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
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.