'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, September 19, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: The Informers 

Back in the day, novelist Bret Easton Ellis was pretty controversial, maybe he still is. I remember getting into an argument in the early 1990s with my carpool partner, my boss, about the controversy surrounding the publication of his violent novel centered around an investment banker serial killer, American Psycho. Ellis' publisher, Simon & Shuster, withdrew after pressure from women's groups, and it was subsequently released by Vintage Books.

Being more politically and socially inclined, with a limited artistic and cultural sense (and that's being charitable), my boss thought that the book shouldn't be published at all, even though he had never read a word of it, a classic liberal, identity politics infected, response that one experienced quite a lot back then. As someone more culturally oriented, with an awareness that you can't preselect quality works, or even define what they are, and how they will be perceived over time, I said that I thought Simon & Shuster was making an embarassing mistake. After all, if you don't like it, don't read it. My boss was one of those types that was always on the look out to protect others from things, even if no one else was asking him to do so.

I've never read American Psycho, except for a brief passage that one of my friends showed me where the protagonist, if he can be called such, was musing about the lastest Whitney Houston CD. I did, however, just finish reading a later Ellis novel, The Informers, which is more accurately described as a series of linked short stories. From the vantage point of the present, it makes a interesting read. Aspects of the work that invoked criticism in 1994, the nihilism of his characters, the disposition of some of them to dispassionate violence, the amorality of their personal relations, strike one as, does one dare say it?, nostalgic.

It is difficult to be outraged by Ellis' willingness to non-judgmentally portray such people when we are now confronted with real life horrors like US soldiers raping and killing a young Iraqi girl, subjecting her to burns all over her body in the process, and US Marines killing villagers in Haditha with shots to the head, execution style. If only we lived in a time where such violence was more random, more personal, less out in the open. It is unpleasant to admit, but Ellis chronicles a subculture of a particular time and place that would be an improvement upon the deranged state sanctioned violence inflicted upon people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Pakistan and Gaza. It is as if we are living in an age where the most sociopathic characters of his novels now run the country, and gratify their perversities through their control over the US military.

But this evades more serious questions about the merit of the novel and the craftmanship on display. It is initially important to observe that one of the major themes is the nature of cultural production and way that such intangible production is consumed. Sociologists like Bourdieu and subsequent postmodernists have revealed the processes of cultural production in our society, and the ways that it facilitates the disintegration of class identity, community bonds and personal independence.

Ellis, though, holds it up for our fascinated observation through the creation of a finely detailed fictional world far more compelling than the abstract analysis of sociologists and post-Marxist philosophers. His characters are either involved in the film and music video business in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles of the early 1980s, or circulate on its periphery as groupies, drug dealers, friends and family members. Music and film videos are interwoven into their daily lives, substituting aural and visual stimulation for human, emotional contact and interaction. Scenes involving the participation of characters in the film and music business highlight, through a paradoxical understatement, the puerile nature of their enterprise.

Characters are therefore linked to one another through perceived needs, something that Henri Lefebvre, if he were still alive, would appreciate. Wealthy enough not to worry about their basic material necessities (unless the availability of a reservation at the upscale Valley restaurant, Spago's, qualifies as one), they seek out each other for drugs, sex, ephemeral attention and social status or just to pass the time. None of them ponder external social and political conditions, they rarely engage in self-reflection, and, when they do, it is of the most superficial kind. Fear of acknowledging bonds of affection and attachment is always just beneath the surface.

Many find these sorts of characters alienating when they appear in contemporary fiction, but Ellis humanizes people outside the literary mainstream. Authors often write about people like them, people from the social world which is most familiar to them, which is why there are so many novels about attorneys, professors, docters, stock brokers, basically, the white upper middle class. Curiously enough, Ellis is writing about similar kinds of people associated with the entertainment industry, directly and vicariously, that he knows from growing up in Los Angeles, except that they turn out to be self-centered, nihilistic and incapable of seeing a few days over the horizon.

With most authors, there is some hint of optimism, no matter how subdued, that somehow the characters will get their lives in order, or at least benefit from the insight of their experiences. After all, isn't this one of the core beliefs of the American upper middle class, that their lives develop along an evolutionary path, no matter how difficult, towards enlightenment and personal fullfilment? Ellis, quite courageously, deprives us of this security blanket, exposing us to the elements of a world that will always remain inherently uncertain, day by day, minute by minute. By doing so, he unearths the disturbing amorality that has become central to the American social experience.

I would be remiss if I did not draw attention to one of Ellis' special gifts as a writer, his ability to develop character and reader identification with his subjects through an obsessive description of the most mundane aspects of their lives. He literally builds character through an accumulation of personal detail as to what people ate, what drugs they took, what music videos they watched, what kind of decor adorns their homes and apartments. His characters are defined by their association with the material and intangible cultural world around them, and Ellis is extraordinary for his ability to infuse such characters with a human dimension. Reading about their experiences in the early 1980s with the hindsight attained by living in 2008, it almost makes me wistful.

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