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Flour Makes A Great Cocaine Substitute

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Title: Imperial Bedrooms

Pagecount: 169 (haha?)

Author: Bret Easton Ellis (A, and innocent until proven guilty.)

Published:  2010

When I was working on my undergrad, there was a gentleman of my acquaintance who, besides being a funny bastard, greatly enjoyed several authors, one of which was Bret Easton Ellis. He loved Ellis so much, in fact, that during a school function wherein readers were encouraged to dress up like the author they were portraying, he chose Ellis specifically so that he ‘could smear my face in flour to show all the cocaine’.

He did it. Visiting parents were not amused. The rest of us were but that’s another story.

Following in my vein/habit of not knowing anything about an author widely considered controversial or well debated before reading their books, I picked up Imperial Bedrooms in the Borders Collapse. I did this simply because I recalled Ellis as someone on that hazy ‘list of authors you should read if you want to write’- and also because I couldn’t find a copy of American Psycho, which another peer called the most fucked up book he’d ever read. You’ve never met Daniel but I assure you- it’s quite the recommendation.

Imperial Bedrooms is apparently the ‘sequel’ of Less than Zero, the first book Ellis wrote, published in 1985. I put quotes around sequel because though this book shares characters, I don’t sense that it is meant to insinuate a continuation of Less Than Zero’s story. judging from the detached manner in which the protagonist of Imperial Bedrooms walks through his life, I would suspect that it’s more like a stepping stone further on the pathway to hell. Not a highway, no- highway insinuates a grand exit, going out with a bang, riding with the devil. Ellis’s characters do not ride with the devil. They go gently into that good night.

A synopsis is in order, of course. Our protagonist is casting for a movie. There is a girl he winds up sleeping with who wants to be in the movie. Said girl is in love with a friend of his, but is also the boyfriend of another friend, who may or may not have ties to drug cartels. The rest is history.

I’m surprised by how much I loved the writing style of Imperial Bedrooms. There aren’t so much chapters as there are short sections separated by paragraph breaks, which made it easier for me to keep up while reading in the back room at my dayjob. I also found myself fascinated by the detachment, which reminded me of Camus’s The Stranger.

I can’t speak much to the recurring themes of Imperial Bedrooms since, as mentioned, I haven’t read anything else by Ellis. Whether or not it’s a good idea to start at what one could call the end and work backwards- I suppose I’ll find out. What little I’ve read about Ellis himself creates the image of a man I find fascinating, and I rarely find other writers fascinating. Interesting, maybe. Fascinating, never.

Somewhere on the internet I read that Ellis’s work has a very voyeuristic feel to it, that the reader can’t help but be uncomfortable because things are happening and he or she can’t do a thing to stop them. I did find the voyeur part to be true. I can’t report feeling uncomfortable, perhaps because of my consistent view that ‘what’s done has been done’. There is a sense of immediacy in Imperial Bedrooms, because the book is written in the present tense. I don’t feel required to stop the events occurring. I just watch them play out.

It’s easy to slap the satire label on Imperial Bedrooms, possibly because it is semi-biographical in the case of Ellis’s work on the movie The Informers and also because it so clearly shows off the suspected underbelly of LA. I hesitate to say that it is meant as any kind of red flag or ‘whoop there it is’ representation of the culture of Hollywood. Is that present? Oh without a friggin’ doubt, but Imperial Bedrooms goes beyond that first layer of veneer- the lies we all know about but no one really talks about out loud, because talking about it would make it real- and delves right into the secondary layer of absolutes.

What I find the most interesting about the protagonist is how much of an utter bastard he is. He’s selfish, absorbed, clueless about everything hovering just outside his little world and yet you can’t help but hope he makes it through. Over the course of the book you want to ask him ‘why are you doing this? what the fuck do you think you’re up to? hello?’ but you don’t. One can sense that even if he were sitting across the table and you were holding up cue cards, he still wouldn’t get it. He’s one of those men who is destined to never get it. The difference is that when he doesn’t get it, people get hurt. That doesn’t matter to him, that people get hurt. What matters is that he stays in balance. Balance is key, because he doesn’t like anyone and is afraid of people.

If  you look at Imperial Bedrooms as a sort of psuedo autobiography all sorts of things could be pulled from it, which would without a doubt ‘prove’ that Bret Easton Ellis is a man who needs serious help. In argument I turn you to something Completely Different, episode 40 of As Told By Ginger, And Then She Was Gone. Why Ginger? Well, for one thing, it’s an awesome show far superior to the crap they air today. For another, it neatly explains in less than an hour what I’m trying to tell you.  A writer will inevitably puts parts of his or herself into work, that’s true- but a writer isn’t always their writing, either. If we wanted to start that debate I’d need a whole other blog.

To wrap it up, Imperial Bedrooms was a good introduction to the somewhat manic world of Bret Easton Ellis. If you’re emotional enough to feel responsible for the acts of the characters you are following, maybe you’d better skip this one. If you’ve been avoiding this novel because ‘it can’t possibly be as good as American Psycho’ then it’s your loss. If you think the themes are overplayed, well, it is a sequel. I liked it. I’ll be seeking out more of Mr. Ellis, when I have the time, the inclination, and the knowledge that I won’t be stopped trying to get on a plane while carrying a copy of one of his books.

Tune in next time for the precise moment when Lord Of The Flies finally catches up to me.

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And Then Captain Nemo Got Out The Vibrator

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Title:Busy Monsters

Pagecount: 282

Author: William Giraldi (A)

Published: 2011

It’s not hard to spot a love story nowadays, is it?

I mean there’s always the classical romance. Guy meets girl, girl and guy fall in love, something terrible happens and they break up, only to eventually come back together. That Asshole Nicholas Sparks ™ makes a ton of money off of people by writing that exact scenario over and over, though he has this nasty habit of throwing in ‘big concepts’ like wars or Alzheimer’s. It’s what we as human beings love to read about. Love in books, though it is intended to be just as mind bending and mud sloggingly difficult as a real relationship, still retains some kind of purity. I think we prefer it that way. If the two star crossed lovers wind up together in the end- in death or taxes- then something important has been restored. We can’t help but cheer for Mr. Darcy. That’s what makes chick lit so readable, isn’t it? Love. It’s a stupid word. It exists to describe the one thing that cannot in any language be truly explained.

Busy Monsters is, at its heart, a love story.Of course, you could have predicted that without me telling you; it’s right there in the description on the dust jacket. The difference between this love story and other love stories is that I wasn’t sure who I was rooting for, and miracle of miracles, if I wanted love to  last happily ever after.

A synopsis: Charles Homar, a column memoirist of no little infamy, is deeply in love with Gillian Lee. Gillian leaves Charles to pursue her dream of capturing a giant squid, scant months before their wedding. Charles-as most men in romantic narratives are wont to do- proceeds to think of everything he can to get his girl back.

Simple. Fish and cut bait. The man, the woman, the crazy ex wife/insurmountable economic difference/staunch southern pride/giant squid that tears them apart. Textbook, you’d think.

I’d have to disagree. Despite their fatal flaws there is something about romantic heroes that draws women in. They have a moxie, a hutzpah, a something. We  can forgive them their faults because we know in some way they will come through. Mr. Darcy, Mr. Rochester, Mellors- they smoulder, in a fashion that makes the panties moist.

Charles Homar does not smoulder.

He barely even sputters.

I didn’t like Charles for a long time. I’m a sexist at heart, is the problem.  I find most of the male species mildly irksome at best and the eternal doom of our society at worst. Darcy I raise my eyebrows at, to Rochester I shake my head; but I really, truly, madly, deeply, wanted to strangle Charles Homar after ten or so pages.

The way Charles talks about Gillian in his first few chapters rubbed me in a fashion I would only lightly describe as ‘wrong’. It smacked to me of obsessive love, which is the hallmark of the Surrealists, whom I would very much like to have dropkicked out a fourth story window for all the good they did. What kind of man drives to another state with the intention of murdering his girlfriend’s ex lover? The answer is generally a deluded and possessive one. Women are not possessions to be fought over. Was Charles even going to try and explain himself? In a way that didn’t put him deeper into the hole he started digging when he first mentioned said hare-brained plan to murder ex lover?

He did, eventually. A friend convinced me to give the novel a second chance. I’m not overwhelmingly happy I did so, but I am satisfied. I hate to leave a book unread, and besides- I wanted to know how exactly he planned on winning back the girl of his dreams. Whom he had just tried to impress by shooting the boat she was on full of holes.  I began to feel pity for Charles, or at least something remarkably like it. whether or not his love for Gillian was healthy, it definitely existed. That’s reason enough for a romantic hero to begin his crusade.

The problem with this crusade, however, is that neither Charles nor Gillian are the heroes. It is far less a romantic epic a la Victorian goth literature, and more a  drug-fuelled sexapalooza involving Moby Dick and the Odyssey. Who is Penelope, who is Odysseus? Charles makes the comparison himself several times and flip flops between them depending on his situation. Fair enough, I suppose, to introduce to the love story what most other authors gloss over and that is time. Gillian is gone for months. Charles himself spends days almost unnumbered in the wilds of various states, trying to find something, anything, that will bring her back to him. There are examples throughout the book as to whether or not love can withstand the test of time. The conclusion Charles comes to, subconsciously, is that it can. That’s good for him. Because by the time the book ends he has to think about how to capture another giant squid.

You recall I said I didn’t know who to root for? The confusion begins once Gillian leaves on her quest. It is communicated to Charles that she wanted to live her dream before she was tied down to marriage and family, that he didn’t truly understand her ambitions or her affection for the giant squid. Though I couldn’t love Charles, I could still wince at a sucker punch. He really didn’t see it coming, and for that I felt pity. I almost wanted to call Gillian an unfeeling whore, because what kind of woman doesn’t at least mention to her boyfriend that she’s considering getting on a ship and touring the oceans for a few months in search of the kraken? When Charles began contemplating ways to get her back, I almost wanted to tell him to forget her. Clearly, she wasn’t worth it.

To Charles, however, she was, and this is the driving force of his journey. Gillian Lee is worthy of the cause because, though he understands nothing about humans around him and in point of fact could very well be lying through his teeth about everything he does, the single truth remains: he loves Gillian. Romantic? I suppose. Stupid? Certainly, but earnest in a way few people nowadays are.

Charles makes it very hard for you to put your trust in him. As the first person narrator of the book he has complete control over what it is that we understand. Of course since he is a memoirist the artistic liberties can only stretch so far, but stretch they do, from bigfoot to aliens to butch lesbian boxing matches. Did it all happen? Does it matter? What matters is that in the end, Gillian and Charles are a single unit again, a pair. True love, such as it were, conquers all.

The style of Busy Monsters has been compared to Vonnegut. That might explain why I found it hard to take at first. Kurt and I don’t get along. However, once you realize that every once in a while you might need a dictionary, Charles makes for an entertaining narrator, if a not entirely honest one. The characters he meets range from the mighty african voodoo warrior to the mousy little ufo specialist to the Navy Seal best friend. I have a habit of taking facts like this at face value. If the narrator says to me, “my best friend is a navy seal and spends a lot of time overseas shooting at Arabs.” I will believe him, even though this might not be the case. It makes me essentially useless for the truth vs. Truth debate, which one could easily get into with this book.

Leaving out the various subplots and possible aesthetic and scholarly debates that accompany a book so chock full as Busy Monsters, I’d say give it a read. It’s an impressive first novel and, assuming you don’t have the sexist hangups I do, a fun romp in the woods.

I just made a funny.

but you’ll have to read the book to find out how.

The Stranger- no one gets out alive

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Title: The Stranger

Pagecount: 123

Author: Albert Camus (D)

Translator: Matthew Ward (D)

Published: 1946 (Translated 1989; 2011 jacket)

I like to think my most endearing quality as a book reviewer (besides my ego, which is roughly proportionate to the entire Andromeda galaxy) is that I know jack shit about anything besides what I read.

No, really. I never read the introductions until I’m done with the book and I purposefully don’t read anything about the author when in the process of reading a novel. It is ignorance by design, and though I can’t say it gives me an unbiased view, I feel it helps me express my feelings about the books I read without muddying them up via the author’s possible meanings or this scholar’s not so brief introduction. Any information I offer is usually researched after the fact. Therefore, a statement: I know nothing about Albert Camus, other than he’s dead, he wrote well enough to win several awards, and he was probably a heavy smoker.

Moving on to the book. I picked up The Stranger because it was cheap, it was on the ‘summer reading’ table at the local bookstore, and I wanted to know what the kiddies were going to spend the year griping about. I question the inclusion of The Stranger on any summer reading list, if only because my dismal opinion of the literary abilities of youth nowadays directs me to believe they would barely know how to pronounce the name Camus, much less enjoy reading a book that didn’t include references to illicit sex parties, copious amounts of firearms, or sticking it to ‘the man’. Regardless of my own dismal outlook, I salute the teachers who decided their little pupils should be subject to something with actual meat. Extra points for fooling them into thinking that the nice short book would be an easy A. You go, subversive educators of America. You go.

Translation of works from one language into another always sparks debate and opinions are vast- for example, my Girl With The Dragon Tattoo review. Since this is my first reading of Camus, I can’t speak to the accuracy of the translation, though Matthew Ward is noted for having provided a more American English translation than those prior, which had been more British in leaning. A few lines certainly jumped out at me, most notably this one, on page sixty four: “On my way out I was even going to shake his hand, but just in time, I remembered that I had killed a man.” Ward was criticized by some by changing the traditionally read ‘mother’ (as in the book’s first line, ‘Mother died today’) with the more childish ‘Maman’, which Ward felt better represented the way Meursault saw his mother. I tend to agree, since the idea of a mother as something that eventually becomes passe and used is a large part of our first glimpses into Meursault’s personality. Mom denotes a matronly and solid presence in one’s life; Maman is an old cherished teddy bear, finally left behind after its button eye pops off for the fourth or fifth time.

I enjoyed The Stranger. I found its pace to be well measured and its ideas of the inevitability of life to be far less complicated than one would believe. It read a little bit like Earnest Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises in the short sentences, the statements of action, the eternally static way emotional events are portrayed. I like Meursault as a protagonist and I found that surprising. I have always had a thing against male protagonists who spend a lot of time watching and observing and never doing anything to change their surroundings. When I had to read Tropic of Cancer in college I spent most of it frothing in abject fury at the fact that nothing ever changed, due almost entirely to Miller’s own laziness. Meursault could be accused of this same stagnation, but he differs from Jake Barnes and the slightly fictional Henry Miller in that he doesn’t shy away from change, whether it be from laziness or a lack of acceptance; he just lets it happen.

What interests me the most about the book isn’t the actual events but rather how Meursault seems to exist outside of them. He is just pulled along by a series of intertwined events not by his own design but rather because other people make the choices for him, and he goes along with it. Even at the moment he is sentenced to die, he doesn’t seem to mind, believing it to be another inevitable step in a life made up of accidental living. Of course, he has his moments- notably his explosion at the chaplain in the final scene. This is where I feel Things Get Hinky.

The separation of ‘story’ and ‘what I am trying to tell you’ was always a bit of a hard pill to swallow for some writers. A perfect and well known example is Ulysses by James Joyce, where you spend a lot of time following the characters of Bloom and Stephen around Dublin, while James Joyce in turn follows you with a hammer and occasionally whacks you about the head with it to point out how brilliant he is. Meursault shattered in those final pages; in his shell was Albert Camus, and he was yelling at the top of his lungs.

Despite that character break, I feel peaceful when I think about The Stranger. I’ve decided that perhaps it’s because we as the human race have a better grasp on what Camus was saying now. Meursault did not react to many things happening around him because they were absurd, a puppet play of living. Friends getting into fights, women thinking about marriage, shooting an Arab and being killed for shooting him- what can be more absurd than life, which is never so linear as the Bible or the Commandments or the lies your parents told you make it out to be? Meursault was just an observer. Of course he made decisions, but none of those things- going to the beach, shooting the Arab- change the absurdity. They just make it even more absurd.

Do I think Camus was saying something about the inevitability of life, and what doesn’t come after it? Yes, yes I believe he was. I think that the stranger the book is named for could quite possibly be death- not Death the personification, with the scythe and the pale horse, but rather death the inevitable ending to an absurd play. I haven’t decided yet whether or not to seek out more of Camus’s work- A Happy Death comes immediately to mind- but if I do, maybe this review will change just a tad.

To sum up The Stranger for the internet: Don’t take life so seriously. No one gets out alive.

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