Wednesday, September 15, 2010
When I bought my first copy of David Bowie's Scary Monsters I remember the strange feeling of listening to a "song sequel" of Major Tom, titled Ashes To Ashes. How amazing! Revisiting a character in a song! I was stunned and exhilarated because I had no experience, or rather, no awareness of the idea of "response songs". This practice is more easily tracked in radio and recorded popular music but two of the most classic response songs come from older songs, in the blues, by Muddy Waters responding to Bo Diddly, (Mannish Boy and I'm A Man) or Buddy Holly responding to his own work. (Peggy Sue and Peggy Sue Got Married)
What do you do when you write a dark, evil novel filled with aimless, cruel, addicted people who become wildly popular and sentimental favourites to readers?
Kill off your novel with a sequel. That is what Ellis has done. In the same way when David Lynch created an frightening lexicon of images and characters in the mini-series Twin Peaks and networks gave him an opportunity to create an actual tv show...he had to hit us over the head. Evil is at home. Evil is not supernatural. The original mini-series tells us who is "BOB" (the name of the devil in the series)...but the packaging was so wonderful we wanted more and seemed to miss the thesis!
I was/am a huge fan of the novel Less Tahn Zero. So I guess I am partly responsible for Ellis having to go back and hit us over the head with "these are awful people"...and god, why on earth would I want to read even more about them?
Well, I did. I don't know why. Maybe because I loved the novel, and it was a so-called voice of my generation...it did encapsulate what it felt like to be a young person in the 1980's. It had violence, drugs, sex and existentialism and the feeling of hopelessness. Duh. It was brilliant.
Sentimental? No. I don't believe I was sentimental...but the movie version of the novel...and the fact that almost every hip urban person I knew had also read it and loved it and felt it reflected something about urban life, contemporary life...meant something. I also went on to follow all of Ellis's novels and am a big defender of American Psycho. To this day, I think it is one of the best novels out there, surely from the 80's. I put it alongside Blood Meridian and Cities of The Red Night.
Imperial Bedrooms will bother a lot of readers. It is sick and disturbing and depressing. What becomes of the 1980's characters who were sick, sadistic, addicted, lazy, remote and how could you build a plot about them in the future? How could you take it up a level and what could be worse than rape, drugs and mindgames? Hollywood.
I was excited to see Bret Easton Ellis interviewed on Tavis Smiley a couple months ago. Tavis wanted to address a few things about the sentimental attitude towards Less Than Zero (the movie version is beloved) and the generation involved which includes Ellis and Smiley (and me). You can see this interview here. I find Ellis very well spoken and interesting. He says something cool about American Psycho..."about a lot of things happening in financial world today. I think (American Psycho, sic) is a portrait of those men (AIG, Goldman-Sachs) when they were very young". Ouch.
Imperial Bedrooms isn't for everyone. I don't even want to recommend it to you. It is depressing. It is violent and perverse. There is something wrong with the people in the novel, but that's the point. Ellis has been likened to Philip Roth and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I think those are good comparisons. But I see Ellis as more closely related to Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler, William Burroughs and Aldous Huxley. He has always portrayed his culture at the very moment of it's setting...and this new novel is really in the noir, transgressive genre, like those writers Huxley and Burroughs and Thompson.
Imperial Bedrooms is also quite beautifully written. There are parts of the novel that are so poetic and delicate...no one was more surprised than me. Except when I read his other recent novel, Lunar Park. Ellis plays a terrific "meta-fiction" kind of trick in the beginning of the novel which allows him the complete freedom to murder off any sentimentality us fans might have harboured for the original novel. He writes a response song that reveals passivity and composure might just be evil in disguise. In Ellis's world being a mannered successful person isn't all that cool. The quiet ones are the bad guys. And like the Lynchian worldview, if you don't act, then, the killer is inside you.