All's not gold that glitters
Bret Easton Ellis and celebrity culture
Ohhhhh, 'the Big Book.' I wish I'd never said it and that it had never been published." Bret Easton Ellis is wincing as we sit at the writing desk of his East Village apartment. While he'll cheerfully revisit the critical controversies surrounding American Psycho and Less Than Zero, a flippant remark made to Vanity Fair four years ago has him fretting a bit. "The Big Book" concept was picked up and used in virtually every piece that's appeared since. In a string-and-can game of telephone journalism, the ironic spirit disappeared, and Ellis was understood to mean that he fancied the forthcoming work his magnum opus -- one by a writer still in his mid-thirties. "I never wanted to create the expectation of 'the big book' because I thought it was going to take three or four years to write and would come out after American Psycho, and it didn't. It became the big book only because of how long it took to write and all the garbage that went on in the intervening years."
The book in question is this month's Glamorama, and if Ellis doesn't consider it the career-defining statement (he's too smart for that), it remains in almost every other way a very big book. Seven years in the works, the novel is 482 pages of conceptually ambitious social satire; a scathing look at the society of the spectacle. As we talk, it is apparent that no matter the reception awaiting it, the book's greatest impact is being felt in this large apartment and in its author's life. The birthing process has been so long and has spanned such difficult seasons that the sense of relief on publication is now palpable. For Bret Easton Ellis, Glamorama is indeed a big book -- the one that is now off his shoulders.
"I changed a lot because I wrote this book and because I finished this book," Ellis says exhaling smoke from a Marlboro Light. "A lot of things changed for me -- certain fears, certain insecurities were alleviated, not necessarily by the book's subject matter, but just because I wrote the book I never thought I would finish. There was a sense of accomplishment that . . . fixed me in some way." Indeed, there is an openness and a sense of peace about the man that is surprising. The dark-suited, scowling figure from the dust jackets and the magazine profiles, the tormented bad boy of New York letters, is nowhere in evidence as we chat in his spartan apartment. I'd been warned by a friend that Ellis likes to make a show of his awkwardness and inaccessibility, and revel in it.
As we sit, however, he is nothing if not eager to please. Bret Easton Ellis looks healthy and handsome in khakis and a polo shirt. He serves me cranberry juice and he laughs readily -- never more so than at himself and the dramas that have been such a part of his public persona.
It's not surprising that Glamorama's wicked skewering of celebrity culture has proved cathartic for its author. When Less Than Zero hit the bestseller lists in 1985, Ellis was still a junior at Bennington. The book surfed the zeitgeist in a way that earned its author money, popular acknowledgment, and no small amount of critical suspicion. The attention lavished on his chemical, sexual, social, not to mention literary, lives was exceptional for such a young writer. "Spy magazine made a living out of making fun of me and Jay McInerney during [the '80s]," he says chuckling.
These days, Madonna has a daughter and practices yoga; Bret Easton Ellis, fellow 1980s survivor, writes books and avoids the Hamptons.
1991's American Psycho was a daring book, one that its admirers insisted was exceptionally black and brave satire. But what Ellis himself describes as the "flat, pornographic tone" of the narrator's account of the torture and killing of young women earned him death threats and made him a literary pariah.
When we venture to the difficult period after Psycho's publication, Ellis smiles before doing a laundry list of personal problems that coincided with "the initial horror about the book." Though he can be disarmingly earnest, he plays with the hoary old myths of the tormented, self-destructive writer: the death of a father with whom he'd failed to make peace, "relationships falling apart, maybe . . . I can't believe that I'm so blase about this -- problems with drugs and alcohol. Of course, there's that little part of me that loves to say that . . . but at the time it was not funny."
Unfunny enough, in fact, that the battle with Glamorama's initial stages threatened to drive him out of the business: "It really got to the point where I thought it took too much work to write a book, and I thought it wasn't worth it. I thought I'd find another way of making a living."
The good news is that seven years later, Ellis remains very much a writer, and Glamorama features the same mix of seriousness and mockery as its author. The book is less a character study than his previous work. As a critique of the numbing superficiality of an age in which "beauty is an accomplishment," it comes smartly packaged as an espionage thriller.
Characters have been drawn from that patented Ellis stock of the materially overindulged and spiritually malnourished. (Narrator Victor Ward returns from The Rules of Attraction as do other minor figures from the past.) In turn, they thrust into a world in which virtually anything is possible and the indolence of the rich and beautiful is interrupted by shocking acts of violence. Ellis has written for those of us who have long harbored suspicions that Christy and Kate and Cindy are up to no good; that behind the photo shoots and runways, there lurks real evil. The author manages to play his game for a mixture of outrage and farce that connects the jet set to terrorist acts and which feels strangely authentic. As Ellis puts it, "the celebrity culture is so surreal, so that's a big part of the book." In the end, Glamorama works because it is only marginally more surreal than the evening news featuring Barbara Streisand whispering in the president's ear or Ginger Spice retiring from pop music to become a UN envoy. It's when the book is most tempting to dismiss that it is most eerily familiar.
But throughout the book and over the afternoon as we talk, even the weighty themes anchoring the work won't drag the new Bret Easton Ellis down. Amid the moral outrage driving the work, there is always a keen sense of the absurd: "It's something that I'm really interested in as a writer -- finding the comedy in the horror and the chaos of it all, drawing that out."
He talks about being older and clearing the emotional minefield of his twenties and about the perspective that it has given him. A novel set in Washington and "tangentially related to politics" is in the planning stages, but it is a memoir addressing his late adolescence and the (sort of) halcyon days at Bennington that seems to most interest him right now. Ellis continues to vent his angst onto the page: "people think it's this grand notion -- of writing as a form of therapy, but it's really not. It's just helpful." He's grinning as he says it, pleased with the thought and tossing back some grapefruit juice for emphasis.
Glamorama, sprawling ambitious thing that it is, may not be the "Big Book," but it's done. These days, for its author, that's enough.
Christopher Lawrence is a freelance writer based in New York City.