The redemption of Bret Easton Ellis

A decade ago, the American Psycho author was vilified. Now, he could launch a franchise.

It wasn't so long ago that Bret Easton Ellis was actually something of a minor deity, at least among kids who imagined themselves as characters in his teenage wasteland. His first novel appeared at just the right time -- in the middle of the 1980s, when shallow seemed somehow deep. Less Than Zero, published in 1985, was an immediate best seller and trendsetter, pegged to Ellis' status as Bennington College-student-turned-would-be-Salinger. The book -- a dull-gray portrait of Los Angeles as a cocaine-swept desert -- was as insightful as a collection of blank pages. Still, Ellis and his buddies -- Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City), Jill Eisenstadt (From Rockaway), and Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York) among them -- became the Author as Celebrity. Only one of their lot seemed to possess any talent; with his second book, Ransom, McInerney at least seemed familiar enough with the English language to string together two coherent sentences at a time. But that didn't stop Hollywood from turning their novels into movies, nor did it stop the press from turning their every doing into gossip fodder.

They were abhorred by the so-called lit-crit "gatekeepers," to use McInerney's phrase from a 1989 Esquire cover story in which he attacked his attackers. But they dismissed the criticism by insisting, as McInerney wrote, "we live in shitty, depraved, and complacent times...Sex, drugs, kids with too much money and not enough education -- this alleged fringe represents a symptomatic wedge of American society. The age deserves an image of its accelerated grimace." In other words, those writers were engaged in nothing less than exploitation and exaggeration. They needed no parody.

In the 15 years since the publication of Less Than Zero, Ellis has gone from punch line to trivia question, though he continues to publish, if not prosper. On the surface, he appears to be the last man standing after the critical execution. McInerney continues to publish, but like Ellis, he retraces his own steps in slightly different shoes each time. His last novel, Model Behavior, recently out in paperback, offered a broad satire of celebrity journalism; it's far easier just to read a single issue of Talk. Janowitz is still allowed to release a book every now and then, presumably because she has incriminating pictures of someone in the publishing profession. And Eisenstadt has all but disappeared: She has not published since 1991, save for the occasional first-person piece in The New York Times.

Is this man still the devil? Bret Easton Ellis, author of Less Than Zero and American Psycho
Marion Ettlinger
Is this man still the devil? Bret Easton Ellis, author of Less Than Zero and American Psycho

So Ellis remains the sole member of the so-called literary Brat Pack who continues to...

"Be relevant?" Ellis offers this with a hard laugh. He spits out the words. He is kidding. He is not kidding.

"I'm joking, I'm joking, I'm joking," he insists, chuckling, covering his ass. "I had a couple cups of coffee this morning, so I'm a little punchy. I didn't mean that."

And yet, he did. He does. How can he not?

He has endured so much abuse over the past decade; he has been dismissed, despised, and disparaged with the vehemence usually reserved for baby-rapists, serial killers, and presidents. Yet, somehow, he never sinks to the bottom. He survives. He thrives.

His most recent book, Glamorama, just issued in paperback, is barely a book at all. It's more like a laundry list of brand names, supermodels, and celebrities, and it often reads as though it contains no verbs. Last year, it was a best seller. Glamorama is something of a "sequel" to American Psycho -- only this time, it's a whole group of beautiful people who go around doing the murdering, not just one shallow, narcissistic yuppie on the prowl. It's Tom Wolfe as written by Total Request host Carson Daly, a bonfire of inanities.

But trashing a Bret Easton Ellis novel has become a literary pastime. His books -- which also include The Rules of Attraction, published in 1987, and 1994's collection of short stories, The Informers -- are the proverbial fast ball down the middle, and critics line up to take batting practice. Once, he took such potshots personally. Critics cut him, and he bled. Now, he expects denigration and accepts it with an oh-well shrug. Ellis insists he still experiences fallout from the publication of American Psycho and its attendant furor. As far as he's concerned, he remains a victim of his own bad press -- the long-yellowed tales of coked-up nights on the town, the stories about how Simon & Schuster refused to publish such grisly porn. The writer accepts no blame; he assumes no guilt.

"I would say 50 to 60 percent of my reviews are negative," he says, almost with a certain gleeful pride. "You know, it's interesting, because I suppose that my books are reviewed seemingly on a more political and moral basis than really any of my peers, and I think that is an outcome, I suppose, of American Psycho. I think a lot of critics also just don't like the books. They don't like the neutrality of the style, they don't like my subject matter. I don't think it's all like, "Oh, the new Bret Easton Ellis book has come out. I'm not going to read it; I'm just going to write a terrible review about it.' I guess my work is too conceptual and extreme for certain critics. There's nothing I can do about it. I can't really change the way I write, so, you know, there you go."

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