Bret Easton Ellis: Unanswered Prayers


By Dale Peck

'A thousand bucks,' I said.

'To get into this lame-ass party?' 'Dre snorted. 'Camille Paglia and Wayne Koestenbaum ain't even here yet, and Daniel Mendelsohn's drunk off his ass and talking about how the only boy he ever loved --'

'Yeah yeah yeah,' I cut him off. I tried to wrap both hands around his wrist but my fingers didn't meet. 'Fuck the party. I wanna see this goddamn arm in action.'

So. Score round one to social awkwardness. A little stage fright, a little performance anxiety. But, I mean, give me a little credit. I'm one of the most overhyped critics of my generation, after all, so you know there has to be more to it than that. The alternative is that my reputation is totally based on, I don't know, the number of expletives I use in my essays, which is so fucking ridiculous that I'll probably ask Aaron to cut this line before the piece runs, if I can be bothered to answer any of his goddamned emails. And so anyway, I mean, whatever, at least I was being honest, by which I mean that I really had tried to read each of Ellis's books as they came out. But even though I was vaguely aware something was going on in them, I'd never been able to figure out what that was. If you've been on Manhunt or Grindr or about nine of the specialty sites run by Recon then there's a good chance you know what I like in bed, but as a reader I'm used to being the one in charge. It'd be one thing if Ellis wanted to fuck me himself, but using his novels to do it was little square peg in round hole, if you know what I mean, and I almost always ended up tossing his books aside after a few pages, and reading what was written about them instead. After the brouhaha around American Psycho, this was often more interesting than the novels themselves. Like take the genius moment when Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times (um, duh) wrote, 'People in Glamorama say things like 'Take your passion and make it happen'' without seeming to realize Ellis was actually quoting the Academy Award' and Golden Globe'winning song, 'Flashdance' What a Feeling.' This in a nutshell is everything the literary establishment gets wrong about Ellis's work, but it still doesn't say what's right about it. And so anyway, after the totally embarrassing exchange on the steps of Matthew Marks and Jack Bankowsky's West Village townhouse (oh, and Jack: mazel tov, baby, ma-zel-tov) I was determined to give Ellis's books one more try, if only so that I could prostrate myself at his shoes and beg forgiveness the next time we met. By which I mean that I'd noticed that he was wearing an ugly ass pair of Bruno Maglis, but they were also a size twelve. I know someone out there knows what I mean.

Over the course of the next eighteen months I read Less Than Zero and The Rules of Attraction and The Informers and American Psycho and Glamorama, and I even managed to get my hands on an early manuscript of Lunar Park, which wouldn't be published for another seven years or so, because a guy who gave his name only as 'PB&J' slipped me a copy at a leather bar that used to be in the Meatpacking District where Bagatelle is now (the manuscript was a little disordered by the time I got it home, though, assless chaps, qua asslessness, being devoid of pockets). I confess it was tough going at first. I use the word confess because it was pretty clear the failure was mine, not Ellis's. As much as I hate to admit it (and I'll totally deny it to his face, and tell him that some smart-ass intern from, like, Brown or 'Camden' added this after I signed off) I'm basically one of those 'Systems' guys Jonathan Franzen writes about in his otherwise forgettable essay on William Gaddis (if, I mean, it's not simply redundant to call anything written about William Gaddis -- or by Jonathan Franzen -- forgettable). I like books to fit into categories, schools, genres, whatever, and Ellis's novels don't fit into any literary niche I'm aware of. Any single niche anyway: despite the obvious influence of writers like Dennis Cooper and Gary Indiana, Ellis's books are hardly New Narrative. Nor, despite clear resonances with, say, Joan Didion, are his books high postmodernism. There's a lack of faith in social abstractions similar to the kind of thing you find in J.G. Ballard, but Ellis's books're nowhere near as anomic as Ballard's, and there are clearly satiric elements too, but not the kind practiced by Don DeLillo, or Martin Amis, or Dave I'm-a-talentless-self-aggrandizing-fuckhead Eggers. In fact, when you get right down to it, there're hints of writers as diverse in sensibility and style as Ray Carver, and Hunter S. Thompson, and even John Irving, and hey, let's throw Proust in there, along with a yo no se que we might call Bola'esque, even though it's pretty doubtful Ellis would've even heard of Roberto Bola'o before writing his first five books, by which I mean (in case it's not totally obvious) that I'm pretty much grasping at straws here.

Tags: Art & Books