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The Boston Phoenix Modish Operandi

Has Bret Easton Ellis taken the tenet 'know what you write' too far?

By Chris Wright

MARCH 1, 1999: 

GLAMORAMA, by Bret Easton Ellis. Knopf, 482 pages, $25.

Reading GLAMORAMA, the new novel by Bret Easton Ellis, I was reminded of an old joke:

An elderly woman calls the police. "Help!" she says. "There's a naked man parading around in the apartment opposite mine!"

When the police arrive, there is indeed a man standing in an open window across the way, bare-chested, though the lower half of his body is obscured by the window ledge.

"How do you know he's naked?" asks one of the police officers.

"The dresser!" cries the old lady. "Stand on the dresser!"

In writing this meticulously detailed satire of the New York glamour circuit, Ellis clearly went above and beyond what normally constitutes research. Like the old woman, he can hardly be viewed as a disinterested observer. Indeed, the 35-year-old author is almost as well known for haunting Manhattan's celebrity-riddled bars and bistros as he is for writing novels. He is precisely the kind of scenester he spoofs in the book. Yet if the satirist's role is to stand apart from (that is, above) the follies against which he rails, then Ellis has surely violated that convention.

Speaking on the phone from a hotel in Miami -- where he is on a book tour to promote Glamorama -- Ellis laughs at the joke (and mock-threatens to hang up on me), and admits his familiarity with the scene his book lampoons. "There wasn't really that much research," he says. "It really came -- fortunately or unfortunately -- very naturally. I do not pull myself out of the gutter on this one."

At the same time, Ellis doesn't necessarily agree that his role as satirist has been compromised. "As a writer, you do feel that you're above it because you're observing all the time, whether you're a part of it or not," he says. "I think you can be a part of a world and be very critical of it." After a pause he adds, "Though I'm sure I'm criticizing myself as well."

Perhaps because of his proximity to the lifestyle, Ellis hits the nail squarely on the head in describing Manhattan's glitzy, vapid culture of celebrity, its obsession with cubed abs and carved cheekbones, its constant stream of drugs, booze, and Diet Snapple.

The book documents the rise and fall of its protagonist and narrator, Victor Ward, a vain, vacuous (and strangely likable) socialite/model/actor with a penchant for speaking in song lyrics, noting designer labels (everything is either Prada, Chanel, or Versace), popping Xanax, sleeping with friends' girlfriends (despite the fact that he dates a supermodel), and, as Ellis puts it, "rubbing up against celebrity."

"Victor is a summation of everything that bothers me about my generation," Ellis says. "His hipness, his irony, the kind of ironic detachment that flattens everything around him emotionally, his narcissism." Though Ellis is aware that many critics would apply these terms to him, he is also assured of his own accomplishments, whereas Victor, he says, "is completely emblematic of a new form of creature I've noticed in the '90s: a sort of newfangled celebrity who is famous for no particular reason at all."

The book opens with Victor and his trendy cronies making last-minute preparations for opening night at a new nightclub:

"Victor, shouldn't we have a cause?" JD says. "What about global warming or the Amazon? Something. Anything.

"Passé. Passé. Passé." I stop. "Wait -- Beau! Is Suzanne DePasse coming?"

"What about AIDS?"

"Passé. Passé."

"Breast cancer?"

"Oh groovy, far out," I gasp before slapping him lightly on the face. "Get serious. For who? David Barton? He's the only one with tits anymore."

Thus begins a 482-page torrent of smarminess that would be excruciating if not for Ellis's tight control: his ear for the cadences of glitterati-speak is spot on, and Victor's patter is brilliant for its sheer inanity.

Much has been made of this book's obsession with celebrity. Ellis doesn't just drop names, he bombards us with them, hurls them across the page in great glittering heaps. At first they occur on the endless guest lists Victor compiles for the club's opening ("Naomi Campbell, Helena Christensen, Cindy Crawford, Sheryl Crow . . . "); throughout the book Victor is compelled to draw up a mental who's-who list: " . . . RuPaul, Fran Lebowitz, Winona Ryder (who doesn't applaud as we walk by), René Russo, Sylvester Stallone. . . . "

Critics have complained that Glamorama's celebrity lists go on too long, and they do: as Ellis knows, monotony can be an effective comic device. Moreover, the use of real-life names (they are never characters, just names) lends an air of immediacy and veracity to a plot that, about halfway through the book, veers into a kind of grotesque surrealism.

Glamorama is not just a book of two halves, it's two books. The first is farce, a Manhattan comedy of manners, and the second is, as Ellis puts it, "this sort of espionage, um, thriller-type book, whatever it is." Which just about sums it up.

Despite the thematic fissure, Glamorama is not as muddled as it could have been. Indeed, of all Ellis's work, this book comes closest to having a traditional narrative structure: a beginning, middle, and end. And, a few blind alleys aside, Ellis introduces the book's intrigue with skillful sleight of hand.

Gradually, Victor's solipsistic little world is pried open. Creepy portents surround him: he receives accusatory faxes ("I know what you did"), he is being followed, and, most troublingly, people keep telling Victor they've seen him at events he didn't attend. Victor, whose idea of inner turmoil up to this point is likely to have involved "bad sashimi," suddenly finds himself in the middle of a sinister conspiracy -- a convoluted conspiracy at that. And improbable. Make that a convoluted, sinister, highly improbable, revoltingly violent conspiracy.

Poor dumb Victor doesn't know what hit him. Following the orchestrated collapse of his personal and professional life, he is lured onto a transatlantic cruise on the QE2, after which he stumbles through a snarl of intrigue in London and Paris, falls in with a cell of terrorist supermodels, and finds himself in the middle of the kind of nightmare that only Bret Easton Ellis could dream up.

The force of the first explosion propels Brad into the air. A leg is blown apart from the thigh down and a ten-inch hole is ripped open in his abdomen and his mangled body ends up lying in the curb on Boulevard Saint Germain, splashing around in its own blood, writhing in its death throes. The second bomb in the Prada backpack is now activated.

Scenes like this -- and worse -- come thick and fast as the terrorist supermodels do what terrorist supermodels do best: bomb, torture, maim, party, plot, pout, hang out -- and commit all kinds of double-crosses that leave Victor saying things like, "Whoah." Meanwhile, in true Ellis fashion, bloody mayhem abounds.

No one does gore quite like Ellis. With the release of his American Psycho in 1991, graphic -- some thought gratuitous -- violence became a trademark of Ellis's work. The violence in that book -- often perpetrated on women, often coupled with sex -- caused a real flap: Ellis was denounced by feminists and dropped by his publisher. He even had to hire bodyguards after he got death threats. Though he admits to being, in his fiction at least, "drawn to violence," Ellis says the rabid criticism of him and his book came as "an awful shock."

"It's so odd for me that I find myself in this position of being considered one of the most violent writers alive," he says. "There was some ridiculous part of me, when I had finished American Psycho, that thought, 'Well, I'm going to be applauded for this.' I thought it was a very honest portrayal, a very politically correct book." He continues with a grim laugh: "I obviously missed the boat on that one."

Though critics have already weighed in on the many imaginatively gruesome deaths in Glamorama, the violence doesn't begin to approach the shock value of that in American Psycho. In that book, the violence was immediate, perpetrated by a figure with whom we could identify; in Glamorama, the violence is perpetrated by utterly implausible characters under utterly implausible conditions. Further, in American Psycho the violence was intimate, committed by the narrator (implicating -- fairly or not -- the author); in Glamorama the narrator -- the authorial voice -- is that of helpless onlooker. And, in this book, there's little correlation between violence and sex.

And so Glamorama puts some distance between the author and the violence, the reader and the violence, and the sex and the violence. Perhaps Ellis deliberately set out to shake people up with American Psycho, and then, when that blew up in his face, toned things down a bit for Glamorama.

Nonsense, he says.

For him, Ellis insists, writing is a form of therapy. "The writing of a book is wholly personal," he says. "You are alone with it. You don't care what anyone else says. Shaking things up is the last thing on my mind when I'm writing a book." Before he starts sounding too much like a kinder, gentler Ellis, he continues, "Maybe people would be less frightened of me if I said, 'Yeah, I purposely wanted to shake things up; these books didn't come out of a natural place within me.' But they did. I wasn't acting out [American Psycho narrator] Patrick Bateman's life, but there was a part of me that was definitely all over that book, in terms of feeling depressed and angry."

Which makes you wonder what Ellis was feeling when he wrote this one. The odd thing about Glamorama is that while the first half of the novel is easily the funniest stuff Ellis has ever written, the book's conclusion -- implausible or no -- is among the most disturbing. First, there's the blurring of reality and illusion (largely due to the introduction of a movie crew that begins filming the proceedings, and that may or may not be a figment of Victor's imagination). Creepier, though, are the questions of identity that arise. Photographs are manipulated to implicate the innocent in terrible crimes; doppelgängers act out the lives of murder victims. Toward the end of the book, Victor undergoes a fate worse than death (even one of Ellis's famously hideous deaths): he is stripped of his identity, helpless and alone, alive and dead at the same time.

So what natural place did that come from?

"There's a paranoia that infuses the book," Ellis says, growing relatively sober. "I was working on it after the American Psycho incident, and there is a paranoia, not knowing who to trust, seeing this other narrative of your life take shape that you know isn't the real narrative." Though he owns up to being a bit of a media "whore," Ellis says his notoriety in the press has taken a psychological toll.

"There's a part of me that believes celebrity equals nonexistence," he says. "When you become a celebrity, that image takes over your life. That's all people know you as, because the majority of people who read your books or see you on TV or in a magazine, they only know that. They don't know you, and so that takes over, that becomes who you are and you die a kind of death. That's replicated in this book. That's something I do think about."

Chris Wright is the associate editor of Stuff@Night.

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