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The Informers, by Bret Easton Ellis
I read a lot of Bret Easton Ellis (most famous for American Psycho) years ago, when life was different and when it felt like I needed something from the world and I couldn’t get it, and maybe for that reason, his stories spoke to me. Since they are almost entirely about people who are surrounded by uncaring friends and family, with hollow careers, who are trying to find happiness—and who have either given up on finding any meaning or closeness in their lives, or who are desperately trying and failing to find meaning and closeness—I found myself rooting for these characters, hoping they would succeed, while trying to deal with the horror of the world in which they lived; and attempting to deal with how the world we live in has a few parallels at times, even for those of us who do have caring friends and family about.
I learned recently that Mr. Ellis wrote a new book called The Shards, and this made me want to go back and look at one of his works I skipped back in the day: The Informers.
This is a short story collection, but one with some continuity: it’s a set of interrelated stories about people who are connected in various ways. It’s like a series of comics like that: each issue involves a variety of new and old characters, and has tie-ins with this or that other issue. In fact, everything he’s ever written besides his movies seems to do this, although sometimes in a pretty meta way, since some of his books are about his books.
PS. He is famous for very long sentences, so I’ve made sure to use a few in this article, just for fun.
A Note About Last Week
I missed last week’s post. My grandpa passed away and I wasn’t feeling up to it. Even though some of these posts are pre-written, I didn’t even log on to this laptop the whole week. Pardon me for that.
He was a really great man, and the sort that cynical people today don’t believe exists for real.
Bruce Calls from Mulholland, by Bret Easton Ellis
I frankly found this hard to follow due to the name-dropping, and don’t want to re-read it until later. It is only 5ish pages.
At the Still Point, by Bret Easton Ellis
Guy dies; only 1.5 people care; one was disliked by the dead guy.
The story is driven by disbelief that the people here are so cold, and how they are so unaware with how everyone else feels about them. The reader pushes forward, desperate to try to find any hint of humanity within these people. When humanity is found, the person who lets it slip is seen to be so imperfect or disrespected that it’s almost stunning. The reader wants to think the world is a better place than this, so they keep searching the pages for evidence it is.
Is there such evidence to be found? I can’t tell you. You wouldn’t need to read the book then.
The Up Escalator, by Bret Easton Ellis
A mother. Her husband, son, affair, friends — she’s distant from them all and lives in a drug-suppressed despair.
You are pulled forward by the hope that she will turn out to be redeemable, and that real connection is to be found—you want her to catch a break, so she has a chance of going back to having a normal life with some amount of healthy happiness to it.
In the Islands, by Bret Easton Ellis
A psychological horror story about a father who forces his son to go on a trip to Hawaii; who then drinks the entire time; beats him at games; tries to hook him up with girls (possibly some gross foursome thing—I hope not). He also tries to steal the girl his son meets.
The dynamic is like a train wreck—you can’t look away. “What’s next?” You ask, in horror.
It’s an excellent story, but is a very uncomfortable one. Interestingly, although the story is told from the perspective of the father, you end up understanding the son better because of this. If it was from the son’s perspective, what makes him tick might be less obvious and less interesting.
The dad is married to the mother from The Up Escalator.
Sitting Still, by Bret Easton Ellis
A young woman rides a train to get to a wedding between her father, and a new woman. The story isn’t about the journey, but the journey is where the story begins and ends. The narrator, unlike some characters in later stories, actually cares what is going on and feels helpless and trapped. And maybe, most of all, disappointed and in denial?
The things she chooses to think about, and the things she avoids thinking about, both reveal who she is — while maintaining a distance between the reader and her.
I think the dad is the main character from In the Islands.
An excellent story.
Water From the Sun, by Bret Easton Ellis
A woman has taken some time off work to sort through some emotional issues, I think surrounding her ex.
Structurally, it begins and ends with a miserable lover staying at her place. This lover: the word miserable doesn’t begin to describe him. He begins page one talking about how one of his friends was literally murdered. And she doesn’t care even a little. She responds, almost like he’s a meowing cat that she doesn’t particularly like.
I take this to be another case study in “just how unlikable can you make a character while still making them sympathetic?” and I think Ellis successfully pushed the envelope here just a little. The way she treats her lover left me cold, but the way she was so messed up herself… this is another of my favourites.
I think the narrator is the fiancé of the dad from Sitting Still.
Discovering Japan, by Bret Easton Ellis
The book takes a turn starting here.
In the stories before this one, the characters are terrible, cold people, but they are sympathetic. For the next few stories, the characters are mostly just terrible and cold, and much more so than in earlier stories.
This story is actually a decent one, but it’s truly horrific how terrible the musician main character is. By itself, it’s strong, but combined with the following stories, it is a little numbing.
Letters From L.A., by Bret Easton Ellis
A young woman writes letters to an old crush over the course of a year while discovering life in L.A.
Structurally, it’s just one or two letters per week; stylistically, it’s got the most personality of all the stories, and I loved it. The author of the letters is a fun, charming, vulnerable woman. I was charmed.
It was my favourite story period in the collection until the ending.
The ending was the sort that casts the earlier parts of the story in a new light and destroyed the charm I was experiencing before then. I resent this, so it’s affected my feelings toward the story.
It rather reminded me of King’s Jerusalem’s Lot, a story I enjoyed so much that it inspired a short story written in the same style.
I think the main character is from Rules of Attraction, and that she’s writing to one of the main characters from that story.
Another Grey Area, by Bret Easton Ellis
Trashy people being trashy. I don’t remember this clearly. The characters were too purely lousy.
The Fifth Wheel, by Bret Easton Ellis
Some kidnappers figure out what to do with a kid they have tied up in another room.
This story is horrific. Because it was so nasty and cold, it blended in a little with the others, which dulled the effect; I suspect that in another collection it would have stood out quite a lot. It’s a good story, but an unpleasant one.
On the Beach, by Bret Easton Ellis
A sick woman; a man who is determined to not care.
It was heartbreaking.
I refuse to believe he didn’t care about her, no matter how hard he tried to prove otherwise.
I really liked this one and might reread it sometime.
This and the next story have a lot of heart.
At the Zoo with Bruce, by Bret Easton Ellis
A charming but heartbreaking story about a person (man? Woman?) who is trying to find out if the man she loves is going to leave his wife.
Structurally, it follows them as they visit the zoo. Almost all of Bret’s stories in this collection are structured similarly: there is rarely a plot, but the writing is organized around some tidy time convenient for talking about the character or themes in.
In general, almost every one of these stories is more coherent than 80% of the stories I’ve read this year. There are few big reveals at the end. They are what they are from page 1, and although they evolve and tell a story, there is no Skeletor Moment that leaves you feeling unsteady and with a sense of whiplash. Salinger does this too. I am studying how it works because I love it.
(Note: I have broken down some of Salinger’s stories beat by beat, page by page, to analyze them. Would anyone care to see these? Or is that too niche?)
Having these stories be of similar tone, saying “the same thing,” and being interconnected let me actually read short stories again without feeling like I was getting whiplash.
I know there’s a story about a vampire in there, but I didn’t care for it and I forget a lot of it and I think I omitted it. It was too far down the “everybody is comically horrible” rabbit hole, personally; but it also felt different from other vampire stories. Oh well.
One complaint: the stories are inter-related, but goodness help you if you want to backtrack to figure out who somebody is. I really wish the narrators names were listed under the story titles — it is actually fairly hard to find the name of the speaker of most of these stories.
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