Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Brett Easton Ellis: Imperial Bedrooms

Imperial Bedrooms is a sequel to Brett Easton Ellis' first published novel Less Than Zero (1985). Like Salinger's Catcher in the Rye thirty four years previously, LTZ seemed to define the zeitgeist of a generation, and propelled the 21 year old Ellis to literary superstardom, an exaltation he has struggled with, and indeed creatively mined, ever since.

Many critics seem to think Ellis essentially is this self-referential teller of the one evolving story - the story of his rich Los Angeles friends and their aimless, destructive rituals, and his place as an author at once participating and observing. But I don't think this really defines Ellis at all.

To me he wrote one of the greatest English novels of the post-war age, a true classic - American Psycho. When this was first published in 1991 most countries, including Australia, banned it outright, or only allowed it to go on sale if shrink-wrapped!! I was living in Queensland at the time and simply couldn't get it. A friend sent me a copy from the US (this was pre-Amazon days).

American Psycho was a savage, devastating critique of late 20th century decadence. A searing, powerful, relentless indictment of meaningless, indulgent, voyeuristic lives. Many readers were warned off it because of the violence. Too bad really. They missed the entire point. Your nose had to be rubbed in it - that was the point.

So where does the new novel Imperial Bedrooms fit within the Ellis oeuvre?

It's a disappointment. Nowhere near the power or resonance of American Psycho, and missing the freshness and surprise (perhaps this is to be expected) of Less Than Zero. The same Ellis obsessions are there, however. His young friends from 25 years ago are now power-players in Hollywood, making B-grade movies, attending endless parties, awards nights, launches, etc, but still as vacuous, bored and desperate as ever. They have become the Champagne dregs, with all the appurtenances of material success - BMWs, BlackBerries, fake tans, fake faces - but none of the substantiality of character. There are no wives or kids, just endless, meaningless sex with young, grasping, aspiring actors. The only coinage the women have is their c..t. The main character, Clay, is a sick, perverted, sexual predator. Truly an ugly human being.. 

Ellis is a chronicler of surface glitter. But there is always menace, a sense of being caught up in something larger, an overriding evil. Violence is always happening or threatening, and is as meaningless as the glitter and baubles.

Unlike in Less Than Zero there is an unfolding dramatic narrative in Imperial Bedrooms, but it is less than believable and rather contrived. I thought at one stage I was reading a script for Days of Our Lives! There was dialogue but no communication. But then again, this is quintessentially Ellis.

If you like Ellis you'll like this book. I certainly liked it, although it's far from his best.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

I must admit I approached this new novel from English novelist David Mitchell with a certain amount of trepidation. I hadn't read his widely praised Cloud Atlas, which was shortlisted for the Booker in 2004, but I knew it was regarded as a 'difficult read'.

Well, his new novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is absolutely brilliant. This book will be soon regarded as a classic. It is a rich, absorbing, highly dramatic and hugely enjoyable saga of life and society set in a secluded, anti-Western and anti-Christian Japan in 1799. The sea-faring Dutch have managed to negotiate a commercial relationship with the isolationist Japanese authorities, and have been allowed to set up a small piece of 'foreign territory' on a small island in the port of Nagasaki.

The intense relationships between the Dutch themselves and between them and the Japanese provide most of the drama of the book. The dialogue is superb, enlivened by an earthy crudity that is frequently funny and, of course, downright racist in today's terms:

'The jaundiced pygmies'.

'What was that frog-croak?...how I hate a man...who farts in French and expects applause'.

Towards the end of the book the British get involved, and carry on as only the British know how ('So let's give this despotic backwater a taste of the coming century..'). But 'untainted' Japan is an equally flawed and brutal society, with sheer evil and hypocrisy riddled throughout.

'If only, Shiroyama dreams, human beings were not masks behind masks behind masks. If only this world was a clean board of lines and intersections. If only time was a sequence of considered moves and not a chaos of slippages and blunders'. 

The re-creation of that moment in history two centuries ago brings home some basic truths that Mitchell constantly underscores. The ordinary lives of ordinary human beings today are qualitatively better on just about every level and on any measure. There is no romanticising of the past going on here. In terms of medicine (there were no x-rays or antibiotics so people suffered awfully from common complaints we can cure so easily now), communications (replies to letters took three years to arrive), education (superstition and sheer ignorance had awful consequences), social structures (slaves and the lower classes were treated with abject cruelty), law and justice (corruption reigned supreme), and international relations (power and subjugation ruled) - compared to these brutish realities the modern world is a highly civilised place.

We tend to forget this. Mitchell rubs our noses in it.

In the end this book celebrates the value of honorable and courageous men and women, individuals who stand up for what is right, and thus power the progress of liberation for all.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet  is an enormously satisfying novel, and I urge you to read it. You won't be disappointed.

I predict a shortlisting for the Booker, for sure.