Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Better You Look

I'm in the process of replacing all my hardcovers with paperbacks (they're easier to transport). As I do, I'm trying to re-read them. Some of the novels I haven't touched in over five years. I was never much of a re-reader until very recently.

The most recent one I finished (finished again?), is Bret Easton Ellis' novel Glamorama.

I first became aware of the novel when I saw it sitting on Devon's gramma's kitchen table. If I remember right, she'd recently read it in a class on postmodernism (though that's a very fuzzy recollection). She described the narrative as very fractured and for some reason that really interested me. I think it was a month later or so that I saw it on the bargain table at the local bookstore. I was living in a dorm room alone with no television at the time, so I was getting a lot of reading done. I bought the novel immediately and devoured it over the next four days or so.

I don't want to talk about the similarities between this novel, which came out in 1998, and the film "Zoolander" as so many who blog about the book do, because the film didn't come out until 2001. In fact, though, the idea of using beautiful young models or model-esque people to get close to high-value targets is not new--Ian Fleming had it as far back as 1963 in his novel On Her Majesty's Secret Service (and the subsequent film).

One of the things that always interests me with Ellis' novels is his critical awareness of how vision works. In this novel, Victor Ward is always saying "The better you look, the more you see." It takes on shades of meaning for the different situations, but the basic meaning is that beauty disarms. People are less likely to defend themselves against beautiful faces/bodies. Our perceptions still tell us that beauty is truth and therefore truthfull. Though the supermodels-as-terrorists subplot is something we tend to laugh at a bit in our post 9/11 world (where the rhetoric on "real terrorists" have become synonymous with Muslim extremists), if you think about it for a moment, it really does work. Beauty really does disarm.

What really interested me on this second read-through was Victor's nature as an unreliable narrator. He lies. Whether to maintain what he feels is his proper social status or simply because he doesn't know the answer to a question, he lies. More than just being a lying narrator, though, he's fragile, mentally. He completely breaks down toward the end of the first half and through the second half, I had to basically look around him to get any real sense of what was happening. He was more in the way of really seeing than effectively narrating. This puts an interesting spin on his concept of looking better equalling seeing more. While he actually is seeing more of the world and how parts of teh seedy underbelly of it works, he isn't aware he's seeing more. In fact, all he wants to do is to not see more of it.

The continuous shifting between 3rd person and 1st person that Victor's mental breakdown (i.e. seeing the "camera crews") allows brings the debate about subjective, volitional "seeing" versus objectivist ideas of reality to the forefront. What I do like is that Ellis doesn't solve the problem--he lets us, as reader, wallow in that complexity. In the end, is it a sunrise he sees, or is it the blossoming of the explosion ending his life?

Roger Avery (who also adapted Ellis' "Rules of Attraction" film) owns the rights to adapt the book, but it's been in development hell for so long there's little hope. Like Palahniuk's novel Survivor , it involves Americans committing terrorist acts, and it's hard to get funding for projects like that.


M said...

"I'm in the process of replacing all my hardcovers with paperbacks (they're easier to transport). As I do, I'm trying to re-read them."

WOW--that is HUGE job.

J. Campbell said...

Yeah, but I've been at it for a while, now, so its not as big as it once was.