Bret Easton Ellis: Unanswered Prayers
By Dale Peck
As it happens, though, straws are an apt metaphor (work with me here), since one of the few consistent memes in Ellis's books is the vials and piles of coke fueling the polymorphous perversity that the Brat Packers -- Jay Macaroni and Donna Tartlet and Jelena Jankovic or Ana Ivanovic or whatever the hell the other one's name was -- made so popular back in the eighties, before magazines like this one came along and we were finally able to admit that some people were just, you know, gay. Having come of age in the eighties myself, nostalgia was enough to keep me reading at first, but after a while I found myself turning pages voluntarily, even eagerly. The coke rush is a pretty good description for this state as well, since it describes the kind of feeling you get from Ellis's work once you finally surrender to it, or, to push the metaphor a little farther, become addicted to it. It's not an intellectual sensation is what I mean, nor does it feel particularly healthy, but at the same time it's really, really hard to stop. Like coke, though, you also build up a bit of tolerance, so that each successive book has to get a little crazier than its predecessor in order to make an impact, a fact that, judging from the increasingly hyperbolic nature of both Ellis's sentences and plotlines, he's fully aware of, to the degree that the apex of this arc, Glamorama, reads more like an extended Gawker post than a novel -- like, say, Choire Sicha and Richard Lawson were double-dicking Emily Gould, one from the front, one from behind, and a stenographer handcuffed to a chair next to the cigarette-scarred tatami mat was doing her one-handed best to record all the bold-faced names and hyphenated adverbs that came out of Gould's pretty pouty potty mouth. Of course, Glamorama came out before Gawker existed, so it's more apt to say that Sicha, Lawson and Co. adapted their style from Ellis and not the other way around. But still, I'm pretty sure that if you got one of them in a corner and forced him to his knees and put a gun to his head, maybe pistol-whipped him a few times or threatened to shoot his iPhone, he'd totally admit that the shit that shows up on Gawker isn't, you know, literature.
And yet somehow, I finally realized, Ellis's books are. Somehow kitschy humor and the kind of sorrow that only comes when you know you're whittling your soul away piece by piece manage to co-exist in the same novel, the same sentence even, and the hollow echo of your own laughter tingling through your Eustachian tubes beneath the insanely clear sound of LCD Soundsytem sluicing into your brain via a pair of virginal white earbuds on a rush-hour subway becomes scary to you. Somehow the whole riotous, shallow, sublime, grandiose, tender, greedy, giving, mysterious, crazy world hangs off plotlines so far beyond contrived and unbelieveable that they seem like manifestations of Walt Disney's eugenic fantasies, an inverted reality in which characters as one-dimensional as Patrick Bateman and Victor Ward come to seem as humorously, heartbreakingly Quixotic as Yossarian or Ahab or Frederic Moreau, the hero of Sentimental Education, which Ellis has said is his favorite novel. But, unlike Flaubert, language isn't the be-all and end-all in Ellis's books, let alone the elusive 'truth' that most contemporary novelists wave around like a matador's flag. To say that an Ellis novel is an indictment of the modern world is pretty much beside the point: the modern world is its own indictment, and doesn't need any help from novelists to communicate its moral, historical, and psychological vacuity. No, an Ellis novel is an indictment of the notion that literature can do anything about that situation. It's an indictment of us, in other words -- of readers and writers and reviewers and editors and all the other people sustaining fiction's greatest fiction: that fiction matters. Most critics of fame-obsessed money culture, or money-obsessed fame culture, or however you want to parse it'Kathy Griffin and Jon Stewart and the various bloggers and whatnot'are a party to the entity they make fun of. Their humor functions as a relief valve so we can continue tolerating the intolerable even as we strive to become a part of it, or at least reap its benefits. But Ellis's books are singular in their ability to make us feel genuinely uncomfortable. If you're not frustrated by an Ellis book, if you don't feel it's too long, too self-conscious, too complicit, and, often, too stupid for words -- if you actually enjoy reading it, I mean, from start to finish, and spend hours surfing wikipedia looking to see which characters recur in which novels, and think it's worthwhile to debate whether Patrick Bateman is really a murderer or just a modern Walter Mitty, then, far from being sympathetic to Ellis's point of view, you're actually part of the problem he's describing: just one more person using a consumer product (in this case, art) to distract yourself from the fact that the world is hopelessly and irretrievably lost, and there's nothing we can do about it except watch.
Which only leaves one question: why? Not some Kantian capital-W Why, but that really fucking annoying why your therapist, who is nowhere near as smart as you no matter what the diploma on his wall says, pulls out at just the write -- just the right time, I mean, stopping you in the middle of some rant or other about how your mom or dad never, you know, got you. But that's a question for the artist rather than the art. It might tell us something about his motives, or even his psyche, but if we really want to know what Bret Easton Ellis is up to, we can only look inside his books, and look inside ourselves.
Alas, introspection was never my strong suit. I figured I'd just, you know, ask him.
Man, was that a mistake.
I got the chance sooner than I expected -- in 1998, to be precise, at a party for Sally Singer, then of Elle magazine, now editor in chief of the Times' T Magazine, at the newly opened Mercer Hotel in Soho. This time there was no problem with 'da list.' Sally and I go way back -- she commissioned the first of the reviews that later became Hatchet Jobs, making me a household name (at least in households that subscribed to the London Review of Books), and I was the person who told her to give up the whole literary journal thing for fashion: you're welcome, Sally; you're welcome, America. And so anyway, there I was, downstairs at the Mercer, and there was Bret Easton Ellis. No one'd told me he was going to be there, but, you know, it was a fashion party. Models, paparazzi, and of course more good stiff blow than there was in Hurricane Katrina.
He was skinnier than I thought, based on his description of himself in Lunar Park: downright fit, in fact, his skin clear, and if he really was dying his hair than he'd found a damn good product. Before I could get his attention, however, another man cut in front of me. I thought he was Spanish until he started speaking some language that wasn't Spanish. I didn't recognize it as Arabic until he said, 'Allahu akbar,' and leaned in for a hug. Only somone staring at Ellis's ass would've noticed the deft way the Arabian man slipped a hand under the tail of Ellis's Prada jacket and slid something into his back pocket.