The Dark Side of a Generation
There’s a certain physical softness to Bret Easton Ellis, a slackness of muscle reminiscent of a kid still growing into his body. That’s not to say he’s flabby. Just loose, comfortably amassed, the springy flesh hinting at self-indulgence.
Which normally wouldn’t mean anything except that the characters in Ellis’ novels tend to hail from the sunken-cheek tribe. And they have impossibly flat stomachs despite constant noshing and boozing at drug-soaked parties and premieres. “Chiseled” is the usual adjective, and it crops up regularly in Ellis’ current and fourth novel, “Glamorama” (Knopf), about a stupendously vapid model named Victor Ward who becomes ensnared by an international terrorism ring.
Ellis’ characters tend to be depraved, sometimes viciously so. Simon & Schuster refused to release his “American Psycho” in 1991--shooting for the movie is scheduled to begin in March--because of its graphic depictions of sex and torture, usually with women as the victims. A slasher film is one thing; a slasher novel, apparently, is something altogether different.
But key to them both, Ellis argues, is that they are fiction. And despite writing consistently in the first person, he believes he has little in common with his characters.
“It’s not that my life isn’t dark and empty, because it is,” laughs Ellis, 34. “On the other hand, if you look back on my life, there’s not a lot of correlation. My life is much more easygoing and sunnier than my fictional world. But my fictional world is often influenced by periods of depression and anger. And I’m as far away from Victor Ward as any character I’ve written about.”
Anxiety-Filled Childhood With Alcoholic Father
Ellis sits in his boyhood bedroom in Sherman Oaks, his back to the desk and window, his loafered feet resting on a corner of the comforter-covered bed. A half-full glass of soda sweats lightly by his elbow. The window is thrown open, and cigarette smoke seeps out into the shaggy grayness of a fog-shrouded morning.
Ellis, who has lived in Manhattan for more than a decade, hasn’t always felt comfortable in this house at the southern edge of Sherman Oaks, where Valley subdivisions begin creeping up the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s his mother’s house, and until his parents split up when he was 16, it was his father’s home too--a man Ellis describes as an alcoholic with a capacity for emotional and sometimes physical abuse before he died in 1992. It was a scarring combination that landed Ellis on the therapist’s couch.
“There’s a lot of anxiety growing up with a parent like that,” says Ellis, who maintains a good relationship with his mother. “When you get older is when you realize the extent of the damage, rather than when you’re still angry and upset about the particulars of the relationship.”
Yet the Sherman Oaks house is also where Ellis absorbed the boredom and ennui of teenage suburban life that gave rise to “Less Than Zero,” his Bennington College writing project that evolved into something of a Rosetta stone for those trying to decipher the “Why Bother?” generation.
His next project, he says, could be a Rosetta stone for those who want to understand him. He’s planning a memoir of his adolescent years, although he hasn’t decided whether he will publish it or simply write it as a personal exercise before moving on to the next novel.
Only recently has Ellis begun to focus on what really lurks behind the nihilism and narcissism of his fiction, in which he traces hints of Ernest Hemingway, Joan Didion, Stephen King and ‘80s slasher films. And despite his earlier argument that little in his books is autobiographical, he acknowledges that portions of his life have filtered through without his noticing.
“I didn’t realize until I finished ‘Glamorama’ that this is really about a father-son relationship,” Ellis says. “Does this have anything to do with my feelings about my father? Yes, it does. Books give you away all the time. The father figures hover around these books in ways that are very strongly felt, but in ways that the father figure doesn’t have a lot of page time.”
Usually, the figure exists as a negative motivator. Characters slide into behaviors they know upset their fathers, who tend to be financially successful and remote. Sons don’t travel home to see Dad; they meet him for lunch at a power restaurant.
Keeping His Sexuality a Mystery for Art’s Sake
Ellis speaks openly about most aspects of his life, such as sexual experimentation, including threesomes in college, and sporadic drug use, including snorting heroin three years ago. But he won’t discuss his sexual orientation, which he says he prefers to leave undeclared for artistic reasons.
“I’ve been very coy and weird about it in a way that I didn’t think I would be,” Ellis says, admitting that he’s curious about the sex lives of other celebrities. “I don’t necessarily think that it’s an invalid question. The characters in my novels often have a very shifting sexuality. But if people knew that I was straight, they’d read [my books] in a different way. If they knew I was gay, ‘Psycho’ would be read as a different book.”
“Glamorama” begins as a satire of wealthy brats, celebrity culture and the fashion world, recurrent themes for Ellis. Even some of the characters are recycled. Ward, the unlikely son of a U.S. senator, and a few others in “Glamorama” first appeared as undergraduates in “Rules of Attraction,” the 1987 novel in which Ellis came closest to nailing down the dialectic between his infatuation with, and his revulsion of, the shallowness and celebrity-adoration that he believes has become an emblem of his generation.
In a literary menage a trois, he also borrowed a character from his contemporary and friend, Jay McInerney, dusting off the rich, spoiled and drug-addled Alison Poole from “The Story of My Life” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988).
Ellis says he first borrowed Alison in “American Psycho,” introducing her as a woman who had been sexually assaulted by serial killer Patrick Bateman years before. When she sees Bateman in a bar, she excuses herself and leaves.
“I won’t go into it, but Jay had done something that week that really annoyed me,” Ellis says, laughing. “We had gotten into a tiff and it really [ticked] me off. I was working on that scene at the time and thought, ‘Well, I’m going to put Alison in peril.’ That was my passive-aggressive way to get revenge. It was very childish and stupid, but I was 24 or 25.”
McInerney, reached at home in Franklin, Tenn., said Ellis told him he was borrowing Alison, “but I didn’t really believe him.” He laughed off Ellis’ explanation about a personal spat, saying he thinks Ellis actually borrowed Alison to poke fun at critics who have linked the two authors since publication of their first novels--both about youth culture.
“A lot of critics have sort of boneheadedly branded us as some sort of tag team of letters, some kind of two-headed enfant terrible monster,” McInerney says. “Our prose couldn’t be more different. There are some aspects that our fiction has in common. That some of our characters listen to pop music and do drugs is just a generational thing. Cheever and Updike wrote about the suburbs. I think [Ellis] is just making fun of the critics. A postmodern parlor trick.”
In the new book, Alison is a main character, one of Victor’s sexual partners, even though she’s the girlfriend and secret financial backer of his club partner.
“I guess [McInerney ticked] me off a lot when I was working on ‘Glamorama,’ ” Ellis says.
Reviving characters is “just a way to remind me that the books, in a way, are really about the same thing,” Ellis says. “A writer writes the same book over and over again. There’s a certain temperament that doesn’t change that radically from book to book.”
A Desire to Shock and a Drive to Say Something
The temperament in Ellis’ case mixes an adolescent desire to shock--imagine a kid in study hall doodling execution scenes--with a drive to say something weighty about things that aren’t. Ellis writes about sex and violence, which, he says, means he must have his characters engage in both, even though many critics have gagged at his clinical, almost depraved detail.
Ellis ignores the reviews and blames his vivid descriptions on slasher films he watched during his teen years.
“That kind of gore and violence was a titillation and made us squeal and gasp and hide our eyes,” he says. “And maybe, in the end, it did desensitize us.”
“Glamorama” opens on the day before the debut of a nightclub in Manhattan, a device Ellis uses to introduce most of his characters and to establish Ward as a venally empty figure, the kind of guy who’d nudge Narcissus into the pond to hog the view for himself. Victor’s sleeping around on his supermodel girlfriend, has his own second-tier modeling career, is dying to be cast in “Flatliners II,” though he’s been rejected for MTV’s “Real World,” pops more pills than William Burroughs and is plotting to open his own nightclub and undercut his financial backer in the current club project.
Just as the satire begins to crumble under its own weight, Ellis abandons the theme and sends Ward to Europe, where he becomes ensnared in an international terrorist conspiracy in which doppelgangers are substituted for real models and celebrities, who subsequently are blackmailed into planting bombs.
The writing throughout is polished with some clever satirical devices. Film crews follow everyone around [an advance on Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame]; main characters are introduced with a description of their cell phones; party scenes include a catty recitation of all the real celebs attending the fictional gathering.
But the underpinnings of the novel itself are unrefined, like a skilled carpenter building a house to plans drafted by an inattentive architect. For instance, Ellis’ terrorist gang acts without defined motive, and he doesn’t explain why the gang doesn’t just use the celebrity look-alikes--already in the fold--to plant the bombs.
Ellis views himself as a craftsman, working to hone each paragraph and scene like a stonemason fitting patterned bricks into a wall. But he doesn’t step back to see whether the patterns actually match.
“I probably should be more concerned [with the internal logic], but it’s way down on my list,” Ellis says, dismissing the flaws. “The problem with writing a novel and staying true to your narrator’s voice is how do you get across information that you think is valuable when your narrator is an airhead?”
Throughout his novels, Ellis’ main interest lies in character over plot, and in the elements of contemporary culture that characters can represent. The voice is predominately first-person, present tense and delivered in a rush without room for introspection.
“Victor Ward to me is a summation of what annoys me about a lot of men, about my generation,” Ellis says. “He’s narcissistic, shallow. He has this cool-distant irony around everything he touches. It’s that ironic face that everyone shows, just to make themselves not feel anything.”
Ellis links the visage to David Letterman.
“It’s this serious deadpan ridiculing of celebrity and of deflating pretentiousness at the same time.”
“In the end,” he says, “the book is about ‘Don’t make a lot of really bad choices.’ Or, more succinctly: ‘Don’t be [a jerk], and maybe your life will be a lot different.’ It’s a warning against trying to find truth in surfaces.”