GLAMORAMA
By Bret Easton Ellis

Love him or hate him - and there doesn't seem to be much middle ground - you have to admit Bret Easton Ellis knows how to provoke a reaction. Depending on one's source, he is either one of the most talented writers of his generation, or a mere publicity-seeking poseur. His last novel, 1991's brilliant but disturbing American Psycho, even managed to get widely banned - no small feat in this jaded age.

His reputation as the bad boy of American letters is easy to explain: Ellis is a satirist in an age that does not accept satire. Of course the urbane wit of a Wolfe or a McEwan is still allowed, but the best satire has some anger in it and, if successful, should offend.

Glamorama begins with a fast-paced social comedy sending up Manhattan's hectically empty celebrity scene. The hero, Victor Ward, is a male model with a sexy smile, cubed abs, and part of a degree in experimental orchestra. He can recite the exact length, in seconds, of every pop song ever recorded, but doesn't know the difference between a platypus and a platitude ("One's a . . . beaver?" he attempts).

Contacted by a mysterious stranger who seems to have wandered out of a Pynchon novel, our himbo hero is offered a bundle of cash to go to England on a secret mission that has something to do with a former girlfriend. Nothing, however, is what it seems, and soon poor Victor is sucked into a nightmare world of high fashion, international terrorism, and global conspiracies.

Does it all make sense? Not quite. But it is quite a performance.

Ellis's ear for dialogue is truly a wonder. No other writer is able to inject so much humour into a pause or a baffled "um." And it is Victor's mangling of language that is the source of his charm. He always has the hip - and meaningless - thing to say, whether he is trying to comfort his girlfriend ("Baby, this insecurity you've got has to, like, split"), or defend his reputation ("I will ponder who leaked this rumor profusely").

The graphic sex and violence that have become an Ellis signature are also present, but now they are part of a more ambitious structure. The imagery even has a pattern to it, and Ellis's favourite themes - loss of identity, narcissism, decadence and privilege, the horror reflected in the "surface of things" - are developed within what is his first real plot.

Ellis is often compared to other authors, and while reading Glamorama I was struck by a couple of cases where the comparisons work.

The most obvious one is F. Scott Fitzgerald. The club scene of '90s Manhattan is like Fitzgerald's roaring '20s, with the beautiful and damned now doing Xanax and coke. On a deeper level, there is something in Ellis's fascination with material things and the status they confer, the quasi-spirituality of a Prada suit or a Rolex watch, that recalls Fitzgerald's heartfelt fetishizing of Gatsby's car, or his pile of beautiful, beautiful shirts.

Less obviously, but perhaps even more to the point, Ellis is a descendant of Evelyn Waugh. Waugh was one of the originators of the dark, ironic social comedy that Ellis explores to its darkest and most ironic depths. Like Tony Last in A Handful of Dust, the likeable hero of Glamorama is an empty vessel representative of his superficial and morally bankrupt society, sent packing to a physical and existential hell. A handful of confetti heralds his tony apocalypse - a fate that is fashionably worse than death.

It is probably impossible to write a great novel, even a great satire, about celebrity today. The subject mocks itself. Nevertheless, it is in this thin soil of pretty boys and pretty girls that Ellis, a major talent, has sunk his roots.

And who knows?

Maybe, as Victor likes to say, "the better you look, the more you see."

Notes:
Review first published March 6, 1999. It may seem strange to some that this is not a satire-friendly age, but one has to keep in mind the distinction between satire and parody (of which there is currently more than enough). As far as the power of Ellis's satire is concerned, I still think American Psycho was the defining novel of urban America in the '80s, even more so than Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, which it closely resembles.

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