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Portrait of the Artist As a Social Satirist
Bret Easton Ellis -- whose latest novel, Glamorama, has predictably stirred up critics -- talks about the line between life and art

by Harvey Blume

February 10, 1999

glamorbk picture When Bret Easton Ellis writes a book, the literary event can be subsumed by the media circus.

In his new novel, Glamorama, Ellis focuses on a milieu of people seduced by social and material surfaces. The book follows Victor Ward, a mean-spirited New York model, as he stretches his dalliances and finances past the breaking point, along the way reciting the names of celebrities to himself like a rosary. When his life becomes fully unstrung, Victor takes refuge among a group of high-fashion models, who turn out to be terrorists led by supermodel Bobby Hughes. Victor begins to dissociate; he's never sure whether the explosions to follow are genuine or part of an ongoing movie. For that matter, he no longer can tell whether his life is his own or part of an obscure but spreading media event.
Previously in Books & Authors:

Will We Survive? (January 1999)
Our environmental future looks bleak. What can we do about it? Mark Hertsgaard, author of Earth Odyssey, traveled around the world in search of answers.

The Animal Point of View (December 1998)
Stephen Budiansky, the author of If a Lion Could Talk, says that in order to truly understand animal intelligence, we need to move beyond our sentimental fascination with elephants that "weep" and gorillas that "save children."

"How Did Your Life Turn Out?" (November 1998)
An interview with Ethan Canin, the author of the new novel For Kings and Planets, who believes the only story worth writing is the history of a human being.

Tell it Like it Was (November 1998)
Steven Spielberg turned to him for advice on Saving Private Ryan. Now, Stephen Ambrose talks about his new book, The Victors-- the culmination of his work on the Second World War.

Coming to Life (October 1998)
An interview with Anne Fadiman, the new editor of The American Scholar, whose latest book proves what she has always suspected -- that there is an essayist lurking inside her.

See the complete Books & Authors index.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Join the conversation in the Arts & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

Ellis became something of a celebrity himself, at the age of twenty-one, when he published his first novel, Less Than Zero (1985), about anomie among youths in upper-crust Los Angeles. Six years later his third novel, American Psycho (1991), about a serial killer on the loose in money-mad Manhattan in the 1980s, brought notoriety to the author. Simon & Schuster backed out of printing the book (for which Ellis retained a $300,000 advance), prompting the Authors Guild to accuse the publishing house of submitting to censorship imposed by its parent company, Paramount. When Knopf agreed to take American Psycho, that decision, in turn, was vehemently denounced by the National Organization for Women (NOW), which claimed the book was nothing more than a manual on the murder and mutilation of women.

Questions raised by the American Psycho affair remain alive today -- questions about censorship and the purpose of describing violence in graphic detail, and questions, too, about whether Bret Easton Ellis's merits as a writer can be discussed apart from the sensationalism that surrounds his name. Perhaps enough heat has dissipated since the publication of American Psycho so that Glamorama can be taken on its own terms and evaluated as an extended literary experiment that does not go out of its way to be reader or reviewer friendly.

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Bret Easton Ellis   

What links fashion to terrorism?

The basic connection that I saw was insecurity. The fashion world survives by foisting a sense of insecurity upon the public. They want you to look a certain way -- own these dresses, buy those clothes. What it foists on you is a desire for something unattainable. For terrorists, the goal is not really the bombing of the embassy or of the airliner; it's to make you feel unsafe, to give you a sense of insecurity about your world. You don't want to worry anymore, so maybe you give in to their demands.

Fear -- that was the leap I was making between terrorism and fashion. Also, it interested me to ask what would be a perfect smoke screen for a terrorist conspiracy. Would it be a world where image and surface were the only truths? Could that be the smoke screen?

There's something Pynchonesque about your working with conspiracies ...

I was thinking a lot more of DeLillo. I read White Noise when it came out in 1985 and thought it was great. I started really reading him when I began working on Glamorama in 1990. There are a lot of things in his work I respond to that influence this book.

Aren't DeLillo's conspiracies much more concrete, more realistic, than yours?

Exactly. I'm only just realizing I'm more of a social satirist than anything else. Victor Ward is a summation of everything I find annoying and repellent about men in my generation. And I was thinking about what happens if you take a Victor Ward -- a sort of hip, vacant, air-head slacker -- and suddenly drop him into a Robert Ludlum-esque espionage book.

When things seem as senseless as in the fashion world you describe, is conspiracy a way of tying things together?

By its very nature conspiracy doesn't really make sense. One element leads to another that leads to another that leads to another, and there seems to be no final answer. To me, a conspiracy is an essentially meaningless thing. That may be why I unconsciously made the connection between the conspiracy and the fashion world.

Why does the dialogue in Glamorama include so many lists of celebrities' names?

The names function as currency that the characters throw back and forth. Because they have a relationship with one of these names, it enhances their reputation or gives them an entrée they wouldn't otherwise have had. In a way, I wish I'd just made up all the names. I'm hoping that if the book is around and all these people are forgotten and we're all dead then the names will function as just that -- just clumps of names.

Everybody in this book, straight and gay, speaks a kind of gay dialect. Why?

There are a couple of gay reporters who have taken the book to task on this as well. Maybe there's something at work that I'm not conscious of. But this is not a piece of reportage; this book is not necessarily an accurate portrayal of the fashion world. Neither is it necessarily inaccurate. It's a novel, it's fiction. And the metaphor I make of fashion and terrorism is already so outlandish, I thought, Why not just do what is playful and fun and have a good time writing?

There is little expression of emotion in the first part of the book. Is violence a substitute, a way of getting beneath the surface?

Violence is a way for some people to break out of a flat, affectless world and try to find some approximation of meaning. I always thought that Patrick Bateman's violence in American Psycho was a reaction to the overwhelming dullness of a society where people couldn't tell each other apart, where everything was stripped down to product placement and status symbol.

Your narrators -- Clay in Less Than Zero, Victor in Glamorama -- have very little inner life.

I tend to see my narrators as abstract summations of things that bother me. I can't even picture a face for any of them. They work as reporters who are put into these milieus -- youth culture Los Angeles, yuppie life in New York, or the fashion world in London and Paris. They function as a roving camera, taking everything in. I think a lot of people operate that way, with very strong reactions to -- I don't know. Spectacle?

What do you think of reviews of your work?

People who are very critical of my work tend to say I am like my characters. I'm seeing this again with the reviews of Glamorama -- many of the reviews seem to be motivated by a reaction against what "Bret Easton Ellis" means or what they assume my persona is. What kind of person wrote these books? Why is he not more judgmental? Why isn't there more of an explicit morality in them? Why doesn't an authorial voice ever break through the blandness of these narrators?

I've noticed on this book tour, for example, that half the questions are: How young were you when you published Less Than Zero? What about the American Psycho scandal? Did you have a problem with drugs? What did you think about the Rolling Stone piece? Do you know Leonardo DiCaprio? Why isn't he starring in the movie? You go through this just because the novel does somehow get mentioned.

Some think I'm just not a very good writer, and that I should dust off a copy of Novel Writing for Dummies. But a lot of the reaction seems to be personal. The persona, the Bret Easton Ellis persona, plays a big part in the reviews. But I don't see my celebrity as real. A lot of it is based on things that were out of my control and choices I never made. Less Than Zero, for example, was not a book that I planned on being published. It was something I wrote in college, an assignment for my tutorial. And then the American Psycho thing happened.

I guess that's why I do stuff like this, talking to people. It's a way, maybe, of explaining myself. Yeah, I've just realized that this might be why I give a shit, why I do talk to people: it's a way to debunk the clichés that exist about me.

Are people suggesting that "Bret Easton Ellis" is a put-up job -- a creation of the very media he's constantly satirizing?

Well, aren't all novelists? Aren't all artists put-up jobs? I mean, isn't the whole thing a fantasy? That's what novelists do: sit around a desk all day fantasizing about things.

In the end, no matter how many interviews I do, no matter how many public appearances I make, I believe the book speaks for itself. I grew up thinking, Look at the art, not the artist. The artist's marital problems, drug problems, wild nights out -- they mean nothing. It's the books, the films, the records that I connect with emotionally. I like to read biographies. I'm interested in the lives of artists, but I'm not interested in connecting the lives of artists with their work and basing some sort of moral evaluation on that -- which is something I see happening a lot with my work. Especially compared to my peers. I get a lot more of it than my peers do.

What moves me usually has nothing to do with character, nothing to do with plot or feelings at all. I am moved by how well an author's or film-maker's intention come to fruition within the work. I can be moved by something as simple as how they crafted a paragraph, and amazed by how dead-on some dialogue can be. To me, it's about aesthetics and style. People crying in books and hugging each other and some glorious epiphany tying it all together -- usually I'm not moved by that. But I am moved by an artist's vision, and if that vision is a triumph of flatness or affectlessness then I still can be blown away.

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Harvey Blume, a writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is a frequent contributor to Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.