Monday, June 14, 2010

The Royal Set-up for Imperial Bedrooms

This is BEE week, because I've been thinking so much about Bret Easton Ellis, since Imperial Bedrooms is the first of his books I've had to wait on from him. So there's a lot of thought and it gets compounded by the book itself. Bret is a polarizing figure. He happens to be my favorite writer. I'm going to write about him favorably. So welcome to the writer as the fan. This station is playing a particular sort of music for the holiday season. Listen if you like. Otherwise wait it out. Otherwise, cheers.

I’m spinning the first hour of the audio-book of Bret Easton Ellis’s new novel, Imperial Bedrooms, which is an appropriate situation to be in at the moment, since it’s what I want to talk about. “Books on Tape” is the name of a song by the Black Whales, a Seattle band that I started listening to by way of another Ellis—Warren, the writer, not the similarly named musician Warren Ellis—probably my favorite blogger.

The audio-book appealed to me for a number of reasons, but I won’t be noble here; I bought it simply because I didn’t want a hardcover ruining my stack of Easton Ellis paperbacks. I could constitute having multiple formats (a Patrick Bateman-ism) even more if I got them in completely different styles. I couldn’t be reading Imperial Bedrooms and writing this right now, could I? So it’s fun and I’m not much for audio-books, so it’s new, like most rap music, which adds to the allure.

Now that I’ve explained how this came to be, I’ll give you the romantic version. Apologies again for returning to the same topic too many times, but this is something that Kundera did in Life is Elsewhere, all of Jaromil’s cool little poetic actions are explained away in various mundane ways that are meant to chastise him, the character referred to cosmopolitanly and expansively as the poet. This book is read by Andrew McCarthy and it happens to be at least marketed as a sequel to Less than Zero, Ellis’s first novel, and this is just another little piece of fictive layering.

McCarthy played Clay in the film version of Less than Zero, so there’ s continuity in his returning to that character’s voice, as Clay’s the narrator of both books. But still, Imperial Bedrooms begins with the line “They had made a movie about us.” From here, by way of the audio-book, you can here McCarthy criticizing his own film, if not his own portrayal of the character. He somewhat vaguely calls himself miscast, by stating the differences between the character in the book and the one in the novel.

This is only expanded by the fact that Ellis has written a book about walking around as an actor playing a character in Glamorama. McCarthy’s status, as he reads, the actor playing the character who is mocking the same actor playing the same character, I mean there isn’t much else to say about it then fictive layering. And you’d think that’d be the only thing to come out of my choice not to buy the hardcover.

But it’s not, which is pretty stunning. Ellis also creates the book Less than Zero in this novel, which is somewhat a sequel, but also a refutation. Although the first novel is characterized by Clay as a realistic portrayal of events, it is also called a book written by the writer, someone who happened to show up at the end of Ellis’s last, Lunar Park, albeit in another light, but you know, if you’re keeping score.

Clay explains how writing failed for him, how he had wanted to be the author of the book that the writer put out, but that it just wasn’t right, and how he’s found his place as a screenwriter. Reading Imperial Bedrooms as a book, you’ll be thrown into a bit of uncomfortable meta: your narrator saying he doesn’t write books, has tried and failed. The question then becomes “What am I reading? Is this a book?” You’re suddenly not reading anymore but contemplating reading. It’s a serious problem with writing fiction, specifically in the first person; you have to figure out what you can say. “This about memory,” Stephen King has his narrator Edgar Freemantle say at one point in Duma Key, his penultimate novel of the moment. And what is this? one might ask.

But on audio, we’re not dealing with that. This is what Clay does, in a way, he writes dialogue, the majority of a screenplay. And I’m simplifying matters, but this is a book on tape, a monologue, if you will. There is no outright question about the possibility of the existence of the product in your hand.

Here, I can’t help but comment on Bret himself, or what I know of him as caught from various interviews. He sees himself as anti-literary, stating that “[he]’d rather hang out with Rob Pattinson than Richard Ford,” in an interview with New York Magazine. This is only the tip of the iceberg of the topic, but I’m skimming over it. Ellis has always been seen as something separate from literature, from books, then it was the Literary Brat Pack, a label that excludes more than anything else, or now by the fact that he’s often called more of a screenwriter than a novelist these days. And, I would think, if one of Bret’s screenplays does well, he might stick to them even more solely. He’s only published seven books in twenty-five years and if he’s focused on other things then the ideas for novels might stop coming. A Stephen King-ism, how he talks about short stories, that you can forget how to write them. This is possibly Ellis’s last book.

And what a book it is, to be the last. With Lunar Park, Ellis has created himself as a character, but now he’s created an entire revisionist view of his literary history. This is something to be explained more in depth later on, but the connection is not only between Less than Zero and Lunar Park and Imperial Bedrooms. Ellis has always been one to blend his stories: whole segments of Less than Zero appear almost verbatim in American Psycho, changed character names and some characterization, but otherwise word for word.

These last two books have been about digging back through the first ones. I think he’s going to be done with that at least. If there is an eighth Bret Easton Ellis book (seventh novel), and I’d love to see it (though I doubt it’ll be out in any less than five years), it’ll be the fourth stage of his career. I’m going to make a joke now. If we set his career along the five stages of grief, for no other reason than to have a laugh, we find Less than Zero and The Rules of Attraction as denial, and much of Ellis’s dealings with these books has had to be the continual use of the phrase “this is not me.” Next comes anger which is just too fitting with American Psycho and Glamorama coming next. Now we have two books of “bargaining.” And what comes next? “Depression.” Oh, but how could an Ellis book turn that particular volume control up further? It’s already generally left at eleven.

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