Friday, May 8, 2009

The Informers - Bret Easton Ellis

I am surprised this is the first review of a Bret Easton Ellis book on flying houses, but I haven't read or re-read any of his novels in the last 13 months. Oeuvre rule reborn: I've read everything he's written except the entire whole of American Psycho for various reasons. That is probably a good one to earmark for review as it is generally considered his magnum opus--but for my tastes, I prefer Glamorama. Less Than Zero is the perfect wunderkind debut model novel for every 19 year old to follow and fail after attempting. I read it in one night in Paris five and a half years ago. Interestingly, the first Ellis novel I read was The Rules of Attraction, which is much better than the movie, a good execution of the "college novel" as well as the "multi-narrator novel." I read Lunar Park right after it came out in 2005 and devoured it giddily, though it left me feeling strangely empty--like it was all a big joke without much substance. Still, the opening portion is one of the best things he has ever done. I could go on forever, but the point is, I hadn't read The Informers. One of my friends in college was a pretty big fan of his, and I saw the volume on her bookshelf and asked how it was and she said, "It sucks." I don't totally agree but I will agree that it is probably his weakest.

For some perspective, The Informers is a collection of 13 short stories that Ellis wrote around the time of Less Than Zero, or right after. It was released in 1994, after American Psycho and before Glamorama. In a way, the only reason it's published is because it's the same author. I don't think the book would have been published if it had been written by a nobody. There are flashes of brilliance, but no single story will cut a reader dead. It is clever how much of an interconnected fictional world Ellis has constructed, but that is its chief virtue (you can play the literary equivalent of "Where's Waldo" by connecting names in the stories with characters in other Ellis books). There are a few nice aesthetic moments, but these deserve to be taken apart one by one.

#1-"Bruce Calls from Mulholland"-Sort of an atmospheric piece that leaves little impression. About a few different characters and how much money they are worth and who sleeps with whom and it's summer 1982.
#2-"At the Still Point"-About a dinner on the one-year-anniversary of a friend's death. This isn't a bad story, per se, but it's something that would work much better in a larger context, which is my most widespread complaint about these stories, they zip in and out and leave the reader cold.
#3-"The Up Escalator"-The first longer story in the collection, is about the mother of a rich L.A. family and how she is sleeping with a student at UCLA and is married to a movie exec and has two kids and the centerpiece is when they have dinner at Spago. Actually one of the better stories.
#4-"In the Islands"-About a father who takes his son with on a trip to Hawaii and is charming in a "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" type way. This is probably the best story in the collection, which is unlikely, but true, I think.
#5-"Sitting Still"-A girl rides across the country from New Hampshire to L.A. on a train to see her father get married to a woman who is not much more than a few years older than her. I found this story to be something of a snooze but there were a few good parts, probably the funniest single box of dialogue in the book for me:

"Are you okay?" Cheryl asks.
"Yeah. I'm fine," I say sullenly.
"But you don't look too good," Cheryl says. "I mean, you're tan but you don't look happy."
"But I'm okay."
"Have you ever taken zinc oxide tablets?"
"Oh yeah," I say. "I take them."
"But are you still smoking?"
"Not as much."
"Your father promised me he's going to quit," Cheryl says, spooning yogurt into her mouth.
"Does Graham smoke?"
"Yeah. A pipe too."
"Not a pipe," Cheryl says, horrified.
"Sometimes. It depends."
"On what?"
"On whether he would rather use rolling papers," I say and then, when this comment is returned with an uncomprehending look, I offer, "Or if he's lost his bong."
"Do you want to join up for the aerobics class I'm taking over at the plaza?"
"Aerobics class?"
"You say that word like you've never heard it before."
"I'm just tired," I say. "I think I want to go."
"This is kiwi tofu," she says. "I know it sounds totally crazy but it's good. Don't make fun, okay?"
"I'm really sorry."
Later, in the new Jaguar my father bought her, Cheryl asks, "Do you like me?"
"I think so," I pause. "I don't know."
"That's not good enough, honey."
"But that's all I can tell you." (78-79)

#6-"Water from the Sun"-I think this is the same Cheryl from the previous story but under different circumstances and a very changed character. She's a newscaster who does coke in airport bathrooms and wishes someone would chase her. I thought that line was funny. At one point a punk asks her for her autograph in a diner and she obliges while they sort of make fun of her afterwards and it's kind of sad. Not an awful story, but not really that great.
#7-"Discovering Japan"-Initially annoying, this is one of the more notable stories in the collection, about a rock star in Japan misbehaving. It's funny and immoral. It's also surprisingly long.
#8-"Letters from L.A."-Unquestionably the most rote exercise in the book. It might have gotten a good grade in the class I took called "The Letter as Literature," but this quickly gets boring. It's about a girl who moves to L.A. and writes letters back to her friend at college in New Hampshire and it's filled with all the usual stuff of an Ellis book and only gets vaguely interesting when she talks about how she is friends with a suicidal guy named Randy.
#9-"Another Gray Area"-Pretty much a stock Ellis piece about a guy who directs music videos named Martin and his friend Graham and Graham's dad dies in a plane crash and he goes to identify the body, but the best part is when there is a weird hostage situation outside the building where Martin lives, which contains the best line of the book, delivered by the night doorman, which sums up the quintessence of L.A.:

"Jack shrugs. 'Unless you're willing to do some pretty awful things it's hard getting a job in this town--and I'm willing.' (163)

#10-The Secrets of Summer"-The story about vampires that is probably the worst thing I have ever read by Ellis. Perhaps it contains seeds of American Psycho in it, but I found it just silly and boring.
#11-"The Fifth Wheel"-This is not a great story, but it is probably the second best in the collection. If you crossed a Richard Lange short story with one by Dennis Cooper, you would get this. It's kind of complicated but it involves a guy who works at a car wash, who has two random drug addicted friends stay at his place in Van Nuys and how they kidnap a kid for ransom and then don't really make much of an effort to collect anything.
#12-"On the Beach"-Very boring story about a girl who is dying of cancer and wants to spend her last days on the beach. It's random and weird and not very effective or affecting.
#13-"At the Zoo with Bruce"-Mercifully brings the collection to a close. It's not totally awful, but it's not especially worthwhile either. I don't think I've ever read a story that takes place at a a zoo so maybe that is worthwhile for you.

After all of that, it seems like a pretty bad book, but on the whole, it's still above-average, I think. I read it in about one 24 hour period and its 220 pages or so, if that means anything. I also felt the first half to be much better than the second half, mainly because I think I didn't like the vampire story.

There's a new movie out that is the adaptation of this book and it got some pretty bad reviews. I'd like to see it but I think I'll wait until it comes out on DVD because it's barely playing in theaters around here anymore. Ellis is probably the most successful novelist of our time--the only example of the writer who can become ridiculously rich and famous through both books and movies. It's good that he does what he does. That he's the only one and that his subject matter is, unfailingly, sex among uncharacteristically attractive, rich, drugged out people, is a good lesson for aspiring writers (see previous blog post about Dick Caramel's making extra money for stories that sell to the movies that have more "action" in them....Fitzgerald is always appropriate).

Still, even if parts of his books get trashy, I'll read anything he writes. I can't think of anyone else who writes such breezy prose. Sometimes breezy lacks substance (in this case), and maybe that's unsatisfying in the long run, but during the actual reading, it's a pleasure. Maybe his books are more like drugs than most other writers'. Share them with friends, hide them from your parents. His next book should be out a year from now and it is the sequel to Less Than Zero. So there's something to look forward to.

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