In the middle of a Moscow winter, there will be many who dream of California, the west coast American oblast which is run by The Terminator, and where whitecollar desk-jockeys in sweats generate electricity for the local grid by peddling exercise bikes in their lunch hour. But that is not all that happens California. Los Angeles also happens.
Bret Easton Ellis
Raymond Chandler once described the city as having “all the personality of a paper cup” and it would seem that Bret Easton Ellis feels much the same, despite the glitter, the sunshine and the slender, swaying palm trees, many of which are even taller than Naomi Campbell. And Mr Ellis should know: he has written two novels about the place.
The first of Mr Ellis’s books, called Less Than Zero, was published in 1985, when he was still a brattish college kid in temporary exile in Vermont. He returns to his home-town for a socially-dysfunctional Christmas. The first sentence sets the tone: “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.”
Two hundred pages later, the book ends without anyone having merged, on a freeway or anywhere else. They have passed in the night, exchanging bodyfluids, joints and occasionally blows. But they have never merged because they, like the author, are too self-centred to be able to establish genuinely interactive relationships with other items in the city’s human inventory.
How dull, you might think, especially while sitting in the land of Leo Tolstoy. But Mr Ellis’s books are not dull—that is the point. He has raised to a high pitch of art, the illustration of isolation. His stories do not really present a plot, except in very minimalist way. They are vehicles for the expression of a single self. All the characters in them are, at bottom, the same, or at least trying to be the same thing behind variations of wardrobe and lifestyle accessory. Complete freedom produces competitive conformity.
I mention Less Than Zero because the book under review, Imperial Bedrooms, published six months ago, revisits the same places, the same group of people and the same background cultural assumptions twenty-five years on. The powerful beams of self-absorption and narcissism are undimmed. Everyone is still projecting, preening and pooh-poohing all those who do not project so powerfully or preen so conscientiously. And still they do not merge. They have grown up without maturing.
In the intervening quarter of a century, Mr Ellis himself left college, got stoned several thousand times and published five books. One of them was, I thought, a dud; two were interesting; and two were brilliant. The first of the latter category was American Psycho, the book for which he is best known, and which, like Less Than Zero, was made into a very successful film.
Best of all was Glamorama, the book about the fashion/night-club world in New York. When I re-read it recently, I found myself thinking that it made Anna Karenina, which I was reading at the same time, seem lifeless by comparison. Granted, Tolstoy has a plot and a variety of interesting characters, whereas Bret Easton Ellis has little plot and really only one character: himself (again). But there is a vigour, a wit, a readability and a crispness of social observation that is far more entertaining than anything that the Sage of the Tulskaya oblast presents in his extended saga of social reportage.
In Anna Karenina people “merge”, demerge, change and realise things. They regularly think about other people. In Glamorama they are more likely to stop on the staircase in night-clubs they are designing and ask: “Is this cool or useless? I’m not sure.” Conversations fall apart: “A long, chilly silence none of us are able to fill floats around, acts cool, lives.” (emphasis in original) The author-narrator’s motto is: “The better you look, the more you see.” So when someone unbeautiful “acts like an idiot without trying”, he cuts him off by saying, “Oh sorry, my ass just yawned.”
The central theme of all Mr Ellis’s books is stated succinctly by the character in Glamorama who looks superciliously round the night-club the author-narrator has created and says: “I’m thinking, Jesus, the zeitgeist’s in limbo.”
Even the literary world is dismissed rather wittily. When a beautiful girl the narrator is trying to “merge” with while crossing the Atlantic on the QE2 is discovered sunning herself on deck, he eases himself down onto a towel beside her, “flexing my abs to get her attention”. Unusually, he notices something not connected with himself: “She’s reading a book with the words MARTIN AMIS in giant black letters on the cover and I’m hoping she’s not a member of Amnesty International.”
In order not to spoil the fun, I will say no more about Imperial Bedrooms than that, though quieter, it is an explicit continuation of all the above. The central theme is elliptically re-stated by the author-narrator, who is now a script-writer, and who repels the crowd at the after-party of a movie premier on Hollywood Boulevard with a neat reversal of a well-known cliché. Seeing the socially-greedy faces of unfamiliar people illuminated by the lights of their cell-phone screens as they preen and dream in the cavernous darkness, he declines to take verbal interchange into the unfamiliar territory of actual conversation. “I’ve been in New York the last four months is the mantra, my mask an expressionless smile.”