Images of parents who were so hungry and unfulfilled that they ate their own children...images so violent and malicious that they seemed to be my only point of reference for a long time afterwards. After I left.
-Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero
Bret Easton Ellis has officially run out of ideas. I first read Less Than Zero when I was a freshman in college (appropriately) and I pretty much hated every character, but it made an impression on me. It wasn't until a bit later that I realized I was supposed to hate every character, and that Zero wasn't necessarily supposed to be entertainment. It was a document, so to speak, of a life. It seems too extreme to be real, painting as it does a world so full of drugs, materialistic consumption, power, money, and fame, that its inhabitants have become completely removed from any kind of reality. They are totally devoid of feeling. In one scene, a bunch of kids sit around a Malibu mansion watching a snuff film that was purchased on the street that contains children being tortured. In another, some friends of the main character tie a 12-year-old girl to a bed at a party in West Hollywood, shoot her full of drugs and take turns raping her. The main character's (and narrator's) response to this? To walk out on the balcony and say, "It's not right, what you're doing."
It is a disturbing book, to be sure, but I'm also not completely sure it's fiction, which is the point. It's a post-modern conundrum at its finest. It's an amoral document that dares you to be offended, but then says, "Hey, this is just my life, what I've seen. I just call it as I see it."
Ellis is at his best when he is plotless. When his characters simply move through life and events and observe. His next to last book, Lunar Park, was such a meta-analytical mess, it revealed a man who appeared to be seriously off his rocker. The main character's name was Bret Easton Ellis, but it's not the same BEE that wrote the book. The one in the book is heterosexual (everyone knows the real BEE is gay), lives in the northeastern suburbs, and has children. But he was also a writer, who, I believe, wrote American Psycho, I'm not sure. Anyway, he wrote something about children being murdered, and then, the plot of Lunar Park is about a real-life murderer who is reenacting the murders in the book with children from the fictional BEE's neighborhood, and then starts coming after his children. And then there was something about the BEE character's dead father showing up as a ghost, or something. I don't remember. Jay McInerney (one of my favorite contemporary novelists) also makes a cameo in the book as himself, but was apparently none too pleased with how he was portrayed. But it was a mess and ridiculous. Too much plot, which could have been interesting in hands that are perhaps more skilled in the art of storytelling.
Last week I just finished BEE's latest, Imperial Bedrooms, supposedly a sequel to Less Than Zero, but only because he says it is. It concerns Clay, the narrator of Zero, but in Bedrooms, in another meta-analytical twist so confusing it makes your head spin, he claims to have not written the book. He also claims that he and all his friends were invited to the movie premiere, and were stunned when the movie was nothing like the book, and thus, they felt their lives had been stolen by Hollywood and made into an after-school special. So in Imperial Bedrooms, both the book and the movie of Less Than Zero exist, but it's really BEE commenting on them through his narrator. Nothing happens in the book except some people get brutally murdered, and in one particularly noteworthy but completely superfluous chapter, Clay, again the narrator, hires young boy and girl prostitutes to come out to Palm Springs with him where sexually tortures and debases them for no reason except to do it. Towards the end of the chapter, the girl prostitute, after having tried to escape but being caught and brought back tells Clay that he has made her believe in God again after being an atheist. Why? Because she was in hell, and the Devil lived in Palm Springs. Admittedly, it was a chilling moment in the book, but not worth what came before it. Especially since there was no reason for it to be there except to say that Clay, that young, impressionable and sensitive narrator who fled Los Angeles once and for all at the end of Less Than Zero, has nevertheless become a heartless product of his environment (the film industry and Hollywood) 25 years later. There is some sort of mystery of mistaken identity going on throughout the book (I think...) but it's only a mystery because no one speaks in complete sentences and because the characters in the book want it to be. The Hollywood cliches are all there (the struggling starlets; the lifers in the industry who have had so much plastic surgery they are no longer recognizable; the drugs; the sexual debasing; more snuff films uploaded onto the internet whose validity the characters debate; etc etc.). It's all so tiresome at this point.
I still think Less Than Zero is a great book, and provides the perfect backdrop for an era (the mid-80's). Rules of Attraction is also fantastic, and shows BEE actually dealing with at least a couple of people who actually have hearts and feel pain. And which was made into a pretty faithful movie adaptation, strangely enough, considering its shifting narrative and POV. American Psycho I've not read, though I feel like I have. Glamoramma and Lunar Park are both pieces of shit.
I try not to judge the artist by the art, though I always do anyway. I think Bret Easton Ellis is probably either a horrible person, or someone in so much pain, like his altar-ego Clay, who feels he must torture and rape innocent children just to prove that he still has power. Imperial Bedrooms is a completely empty novel, written by an individual wanting desperately to cash in on a famous name (the previous novel) but having no basis for actually doing so. It's too bad. It cheapens the original. Whatever hope, or salvation, or light, no matter how small, that was presented at the end of Less Than Zero by Clay turning his back on his life and disappearing, is rendered moot with this book. Is BEE trying to say that no matter what, we all turn into monsters? Or is he saying that when faced with such a barrage of banal evil, no one is actually strong enough to pull away? Whatever the case, all hope is lost. And Clay hires people to torture his best friend to death and put videos of it on the internet because he's jealous of a girl. That's the kind of boring, unimaginative low this book stoops to.
Whatever the message, it's no longer a message I'm interested in listening to.