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Thursday Reading FUNdamentals: Must Be the Money

May 13, 2010

Thanks to Amazon’s Vine program I recently got a copy of Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis, which is the sequel to Ellis’ famous Less Than Zero, which was like the Catcher in the Rye of the ’80s.  As such, it had pretty big shoes to fill.  It didn’t come as a surprise to me that it failed to fill them.

The problem is that sequels/prequels coming long after the fact rarely ever work in books or movies.  Think of Godfather III or the Star Wars prequels as examples.  Another literary example I can think of is Joe Haldeman’s sequel to his classic sci-fi novel The Forever War called Forever Free.  A complete piece of crap.  It ends with William and Marygay going to Disney World and having a conversation with “God” who takes on the form of John Wayne.  Seriously.  I’m sure you can think of other examples of a sequel/prequel written 15 or more years later that was just awful.

The problem is that writing a sequel on a normal basis is difficult enough, but trying to write one decades later usually winds up being impossible.  You just can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice.  And more to the point, writers are like any other people in that they change over time.  The Bret Easton Ellis who wrote Less Than Zero isn’t the same one who wrote Imperial Bedrooms.  He’d gone through a lot more experiences, presumably changing and growing over time, though you wouldn’t know it from the book, where no one really changes except to switch from coke to booze and they all have iPhones now.  And he’d written about a lot of other people (presumably) over the last 25 years, so it’s as hard reconnecting to them as it is in real life at your class reunion.  He just couldn’t do it.

Now there are some sequels written years later that have actually worked.  John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom novels spring to mind for me.  Those were more like a saga, though, where every 10 years Updike would catch up on what had happened to Rabbit and the gang and make some commentary on the decade.  Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe books work the same way.  I have it on good authority that Philip Roth’s novels directly involving his alterego Nathan Zuckerman are the same way.   The difference though is Updike didn’t wait 25 years for the next installment, nor did Ford or Roth.

But the big difference is that Updike and Ford wrote their sequels with something to say.  It wasn’t just about making more stuff happen, it was to show how Rabbit and Frank and those around them had changed and in turn how the world around them changed.  Whereas Imperial Bedrooms didn’t seem to have anything to say.  The closest I could find to a point was that nothing had really changed.  They were d-bags back in the ’80s and they’re d-bags in the ’10s.  What was lacking was the social context that Updike and Ford provided with their books, which is why the last two Rabbit novels and Ford’s Independence Day all won the Pulitzer; I can’t imagine anyone will be handing a Pulitzer to Ellis for this.  By the same token the Haldeman book I mentioned earlier was another case where the author wrote a sequel without having anything to say.  There was no need at all for the book to exist because everything was wrapped up pretty nicely:  William and Marygay were dropping off the grid to go to some planet for others like them and live somewhat Happily Ever After.  So when the sequel came along 25 years later, there were no loose ends to tie up, no missing pieces of the puzzle to add.

If you’re a cynic like me it’s easy to say the difference between Updike/Ford and Ellis/Haldeman is the difference between art and a cash grab.  The former had something to say, some statement to make, thus their novels fulfilled a basic artistic purpose, whereas the latter don’t seem to have any need to exist, but they fulfill that most basic economic purpose.  If you really want to get snarky, it’s easy to imagine some sleazy editor at a publishing house saying, “Hey, Bret/Joe, how about a sequel?” because they know it will bring in a ton of cash.  The other snarky scenario is to imagine that Ellis or Haldeman wracked up huge gambling debts necessitating making a lot of money in a hurry.  That or their last books just hadn’t panned out and this was one last desperate grab at the brass ring.

Of course the most blatant cash grab are those sequels written many years later not even by the same author.  You know, like Scarlett:  The Sequel to Gone With the Wind or The Godfather Returns.  Is there any reason for these books to exist other than to make money from a gullible public?  I generally feel the same way about any author who builds on another author’s work, like writing a book from the point of view of Ahab’s wife or Mr. Darcy or adding zombies and sea monsters to Jane Austen’s text.  OK, maybe you’re trying to make an artistic statement and chime in with your own two cents about a great novel, or maybe you can’t publish anything else so you’re trying to stand on the shoulders of giants.  I can’t really say because I avoid those books.

Getting back to the original point, I’d really like to institute a rule of no sequels/prequels after 10 years.  There just aren’t many example–to me in any case–where it’s worked out after that point.  And definitely no sequels not by the original author.  I mean, do you really want to read about a grownup Harry Potter from someone other than JK Rowling or Twilight:  The Next Generation?  No thanks.  It’s often said that an author’s books are like his/her children, so having someone else write a sequel years later would be akin to kidnapping the baby and raising it as your own.  Pretty sleazy move.

As for Imperial Bedrooms, I hope Ellis makes enough off of this that he doesn’t have to write a sequel to American Psycho, though the idea of Pat Bateman going on a murder spree on Wall Street has some appeal given what’s happened in the last couple of years with the economy.

Just for fun here are a few bad sequel ideas for some of my favorite books, each one using a different cliche plot:

  • More Cider House Rules by John Irving: In the early 70s, it’s finally discovered that Homer Wells, aka Fuzzy Stone, is performing abortions and isn’t a real doctor.  He’s arrested and goes on trial, where he’s defended by his son Angel (who’s become a lawyer) all the way to the US Supreme Court in a precursor of Roe v. Wade.
  • The Final Adventure of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon:  50 years after they parted ways, Sammy Clay and Joe Kavalier are reunited to consult on the movie version of their comic book hero The Escapist.  When someone begins sabotaging equipment and murdering the cast/crew, it’s up to Sammy, Joe, and Joe’s son (who’s become a cop) to track down the killer and find out who he really is.
  • Still Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo:  Donald “Sully” Sullivan is in his 80s and seemingly on death’s door.  So over Thanksgiving weekend he and his grandson Will (who’s a failing drunk odd-job man like Sully) hit the road to track down Sully’s first love, bonding along the way.
  • Breathing Lessons 2: Suffocation by Anne Tyler:  With their grandson getting married, Maggie and Ira Moran’s whole family is in town for the wedding.  Maggie takes this opportunity to try and reunite her estranged son and his ex-wife and to make peace between him and Ira.  But will all her meddling backfire?
  • Where You Belong 2:  The Search for More Money by Patrick Dilloway:  Frost moves to Washington DC  to help his old friend Abby during her pregnancy.  When he takes the kid to the zoo one day, he discovers a hidden treasure map and soon he, Abby, and the kid are on the run from assassins, international spies, and their own government!

Sunday Serial continues with Chapter 2 of Virgin Territory, which has no sequels–for now.

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2 Comments
  1. Interesting observations! Thank you. Everything you say is true.

    But, personally, I’ve done well with sequels and prequels. Those that I ‘ve read (by Updike, Roth, and Ford) have gone deeper into the emotional territory of the protagonist, not simply updated the protagonist with new brands and technologies. As you say, the writers have to have more to learn and say about their characters for a sequel to work.

    As a matter of fact, I’ve got McCarthy’s THE CROSSING ready to read (after I finish Roth’s THE ANATOMY LESSON). Guess this shows that sequels represent a big source of new novels for my reading.

    In my case, long live sequels!

    P.S.

    Sorry about that LinkedIn invitation. I was trying to contact an agent and ended up spamming my email list. Just so you know, the agent (The Curse of Ethan Cooper) changed fields shortly after establishing contact with me.

  2. “The Curse of Ethan Cooper” sounds like a good title for a horror story.

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