The Gen X poster boy’s endless ennui
In his 1985 breakout novel, “Less Than Zero,” Bret Easton Ellis, then all of 21 years old, created young, jaded Angelenos who just didn’t care about anything: They recounted cocaine scores and semi-anonymous sex in the same tone with which they lamented their fading suntans. That ennui became Ellis’ literary signature, and as he began to grow up in public, he became known as a photogenic and glamorous figure who liked booze and excess.
More than two decades later and almost four years after returning home to L.A., the city in which he grew up as the offspring of affluent Goldwater Republicans, Ellis himself claims to be in a phase in which he just doesn’t care about anything -- a middle-aged wrinkle on the old Ellis ennui. “The only thing I care about,” he requested when setting up a dinner interview, “is valet parking and a full bar.”
Ellis in person is witty if often deadpan, good company, discussing the literary novel and popular music with enthusiasm and authority. His classic good looks have become almost conventional as he’s aged. He’s more down-to-earth, and more intellectual, than his party-boy image would suggest.
He can be uncomfortable as well: Sitting down at a tighter-than-expected Campanile one recent Wednesday night, wearing a black jacket over a casual shirt left mostly unbuttoned, he was unnerved by a slightly raucous, beret-wearing family at a nearby table, until his first drink arrived and he found himself in a spirited defense of Elvis Costello’s “Imperial Bedroom.” As he leaned into the argument -- the album, which he called “sonically, an absolute ‘80s masterpiece,” will lend its name to a new sequel to “Less Than Zero” -- it was easy to see that he’s more engaged with things than he lets on.
But while he spoke with enthusiasm about “The Wire” and Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” -- “the novel of my generation” -- he’s truly uninterested in talking about his own career, his own place in the literary firmament. “I don’t care anymore,” he said. “I never really did care.”
That’s probably a good thing too: In most of the important conversations about contemporary American literature, Ellis doesn’t show up. Academia doesn’t take him seriously: He’s not taught or written about critically like his generational peers Franzen, Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Lethem, Chang-Rae Lee or Lorrie Moore.
His work is often savaged by critics: His last book, the 2005 quasi-autobiographical novel “Lunar Park,” was deemed “the worst novel I’ve ever read” by Steve Almond in the Boston Globe. And almost a quarter-century into his career, he’s never won, or been within shouting distance, of a major literary award. Back in the ‘80s, he was even dissed by his idol Elvis Costello.
To Lethem, a classmate from Bennington College in Vermont, this neglect comes from the “destructive cartoon” that greeted Ellis in the early years: his image as a frivolous enfant terrible whose clipped prose was fit only for the MTV generation. His sales are good, but if sales correlated directly to a writer’s reputation, Tom Clancy and Jackie Collins would tower over Thomas Pynchon and Alice Munro.
To some, he’s a kind of Duran Duran of the literary world: fashionable once, but now a footnote. Or at best something that comes back for periodic rediscovery but remains a relic, like the skinny tie.
“I think in the last five years or so there’s been a rather ominous silence,” said Jonathon Keats, a San Francisco critic and artist who admires Ellis’ work. “It seems like Ellis has never been given the benefit of a test of time. He’s gone from being poster boy for everything extreme to a name that’s quaintly nostalgic -- a moment from the past.”
But talk to some of the more serious writers of his generation and a different picture emerges.
Many see him as an overlooked figure, one whose literary heft grows with time. It may be that like a lot of things that emerge from California, the style and vision of Ellis’ work creates problems for East Coast intellectuals, but will become as enduring as psychedelia, surfing, the hard-boiled novel or fast food.
A.O. Scott, the New York Times film critic who is working on a book about contemporary American fiction, considers 1991’s “American Psycho,” a skewering of ‘80s greed sometimes seen as an endorsement of it, “one of the most misunderstood books in all of American literature.” For Scott, “Glamorama,” which got scathing reviews, is a book that “in 100 years might be understood as a masterpiece,” the work that presaged the combustion between the Internet and celebrity.
But despite being an influence on others -- and being willing to mentor several young writers, including Jeff Hobbs and Joe McGinniss Jr. -- Ellis himself was sometimes discussed more like “an actor, or a scoundrel,” said Lethem. “Someone who was subliterary, who came from someplace where it wasn’t about writing, it was just about lifestyle.
“But, actually, he’s a writer, and they’re books, and they’ve got to be contended with on that level.”
Celebrated and reviled
Between hype and scandal, it can be hard to see the work itself.
The image of Ellis as a nihilistic 1980s golden boy -- guzzling gallons of champagne at Nell’s with Jay McInerney -- took awhile to fade. It led many -- including a few stricken with cases of envy -- to see him as a lightweight. It didn’t help matters that the 1987 movie of “Less Than Zero” was a hit as well, cementing the story’s place in the culture as an archetypal tale of lost and debauched youth.
“What do you learn more from, being celebrated or being reviled?” Charlie Rose, surveying the author’s career, asked in 1994.
“Neither,” Ellis replied. “You learn nothing from either.”
Either way, the ups and downs had the effect of typecasting Ellis, who, admittedly, played along happily.
Many assumed that the Sherman Oaks-bred Ellis was one of his characters -- that rather than rendering shallow and aimless lives, he, and his work, were shallowness and aimlessness itself.
And then, a few years later, “American Psycho” hit. By now the story is familiar: ULTRA-violent prose, remorseless yuppie killer, mocked in the press, protested by the National Organization for Women, dropped by its publisher. The stigma remained when the novel was later published by Vintage.
The most talked-about parts of the book cannot be quoted here, but much of the novel expresses its protagonist’s mean-spiritedness and consumer narcissism in a tone that’s incongruously understated: “The Chinese dry cleaners I usually send my bloody clothes to delivered back to me yesterday a Soprani jacket, two white Brooks Brothers shirts and a tie from Agnes B. still covered with flecks of someone’s blood,” one passage begins. “I have a lunch appointment at noon -- in forty minutes -- and beforehand I decide to stop by the cleaners and complain. In addition to the Soprani jacket, the shirts and tie, I bring along a bag of bloodstained sheets that also need cleaning.”
But the Earth continued turning; now, the book seems like a look forward to where the culture was going. It also continues to sell several thousand copies a month, in part because of a sardonic 1999 film.
“I thought it was almost shameful the way the American literary establishment vilified him,” said Morgan Entrekin, an old Ellis pal who now heads Grove/Atlantic. “So what if they didn’t understand the book, but they even didn’t defend his right to write it. Most often a book will speak for itself. But in this case I think you needed a publisher or a critic or someone giving it a frame of reference, articulating and explaining why it was important.”
Water under the bridge, right? But some think Ellis will never bail himself out.
“He stopped being safe,” Lethem said: He became the literary version of an untouchable.
Part of what makes his work interesting -- but at times morally disorienting -- is his unwillingness to intrude on his narrative with an authorial voice. It also led to him being seen as a nihilist, which hurt more than it probably should have. “I hate anybody who reviews based on morality and not aesthetics,” Ellis said over dinner. “That is a major crime.”
“There’s an almost passive-aggressive quality to it,” Scott said of Ellis’ style. “Like ‘I’m not going to tell you’; it keeps the reader off-balance. You have to decide how much irony there is.”
Ellis has called himself a moralist but pointed out to Rose that he’s not going to walk into his novels and say, “OK, guys, reader: These people are shallow, immoral and aimless -- just wanted you to know that.”
“What bothered a lot of folks about ‘Psycho,’ ” said Alfred Mobilio, fiction editor of BookForum, “wasn’t the ultra-violence, but the killer’s devotion to brand-name products. The devotion was satirized with such energetic precision that it was impossible not to conclude that Ellis himself was pretty besotted. That may have proved his real literary crime.”
The novel, despite a few good reviews and the beginnings of a cult following, also turned the heat up on critics’ responses to Ellis.
Daniel Mendelsohn, the respected critic who disemboweled “Glamorama” in the New York Times Book Review, may have set a record for suggesting that Ellis is something other than a serious novelist: He’s a conceptual artist, he’s a mere reporter, he’s an ad writer whose copy is nothing but “knowing attitude.” He’s “a sort of hip, brand-name label in the publishing world.”
Compared with the Boston Globe’s “Lunar Park” review -- in which Almond called Ellis’ body of work “a testament to the declining standards of intellectual depth and compassion in America . . . the literary equivalent of the tabloid stories” -- Ellis got off easy.
Different critical criteria
There’s not exactly a formula that makes a novel a literary success, that scores its authors Bookers or Pulitzers or lands it on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. But celebrated Anglo-American novels tend to be “attuned” to the serious issues of the day, awake to personal and cultural complication. They draw characters with both convincing psychological depth and the ability to represent something larger, attend to language in a way that is more than cosmetic, and possess that indefinable quality of originality. Not all the great writers own all these qualities -- Don DeLillo has many flat characters, for instance -- but these are the coins of the realm. And because a literary, as opposed to a genre, novel is supposed to be about “depth” or “substance,” one thing that’s never forgiven is a perceived superficiality.
But that may be the wrong lens to use for Ellis’ work. He’s better seen as an uncommonly accessible creature of the literary avant-garde -- or perhaps as a Frenchman manque: Entrekin points out that Ellis, in his nonacademic way, filters ideas of “surface” from nouveau roman novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet and French theorists such as Roland Barthes.
“He is a much more radical writer than he seems,” Scott said. “He belongs more in an experimental tradition than the mainstream of American fiction.”
Many of the novelists grappling with the ennui in contemporary life, including new writers such as Angeleno Jeff Hobbs, author of “The Tourists,” and more established provocateurs such as Frenchman Michel Houellebecq, are indebted to Ellis. And since he’s come out of the closet, his influence on gay writers is likely to grow .
“He has a way of capturing flattened affect and cynicism, which is part of American life,” said Scott. “He’s fastened onto a loss of self, the replacement of feeling with intensity of sensation -- whether by sex or drugs or violence or celebrity. Part of the reasons these books feel so cold, and sometimes unpleasant, is that there’s no relief. In a way they’re dystopian novels.”
His sex scenes -- with bodies reduced to anatomy and physics, admitting little emotion -- reflect a certain romantic reality, post-pornography.
To Jeff Gordinier, author of the new book “X Saves the World,” Ellis was “one of the first signals of a different sensibility, a Generation X sensibility.” Among other things, this included capturing “fluctuations in gender roles and sexuality.”
Ellis, who was born in 1964, also creates a powerful sense of aftermath that has an X-specific resonance.
“He’s post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-boomer, post-EST,” Gordinier said. “It’s like what’s left after the party, after the gold rush. It’s almost post-apocalyptic. He’s been savaged to the degree that it makes me think he’s saying something important.”
One of the many things his characters are “over” is the notion of psychology.
“I’ll sit in his office in Westwood with the shades drawn and my sunglasses on, smoking a cigarette, sometimes clove, just to irritate him, sometimes crying,” Clay says of visits to his therapist in “Less Than Zero.” “Sometimes I’ll yell at him and he’ll yell back. I tell him that I have these bizarre sexual fantasies and his interest will increase noticeably. I’ll start to laugh for no reason and then feel sick. I lie to him sometimes. . . . Sometimes I just get up and leave.”
Of all the things the literary world holds against Ellis, his lack of interest in characters with recognizable psychological depth may be the most unforgivable. His players are impassive to the point of opaque. They resemble each other so completely they almost cease to exist. In “Psycho” and “Glamorama” people are often mistaken for each other: It’s as if they’re beyond identity itself.
Ellis, Meghan O’Rourke wrote in a Slate defense of the writer, is “challenging the notion that there’s such a thing as an authentic self equipped with a compelling inner life that somehow matters.”
Said Scott: “From Gatsby to Rabbit to Saul Bellow’s characters, the one thing that’s prized in American fiction is the creation of virtual characters who are ‘more real’ than actual people. But you see the impulse to distrust psychology” in a counter-tradition that includes William Burroughs and Joan Didion, Ellis’ main influences.
“We’re in a culture that congratulates itself on being very surfacey and ironic,” said Lethem. “But it’s really the opposite -- we’re really Victorian: Everything has to have a back story; every movie that’s remade has the villain’s previously inexplicable motive explained, usually through child molestation.”
Keats thinks Patrick Bateman, the yuppie-killer narrator of “American Psycho,” is one of literature’s great characters, despite being unknowable. “He’s more interesting than characters drawn according to psychological types. It’s almost as if he’s somebody Ellis always knew: He becomes, for the length of that book, Patrick Bateman. It doesn’t matter whether Freud ever had a theory about him.”
East Coast bias?
There’s a long tradition of New York-based critics overlooking the popular and literary culture from California.
Ellis’ early style is in the West Coast minimalist tradition of Chandler, Carver and Didion. His interest in consumerism and youth culture -- and his playing with genre fiction, especially horror, in some of his books -- make him a consummate Southern California writer. Now that he’s back in L.A. and has returned to the characters of his sunglasses-after-midnight first novel, this affinity might get even stronger.
Will the dismissals of Ellis’ books someday seem as fatuous as Edmund Wilson’s famous inability to understand California private-eye fiction?
Ellis doesn’t want to write “polite” books like Claire Messud’s “The Emperor’s Children” -- or “the middlebrow social-realist novel” -- which he called tailor-made for critics.
In the meantime, he’s become more interested in making inroads as a Hollywood screenwriter, which he’s been trying for the last four years with mixed success, and watching early cuts of “The Informers,” his 1994 story collection, which opens later this year. (A “Lunar Park” film is currently in pre-production.)
Some of Ellis’ supporters are not so nonchalant. McGinniss, whose new novel, “The Delivery Man,” was mentored by Ellis, said he’s impressed by Ellis’ defiance of the critical establishment: “More power to him for not needing one good review in the New York Times his entire career.”
Entrekin, for one, thinks the tide is turning for Ellis.
“He was seen as not as serious as he deserved, but that began to change with ‘Lunar Park.’ ” People are starting to see the humor in his work. And European writers get it.
Keats thinks it will take a while longer. “It may well be that when we’re all dead he’ll be rediscovered,” he said. “It may be at a time when nobody remembers how glamorous he was, when New York of the ‘80s has become a mythical time -- then it will be possible to see [‘American Psycho’] for its incredible literary merit.”
As dinner wound down at Campanile, Ellis was talking about his life in L.A. these days: his condo in West Hollywood, the ups and downs (mostly downs) of screenwriting, his brief time picketing during the writers strike, how surprised he is to be still interested in the characters from “Less Than Zero” -- who are now, like him, in their 40s and orbiting Hollywood -- his sadness over the death of Brad Renfro, who played an important character in “The Informers.”
He’s realized he’s not very good at script doctoring, and he’s mostly writing scripts for films that have not been made; the writers strike interrupted four of his projects. Hollywood had seemed like it would be an easy world to navigate. “I found out that it isn’t -- much to my surprise because I’d grown up around it. But I didn’t know it was going to be as difficult or stressful as it turned out to be.”
While he hardly seemed depressed -- he’s recovered from a long, hard-drinking, itinerant meltdown that followed the death of his boyfriend in 2004 -- he offered, half-jokingly, that he’s in a “lost period.” He had the look of a man still unsure whether his life’s work adds up to anything, but who’d like to put off worrying about it for a little longer.
“I always thought this was going to be Jay McInerney’s second act and not mine,” Ellis, finishing his cappuccino and preparing to stand up, said of his old friend and rival, who in 2006 married Anne Hearst.
“I though he was going to become the alcoholic screenwriter and I was gonna marry the heiress.”