On a Tuesday afternoon last year, I received an email from a stranger. Let’s call him Steve. He’d attached an audio file named after me and apologized in the body of the email for the “invective” contained therein.
The file was a four-and-a-half-minute-long rant against me and my writing that Steve had read on the internet. In a low, languid monotone that sounded like the musings of an unemployed schizophrenic, Steve railed against the technical aspects of my craft with such specificity that I had to give him a little credit, even if his observations sprang from a place of venom and, it seemed, mental instability.
Steve, a web developer, soon began an audio-based blog he devoted to picking apart my writing, with each new post veering further from my actual work and toward ad hominem attacks. He started a number of other blogs all criticizing the state of fiction writing today, picking targets like Dave Eggers who, to him, represented the downfall of literature.
Yet one of his author-targeted blogs was more ambivalent. It was dedicated to Bret Easton Ellis. Steve said he had attended elite and expensive Bennington College (on a merit-based scholarship) with Ellis in the 1980s. I did some research, and it appeared to check out. He also claimed he was the basis for a character in Ellis’s 1987 novel, The Rules of Attraction, who makes a cameo for three pages. The character, named Steve in the book but dubbed “The Handsome Dunce of Camden College” by the real-life Steve, is depicted as a vapid, blond, good-looking rich kid from Long Island. On his blog, Steve complained, “Upon reading these excerpts it should be clear The Handsome Dunce is not lying when he says he has suffered humiliation, resentment and a loss of celebrity and a loss of love and affection from freshman girls, as he’s dealt with this nickname and fictional identity.”
Despite the hardships he endured from the textual existence of this supposed alter ego, Steve has maintained an ongoing obsession with Ellis. On his online résumé listing his accomplishments at university, he includes the bullet-pointed “Developed a friendship with Bret Easton Ellis after the release of Less Than Zero.” While he has nothing but scorn for the other famous writers who passed through Bennington around the same time—Donna Tartt and Jonathan Lethem, among others—for Ellis he has a strangely worshipful abhorrence.
The phrase that strikes me as most salient in Steve’s litany of woes is his “loss of celebrity.” It’s doubtful he would register the same objection to a supporting role in one of Jonathan Lethem’s novels. But any Bret Easton Ellis novel’s dominant concern is money and status, and it follows that a writer manqué would be preoccupied with this lack of fame and professional recognition in his own life (even if placement in a widely read novel should theoretically enhance an otherwise anonymous web developer’s celebrity).
Ellis’s Imperial Bedrooms, the sequel to Less Than Zero, middle-ages the privileged Los Angeles teens of his 1985 debut and lacquers his moneyed cast with a coat of renown. Clay, the nihilistic antihero, is now a successful screenwriter floating through the Hollywood party scene with a ubiquitous glass of vodka. The novel’s primary relationship is between him and Rain, an untalented young actress. He uses her for sex and develops a fixation on possessing her; she uses him to get a role in his next film.
Imperial Bedrooms is an example of how, sometimes, a book demands you judge it by its cover. The title is minuscule, serving as the two eyes on a silhouetted figure with satanic horns. Ellis’s name is in devil-red large-font block letters. The flap copy ends with a definitive paragraph: “A genuine literary event.” The author photo frames Ellis against an L.A. backdrop in sunglasses, shirt unbuttoned to air some chest hair, drink in hand, and a pursed, smug expression. He told an interviewer that it took two days to stage, and that, “I wanted this one to look older and douchier than that louche young man in a loosened tie I took when I was 21 for Less Than Zero.”
The message is clear: You don’t buy a Bret Easton Ellis novel for the individual novel—you buy it because it’s by Bret Easton Ellis. Reading it is an “event,” a social occasion more than a private literary experience. The author photo is performance art, a blurring of fiction and reality, and complements a metafictional novel that opens with a reference to the book and film versions of Less Than Zero and calls the author “someone we knew” who had “hijacked” Clay’s life for his novel.
When I first read that book, in 1998, as a 19-year-old around the same age as the characters, I was predictably captivated. The emptiness of late-capitalist America, drugs and alcohol as the tonic of the wounded, emotionless sex tinged with violence—is any of this new? Other than adding Hollywood to the equation and text messaging to the fictional modes of stifled discourse, Ellis treads over much of the same ground he covered in Less Than Zero.
When I first read that book, in 1998, as a 19-year-old around the same age as the characters, I was predictably captivated by the glamorized drug use, casual sex, and minimalist, anomie-evoking prose. But in spite of my voyeuristic interest in these subjects, the rest of Ellis’s oeuvre failed to entice me. The descriptions and reviews of the other books suggested they were only slight variations on his debut’s theme, Less Than Zero recycled in a different environment—college for The Rules of Attraction, Wall Street in American Psycho, Glamorama’s high fashion. And the hollow protagonists seemed less like compelling portraits of capitalist ciphers and more like reflections of Ellis’s own authorial limitations, his inability (or lack of desire) to convey a three-dimensional character. So, except for seeing the cinematic versions of Less Than Zero (as stultifying as a movie can be that’s about sex and drugs and money) and American Psycho, I have not sought out anything Ellis-related until Imperial Bedrooms.
Ellis has proclaimed himself a “moralist,” suggesting he judges the venality he limns. Yet everything about Imperial Bedrooms—the flat prose, the cardboard characters, the slackly repetitive narrative—is guilty of precisely what he indicts, a culture built upon hollowness and consumed with surface. A defender could argue that Ellis is using the very tools of the system to expose it, but after being trapped within its tedious pages after a while, the reader may suspect that the author’s work is less about exposure and more a mimetic reproduction of a worldview he may claim to dislike but remains unable, or unwilling, to escape.
An Ellisian digression (the plot in Imperial Bedrooms, despite its pretenses to the Los Angeles noir of Raymond Chandler, isn’t a tightly wound affair, even though it’s a wisp of a novel at under 170 pages): For a few years, I wrote for the magazine Radar. It self-consciously modeled itself off SPY, the satirical publication that revolutionized the magazine world in the 1980s. When SPY came out, there wasn’t much else around in the way of a corrective to the burgeoning field of celebrity infatuation and genuflection before the altar of wealth. By the time Radar appeared in the mid-2000s, snarky takedowns of the lifestyles of the rich and famous had fully entrenched themselves in the culture, especially online.
Radar prided itself on its irreverent stance toward celebrity. But true irreverence means turning away from Paris and Britney and focusing on subjects of greater gravity, not deploying cynical barbs that betray a veiled idolization of starlets and pop idols. The same charge could be levied at Ellis: If he finds consumerist culture so vacant, celebrities so vacuous, Los Angeles and New York so soul-destroying, then why doesn’t he expand his material to the more substantive parts of American life?
I’m not saying my book is better or more authentic than Ellis’s; what I’m saying is that, partially due to the anxiety of his strong influence, I tried to deviate from the well-worn path he helped blaze. In part, it’s because writers write what they know, and Ellis knows numbness, money, parties, cocaine, and sex. And in part, I suspect, it’s because Ellis writes, intentionally or not, to the market—the very tack his “moralist” fiction would decry—and he knows that the American media like to cover books whose subjects closely mirror their own lives. Magazine editors can better relate to Wall Street traders, fashionistas, and the coke-snorting denizens of Beverly Hills than to, say, Walmart workers, coal miners, and crack addicts in South Central L.A. Thanks to this built-in promotional audience, Ellis is hailed for writing (or trying to write) Great American Novels because they have the word “American” stuffed into their titles. Yet Patrick Bateman of American Psycho—impossibly handsome, wealthy, and cosmopolitan—has less than zero in common with the average middle-class, overweight American who rarely leaves his home state.
Still, it’s worth giving credit to Ellis for being at the vanguard of the ’80s literary Brat Pack, alongside Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz. In Less Than Zero, the following exchange is a prescient forerunner of what could easily be mistaken for the iterative zombie dialogue of The Hills a few decades hence:
…I look at both of them and say, “Walker is nice.” I don’t know who Walker is.
“Yeah, I like Walker,” Trent says.
“Yeah, Walker’s nice.” Blair nods.
“Hey, did I tell you,” Trent begins. “I’m going to the Springs tomorrow…”
In Less Than Zero, the characters frequently zone out watching MTV, and the novel is composed of short swathes of text that mimic a music video’s short-attention-span cuts. In Imperial Bedrooms, Clay and Rain watch The Hills at one point. While this is an accurate (if not especially trenchant) detail about the lives of the leisure class, the problem is that the culture has superseded Ellis. Not only is he about a decade behind the curve now in describing an obeisance to reality TV, but the more contemporary point would be that someone like Rain doesn’t watch MTV anymore—she’s on MTV, in any of a number of shows that turn “normal” people into pseudo-celebrities for an ever-shrinking 15 minutes. And aspiring actresses don’t fuck screenwriters to get movie roles (even if they’re also producers, as Clay is, though you’d never know it from the few movie-biz scenes in the novel that ring inauthentic and derivative); they go viral with a YouTube video and land a sitcom deal.
This year, my debut novel Kapitoil was published. It’s set in the New York financial world, and in several scenes bankers carouse in the glitzy Manhattan nightlife. Before I began, I cautioned myself not to write an Ellis or McInerney knockoff. To describe nightclubs as bastions of superficiality and traders as empty vessels wouldn’t enlighten any readers or do anything F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t already cover in The Great Gatsby. Rather, I sought to acknowledge that such a world exists, but not to pay it so much attention that my treatment of it became an homage rather than a clear-eyed dissection. I’m not saying my book is better or more authentic than Ellis’s; what I’m saying is that, partially due to the anxiety of his strong influence, I tried to deviate from the well-worn path he helped blaze and has since walked down many times.
The formula Ellis reprises in each of his novels is to mix violence into the endless parade of sex and drugs, either via short episodes tacked on at the end—as in Less Than Zero—or woven throughout, most notably in American Psycho. In Less Than Zero, Clay is repelled by various moments of violence he witnesses, and makes one of his few moral judgments when his friends want him to observe the gang-rape of a 12-year-old girl: “It’s…I don’t think it’s right,” he stammers. It’s a sensationalized scene, implausible and ludicrous, and if Clay has finally turned a corner, it’s not a hard one to make.
At the end of Imperial Bedrooms, the adult Clay rents the services of a young male and female prostitute and rapes and beats them. It’s one of many deliberate echoes of Ellis’s debut, and we’re meant to see this as a marker of Clay’s descent, from a youthful rejection to a 40-something embrace of total dissolution. Again, though, it feels like the action comes not out of Clay’s character (thin as it is), but authorial desire to serve a digestif of violence and, ostensibly, a profound denouement to what’s otherwise an episodic narrative with a B-movie plotline revolving around menacing text messages.
If Ellis—or anyone else—wants to write about the sordid world of money and fame, the real achievement would be uncovering what’s vital and sentient beneath the insipid numbness, or revealing a path toward it without false redemption or sentimentality. Ellis accepts the status quo, presumes there’s nothing but the narrow range of feeling it circumscribes, and in doing so, tacitly endorses it. His author photo may be a joke about narcissism, but facts are facts: The guy spent two days posing for his picture.
The culture around him isn’t much better. Radar folded after a short run and was sold to a company that kept the name and turned it into a full-blown gossip website. The articles are less drolly cynical, but they’re still about celebrities. It’s different from the previous incarnation, but to a casual observer, its makeover might go unnoticed.
And Steve emailed me again last winter. He wrote that he was working through some personal problems. Had his blog hurt my feelings, he wanted to know, and did I want him to take it down?
I wasn’t sure if this was a trap to lure me into saying something he would then use against me, or a sincere attempt by Steve to apologize. Putting aside my distrusting instincts, I told him he should do whatever he needed to do to get better.
He thanked me and said he was looking forward to reading my novel. The blog posts deriding me are still available, but he hasn’t updated them with any new material. It looks as if Steve is making a few strides toward recovering from the 1980s and, perhaps, putting his “loss of celebrity” behind him. I wish him, and Bret Easton Ellis in his next novel, well.