In Which Bret Easton Ellis Finally Comes to Understand Women

Books, Writers

Bret Easton Ellis took to Twitter last night to share some more of his profound insights.

Here, he sets the stage for us and delivers a powerful thesis (all in under 140 characters!):

And of course, some supporting details (including a bit of biology):

Mr. Ellis even replies to one of his followers! (I like the touch of self loathing):

A rousing conclusion statement:

And a fitting epilogue:

Bravo!

About these ads

Does Bret Easton Ellis Consider Himself a Serious Novelist?

Books, Literature, Writers
INTERVIEWER

Do you not consider yourself a serious novelist?

ELLIS

I recently got into one of those weird, terrible fights writers can find themselves in with a friend who has for a long time been writing novels he can’t get published. For twenty-five years I’ve been trying to help him. He can’t rise to the occasion. He can’t write a novel because he doesn’t have the passion to write a novel. He’s writing a novel to make the money, get the film rights, become famous, whatever—all the wrong reasons. When he asked me to read the latest one, I told him, “Look, if this novel is superpassionate, and it really is about shit you’re going through, and pain, and it means the fucking world to you, by all means send it to me.” He said, “Yeah, it’s totally all those things,” and he sent it to me, and it was absolutely like all the others. I flipped out. I went ballistic on him. I said, “You never took this seriously! From the time you were twenty-three, it was always some kind of sterile exercise, like an imitation of a novel. And you never talk passionately about writers. I never hear you talk about books you’re reading. You just saw that a young writer in the eighties could make some cash from a literary novel. It was moneymaking to you.” And my friend was shocked, or pretended to be. “You know, it’s really amazing to hear you say that, Bret, because looking at your career and reading your books, I never thought you actually took it seriously. I saw your books as trendy knockoffs. I saw you as kind of a hack. I never thought you were really serious.” I mean, he’s not representative of the kind of person anyone should take seriously in literary matters, but when my friend said that, I’ll admit it gave me pause. I thought, What does it mean to be a “serious” novelist? Regardless of how my books have turned out, or how some people might have read them, I clearly don’t think I write trendy knockoffs. My books have all been very deeply felt. You don’t spend eight years of your life working on a trendy knockoff. In that sense I’ve been serious. But I don’t do lots of things that other serious ­writers do. I don’t write book reviews. I don’t sit on panels about the state of the novel. I don’t go to writer conferences. I don’t teach writing seminars. I don’t hang out at Yaddo or MacDowell. I’m not concerned with my reputation as a writer or where I stand relative to other writers. I’m not competitive or professionally ambitious. I don’t think about my work and my career in an overarching or systematic way. I don’t think about myself, as I think most writers do, as progressing toward some ideal of greatness. There’s no grand plan. All I know is that I write the books I want to write. All that other stuff is meaningless to me.

From Ellis’s Paris Review interview.

Late to Love: Bret Easton Ellis

Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

In high school I bought American Psycho from Barnes & Noble and read it in a few weeks. I knew it was full of awful, horrible stuff that I would never be able to forget but I did it anyways. I was fascinated, revolted; I laughed out loud. I became that one guy that burst everyone’s bubble by telling them that the movie sucked or at least totally missed the point of the book (whatever point there might have been) and that it also left out every one of the funniest scenes, and, oh that the ending was total bullshit. People would ask me if I “liked” the book and I would evasively respond: “I don’t know if it’s a book one can actually like…” or “I don’t know if like is the right word…”—and just generally avoid making any kind of decision about the book, or its author, that prince of darkness Bret Easton Ellis.

But Bret Easton Ellis intrigued me. Later, when the film Rules of Attraction came out I saw it in the theater by myself and purchased the DVD. It was a much better film than AP, and that was satisfying to me in some way. I didn’t read the book, nor was I moved to seek out Less Than Zero, although at some point I found Glamorama at a used store and bought it for the heck of it, but I don’t think I ever even tried to read it. I was interested in BEE but only from afar. He had definitely scarred me with AP. It was a singular experience at the time and (to this day has maybe been matched only by Jerzy Kosinski with my combined readings of Steps and The Painted Bird). I wasn’t really looking to be haunted in that way any time soon.

I can still remember where I was when I heard about Lunar Park. I read about it at The New York Times, on the family computer at a friend’s parents’ house in Rutland Vermont. I saw that Ellis had a new book, skimmed the article, and saw mention of “meta” elements, the use of a character named “Bret Ellis” who was decidedly not intended to be the actual author of the book, but rather a sort of parallel dimension version of BEE who had settled down in the suburbs and had kids. This was all interesting to me and I made the mental note, “Read Lunar Park.” That was in August 2005.

Fast forward to May 2010. In the five years since Lunar Park came out everything about my life has changed. I am living in Los Angeles pursuing a career in screenwriting. I have been married for a year and I have an apartment and two cats. And it is in this apartment that I come across a VICE interview with the man himself, on the eve of the publication of his new novel Imperial Bedrooms. I find myself reading the interview and it dawns on me that I have never read or heard this man speak, I’ve barely seen photographs of him, and that basically everything I think I know about him has been pure conjecture derived from conversations over the years.

My idea of Bret Ellis as this detached, cynical, deviant creature is immediately thrown out the window by seeing pictures of him wearing a hooded sweatshirt and sitting at a desk. In some of the photos green palm trees can be seen behind him and it becomes clear very quickly in the interview that he now lives in Los Angeles as well. I end up reading the entire article and thinking that Ellis is just a guy like anyone else, not especially pretentious or malevolent, as he had been accused of being by people I had spoken with at times. And what’s more he made reference to “the Stephen King part” of Lunar Park.

My mind exploded.

What Stephen King part? I remembered and reinstated my mental note: “Read Lunar Park.”

And a few weeks later, as though on cue a beautiful hardback first edition copy of LP appeared at the used book stand at my neighborhood farmer’s market. I bought it on a Saturday morning and opened as I was cooking lunch, expecting to get a taste and maybe read a page or two while the food cooked. I ended up sitting on the couch for the entire day reading. That night I couldn’t wait for my wife to fall asleep so I could sit up late and maybe finish, and I started to do just that until I became so frightened by the story that I literally had to put it away until it was light outside. I had a little trouble sleeping that night but ultimately it was okay, and the next day I finished the book. Immediately I was on the phone telling friends to read it. I made several of my local friends borrow my copy and one-by-one everyone came back to me with the same positive report, and regardless of their previous experience or lack-there-of with Ellis’s writing, everyone who read it adored it.

My admiration extended past just the book or my experience reading it. It reconciled the past and my memories and suddenly I found myself saying “I like Bret Easton Ellis” or even going so far as to thinking of myself as a fan of his. I slowly started keeping up with his online presence, (going so far as even joining Twitter just to follow him) and I find the experience genuinely rewarding. Don’t get me wrong: he’s obviously a weird guy sometimes (anyone who could write the habitrail scene in AP would have to be I guess) and I don’t always agree with his randomly asserted opinions about books and movies (I disagree in particular with him about music: our tastes are just simply different). But overall, I think he has a valid and useful perspective on culture and entertainment. Perhaps some of the detractors still see him as the austere, decadent, nihilistic provocateur that I feared and resented in high school, but I have an impossible time jiving that notion with the man who tweeted recently that he had been talked into getting really stoned and going to see The Lorax.

And I guess this all ties in with his recent series of tweets that he is considering a pseudosequel to American Psycho. Suddenly, this proposition seemed so appealing. It’s been twelve years since I read AP, and in that time I don’t think I’ve ever opened it again, and now suddenly I find myself wanting more, hoping that Ellis decides to go through with it.

So yesterday in excited anticipation I went down to the farmer’s market and this time the used book guy had two beautiful paperback copies of Rules of Attraction and Less Than Zero. I bought them both. Even if Ellis does convince himself to write the Los Angeles Patrick Bateman story, it will be years before it will be published and in my hands, so I guess I need to relax and catch up on everything I missed out on so far.

Book Acquired, 2.03.2012 — Edward St. Aubyn Edition

Books, Literature, Writers

20120205-164456.jpg

Picador has put together all four of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels in anticipation of the final novel, At Last, which debuts later this month from FS&G. I haven’t read St. Aubyn’s stuff, which hasn’t been widely available in the US until now, but I do know that Open City put some of it out, and they put out stuff by heroes of mine like David Berman and Sam Lipsyte (who blurbs the book). Anyway, here’s a short description from Picador:

For more than twenty years, acclaimed author Edward St. Aubyn has chronicled the life of Patrick Melrose, painting an extraordinary portrait of the beleaguered and self-loathing world of privilege. This single volume collects the first four novels—Never Mind, Bad News,Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk, a Man Booker finalist—to coincide with the publication of At Last, the final installment of this unique novel cycle.

By turns harrowing and hilarious, these beautifully written novels dissect the English upper class as we follow Patrick Melrose’s story from child abuse to heroin addiction and recovery. Never Mind,the first novel, unfolds over a day and an evening at the family’s chateaux in the south of France, where the sadistic and terrifying figure of David Melrose dominates the lives of his five-year-old son, Patrick, and his rich and unhappy American mother, Eleanor. From abuse to addiction, the second novel, Bad News opens as the twenty-two-year-old Patrick sets off to collect his father’s ashes from New York, where he will spend a drug-crazed twenty-four hours. And back in England, the third novel, Some Hope, offers a sober and clean Patrick the possibility of recovery. The fourth novel, the Booker-shortlisted Mother’s Milk, returns to the family chateau, where Patrick, now married and a father himself, struggles with child rearing, adultery, his mother’s desire for assisted suicide, and the loss of the family home to a New Age foundation.

Edward St. Aubyn offers a window into a world of utter decadence, amorality, greed, snobbery, and cruelty—welcome to the declining British aristocracy.

I haven’t had much time to dip into this, even though it intrigues, because my wife immediately snapped it up. I had to go find it in her night stand to do this post. At the risk of mangling this completely though (and correct me if I’m wrong), it seems like a little bit like a contemporary Henry James shot through with Bret Easton Ellis (and maybe a touch of Downton Abbey). I will ask my wife to report.

Bret Easton Ellis on David Fincher’s Film Zodiac

Books, Film, Literature, Writers

This weekend, Twitter followers of novelist Bret Easton Ellis were treated to BEE’s views on the films of director David Fincher, with particular consideration paid to Fincher’s overlooked (by audiences, at least) 2007 film Zodiac. I liked Ellis’s commentary, not just because I think he’s spot on here, but also because he points out why so many people might not have liked (or, dare I say “got”) Zodiac on first viewing: the movie was mismarketed. Here’s BEE—

In my original review of Zodiac, I pointed to my own early misunderstanding of what the film was—

When Zodiac came out last year, I prejudicially–and wrongly–assumed that the film, the tale of the infamous Zodiac killer who menaced California in the late sixties and early seventies, would be a moody character study, all ominous texture, smoggy chase scenes, and desperate anger à la Fincher’s 1995 thriller, Se7en (that movie where Gwyneth Paltrow’s head gets chopped off), or even worse, Fincher’s awful 1997 effort The Game. Most Hollywood suspense films–Fincher’s included–propel themselves on chase sequences, meaningless yelling, and overstated light and music queues that seem to scream “this is the part where you feel tense.” Zodiac, however, eschews all of these often vacuous tropes in favor of simply telling a story.

Zodiac is a methodical, investigative procedural about truth, a film that looks at what happens when we try to put order to disorder, when we try to give narrative to life’s loose ends—when we try to understand radically stochastic violence. In retrospect, it seems to me that Fincher’s work here is akin to Roberto Bolaño in some ways, and I think that if people went into it understanding that it was going to be a meditation on truth, and not, say, a cops and robbers thriller, they might appreciate it more (for what it’s worth, several people wrote in on my review to tell me how wrong I was about what I liked about the film. I think, like Ellis, they should give it another shot).

Is American Psycho Profound, Artistic Nihilism or Stupid, Shallow Nihilism? — Bret Easton Ellis vs David Foster Wallace

Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial novel American Psycho turns 20 this year. The folks at Vintage were kind enough to send me a copy of the book to promote the anniversary, and despite a mounding stack of review copies, I took a few hours to re-read parts of Ellis’s third novel.

I’ve only read two Ellis books and I remember the reading of them distinctly, precisely; I remember how I picked them up and where I was and what I was doing and all that jazz. The first was Ellis’s début Less Than Zero, a slim, ugly little novel that I read in one night. I was fifteen, spending a summer with my aunt and uncle, living in my cousin’s old bedroom. Less Than Zero was part of a cache of books that included Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Anthony Scaduto’s Bob Dylan biography, some Hemingway and Fitzgerald novels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and a Kurt Vonnegut starter kit. In short, a life changing library, and most of it went home with me in my Jansport (somewhat surreptitiously, although I’m sure if I had asked I would have received). Only I didn’t take Less Than Zero, despite reading it all in one sick night, and then reading it again in pieces over the summer. The book hurt my stomach. The drugs were not the Looney Tunes business in HST’s book—they were the symptom of a blank nihilism I simply couldn’t identify with. The scene where the kids casually watch a snuff film horrified me. And the rape scene. Well. It was the first time I read something that genuinely disturbed me in a non-child, non-Grimm’s way — in a way where I felt moral outrage from an adult-psyche-type-position (whatever that means). The book genuinely concerned me; I was afraid such people existed.

I read American Psycho in 2002. I was traveling through Thailand for a month, trading books at guest houses and shops as I went, and the only book I remember being more ubiquitous than American Psycho was Alex Garland’s The Beach (which, yes, I also read there). I had seen and quite enjoyed Mary Harron’s 2000 film adaptation of American Psycho, which had the good sense to treat the whole matter as a piece of cartoonish black comedy. In Harron’s hands, the hyperbolic exploits of Patrick Bateman are considerably less ambiguous than the book’s depiction; Harron  clearly marks the narrative violence as Bateman’s internal fantasies. Of course, one of literature’s greatest tools is ambiguity, and Ellis’s American Psycho revels in it. In a sense, this is the book’s defining nihilism: its total unwillingness to make a definitive judgment about its protagonist’s violence. Instead, American Psycho’s claims to satire rely on the implicit force of the reader’s sense of humanity and morality; like Less Than Zero before it, we have a flat narrative, an utter lack of self-reflection or internal psychology. Ellis gives us only concrete contours, cocaine, hydrochloric acid, chainsaws, and a laundry list of brand names. These are novels without interiors.

American Psycho, utterly concrete, deeply ironic, and occasionally funny, is a strange beach read, but a beach read nonetheless (although all that gristle and blood (and oh the rat!) won’t go down easy for many folks). When I read it in 2002 I found it neither shocking or enlightening, just precise and ugly and grotesque, a numbing progression of concrete descriptions of clothes and restaurants punctuated by ridiculous violence. Its one-note satire would find a better home in a short story. A short short story. I’ve spent the past few days reading through its sections again, trying to reassess it against the backdrop of my current literary estimations of Bret Easton Ellis, which I hate to admit are largely informed not only by his own acerbic personality, but also by (or perhaps more accurately against) his agon with David Foster Wallace.

BEE vs. DFW is not exactly news. Ellis (b. 1964) and Wallace (b. 1962) both published their first novels in the mid-eighties. Less Than Zero made 21-year-old Ellis a star, a likely “voice of his generation.” The Broom of the System didn’t exactly go gangbusters for Wallace, but its voluminous scope, Pynchonian silliness, and its willingness to pick up the postmodern games that Ellis and the other new minimalists seemed to reject announced a major new talent who was willing to both think and feel—to go beyond the surfaces. Indeed, Wallace’s entire project might be defined as setting himself apart from the cool, detached irony that characterizes Ellis’s ethos. In a 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery,Wallace decries fiction that devotes
“a lot of energy to creating expectations and then taking pleasure in disappointing them. You can see this clearly in something like Ellis’s American Psycho: it panders shamelessly to the audience’s sadism for a while, but by the end it’s clear that the sadism’s real object is the reader herself.” I think this is an apt criticism. American Psycho is torture porn encased in a thin veneer of social satire with no interior substance. Here’s Wallace at length—

 I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s cliched and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend Psycho as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.

Four years before the interview—and two years before the publication of American Psycho—Wallace mocked Ellis’s void, vacuous characters in “Girl with Curious Hair,” a story about a yuppie on LSD at a Keith Jarrett concert.  With no affective life, Sick Puppy (as his low life punk rock friends call him) feels nothing. He cannot enjoy his wealth, his position—not even his acid trip. He can’t even enjoy sex unless he can burn his partner as he’s being fellated. As Marshall Boswell points out in his study Understanding David Foster Wallace, “the story eerily forecasts . . . American Psycho . . . in a grisly and hilarious pastiche of Ellis’ preposterously benumbed prose.”

Perhaps Wallace’s greatest critique of nihilism — greatest in that it escapes the confines of Ellis and his ilk’s literary purview — is Don Gately, erstwhile hero of Infinite Jest, a recovering Demerol addict and small time thief whose painful day-to-day existence figures as the existential struggle against bleak, overwhelming nothingness. Gately is the heart and spirit of IJ, a big sad throbbing heart that, to quote Wallace out of context (from above), is the writer’s way “to depict this [dark] world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.”

Ellis perhaps perceives a character like Gately and his illuminating possibilities as simply too affected. Last summer, at a reading in Hackney, England, Easton offered the following—

Question: David Foster Wallace – as an American writer, what is your opinion now that he has died?

Answer: Is it too soon? It’s too soon right? Well I don’t rate him. The journalism is pedestrian, the stories scattered and full of that Midwestern faux-sentimentality, and Infinite Jest is unreadable. His life story and his battle with depression however is really quite touching . . .

Then there was this cryptic tweet a few months ago—

I’m not sure what Ellis’s tweet meant, and attendees of the Hackney reading claim that he was more considered and measured in his tone than the actual words of his response seem to entail. His end of the agon with Wallace is also rife with its own set of problems—his contemporary is dead, horribly dead, a suicide, (the kind of death that makes an essay like this one, an essay that claims to find affirmation of life in DFW and empty nihilism BEE, particularly hard to swallow, I suppose)—making it all the harder to respond. I read his “too soon” remark from the Hackney reading to be in earnest.

But Ellis’s tweets are not part of his literary corpus (even though they can be entertaining), and Wallace’s suicide is not part of his text. So, I return to those texts—

Wallace’s last effort, The Pale King, contrasts strongly with American Psycho. Wallace’s novel is fractured, heteroglossic, crammed with ideas, and at times purposefully taxing on its reader’s attention. American Psycho is concise (even if its plot is messy and episodic), imagistic, lacks even the pretense of allowing a controlling voice other than Bateman’s into the narrative, and, in its fetishistic, sexualized violence, is a work designed to lock its reader’s attention in a sensationalized vice grip. It’s id-bait par excellence, seductive and stylish. Its greatest achievement may be to fool some readers into believing that its violence is simply part and parcel of its intention of being a scathing satire. The book then relies heavily — too heavily — on an exterior morality system to weigh its flat, static characters, characters who face incredible trauma and yet never process it (or even attempt to process it). And I am not just speaking of Bateman. Consider the dry cleaner who repeatedly removes bloodstains, or the maid  who mops up brain bits without a single question. Then there are the faceless, indistinguishable alpha males who populate Bateman’s yuppie corporate world, and their requisite fiancées and mistresses, weak watery women the narrative repeatedly condemns. These characters lack meaning or depth; they are essentially probable replicants of Bateman, the implication being that psychopathic tendencies lurk everywhere, that the modern condition preempts empathy or human understanding or plain old common decency. The savvy reader is supposed to admire Ellis’s satire of capitalist vacuity, and admittedly, there are some very funny riffs (Bateman’s bits on popular music like Huey Lewis and the News and Whitney Houston, replicated in the film version, still hold up well). But I think Wallace is correct when he asserts that the real violence is ultimately inflicted on the reader. Ellis’s violence is not the same as Flannery O’Connor’s, who used the shock of murder in her stories to explore the possibility of awe, transcendence, and revelation in a desacralized world. Wallace’s The Pale King tries to sanctify the costs of life (death and taxes and the deep existential crisis these costs entail) in a world that has largely abandoned the sacred, in a society where many people are incapable or unwilling to think empathetically about their relation to (via taxes and social institutions) other humans whom they do not personally know. Ellis’s American Psycho is a cartoonish, lopsided distortion of a descralized world. Its affective power is purely externalized, generated from the reader’s moral core. It replaces feeling with violence; it replaces ideas with the illusion of ideas. Its closest claim to art is its satirical power, which is ultimately puddle-shallow (did we really need Ellis to tell us that yuppies are uncaring, shallow and materialistic?) Writers need not be morally instructive, but good books are guided by a vision. Ellis’s vision is pure, bleak nihilism, abyssal and unreflecting, asking little from its reader other than to play voyeur to murder and giving back nothing in return.

Richard Yates — Tao Lin

Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

Tao Lin has made the choice to be a very visible, very public author, one whose antics might lead audiences to form opinions on the 27 year old’s work before even reading it. I mention his age because he’s young, and not only is he young, he seems to be gunning to speak for his generation–always a precarious position.

Lin’s new novel Richard Yates is about young people. Specifically, it’s about a 22-year-old slacker named Haley Joel Osment and his 16-year-old girlfriend Dakota Fanning (I’ll address those names in a moment). Haley Joel Osment lives in Manhattan where he apparently is trying to make it as a writer–something that the book rarely delves into. Haley Joel Osment (Lin always writes the entire name out, part of the book’s numbing, trance-inducing program) meets fellow weirdo Dakota Fanning, and soon begins paying furtive visits to her New Jersey home, hiding in closets and under covers to avoid Dakota Fanning’s mother–who nevertheless soon discovers their illicit romance.

This is the primary conflict in the book–the age-of-consent gap between the young lovers–but the real trauma of the book lies in the couple’s urge toward self-annihilation. In conversations with each other–in person or in email, but primarily in Gmail chat–Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning frequently promise to kill themselves, usually in a casual, detached tone. If “I will probably kill myself later this week” is one of their mantras, the other is “I’m fucked” or “We’re so fucked.” These are not happy people. Here’s Haley Joel Osment writing an email to Dakota Fanning, summarizing his philosophical position: “At each moment you can either kill yourself, try harder to detach yourself from people and reality, or be thinking of and doing what you can for the people you like.”

The bulk of the book consists of such conversations, mopey or mordant or mean. Haley Joel Osment accuses Dakota Fanning of being the type of person who wants to detach from others and reality, yet he’s just as guilty. Lin allows the audience into Haley Joel Osment’s interior, where we find a deeply troubled young man, alienated by his own inability to stop over-processing everything he sees. The problem is that Haley Joel Osment is the core referent of all of Haley Joel Osment’s observations; his solipsism prevents him from actually really knowing anyone else. Mulling over Dakota Fanning’s minutest movements, he repeatedly reads in them signs about her own regard for him. Even when he attempts to be the type of person who is “thinking of and doing what [he] can for the people” he likes, he’s not. He’s selfish and cannot see his own selfishness. The kernel of self-destruction at the heart of Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning’s relationship doesn’t emerge from their age difference but rather his slow, cruel manipulation of her self-image. As the book progresses, Haley Joel Osment’s “advice” cripples Dakota Fanning, leading her down a path of bulimia and self-mutilation.

Lin’s style is flat, dry, and utterly concrete. The only metaphors or similes he employs come (quite artlessly) from his characters. Furthermore, these figures of speech seem incidental; even the couple’s code word “cheese beast” feels like a metaphor with no referent (or perhaps too many referents). There are no symbols (or perhaps the book is all symbols). In many ways, Richard Yates recalls Bret Easton Ellis’s early work, although Lin’s observations and comments on twenty-first century materialism are even more oblique and ambiguous than the moralism of Less Than Zero. The most immediate rhetorical technique, of course, is the book’s title. Although the text refers to the writer Richard Yates several times, his name seems utterly arbitrary, perhaps an obscure joke meant to purposefully confuse. And those character names. For the first few pages, Lin’s choice to name his protagonists after famous child stars seems gimmicky or overdetermined, but in time these names displace their original referents, as well as any other associations. They become like placeholders; Lin might as well have named them X and Y. As if to flatten out his characters even more, Lin also transliterates all of their speech. Much of the novel takes place in conversations over Gmail chat, email, and text messages, but Lin turns these truncated forms into full, affectless sentences. He even removes most contractions. His characters often speak like androids, albeit androids prone to spouting non sequiturs.


 

Lin also makes the odd decision to include an index to the book, part of which you can see above. In a sense, reading the index is like reading a condensed version of the book. It’s a lump sum of nouns that the book treats with more or less equal weight. The long list under the entry “facial expression” perhaps reveals the most about the book’s program, about its refusal to yield insights or give away anything beyond surfaces–it reads almost like a cheat sheet for someone with Asperger syndrome. The index seems like a postmodern gesture but it’s something else–I’m not sure exactly what else–but there’s nothing sly or even self-referential about it: it’s literal, it’s surface, it’s referential. In turn, Lin resists commenting on or satirizing the sundry brand names and corporate locations that populate his index (and, of course, his novel)–a marked contrast to the postmodern tradition.

This is all perhaps a way of saying that Lin is clearly attempting something new with his fiction, a kind of writing that abandons most conceits of post-modern cleverness and self-commentary, yet also compartmentalizes the pathos that characterizes social realist novels. This latter comparison might seem odd unless one considers the concreteness of social realist works, their emphasis on the body, on food, on places. Richard Yates shares all of these emphases, yet it divorces them from ideology; or, more accurately perhaps, it documents an as-yet-unnamed ideology, a 21st century power at work on body and soul. If Lin’s goal then is to document these forces, he succeeds admirably–but I want more; more soul, more insight, more, yes, abstraction. Richard Yates gives us the who and the what, replicates the when and where with uncanny ease; it even tells us how. But many readers, like me, will want to know the why, even if it is just a guess. And I’d love to hear Lin’s guess.

Richard Yates is new this week from Melville House.