Second Look Books: The Informers by Brett Easton Ellis (Alfred A. Knopf, $22)

 Brett Easton Ellis is justly famous for his book, “American Psycho” which caused a moral firestorm when it was first published. I consider Ellis a fine American novelist who is responding to the times with a vengeance. His style is cool, detached and marvelously static, lending the proceedings a menacing tone perfectly tuned to his subject, which is postmodern life. His work can be contrasted with that of Douglas Coupland, who is a pure satirist. Ellis no doubt now thinks that things have gone so sour that satire is of no use. These days, years after “The Informers” was published, who could argue that?

Of those writers who have taken the postmodern “turn”—Brett Easton Ellis, Douglas Coupland, Nancy Smith, Stephen Gibb and William Gibson in the United States, and Will Smith and Martin Amis in England—perhaps Ellis is best known. His first novel, “Less than Zero,” was turned into a fittingly chilly movie about drug use and generational angst, while in all the hype and hoopla was almost lost the direct and nearly pellucid style Ellis developed while telling his postmodern tale.

Of course, there is nothing new about the utter vacuity of fame and fashion in Los Angeles, but there was something new and daring in the way that Ellis related his tale, the quick cuts in and out of personalities the shifting perspective of almost Cubist intensity and the final reckless “lostness” of the whole thing.

By the time Ellis got around to writing “American Psycho”, he managed to bring to arms a host of political correctives from the American feminist movement all the way to the hallowed halls of academia, not to mention that slough of international conglomeration that calls itself the publishing industry. It didn’t matter that “American Psycho” was brilliant satire of a most amazing and original kind, or that American life itself was infinitely more violent and demoralizing than any book could be. What mattered was that the messenger was to be slaughtered for bringing the message.

Thus, it is a fine thing when a distinguished company like Knopf feels able to continue publishing a writer whose skills are first-rate, and whose reputation is tarnished in the darkest hues by foes of the First Amendment. What Ellis has brought forth in “The Informers” is another book about lost people in Los Angeles, written in a way reminiscent of the “cut-up” approach of William Burroughs, but without the hallucinatory properties that writer brought to the page, a novel that manages to hold together the contradictory threads of sly satire and serious narrative. About the worst that can be said about “The Informers” is that Ellis has done this before in “Less Than Zero.”

Nevertheless, his new novel is a kind of plateau from which one can view the surrounding terrain, its nooks and crannies, folds and fissures, before moving on to higher country, where both flora and fauna are likely to change. If this is a transitional work, then it is worthy.

Ellis employs stock characters, in the sense that Bergman worked with stock actors. “The Informers” gets rolling with a scene in which a group of young students, hangers-on, ne’er-do-wells and sociopaths are having dinner in a trendy Los Angeles spot. They share a group memory of one of their troupe who has died in an automobile wreck and realize that their memories are not the same, or have been shaped differently, or overlap in curious ways. Do they have affection for their dead companion? Had he made love to a number of them, or only one? And if so, whom? In a series of relatively short chapters, which have cinematic punch, new characters are introduced, fade, die and reappear, each connected to the next, or to one who went before, but never ostensibly…only fleetingly, or unemotionally if you will.

And so it is that a mother of one of our young group is having an affair with her young son’s friend. The son’s friend has a father who takes him to Hawaii (a memorable chapter in father-son dating techniques). The father dies in a plane crash and a young girl comes home from school back east. What is so beautiful and funny in all of this is the city of Los Angeles itself, its palm trees and placid swimming pools, its dried tomatoes and rock groups and tons and tons of Valium, not to mention vodka. Everybody is named Graham, Dirk or Raymond, and all the girls are blonde and oh-so 15 years old. It’s like dude:

I had never rally liked Carol Banks anyway. Cute, blonde, cheerleader, good SAT’s, nothing too great. Carol had always called me a nonchalant, a word I never understood the meaning of, a word I looked up in a number of French dictionaries and could never find. I never really liked Carol that much (only in bed and even there I was unsure)…I sit at the table, uncaring, not moved by what everyone but me knew.

 There are at least two literary situations that are likely to unnerve those who were unnerved at “American Psycho.” One of Ellis’ characters is a vampire named Jamie, who hangs out at nightspots and malls in the Valley, where he picks up underage nymphets who hope for a “cocaine score.” Back at his unfurnished digs, Jamie “bleeds” the girls in scenes not meant for the squeamish. Satire or sensationalism? Well, perhaps if we think a bit about Los Angeles, about American culture, and if we think long enough, won’t we catch ourselves watching another tabloid feature about O.J and Nicole? Another ghastly expose about Roseanne and Tom? Nobody, not even Ellis, can compete with the real thing, after all.

In a chapter titled “The Fifth Wheel,” two characters named Peter and Mary debate whether to kill a young kidnapping victim they’ve tied up in the bathtub. The death of the victim is as violent as it is graphic, which always will bring up the salubrious prospect that Ellis will, once again, be accused of pandering. As intelligent readers we must all decide for ourselves whether Ellis is serious (I think he is) and whether his point is well taken (I think it is).

Perhaps a word should be added about the postmodern “turn.” It is best thought of as the tacit admission by literary artists that screen-media, particularly television and computer, have revolutionized reality, and have changed for the near term our attitudes and beliefs about psychology, politics and culture. First and foremost, the “turn” is a way that writers have of conveying the fractured, multifaceted nature of existence in fast-moving cities twined together by fast moving technologies. Secondly, it is the writer’s response to the undeniable recognition that this world of international corporate conglomerate capitalism has de-spiritualized existence to an unprecedented degree, creating a faceless army of buyers, sellers and users, who know only what they want to buy and sell, use or destroy, what movie they want to see next, or what celebrity scandal interests them the most. And of course, postmodern novelists often see the traditional fictional tropes of plot, foreshadowing, character and style as culturally humiliated forms, a shabby suit of clothes.

As on of Douglas Coupland’s characters in “Shampoo Planet” exclaims: “All of my memories have corporate logos.” Or, in the words of vampire Jamie, Ellis’ nominal consumer: “We are Legion.” Indeed we are.