Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, April 21, 2014

Bret Easton Ellis?

FOR YEARS NOW, I have taken seriously fiction recommendations from The Believer, and I'm glad I have. I picked up Remainder because it was their book of the year, for instance. Donald Harington, Victor LaValle, Julia Holmes, David Ohle, Sarah Schulman... all of these fine fiction writers swam into my ken thanks to The Believer. The current issue (March/April) has the short lists for the fiction and poetry prizes, and, as usual, all of them sound worth a look.

And yet.

The current issue also has an article, "Post-Empire Strikes Back," about a film (The Canyons) with a screenplay by Bret Easton Ellis, and the article takes Ellis seriously as a novelist.  Very, very seriously, I'd have to say. We get this: "His novels, whatever you think of them, couldn't be accused of a lack of boldness or energy or pulse. Or guts." Ellis's novels are "frequently misunderstood" because they are "different." Ellis is "a major American writer who's never won a big time literary prize."

Major American writer?


I am sure Ellis will get his big time literary prize sooner or later; mediocrity can count on that, at least. But the idea that Ellis has been overlooked because he is "different"... oh, dear. Granted, I have not read any Ellis novel all the way through. I read most of Less than Zero back in the day, and as chapters from his subsequent novels appeared in periodicals (Granta, et al.), coincident with the arrival of the books ion the bookstores, I dutifully read those. They seemed nearly perfectly lacking in psychological insight, cognitive power, persuasively imagined events, original observation, memorable prose, or anything else that might make picking up a novel worth your while.

Ellis does have a knack for describing the habits and conversation of the very rich and for imagining horrible things that people can do to other people; he combines, that is to say, the gifts of Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Matthew "Monk" Lewis. That will give him a slender but real claim on the attention of posterity--graduate students, at least, still quasi-voluntarily read Bulwer-Lytton and Lewis--but why anyone who actually cares about the possibilities of fiction would give Ellis five minutes of his or her time utterly eludes me.

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