What do You Know?
Bret Easton Ellis – The Duality of an Experiment in Controversy
opened my word file to start this article hoping to write about Bret Easton
Ellis and his new book Lunar Park, I surmised I needed to get into to a
character to in order to successfully do so. In fact, if I'm to get at anything
remotely interesting beyond the rhetoric of the critics and fans and hangers-on,
I'd have to take on the persona of a New York builder after a four-day sex romp
with a Dallas Cowboy's cheerleader.
What do you know?
Alright, we all know why we liked this guy's book back in '91, don't we? It's
basically because all the other books at the time were just repeating the past.
Structurally, they were all the same. The characters are, in fact, all the same.
That's the beauty of the bestseller lists (airport fiction, Borders doorstops,
etc.). It's sludge fiction. Every half-assed thriller or corny Kingesque novel?
We've read ‘em alright. We get it; it's spooky, a pager turner, etc.
Remember, we're the post-literate generation. The media told us. I read it in
The Sun, so it must be true. That means we've read everything and are very,
very, very bored. Why read anything else? Also, there were No Sex Scenes in most
bestselling novels- politically correct paperbacks. That's got to be a big minus
for any self respecting post-literate reader. Everything was so watered down,
and so lame, and so pointless; late 80s- that was the essence. That's all we
want really- something shocking and clever. You see, even I'm doing it here.
Very arch. Porn and violence: it's the future, it's inevitable.
In American Psycho, the guy (Bret Easton Ellis) is describing sensational
violence and scabby porn star sex in penthouse suites across New York City in
this flat, bombed-out tone, and it's pages of the stuff, not just one a chapter
to break up the sharp observations about life. If Bret Easton Ellis was a boxer,
he would just be throwing this really flabby jab over and over and over until it
became pleasant, even lovable. The other fighter would just be taking hit after
hit after hit in a never-ending round. What's the point? Surely Bret has one…
or, maybe not?
The real undiscovered irony in Bret Easton Ellis' work is that we know that he
knows that we know. Case closed. And if you don't know, then it's just tough
titties, innit. That's my case, and it's the one thing people never say because
Ellis is a "brilliant contradiction." And it's not about beautiful, meaningful
writing or character development or even a message. It's all about the
environment. Like Bob Dylan said, "Things have changed." On the one hand, Ellis
is an experimental writer who attacks the very base of the novel by chucking the
narrative out the window. And plot- who needs it? He's going for Truth ‘N
Beauty, baby!!! He's writing with his heart, but his heart says it's
meaningless, or at least very, very empty.
"We slide down the surface of things," from Glamorama.
Where's the heart in that? Well, he has the heart, or even the empathy, to
confirm that he knows what we suspect.
The impression Ellis gives is that he can't change the world, but he can
construct a web of illusion so thick and devious that it makes the world more
interesting. Just saying that "Wall Street is full of illiterate jocks" is not a
feasible artistic statement, or even witty, but given the circumstances, given
the situation…it turned out quite well. We were/are all so numbed out by TV and
movie violence that nothing had an impact anyway. Cut that whore's head off!!!
It's true, the world had really changed. Maybe in the 70s the Pride and
Prejudice period dramas were equate-able to the times, but by the 90s these
social structures were not in place. There is no etiquette, only Money and Sex,
which are conveniently the same thing. Have fun, kids!!! By 2000 High School in
America is like some kind of grotesque Miss World with guns and knives thrown in
to make it more interesting. I'm laying down 100 bucks on that big girl with the
Remember The Lost Boys? We all want to be vampires and hang out with the
Brat Pack. And he knows that we know that he knows. So we let him off with a
warning. In the end, Ellis is a vampire who knows what we dreamed and is using
it against us if you don't know. If you do know, you might just get out of this
yet. There are ways and means, there are plans and schemes.
What Ellis deploys as the heart of his writing is in fact the biggest literary
red herring of all time. Some critics defend Ellis as a satirist. They say
Patrick Bateman (the Wall Street serial killer in American Psycho stands
for everything evil in the 80s, etc.) is being held up to condemnation. This
idea (that Ellis is a moralist just) fades into the background when contrasted
with his structural experiments in American Psycho and his other
lesser-known novels. There is no story, there is no narrative. Ellis may attack
the consumerism of the 80s through Bateman, but the way in which the lack of
narrative and the remorseless monotone monologue shatters any hope of
development, while his writing style seems at the same time to mimic the
paperback bestsellers with no mercy, is a triumph of form over content.
Conceptual structuralism trumps content every time. Ellis is merciless, and it
hurts so good.
The characters in Ellis' work are often 2D. They wear clothes, they say
dialogue, but they don't develop, they don't necessarily mean anything on their
own. Isolated, his characters only reflect. Only the way they are relentlessly
emotionally deflated and that somehow they cast shadows on the backdrop of the
times or environment might give them color or some characteristics. They are
like chess pieces he moves around a mirrored coffee table.
The search for a true self is often the center of a "real" novel. In American
Psycho, Bateman is really just a fictional character created by the 80s, not
a real character who tries to fight back against the evils of consumerism in the
80s. That's an important difference. In Lunar Park, Ellis, who is
actually a character in his own novel, looks at the unconscious of the character
only to find that it is difficult to locate a real self amongst the multi-selves
which are generated by the culture and fictions around him. Bateman monologues,
but we never find anything out about the mind of a serial killer.
What is often surprising about Ellis' novels is that although the points he
makes are often banal and there is an atmosphere of constant passivity which
permeates through all his work, his fiction is often riveting to read. It's as
if against a lavish tapestry of mundanity, Ellis places structural devices which
at once dismantles the novel's conventions and reconstructs a new fictional
reality. In a world of lobotomy paperbacks, this is exhilarating. In Glamorama,
Ellis uses structure to hit home his point about the prepackaged fashion
industry. For most of the book, model Victor Ward is the soulless narrator, but
then after 400 pages, for no reason, he is replaced by another narrator, who is
almost identical to Ward– perhaps this season's model? Flavor of the mouth, off
the peg, domestic glamour. Glamorama is like the twin sister of
American Psycho, but this time much wilder and with a narrative…but only up
to a certain point. At this point the book seems to swirl off the page and
become less coherent, as if searching for a way out or an answer. Patrick
Bateman had malicious control over the narrative, but in Glamorama,
however, Ward seems to have an unclear view as to what is happening and doesn't
kill anyone but sees a lot of people killed. He seems like he is along for the
ride, just like the reader. Glamorama eventually becomes about what a
novel should be like- what is a novel, anyway? With all the thematic material in
place for a glamorous, sleek thriller, the book eventually almost implodes and
then turns to more cerebral matters which are so far from the controversies
surrounding Ellis' books.