Another loser for Bret Easton Ellis

August 21, 1994|By Michael Anft

Let's forget for a moment that a book containing 226 pages of the soupiest narrative and dozens of random print breaks costs $22.

Let's overlook the well-hyped author's irritating use of endless ellipses in dialogue -- like . . . this -- to simulate something that approximates (but never quite manages to be) angst.

And never mind that this "novel" is really the loosest of meldings, with interconnected characters and story lines that sometimes mesh but more often don't.

Let's judge Bret Easton Ellis' latest report from jet-set Nowhere Land, "The Informers," on the only terms that matter: Is it good literature, or at least good entertainment?

On the first count, no. "The Informers" is horribly artless, a meandering and gloomy dirge that makes Hollywood fast-lane hTC living (or "lifestyles," to use the appropriate vernacular) look as appealing (and as vivid) as sharecropping.

But does Mr. Ellis' writing tantalize? Is the reader at least going to cheat through unread pages to see where scenarios lead and characters end up?

Not quite. Mr. Ellis' blank prose clings to the page like an ink stain; it also sits there, unilluminating and formless in a self-satisfied way.

Unlike his last novel, "American Psycho," with its slasher-genre shock value masquerading as character study, "The Informers" is mostly tame stuff. "Protagonists" enter and exit each others' lives like the drifting tumbleweeds that crop up in Mr. Ellis' cliched imagery, injuring each other less often than merely tolerating their mutual blankness.

The cast ("The Informers" is more like a screenplay than a novel) is like something out of "Melrose Place," which, not surprisingly, makes a few appearances here.

Among them, there's Graham, son of a studio executive father and a mother addicted to prescription drugs. Graham deals coke when he isn't hopping into bed with the nearest warm body.

There's Cheryl, a stereotype of a bimbo TV anchorwoman, who bounces between Graham's father, William, and a faceless 19-year-old named Danny.

There's Tim, a University of Southern California student stuck on a Hawaiian vacation with the competitive father who can't help but alienate him.

Cocaine. Omnipresent sun. Designer sex. Flaccid movies. MTVacuum. Death. These are the components of Mr. Ellis' palette. Is it any wonder that his unrealized characters merge into one big, simple-minded cliche, a miasma of stunted human development, greed and rotting flesh?

Much of the behavior portrayed in "The Informers" rings of truth, but the utter spiritlessness of it (and at times the ugliness) seems random, far-fetched and embittered. It's as if Mr. Ellis knows that keeping his cast members flat and one-dimensional affords him the ability to bend them into any shape at any time. They're excuses for horrific plot twists -- attempts to break the artless lethargy of the narrative -- but not anyone you or I know.

The deadening tone of the writing is another matter. Mr. Ellis is incapable of writing with passion, but his detachment couldn't be called ironic. Irony has an attitude, but Mr. Ellis' prose is as cold as the hand of death, minus the drama:

"I stand up, sit down, stand up again, pull on my shorts and walk out to the balcony and stand there with my hands on the railing, staring at Century City."

And: "I ask for the check and pay it and follow Martin back to his apartment in Westwood where we have sex and I give Martin a pith helmet as a gift."

We could call Mr. Ellis' narratives nihilistic, but that would imply that he and his characters possess the merest glint of an intellect. Mr. Ellis revels in a false self-unawareness, filling in gaps in personality with acts of violence (including a ridiculous vampire subplot) and fractured communications.

Like those . . . ellipses. Try reading a few lines of dialogue such as this while breathing in rhythm:

"How was . . . the train?"

"I . . . liked it."

"What time is . . . it?"

Mr. Ellis' obvious antecedent in exploring Southern California amorality and ennui is Raymond Carver, whose short stories that formed the base of the movie "Short Cuts" may have served as the model for "The Informers." But he merely adds slacker stereotypes to Carver's bad apples and victims of circumstance.

But while the morose Carver recognized the humanizing poignancy of the most mundane lives, Mr. Ellis is above empathy. Life is awful, he seems to be reiterating again and again, and then you die.

That the philosophy of a writer who has courted stardom over artistry hasn't emerged from the realm of adolescence is hardly a shocker.

For Mr. Ellis, life, like reading "The Informers" will be for many, is just . . . lousy.

Mr. Anft is a writer who lives in Baltimore.

Title: "The Informers"

Author: Bret Easton Ellis

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 226 pages, $22

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