Relative Stranger

My uncle Jim died of cancer a few weeks ago. Hadn't seen him, or spoken to him, since his mother's funeral six years ago. At her funeral, Jim quipped with his usual sarcastic jabs how she was still bugging him about his drinking and his "cancer sticks," pestering him with her phone calls nearly to the day she died. He spoke as if her pestering had been obvious, that what she chided him about was absurd. Jim seemed to want a shrug of agreement, if not sympathy, but instead I said, "Hmmm," and barely nodded.

"See you around," he replied, but I didn't really agree with that comment either, knowing that we probably wouldn't be seeing each other around anytime soon again.

He sounded genuinely bitter toward his mother. It seemed more than just his usual sarcasm. No surprise. That was their relationship in a sentence: my grandmother nagging him about his drinking and "cancer sticks," and his automatic bitter reaction, masked with black humor. Even dead, she still bugged him, and that's what had bugged me.

What had he been so bitter about? What had she done to Jim for him to share something so personal with me; I hadn't seen him in years. Something so charged with an undercurrent of hostility? I didn't know why then, and now that my uncle is dead, I still don't know why now for sure, but I have a theory ...

Jim hated coming home because of his mother -- that I know for sure. We rarely saw him, even at Christmas, and even then he kept his distance. It was no secret that he was tipsy in our company. No secret that he smoked more than just those "cancer sticks."

Margaret, the woman Jim lived with longer than any other, said he hadn't wanted a funeral or anything to do with a church memorial, though I doubt anybody from Jim’s family, except maybe my father—Uncle Jim's little brother—would've flown out. Not because there was bad blood or some horrible falling out between them, or between Jim and my aunt Lola, his older sister, but because ... How can I describe it?  Simply, there was absolutely nothing between Uncle Jim and his brother and sister. No sibling bonds, let alone rivalries. No connections. No real love.  Nada.

In fact, Jim’s sister hadn't even called Jim when my father told her he had cancer, that it was probably terminal, that even with chemotherapy his prognosis was poor. I would have considered that pretty cold of my aunt, but did Jim ever contact her when she battled (and won) her awful war against breast cancer? Was that, then, the reason she hadn't called him: because he hadn't called her?

Maybe, maybe not. There were no doubt other significant life events, good and bad, that mattered over the decades, when some sibling acknowledgment would have been appropriate—births, deaths, divorces, foreclosures, accidents, graduations—when Lola's phone never rang with a good word of condolence or congratulations from Jim. Perhaps there had been too much indifference for too long from Jim to expect that she would ever reach out to him again.

Even so, despite his startling disconnection from my dad and my aunt, it’s hard to pinpoint a specific moment or incident when the silent rift of apathy between them opened wide and kept yawning wider until it effectively separated them forever …

Except perhaps for the situation with Jim’s daughter, Lori; who, assuming she’s still alive, would have no way of knowing that my uncle, her biological father, had died. I suspect she might not have wanted to know. Perhaps she'd grieved the loss of her father decades ago.

Uncle Jim severed ties with Lori when she was twelve, when his first—and first ex-wife—remarried. She'd decided that their daughter would take her new stepfather's last name, and my uncle blamed his then twelve year old daughter for that decision. The few times the delicate topic ever came up in my company, I heard him say, "She's not my daughter" or "I don't have a daughter." I never met the girl who would have been my cousin, who in old Polaroids was pretty and had pigtails. I've wondered if at times she’d wished that my uncle wasn't her father. I wonder if she told people that Uncle Jim wasn't her father, or, simply, "I don't have a father. He's dead."

If anybody knew what Lori felt about my uncle Jim, her estranged father, it would've been my grandmother, who remained in contact with Lori, exchanging birthday and Christmas cards and graduation announcements and such … until, as happens as preteens become teens and teens become young adults with lives of their own, my grandmother no longer got a birthday card or Easter greeting from Lori, and they naturally drifted apart.

Knowing my grandmother, though, I don't think it’s far-fetched to assume she nagged her son about more than just his drinking and cancer sticks, especially when she no longer heard regularly from her abandoned granddaughter, Lori.

Coming home at Christmas, then, for Uncle Jim, probably meant facing, once again, his dubious decision to remain self-exiled, divorced from his daughter. Merry fucking Christmas indeed.

I was always curious to hear Uncle Jim's side of the stories. He could spin an uproarious yarn himself, the few I heard, which were always side-splitting, at least when my disapproving grandmother wasn't in the room. But over the years, my uncle never called me, and I never even once called him. We never became close obviously, even at the end. I guess it just runs in my family. Not calling. Not caring. Not being close ...

And I'm no closer today comprehending what Jim was communicating to me then, that Fall afternoon six years ago, at Forest Lawn, when, at her funeral, he spoke so bitterly about my grandmother, his Mom. 


Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis

Meet Clay. He's bummed. No, "bummed" is too passionate a descriptive for Clay. Clay is emotionally neutral nonstop in this flatlining naught-plot narrative; he's pathologically emotively neutral to his empty core; he'd score a big fat zero on an Emo-Meter, if such said device existed.

First printing, 1985
Living in Beverly Hills his whole life has gotten Clay feeling blah, blase. Never having had to work for anything at all at anytime in one's life might do that to a fella. Clay's eighteen, but unlike that classic Alice Cooper song, he's eighteen and doesn't like it, even no matter now much cocaine he consumes or Valium he pops (to bring himself down from the coke), he's simply not content being so young and good looking, with a Mediterranean mansion for a pad (albeit his parent's posh crib), and driving a Mercedes Benz to all the Sunset Strip hot spots nightly, because, ultimately, doin' the same 'ol-same 'ol's a real drag man. It's a hard life being Clay, being wealthy, educated, possessing every perk money can buy, and yet . . . yet . . . he's so bored. He's so bored it's depressing. Ennui, Dude; ennui. Who wouldn't be inevitably bored by -- as Ellis' much loved Eagles once sang -- "everything, all the time".

Malaise. Such malaise. Malaise of the sort made famous by that fictional Russian slacker, Oblomov, way back when in the 19th century; only Clay's emotional/spiritual malaise is much more pharmaceutically induced, I think, than Ivan Goncharov's classic character. One can't help feeling sorry for him, for Clay (ahem, 'scuse me), especially when he sees his psychiatrist and lies to him about his bizarre sexual fantasies, because nothing, nothing really matters, just like in that classic "Bohemian Rhapsody" song by Queen. Nothing really matters except for MTV with the sound turned off and dope and Elvis Costello posters and the brand name of every pricey piece of hipster attire imaginable -- as seen in GQ and Vogue -- and of every high end boutique and trendy dive in town. Dupar's, Privilege, Jerry Magnin, La Scala, etc., et.al.

What's Clay's family life like? His mother drinks a lot of red wine, his father, at the moment estranged from his wife, listens to Bob Seger in his convertible (sad sad) and Clay's 15 year old sister, a Galaga fanatic, can get her "own cocaine," she protests to her older brother, since Clay had just accused her of stealing a gram out of his room. Clay's 13 year old sister, confronted by the reality that Galaga is too expensive for mother to purchase and that she already, after all, owns Atari, whines mournfully that "Atari's cheap!". Sweet girls. Lovely family.

Clay's girlfriend, Blair, we learn, has been cheating on Clay while he was away at college with his best friend, Julian, an aspiring male prostitute working to pay off his heroin debt to Rip, he & Clay's drug dealer. Clay doesn't really mind though, Blair and Julian hooking-up and gettin' free-kay, since he soon sleeps with Blair anyway fresh upon his return from college, and sleeps, as well, with many other beautiful young offspring (both male and female) of Beverly Hill's finest. Clay, Blair, and Julian, in fact, sleep with literally dozens of people during a relatively short (Christmas Break) duration of time, sleeping with so many people that sometimes Clay can't recollect if he's slept with so-and-so or another. Could Clay's memory loss be associated with the early onset of Alzheimer's, or perhaps a negative consequence of his excessive marijuana consumption? I'd posit the latter.

Clay, also, I'm sure the potential reader would be delighted knowing, engages in some rather explicit, uh, mutual masturbation with this girl he's met somewhere (who knows where? an uber-cool club presumably, read the book to find out where, I mean, no, don't read the book) and since slathered lotion was involved during the mutually and doubly self satisfying process -- a pleasurable process in which Clay had to slow his own stroking-motion down some so that the two undoubtedly ohhing-and-ahhing self-lovers could climax (beautiful) simultaneously -- we learn the experience wasn't without its drawbacks, as Clay laments, "it stings when I come".

Later on, Rip, the sporty drug dealer, throws a rip-roaring coke-fest extravaganza at his plush high rise Century Blvd. condo, and shows everybody, proudly, a "snuff" movie. Grainy images, but clear enough for all in attendance to witness a "big black dude" with "this huge member" sodomize a boy and girl, then the big black dude procures an ice-pick out of nowhere (yeah! entertaining stuff, er, snuff!, go Ellis go!) and surgically inserts it deep down their ear canals. Instant (except for the victimized children's autonomous body-spasms) entertaining death. Woohoo! Immediate gorey gratification. That'll shock the shit out of these nihilistic cokefiends, right? Uh, no. What was the name of that Jane's Addiction album at the close of the 80s -- "Nothing's Shocking"? Exactly. Rip might as well have given his party zombies more Valium rather than a snuff flick based on their minimalist emotings of moral outrage.

Ellis (pictured right) with his party pals, Jay McInerney & Tama Janowitz in the late 1980s,
shortly after Less Than Zero's publication
Don sunglasses.
Light a cigarette.
Snort another line.
Talk about that new XTC album.
Watch the exhaled smoke disappear.

"Disappear here," -- a recurring motif in Less Than Zero (gee, wonder what that could possibly signify? Bash us over the head with the not-so-subtle symbolism, Bret!).

Other obvious and less than artful motifs: Asphalt, freeways, palm trees, warm Santa Ana winds (courtesy of Joan Didion), "dead end streets" as bluntly crafted metaphors for dead end lives. Dude. You were only a teenager when you wrote this? Wow, I never would have guessed! Like, totally.

Less Than Zero, iconic mid '80s teenage melodrugdrama helped pave the way for such future iconic pop-works of Americana-gone-off-the-deep-end, like Beverly Hills 90210 and MTVs The Real World. Thanks, Bret, for paving the inglorious way for such glitz and ditz!

Less Than Zero, I'm afraid, is Less Than Literature, but who cares? And there's politically incorrect rants about Jews and "Orientals" in the novel too! But I'd be lying, indeed I would be, if I said I'm not still -- STILL -- mysteriously, perversely, shamefully, sweet-sickishly, attracted to Less Than Zero like I'm a fly jonesing for some good human decomp, and Less Than Zero's the rotting husk of a maggot-laden corpse oozing amoral stench and nihilistic stink and plethora of icky sticky creepy-crawlies spreading depravity and disease upon all like me foolishly buzzing 'round the fetid carcass. So swat me somebody swat me!


The Imperial Bedrooms of Bret Easton Ellis

There's an excruciatingly disturbing scene (as opposed to just the raw standard disturbing scene) in Less Than Zero, involving pre-teens, a boy and a girl, who are raped and then murdered in a "snuff" movie bought for $400 by Rip, infamous drug dealer, for the viewing pleasure, or, rather, the viewing dispassion and ennui of his client, Clay, and other coked-up collegiates on winter break in Los Angeles, partying in Rip's posh Century City condo, that, twenty five years later, in Imperial Bedrooms, has essentially come full circle - the "snuff" movie motif - in the "life" of Clay, narcissistic narrator of both novels, though now a borderline-sociopath and full blown boozer, in the latter.

Clay, despite being such a remorseless, unforgivable creep in Imperial Bedrooms, is by far the least depraved of characters in the diminuitive (only 169 pages) novel. His old friends from Less Than Zero: Blair, ex-girlfriend, married to his old bisexual best buddy, Trent, are worse. So's Julian, once a high-priced teenage male whore pimped by Rip to pay off his ginormous drug debt to Rip, is now a pimp himself, (if you can't beat 'em, join 'em) pimping out his latest girlfriend, Rain, who'll do literally anything (or anyone) especially if they're a Hollywood mogul, or even just a lowly screenwriter like Clay, as long as they're holding out the promise of an acting gig in one of the movies they've written, if the young thespian-wannabe hottie will spend some quality time with him in his Doheny high rise apartment. A movie of Clay's called The Listeners is the current carrot being held before the boldly ambitious (and kinky, remember Rick James' 1981 hit, "Super Freak'?, the ditty's unmentioned in Imperial Bedrooms, but practically every other '80s hit is - that's her! - the "kind of girl you don't take home to mother") actress.

The irony, of course, so important to Ellis - irony, IRONY (and the more bitter the IRONY, the better!) - is that while offering her a role in his (Clay's) movie, The Listeners, nobody in the novel is ever listening to anybody! Get it? Especially Clay. Rip, Blair, Julian, even Rain, all try and warn Clay...but will he listen? No. Because he, like they, are always too busy listening to the dictates of their mostly fiendish, sometimes repulsive, always self indulgent and over-the-top, desires, for any real communication - or connecting - to occur.

Isolation? Check.
Alienation? Check
Haute couture? Check.
Grotesque murders? Check.
"Pauses," paranoia, and palm trees? Check.
Psychiatrists? Check.
Sex, drugs, and rock and roll? Duh.

Bret has written this novel before - and better. No surprise there. It was called American Psycho; it was called Lunar Park. In fact, he keeps writing the same damn novel over and over and over again... And his enabling fans - I'm an enabler, I admit it! - keep buying them, over and over and over again, the same damn novel, with a different title and dust jacket... Because his novels are like comfort food to me (and to millions of others) or maybe like crack, I mean. Even the aesthetic layout of Imperial Bedrooms: Uber-wide margins, vignettes rarely more than a page long, and each first letter of each vignette ten times the size of the rest of the text, mirrors the layout of Less Than Zero (or, really, long before LTL, in the short novels of Joan Didion or Jerzy Kosinski).

There's not much substance to this novel, I guess is what I'm trying to say, even despite so many controlled substances.

But if I'm going to have a serious problem, Bret Easton Ellis (and Imperial Bedrooms), his latest, if not gravest, novel, is nevertheless, a pretty good serious problem to have.


The Same River Twice by Ted Mooney

Ted Mooney has crafted an intricate narrative labyrinth of intersecting realities, visible, but more often invisible, in The Same River Twice. His character's perceptions of high-stress events unraveling within and around them in Paris and, particularly, along La Seine, on a boat named Nachtvlinder, become so blurred at times, so ambiguous, that surreality is perception (and vice versa) in Mooney's character's collective eyes.

The novel, on its surface, focuses on art smuggling, and the violent, reverberating consequences spreading out from the original high crime in waves of interpersonal disconnectedness and conflict and, ultimately, brutal betrayals, when one of the original smugglers mysteriously disappears. The smuggler's disappearance, however, involves a powerful secret that could literally change the world, and everyone from respected art dealers to the Russian Mafia to the Paris police in riot gear, are hot on his dubious trail.

The plot's as complexly convoluted as the catacombs of Paris, which play a vital role in the novel, the catacombs - be it underground rave sponsored by French government rebels from the local Arrondissement, or Mooney's subtle commentary on the underground-ecstasy-enthusiasts-as-metaphor for what's happening up above, in a different Paris darkness of perceptions true and/or false, when the lights of the Eifell Tower are turned off - and once your eyes adjust to the multi-hued darkness' of Mooney's impressive, Parisian underworlds and shadowy above-ground worlds (who exactly are the good guys and the bad guys, if any?, or are they all both good and bad?), filled with gorgeous prose and allusions adding nuanced layers of subtext, the careful reader will be glued to the book, searching for the hidden clues and secrets, which when they appear, seem so obvious that alighting upon the answers breeds a certain familiarity (I'm not joking) inducing déjà vu.

The characters? Max, the auteur, who, like a second narrator of sorts, stands outside the novel, filming the events of The Same River Twice as they occur, without a script; Odile, Max's wife, art smuggler on- the-side, the smuggler who doesn't disappear (or does she?); Turner, art dealer extraordinaire, in bed both literally and figuratively with simply too many of the wrong people; KuKushkin, full of vodka-induced anecdotes whose sobering prescience makes him almost a fortune teller; are a complicated and crafty lot, all of them, and more too many to mention by name. How Mooney fit them all together so seamlessly and so distinctively into his fast-paced, riveting, plot-pops-off-the-page like the artsy book cover, novel, I don't dare try and explicate.