Bret Easton Ellis Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Los Angeles, 1964. Education: Bennington College, Vermont, B.A. 1986. Agent: International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019, U.S.A.
Less Than Zero. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1985; London, Pan, 1985.
The Rules of Attraction. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1987;London, Picador, 1988.
American Psycho. New York, Vintage, and London, Picador, 1991.
The Informers. New York, Knopf, and London, Picador, 1994.
Glamorama. New York, Knopf, 1999.
Less Than Zero, 1987; American Psycho, 2000.
* * *
Bret Easton Ellis's novels to date explore the apathy, boredom, and alienation of the "brat pack" or "blank generation" of affluent white youth in the United States in the 1980s. Whether set in Los Angeles (Less Than Zero and The Informers), a New England college (The Rules of Attraction), New York (American Psycho), or London and Paris (Glamorama), each of these novels represents the homogenizing and dehumanizing effect of late capitalist consumer culture. Through his cipher-like characters, who are mostly distinguished from each other only by the brand names of their designer clothes, Ellis traces the metonymies of desire in a culture where sex and the body are commodified and, like drugs, alcohol, and MTV, are addictively consumed.
The desire for excess that is underlain by ennui is recorded in an affectless and "stunned" prose style that is arguably mimetic of a "depthless" postmodern culture. Each of the novels has occasioned controversy as to whether this flat style merely reproduces the nihilistic lassitude of its characters or whether, through verisimilitude, Ellis is indeed offering a critique of the ethics of the society that he represents. This controversy culminated in the critical reception of American Psycho, Ellis's tale of serial killing and mass murder in yuppie Manhattan. This novel was variously perceived as a devastating indictment of the erosion of ethics by capitalism in the Reaganite 1980s, as a virulent brand of pornography thinly veiled as mainstream art for the middle classes, and as simply an aesthetic failure because it did not manage to create a metaphor for the violence that it repetitively detailed.
Arguably, each of Ellis's novels expresses a yearning for a meaningful reality that seems inaccessible through the inauthentic simulations of consumer culture. Less Than Zero, which begins with the observation that "people are afraid to merge on the freeways in Los Angeles," a statement of disconnection that becomes a refrain in the novel, describes the spiraling loss of ethical bearings experienced by the narrator, Clay, as he spends a Christmas vacation in Los Angeles, away from his college in the East. The various forms of consumption—sex, shopping, drugs, alcohol—that dominate the lives of Clay and his peers fail to signify for Clay. He is haunted by the menacing extremity of the desert, by reports of random violence and disaster, and by childhood memories that disclose psychic violence within a family where, in the end, "nobody's home." Passivity becomes voyeurism and consumption becomes pornographic spectacle as Clay is an unresisting witness to scenes of forced prostitution and gang rape. Nathaniel West's Hollywood of the 1930s is echoed by the broodingly apocalyptic vision of Los Angeles in the 1980s with which Ellis leaves us: "The images I had were of people being driven mad by living in the city. Images of parents who were so hungry and unfulfilled that they ate their own children."
The East Coast, an absent referent that would potentially signify in Ellis's first novel, fails to offer an authentic alternative to the artifice of Los Angeles in his second novel, The Rules of Attraction. The interior monologues of the three main characters and their somewhat indeterminate peers register the fluidity of desire that is sometimes shaped by romantic narratives but that ultimately is "haphazard and random … episodic, broken … [showing] no sense of events unfolding from prior events," to quote from the epigraph by Tim O'Brien, which serves to interpret the ensuing trajectory of the novel.
Ellis's apparent withholding of explicit moral comment on the spiritual impoverishment of the culture that his novels represent was critically perceived as being more problematic in his detailed account of the activities of Patrick Bateman, the eponymous "American Psycho." In contrast to the classic realist novel, here no "deep" psychological exploration of or explanation for the protagonist's actions is offered. Instead, the reader is immediately introduced into the hermetic world of New York consumer culture with the opening words of the novel: "Abandon all hope ye who enter here…." The randomness of desire that was the subject of The Rules of Attraction is now replaced by a deterministic consumerism whereby the serial killer is the parodic extremity of a cultural logic that reifies people and stimulates an addiction to excess that only violence can temporarily assuage.
If the relation between author, text, and reader is ambiguous in American Psycho, authorial comment seems foregrounded through the narrative strategies of The Informers. An impressionistic composite of narrative voices, this novel presents the estrangement between the generations and between the sexes in affluent Los Angeles. Images of anomie and personal and familial dissociation are interwoven with scenes of sexual violence that accelerate as the novel shifts into gothic fantasy, with vampires preying on their victims, and then moves toward a conclusion with the depiction of the sexual assault, torture, and murder of a child. The willfully blind romantic fantasy that concludes the novel would seem to draw attention to the cultural disavowal of what Ellis, speaking of the 1980s, has described as "the absolute banality of a perverse decade."
However, by the time of Glamorama, Ellis's stance as critic of a decade had lost most of the already modest moral punch it carried. There was the fact that Ellis himself, like many who criticized the 1980s, had done quite well in that decade, a period whose principal fault seemed to be that people made money during that time. In the 1990s, with the 1980s fading into memory—and with Wall Street generating far more millionaires than anyone in the "greedy" 1980s could ever have imagined—Ellis's posturing seemed all the more absurd, particularly given his origins among the nation's aristocracy. Plenty of critics still professed to find something new in the tired eighties-bashing of American Psycho, which found a new audience with its release as a motion picture, but Glamorama provided evidence that perhaps the author protested a bit too much. Set among the high-fashion upper echelons of London and Paris, the book was supposed to be another indictment of wealth and glamor, but Ellis's descriptions of the world inhabited by male models belie a certain fascination with that world—rather like a preacher who takes just a bit too much interest in condemning prostitution. The novel has a more traditional and discernible plot than its predecessors—a mysterious Mr. Palakon hires male model Victor Ward to save a film star in Paris from international terrorists—but is laden with threadbare postmodern narrative tricks. "So you're telling me we can't believe in anything we're shown anymore," Victor tells Mr. Palakon at one point. "I'm asking, 'That everything is altered? That everything's a lie? That everyone will believe this?"' Indeed.
—Joanna Price, updated by Judson Knight