geopolitics, where now we count on her to crouch, lion-colored, eagle-eyed, full of blank uneasiness, like a gryphon or a seismograph, registering every tremor on the fault line of the culture, all our paranoid vibrations. She is not, however, a cannibal.

[sections] Poor me. A decade ago, on my very own Christmas visit to the pinata of my childhood, I got annoyed with a West Side folksinger who'd come along for the ride. She wanted to sing "Little Boxes," the Malvina Reynolds ditty. Seeger sings it; they all do, making fun of the "ticky-tacky" houses of California - "a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow one ... and they all look just the same." Why is a California tract house more laughable or contemptible than a Minnesota farm, a Tennessee shack, a SoHo studio or a barge in the Florida Keys? We only got into ours my junior year of high school, with pigeons and a basketball hoop and the monastic cell in which I read all night, and listened to Chuck Berry and Little Richard, and wrote my poems against the hydrogen bomb. The children of ticky-tack end up in libraries and asylums just like everybody else.

Now my children are grown up to their own discrepancies. They went to college when Ellis did. The friends they bring home and sometimes marry are the age of his characters. Some are brilliant, some beautiful, some crazy, some gay and even a few morose. But they've all gone out into the wide world without a remote control. None deals dope; none is a serial killer. You won't find them in Ellis's novels, which downers seem dreamt up instead by fearful middle-age, hating the very idea of youth, ordaining the young to be joyless and mindless. I have a suggestion for Clay, Sean, Lauren, Victor, Patrick, Graham, Christie, Martin, Jamie, Dirk and the rest of these poisoned Twinkies: Have you considered career counseling? If not therapy, why not e-mail? Perhaps the Peace Corps, Amnesty International or a kibbutz. For a truly refreshing change of pace, become a nun.
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Author:Leonard, John
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 5, 1994
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