A mocking mea culpa

Janice P. Nimura is a writer whose reviews have appeared in numerous publications.

WAY back in 1985 (could it be that long ago already?), a college kid named Bret Easton Ellis published a slim, unnerving novel about teenage sex, drugs and ennui in Los Angeles. The characters were largely interchangeable, the same scenes of joyless debauchery were repeated literally ad nauseam, and the narrator described it all in a droop-lidded, deadpan monotone one stop short of catatonia. Had its author been of less-tender years, “Less Than Zero” might never have seen the light of print. But the beardless boy in the jacket photo gazed at readers with an innocence that belied the sordid boredom between the covers, and the media swarmed. The book became a bestseller, translated into 30 languages.

Two years later, Ellis capitalized on his anointment as the voice of a generation with “The Rules of Attraction,” a slightly thicker, not nearly as unnerving novel about sex, drugs and ennui at a small New England liberal arts college. Along with fellow hipster Jay McInerny, Ellis became a charter member of the “literary Brat Pack,” darling of gossip columnists and scourge of anxious parents.

Then in 1991 came “American Psycho,” the final triumph of publicity over publishing. It featured yet another nihilist narcissist, this time a well-groomed Wall Street banker whose tastes run to misogyny, mutilation and murder. Snuffed by one publisher and snatched up by another, boycotted by the National Organization for Women and championed by the Authors Guild, the book was a sensation even before it reached the bookstores. It also was virtually unreadable: alternately loathsome and stupefyingly boring, an endless list of brand names and body parts.


For the rest of the decade, Ellis coasted. He tossed his fans a bone with “The Informers,” more stories of jaded and occasionally aberrant Angelenos he had written in college. This held his editors at bay while he finished the sprawling “Glamorama,” which covered largely the same ground as “American Psycho,” transferred to the international fashion scene. But the critics had long tired of the aging wunderkind -- “I can’t imagine that anyone actually enjoys these torturous novels,” griped a reviewer for the New York Times. The comet of his fame had fizzled.

Ellis’ new novel is at once a comprehensive recycling of his oeuvre and a complete departure from it. Meet our antihero, an aging literary wunderkind named Bret Easton Ellis, bottomed-out and all grown up, trying to salvage what’s left of his dignity in, of all places, suburbia. We get a whirlwind recap of Ellis’ wild ride, details mostly intact and laced with enough sardonic self-awareness of his tabloid youth to make you think, “Hey, wait a minute, maybe he’s not such a creep after all.”

“I became very adept at giving off the impression that I was listening to you when in fact I was dreaming about myself,” the narrator confesses. “My career, all the money I had made, the way my fame had blossomed and defined me, how recklessly the world allowed me to behave.”

His new credibility established, Ellis promptly drives straight off the narrow path and into the wilds of his imagination. An old flame, a successful (fictional) film actress named Jayne Dennis, has plucked the Ellis character from the depths of depravity, married him and installed him in her Westchester McMansion as father to her two children, one of whom, 11-year-old Robby, actually is his son. Catching up with his fictional namesake, Ellis-the-author turns his acid eye on the affluent middle-aged: Ritalin edges cocaine as the most-mentioned drug, couples counseling replaces sex, and competitive parenting produces kids who trudge in despair through “the dull and anxious day-to-day.”

This is all good -- if there was one redeeming quality in Ellis’ earlier work, it was his ability to skewer the banal preoccupations of his peers. “Lunar Park” is easily the most readable of Ellis’ books: less name-dropping, more plot. Also good is a sustained awareness on the part of Ellis-the-character that he is failing pathetically at his own redemption. “You bore me,” the character Ellis can feel the family’s golden retriever thinking as he tries lamely to explain away another cocaine hangover. “You are a jerk.” Which is exactly what we were thinking, and since the dog has said it for us, we read on, our disdain diffused.

But Ellis, impresario of the outre, is not content with a tame suburban send-up of his former self. Chucking the affectless cool that defined his narrators of the past, he gives us instead a panting, semi-hysterical version of himself, caught in the middle of a high-camp horror film. It’s Halloween, and weird things are happening: The Ellis character’s stepdaughter’s stuffed bird has come to malevolent life; one of his writing students seems to be impersonating the title character of “American Psycho”; e-mail messages keep arriving from the bank where the narrator’s father’s ashes are stored; and his house, furniture, even the very landscape, seem to be rearranging themselves into a facsimile of his Southern California childhood. Robby is increasingly withdrawn and may or may not be involved with the disappearance of boys his age all over the region.

There are Big Ideas here, about fathers and sons, about the responsibilities of the writer, about the interaction of imagination and reality. There is existential angst -- Ellis lives on Elsinore Lane, and takes Ophelia Boulevard to the mall, anguishing over whether to flee or not to flee. But mostly there is Ellis on stage, performing an extended act of apparent penance for the excesses of his past. “I want you to realize some things about yourself,” says a breathy voice on Ellis’ cellphone. “I want you to face the disaster that is Bret Easton Ellis.”

How are we supposed to react? Trusting readers may accept this public therapy session as sincere, but it feels more like another chapter in the book of Ellis’ egomania. His publisher has gone to elaborate lengths to create a fact-or-fiction cloud of mystery around Ellis’ comeback -- Google “Jayne Dennis” and you get not one but two bogus fan sites that eventually lead back to the “Lunar Park” homepage. It’s hard not to imagine Ellis sniggering behind his hand somewhere, enjoying the joke.

Ellis is like a half-grown child, no longer cute, acting up to reclaim the attention he once took for granted. Perhaps if we ignore him he will go away. Or finish growing up. *


Variations on a theme

BRET EASTON ELLIS has explored many forms of excess throughout his writing career. Here is a chronology of his past work:

“Less Than Zero” (1985): A New Hampshire college student comes home for Christmas to a Los Angeles filled with sex, drugs and parties.

“The Rules of Attraction” (1987): Coddled college students find themselves embroiled in all manner of relationships on a picturesque New England campus.

“American Psycho” (1991): This skewering of Wall Street culture features a dashing and hard-driving trader by day who turns into a sadistic rapist and murderer of the down-and-out when darkness falls.

“The Informers” (1994): Intertwined vignettes chronicle the lives of the mega-rich in 1980s Los Angeles, with a heavy dose of product (and restaurant) placement.

“Glamorama” (1999): Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll confront terrorism in this stream-of-consciousness satire starring pompous nightclub impresario Victor Ward.