The Book Club

That Quaint Old Bugaboo, Depth

Dear Jim,

I hold no torch for romanticism and emotionality, no torch whatsoever, but I’m suspicious of your argument that depth is an outdated idea we would do well to overcome; you could use it to argue for all kinds of negligible art. Take Mariah Carey, for instance. A diabolically well-trained, exquisitely gifted voice, and not an eyedrop of soul. Using your terms, one could say that Carey is deliberately responding, in a deceptively challenging way, all the more interesting for its self-conscious calculation, to a current cultural demand. She’s helping us get past our need to believe that a singer feels what she’s singing; she’s exploring an emptiness that was there all the time. I say she’s bad, and to hell with her.

But anyway, let’s grant you that Ellis’ work is actually a subtle, technically rigorous, and even somewhat moral attempt to tease out the surfaces we habitually overlook and deny. I think not, but for the sake of argument let’s grant you. Well, isn’t depth versus appearance a universal problem? Isn’t it kind of literal-minded and easy to apply it to models? This strikes me as kind of a duh-hoy approach.

Your comparison of Glamorama’s dumb hero to Isabel Archer is ingenious (though, much like your description of Less than Zero as a cross between Didion’s White Album and hard-boiled noir, it would seem to undermine your idea that Ellis tells stories we haven’t heard before.) If by Isabel Archer you mean someone who looks too hard for depth, fails to read the signs in front of her face, and traps herself into a kind of hell, I do see what you mean. But I’d argue that this archetype jumped out of James’ hands long, long ago and has colonized many a noir novel and film. Philip Marlowe was an Isabel Archer for the ‘30s and ‘40s, and Jake whatsisname from Chinatown was one for the ‘70s. This is not new stuff. Just the opposite: After James it gradually turned into the masculine kitsch tradition I was alluding to yesterday; it was great in its day, but now it feels tired.

An affectlessness, a kind of automatic, unearned ennui, with little breakthrough thunderstorms of despair sprinkled here and there. It’s a formula. That’s why I disagree with you about Ellis’ occasional bouts of sentimentality. They’re part and parcel of his project, much more chronic, and didactic, than you say.

Can we bracket the idea of depth for a second and talk about imagination, which I hope you don’t also think is an outdated ideal we should slate for retirement? I think I would take Ellis far more seriously if he could conceive of someone older than 29 or younger than 21; if he could imagine someone who aspires to some goal other than his name in bold on Page Six; if for just two pages he could “slide down the surface of things” in the life of someone with patchy skin, or a mediocre body; if he could imagine a sex act that led to feelings of vulnerability or connection, however impermanent, instead of his very predictable cool horror; if he could explore America’s infatuation with movies without simply regurgitating tropes and techniques of said movies; if he could imagine a character who wasn’t beneath contempt. But he can’t. His imagination is impoverished. What he’s written as a result is little more than a 400-page Michael Musto column, with occasional glimpses of a knowing lit crit architecture that lure some reviewers, though I suspect not many readers, into thinking something more challenging is going on. The technique is virtuosic, to be sure–but in the Mariah Carey sense. No one is home.

I agree with you that we Americans are living through an interesting moment, culturally speaking, revising our sense of identity–to be unavoidably general and conceptual about it–rethinking long-held ideas about emotions, etc. It’s quite possible that the novel, based as it is on centuries-old sentimental conventions, isn’t the right literary form to capture this moment; if Ellis is the best we can do, I’d be prepared to say good riddance. But he’s far from the best. Have you read Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Unconsoled, a weird and really original fantasy about a pianist travelling through a kind of nightmare-scape Central Europe? It’s a beautiful and innovative book, very much about scrambling its hero’s waking-hours identity, exposing his supposedly solid ego for a perpetually flowing puddle. The difference is that Ishiguro writes with sympathy, imagination, and–that quaint old bugaboo, which just won’t go away–depth.  

All the best,