Glamorama

Bret Easton Ellis’s literary voice emerged fully-formed in his first novel, Less Than Zero, published to acclaim in 1985 when he was 20 years old and still a student at Bennington College. In stark minimalist prose Ellis chronicled the desultory world of wealthy Los Angeles teenagers living a hollow existence of drugs, soulless sex, casual violence, and consumer extravagance. Comparisons to F. Scott Fitzgerald and a latter day "lost generation" were drowned out by the more derisive label of "brat pack" that was soon attached to Ellis and several other hot young 1980s authors with splashy book contracts, in particular Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City ) and Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York ).

All hell broke loose with Ellis’s third book, American Psycho (1990), which is perhaps his masterpiece and one of the most shocking American novels ever written. Using the same flat, emotionless narrative voice from his earlier work, Ellis clearly laid the blame for his generation’s – and the country’s – moral meltdown at the feet of Reagan’s "morning in America" symbolized by the Wall Street boom of the 1980s. American Psycho is narrated by Patrick Bateman, 26 year-old investment broker and serial murderer. The novel’s chilling deadpan style is perfectly tuned for embodying the widening gulf between rich and poor, between men and women, between exploiters and the exploited.

Ellis’s publisher, Simon and Schuster, refused to have anything to do with the horrifying and controversial manuscript. (Ellis, however, was contractually allowed to keep the sizable advance he’d been paid while writing it.) The novel was eventually published by Random House as a Vintage paperback amid protests that it be boycotted. There were a handful of critics who realized that beneath the gore, American Psycho was a sardonic satire comparable to Norman Mailer’s scabrous 1967 novel Why Are We in Vietnam?, in which a brutal Alaskan bear hunt became a metaphor for the dark side of America’s John Wayne military mentality.

Ellis later insisted that the theme of American Psycho wasn’t violence at all, but rather rancid consumerism. Furthermore, as if to save us the ordeal, he even recommended that readers could skip most of it once they understood that the book was reducible to the following narrative schemata: "Shopping, shopping, shopping, clothes, clothes, clothes, sex, sex, murder, shopping, shopping, clothes, murder…"

The surprise of his ambitious new 482-page novel, Glamorama, is that Ellis has reinvigorated his style with a more reader-friendly comic energy and a hapless Candide-like protagonist. Victor Ward is a typical Ellis character in many ways: a male-model and New York dance club promoter living a pampered life of easy money, easy drugs, and easy sex with multiple girlfriends. He’s also a monumental doofus and often the butt of his own vacuous insights:

"Baby, Andy once said that beauty is a sign of intelligence."

She turns slowly to look at me. "Who, Victor? Who? Andy who?" She coughs, blowing her nose. "Andy Kaufman? Andy Griffith? Who in the hell told you this? Andy Rooney?"

"Warhol," I say softly, hurt. "Baby…"

Even minor characters are etched with witty precision, such as interior designer Waverly Spear – "dead ringer for Parker Posey" – and her breathless inspirations for Victor’s nightclub: "I see orange flowers, I see bamboo, I see Spanish doormen, I hear Steely Dan, I see Fellini… I see the 70s, baby, and I am wet."

For the first 100 pages or so, Glamorama maintains a screwball-comedy pace with puns, jokes, and rapid-fire dialogue. The story then proceeds to add a few more dimensions, both figuratively and literally. We meet Victor’s dour father, a U.S. senator considering a presidential bid. As a public official he’s deeply embarrassed by his son’s tabloid lifestyle. In short order Victor finds himself involved with a shadowy government agent and an overseas mission to locate and bring home one of Victor’s former girlfriends, a film starlet who may be involved with terrorists. The satire is rich: the clueless Victor is suddenly set down in the middle of an espionage thriller with overtones of everything from Hitchcock and James Bond to spoofy films like Modesty Blaise and Austin Powers.

The strangest turn taken by Glamorama is an absurdist postmodern leap that’s entirely new to Ellis’s fiction: a film crew makes an appearance midway through the book and they never leave. In fact, Glamorama evolves into a looking-glass alternate reality in which Victor is simultaneously living the book’s story and acting in a movie version of the story. It’s a fiendishly clever and complex literary ploy, with Victor adrift in a media-saturated nightmare of escalating violence. He unwittingly joins an international terrorist cell – while, at the same time, acting in a movie about an international terrorist cell – comprised of bomb-throwing fashion models.

Ellis never shies away from detailing the carnage that ensues from deadly explosions in a crowded Paris cafe, or a train, or a 747 in flight. The novel’s most gruesome locale is a basement torture chamber used by the terrorists to punish and/or execute anyone who gets in their way. Here is where Glamorama revisits the graphic horrors of American Psycho, reconfigured this time around for a commentary on real-world violence versus the comfortable distance we’re used to from CNN and newspaper accounts of geopolitical struggles. Ellis would no doubt approve of us skipping over the stomach-churning passages in Glamorama once we get the "point" that real violence is repulsive. The ideology of the terrorists is never specified and Ellis demurs from offering anything like the critique of right-wing politics that kept American Psycho focused in its outrage. (Psycho-killer Patrick Bateman makes a sick-joke cameo appearance in Glamorama. Several of the characters in the new novel, including Victor himself, also appear in Ellis’s 1987 book, The Rules of Attraction.)

Is Glamorama for everyone? Not a chance. But in an era when Thomas Harris’s grim flesh-eating opus, Hannibal, can shoot to the top of the summer bestseller list, I’m beginning to suspect Bret Easton Ellis has a larger potential audience than previously assumed.

Bob Wake