David Kordahl

Where to start with American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis

In Lit, Pop Culture on 2012/11/04 at 4:50 pm

This post emulates the “Gateways to Geekery” column over at the A.V. Club. In fact, I tried pitching it to them but was met by no response. Turns out that website doesn’t accept pitches. Which I should have researched before writing the piece. In any case, I enjoyed working through some thoughts on BEE’s oeuvre and now post this here, FWIW.

Geek obsession: The novels of Bret Easton Ellis

Why it’s daunting: Bret Easton Ellis is one of the few novelists to suffer the privilege of growing up in public. His first novel, Less Than Zero, became a bestseller when he was just 21, The Rules of Attraction came only two years later, and at age 26, when most writers are still struggling to produce a first novel, his third, American Psycho, became the center of a National Organization of Women boycott that caused Simon & Schuster, his original publisher, to drop the book, citing “aesthetic differences” extreme enough for them not to require any back-payment on the $300,000 advance.

We should all be so unlucky. But while American Psycho cemented Ellis’s reputation as a literary provocateur, the arguments surrounding it often conflated the author with his narrators—a despicable group of typically rich, typically white, male narcissists. (In a famous Vanity Fair take-down, Norman Mailer asked, “Is Bateman the monster or Bret Easton Ellis?” and went on to speculate that the author had used his art as a perverse form of therapy.) It didn’t help, either, that Ellis himself seemed to encourage this conflation, from book-jacket author photos that matched narrator descriptions to, in the case of Lunar Park, a debauched narrator named—what else?—Bret Easton Ellis. For fans, this may all come off as good old postmodern fun, but anti-Ellis critics have their pick of damning details, all the way up to his most recent Twitter-tantrums. Despite the almost exclusive focus that the books put on manners and morals, it’s not always easy to unpack the layers that exist between author, narrator, and page. Add to this the preconceptions built by the movie adaptations (not always negative—Less Than Zero and The Informers may be middling films, but American Psycho and The Rules of Attraction are both excellent), and the summed barrage of mediation makes it hard to approach the novels fresh.

Possible Gateway: The Rules of Attraction

Why: As the follow-up to a celebrated debut, The Rules of Attraction may be the least-read BEE novel, but it’s also probably the most accessible. This is for two main reasons: 1. Due to frequently switched narrators, it’s easier here than anywhere else in the Ellis catalog to distinguish between the POV of the author and his characters, with overlapping descriptions serving to highlight dramatic ironies; and 2. It has something approaching a traditional plot. A campus novel set at Camden College (a barely disguised stand-in for Ellis’s alma mater, Bennington), Rules takes the oldest story around—the love triangle—and infuses it with a particularly Gen-X aura of ennui and dread.

Of course, this being an Ellis novel, the update is anything but straightforward. The Fall 1985 term includes all the trademark permutations of sex, drugs, and violence (actual plot-points: a virgin’s drunken gang-bang, the suicide of the one character who believes in true love, a few scattered abortions), and the love triangle itself is more like a rhombus or pentagon or zigzag, wherein Lauren loves Victor, but Sean loves Lauren, Paul loves Sean, Stewart loves Paul, etc. Just about everyone here is bisexual (at least), and whether or not two characters count each other as “lovers,” they’re likely already somehow connected at the hips. The story is eventually intercut by more than ten voices, but most of it is told by three distinct narrators—Lauren is the most self-critical, Paul the most poetic, Sean the least aware of a world outside his own libido—none of whom is able to overcome the feeling that it’s impossible to connect with anyone else. The bleakness of this theme might suggest that the novel is a dull slog, but its abundance of comic dialogue (Ellis’s greatest strength) keeps things as light as possible. Even as they illuminate a vision of social decay, the characters, like the ghouls of a latter-day Fitzgerald, are buoyed up by their frothy, glamorous doom.

Next steps: There’s something to be said for reading BEE’s novels in order. Recurring characters and in-jokes carry over from one to the next (even in The Rules of Attraction, there’s a cameo section by Clay, the narrator of Less Than Zero), and content from one novel can serve to enrich the next. A case in point: while Sean Bateman is the nearest The Rules of Attraction comes to having a main character, he only makes a brief appearance in American Psycho, while Patrick Bateman, Sean’s older brother, shows up in Rules just to hector Sean for his irresponsibility, only to return as the serial-killing cypher of American Psycho. Likewise, if you watch carefully, you might notice that the elusive “Victor” of Rules shows up again as the narrator of Glamorama, post-surname-change, or that the detective of American Psycho eventually returns to levy charges against Bret Easton Ellis in Lunar Park…and the arcana piles up. Spotting convergences is a part of the fun.

That said, if you’re not gonna down them all, the decision on what to read next mainly hinges on a choice between West Coast and East Coast. Disregarding a few outliers (i.e., The Rules of Attraction and Lunar Park), Ellis has written basically two types of books: Los Angeles books, and New York City books. The L.A. stories—Less Than Zero, The Informers, and Imperial Bedrooms—are heavily influenced by the minimalist style of Joan Didion and tend toward terse, elegant expositions. On the other hand, American Psycho and Glamorama—the N.Y.C. stories—veer toward an opposing maximalism, cramming in every name brand and celebrity appearance, with described surfaces having an information density that recalls the image-fiction of Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon.

The N.Y.C. books are Ellis’s longest, his most experimental, the works where, if there is something sui generis and untraceable about Ellis, it’s there. Everyone knows the conceit of American Psycho from the film adaptation (banker Patrick Bateman murders hookers and business associates in Manhattan), but the movie can’t capture the sheer volume of the book’s references—page upon page of descriptions based on nothing but the symbols of consumer society. This is not a book like Silence of the Lambs or even Psycho, where the protagonist’s condition can be reduced by a psychological analysis. The uncomfortable implication instead shifts the focus to the systematic effects of late capitalism. A few hundred pages in, Bateman tells us, “There wasn’t a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being—flesh, blood, skin, hair—but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning. ” It is a testament to book’s power that, by the time this observation arrives, we believe it. In Glamorama the theme of “erasure” is pressed even further, making narrator Victor Ward, an airhead fashion model whose world is overtaken by terrorists, into a figure who is literally replaced by an image of himself, who throughout cannot tell if something terrible is afoot or if he’s merely starring in a suspense film that he doesn’t quite understand.

Still, though these two books are probably his most interesting achievements, the L.A. stories that bookend his novelistic career bring Ellis back to his home turf, and there is no doubt that Ellis is also expert in his stripped-down evocations of the American West. Less Than Zero (iconic opening line: “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles”) is so totally unlike the film adaptation that for the sequel, Imperial Bedrooms, there’s a meta-analysis of how the original book was written by an ambitious friend of theirs, which had been turned into a movie whose premiere they’d all attended. (This explains why Julian—Robert Downey, Jr., in the movie—isn’t dead, second time around.) Clay has become a screenwriter, and the horror of the original novel is amplified as we find that, now no longer a passive observer of the evil around him, he has become an adult participant. There may be some dark moral here about the inability of people to change, but it all leads to a closing line that seems to sum up the sadness of the Ellis hero. “The fades, the dissolves, the rewritten scenes, all the things you wipe away—I now want to explain these things to her but I know I never will, the most important one being: I never liked anyone and I’m afraid of people.”

Where not to start: While one potentially could start with The Informers, the collection of linked stories that arrived between American Psycho and Glamorama, the willful difficulty of its storytelling ellipses and chilly tone aren’t likely to win over many repeat readers. Lunar Park, conversely, might be the most emotionally transparent BEE novel (it’s a father/son story, written after the death of Ellis’s dad), but the weird conceit of a fictional narrator named Bret Easton Ellis who just happens to have written books with the exact titles and content of the previous novels by the real person named Bret Easton Ellis make it a sort of one-volume Ellis Institute for Advanced Studies: a curio that’s enjoyable enough for the initiated, but which may cause first-time readers to wonder what’s exactly the big deal.

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