The redemption of Bret Easton Ellis

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

Apr 12, 2000 at 4:00 am
Even if you have devoured every word about the cinematic adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' 1991 novel American Psycho, about a Wall Street yuppie obsessed with using skin-care products and devouring the entrails of prostitutes, you have not read this one particular fact. And it is a fact. No one could fabricate this.

At this very moment, Lions Gate Films, the company distributing American Psycho, is in negotiations with Ellis to buy sequel rights. According to Ellis, who recounts this story in a tone of voice that suggests he's both amused and bewildered, Lions Gate executives envision a whole series of films featuring Patrick Bateman, a man who likes to dismember his victims and hook up their dead limbs to car batteries just to watch them twitch. Among the ideas already being tossed around: Patrick moves to Silicon Valley, or maybe he ends up in Hollywood. If Lions Gate gets its way, Patrick Bateman will stab, skewer, and chew his way across America.

"It's like a Pink Panther series," Ellis says, choking on a laugh. "It's insane. I am not kidding at all. I have been pressured, and they've been in negotiations with my agency, and nothing's been settled yet, but I just think things are getting out of hand, basically." Ellis insists that if he and the film company arrive at a deal, he will have nothing at all to do with the sequels. He dismisses the whole affair as the by-product of greed. Lions Gate has already recouped its investment in the film, which cost relatively little to make, from foreign-distribution sales. They can smell the blood in the water. Smells like money.

"I really cannot ever imagine it happening, but the fact I've been in discussions..." Ellis pauses, as though he can't believe what he is saying. "If you had told me 10 years ago this was going to happen, I would have said, "You're out of your fucking mind.'"

Indeed, a decade ago, it seemed as though American Psycho would never even land on bookshelves. Simon & Schuster refused to publish it; then-editor in chief Richard Snyder insisted he could not circulate Ellis' book, because "when you really have to sit down and in the privacy of your own mind read a book word by word, it's a more powerful experience. The violence has greater impact. You become the person you are reading about." He claimed he was terrified the novel would inspire others to kill. That, or he caved in to pressure from the National Organization for Women, which called for a boycott of the book and any company that would dare publish "the most misogynistic communication we have ever come across," in the words of NOW president Tammy Bruce, who, in 1990, read graphic excerpts from the then-unreleased book over a telephone hotline.

Even journalists, staunch defenders of the First Amendment until something upsets their delicate sensibilities, supported the publishing house's actions. "There are descriptions of murder and sadism so gruesome and grisly that Simon & Schuster's decision not to publish the book on the grounds of taste is understandable," wrote The New York Times' Richard Bernstein in December 1990. Spy magazine, which picked on Ellis the way schoolyard bullies terrorize weak children, serialized purloined excerpts from the novel. Time referred to the book as, quite simply, "not safe."

So how did we wind up here, with Ellis about to sell off his much-maligned child for Hollywood's fast cash? Have we fallen so far in a decade that Patrick Bateman's exploits no longer shock or sicken us? Have we become so desensitized that we no longer flinch at the notion of serial killer as hero (at least, when he is not portrayed by Anthony Hopkins)? Or have we finally wised up to the fact that Ellis' book, though crudely written and poorly edited, is indeed a rather prescient, often scabrous satire of the unfilled gluttony of the 1980s?

It's probably none of the above. And all of the above.

But most likely, none of this has to do with Bret Easton Ellis at all. He has no one to thank but director Mary Harron, who has excised the gore from his book and, somehow, found beneath the blinding, boring surface an inspiring film in which mayhem and madness may exist only in Patrick's mind. Even Ellis admits that Harron's film -- which he describes as "calm" and "cool," two adjectives never applied to his novel -- helps "clarify the themes of the book." In other words, Mary Harron has saved his book and, in the process, redeemed Bret Easton Ellis.

"If, 10 years ago, you told me a feminist mother was going to write and direct the movie, I would have said, "Get out of here. Leave the room now. You're mocking me. You're mocking me!'" Ellis says, his voice rising in fake anger. "But this is what 10 years can do to a book. I mean, it's very strange to me. It's weird that American Psycho in many ways is mainstream now. I find that strange, and that's something that I never would have expected. But I think it's just the fact that it's been around for such a long time and a lot of people have read the book -- more than they did in 1991, '92. We're long past the point of people believing this really was a book written by the devil."

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.

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."

But why must a man apologize when, a decade later, people still give a shit about shit? Were it not for the controversy created by the publication of American Psycho, it's likely the book would have disappeared, one more Ellis tome thrown upon the literary bonfire. It is simply boring, about as captivating as the dictionary. Even the gory scenes ("I spent the next 15 minutes beside myself, pulling out a bluish rope of intestine, most of it still connected to the body, and shoving it into my mouth, choking on it...") contain no impact, no terror, no anything. They're silly and overwrought, failed experiments in gross-out "humor." Even Ellis admits now that when he's gone back to re-read the novel, he's wondered whether he should have excised some of the more "graphic" passages.

"Some nights," he says, "when I'm lying there and can't get to sleep and thinking of all the wrong choices I made through my life and all the regrets I have, I think, "Well, maybe I could have edited out a couple of those details. You didn't have to be so extreme.' And then what comes back to me and hits me so straight on in the face is basically, "Hey, this is the book you wrote, and this is the book you wanted to write at that point in your life, for better or worse.'"

Or, as it turns out, for both.