Bret Easton Ellis and a writerly weekend

american psychoI had to laugh when an audience member got to ask a question of Bret Easton Ellis and opened by telling him that she, like many in the audience, was an inner-city hipster and out here on a Friday night and her students were kinda dumbstruck by that and didn’t even know who he was. I’m glad she’s in touch with her self-categorisation, her calendar and her righteous outrage that the young’uns don’t share her taste in authors. The audience questions were, by and large, infantile and embarrassing, mostly concerned with being twee and trying to suck Ellis’s dick and do drugs with him, not necessarily in that order, which only made me appreciate his performance all the more. And it was a performance, one that reminded me a bit of Lunar Park in which the lead character is called Bret Easton Ellis, the guy who wrote American Psycho, but it’s not really him, is it …

I felt a little more sorry for Alan Brough, conducting the interview at the grand ol’ Athenaeum: this was the last night of Ellis’s Aussie tour and he was really interested, kind of, in deconstructing the whole book tour thing. I think. Ellis was hard to know, based on that performance: charming and assured, happy to ramble regardless of the question, and often reflecting on the evening’s Q&A as though something of a spectator himself. Here’s a writer still living in the shadow of American Psycho, who might possibly only be judged by that book, though I enjoyed his (much later) Lunar Park much more. The Delta Goodrem saga reared its head, a reminder of how shallow our interests are, and how easily Twitter allows us to prove it (really: why would a comment about enjoying a music clip spark such outrage?).

For the writers in the audience, I got this out of it: Ellis says the novel’s evolving, he prefers working on television as a story-telling device, that obsession is a key driver for writers (once a story gets into your head, you have to write it eg his most recent, Imperial Ballrooms).

Slippery, Ellis, but enjoyable and slick and I suspect he gave the inner city hipsters what they wanted (blow and blow job aside).

Anyway, it was a good springboard into the weekend, spent in front of a wood fire not far from a rather windy, rainy, weed-strewn beach on Phillip Island, where the coffee pot ran hot and the ideas dribbled onto the keyboard in chaotic fashion. Today was largely a wash, spent mostly on the couch with a book, but that’s important too: downtime, a chance for the noggin to relax and kick things around behind the scenes, and guilt-free, despite the sound of two other keyboards tap-tap-tapping and word counts being bandied around like some kind of auction. All in all, a very pleasant, writerly weekend, a fine priming for a week of words (I hope!).

Recent reading: Ellis and Marsden

BRET Easton Ellis is on his way to Melbourne so I thought I’d better swot up, starting with Lunar Park (2005; his only book since then, Imperial Ballrooms, came out last month and is a sequel to his debut, 1985’s Less Than Zero).

Lunar Park is a very clever book, all about a writer called Bret Easton Ellis whose career path seems to mirror the drug-snorting, much-screwing celeb career path of the real life character (there’s a fascinating interview with Ellis in the Guardian about his new, drier, quieter life, and his public persona). It also offers some of the spookiest scenes I’ve read in ages, as fictional Ellis realises the mansion he shares with his wife, their son and her daughter is, shall we say, under a cloud. And it’s not just the fact that the wild child is grasping on to what passes as a normal life when you’re famous and your missus is an actress. Mixed in with acerbic observations about a certain well-to-do class of society is a plot of vanishing teenagers and some even stranger goings on at chez Ellis; there’s a son’s difficult relationship with his deceased father and the whole issue of fitting into this strange, new family; there’s drugs and booze and a certain girl at the university where he teaches who he’d really like to screw; there’s the dog, a truly delightful character.

The climax left me a little underwhelmed, but the writing was so smart and, despite some long (very long) sentences here and there (that for the most part worked), accessible, the characters so engaging (if the narrator is a tad, well, useless (he’s an addict so, d’uh)), that I really didn’t mind the letdown. The denouement was fetching, so maybe that helped.

FAMILY is also central to Tomorrow, When the War Began, but the focus is different and the comparison ends there. While Ellis and co are snogging and snorting in McMansions, Ellie and her small band of high school pals are sweating it out in the Australian scrub in the aftermath of an invasion by an unnamed and unidentified foreign power. All we know is that the soldiers probably hail from Asia or the Pacific — you do the math. John Marsden doesn’t say, at least not in the first three books. Given Australia’s traditional xenophobia, it’s probably wise to keep it obscure, but I can’t help feeling that wanting to know where the invaders were from would be on the minds of the invaded. It’s a small thing, and it’ll be interesting to see how the makers of a movie based on his series (opening in August), first released in 1993, tackle the subject of just who launches this comprehensive strike with an eye to colonisation.

Ellie’s from the bush, a rural town where most of her friends are farmers’ kids, so they know there way around machinery, animals and the scrub. They’re resourceful and plucky, and altogether human. Watching the characters rise to the occasion, mature under the pressure, grow and change, is part of the joy.

One of the most compelling features of the story is the way Marsden balances the action with the insight — this war is not patriotic, it’s survival, and questions of hate, morality, love and the future under foreign rule are handled with such care it’s a pleasure to read. There are some explosions — Ellie’s mates work out that they have a compulsion to fight for their land and their way of life against those who would take it by force. But the kids don’t turn into commandos overnight. They don’t use karate and explosives and guns with an innate Hollywood sensibility. Rather, they use their nous, they learn from their mistakes, and they pay a physical and moral price for making some hard decisions. Thoroughly enjoyable.