The 1980s saw the emergence of a group of young American writers who have variously been called the “Brat Pack”, the “Blank Generation”, or “Generation X”. This group includes Dennis Cooper, Tama Janowitz, Mark Leyner, Jay MacInerney, Suzanna Moore and Bret Easton Ellis, and has been seen as defining late-twentieth century extremes of urban consumer culture. They rejected the complex techniques of such contemporaries as Toni Morrison or Paul Auster, or the older themes of story-telling and the American West that have been revised by such writers as Cormac McCarthy, Tom Spanbauer and Pinckney Benedict; instead, their work stemmed from the alienated, unstable narratives of J. D. Salinger and Joan Didion, and from ideas that had much in common with the work of Georges Bataille or de Sade, and such American gothic writers as Edgar Allan Poe and Nathanael West, the latter having a special association with Los Angeles, where some of Ellis’s novels are set. Bret Easton Ellis seemed to lead this brat pack for at least a time, being hailed by critics as leader of the “fiction of insurgency”.
Born in Los Angeles on March 7th 1964, Bret is the eldest of three children and only son of Dale Ellis and real estate analyst Robert Martin Ellis. His maternal grandmother was a children’s book writer and his mother encouraged him to write creatively, and to read extensively, from an early age. Ellis attended Buckley School, a private co-educational establishment tutoring children of wealthy families drawn largely from the film industry; it encouraged creative self-expression, and the visual and performing arts. He published early stories in Buckley’s Literary Magazine, took a course on The Personal Essay and read a lot of New Journalism, including the work of Joan Didion, which was to have a seminal influence on the writing of his first published novel, Less Than Zero (1985).
Having found drugs in his room, Ellis’s parents sent him away to Nevada for a while, at the end of the 1970s, to work at a family casino (“I stayed about four weeks before my grandfather fired me”; Jaime Clarke, “An Interview with Bret Easton Ellis”, 1996, 1998, 2) where he both absorbed his surroundings and was deeply influenced by reading Hemingway. Around this time he wrote two unpublished autobiographical novels, followed by the draft of a third novel which would later become Less Than Zero.
By 1980 Ellis’s father had become very wealthy; his profile appeared in the Wall Street Journal. However, Robert and Dale were going through a tortuous eight-year divorce which was eventually finalised in 1982. Against his father’s wishes (his fees were paid by his grandfather), Ellis next attended Bennington College in Vermont, from 1982 to 1986, majoring in music: “I wanted to be a musician […] writing songs, making music, that always made me happy” (Martin, 2005). He played keyboards in “The Parents”, a popular, local New Wave band.
Robert Ellis continued to disapprove of both the music and the writing course, wanting his son to major in business studies. As an undergraduate, however, Ellis was tutored by writer Joe McGinnis and under his guidance revised the draft of Less Than Zero. It was initially submitted as coursework, edited down from 530 to 230 pages, and published by Simon and Schuster in 1985 (purchased for $5,000) when Ellis was twenty-one years old. It became a New York Times Best Seller, but this sudden success left Ellis in a state of nervous breakdown and for some time he would not leave his college room. There was a lot of media speculation that McGinnis had been responsible for the book, and Ellis seemed to develop early signs of anxiety attacks.
Less than Zero, in line with much US fiction is, in part, a novel about discovery, but in this instance it is the discovery of the most degraded instincts that the protagonist, Clay, can discover in himself and his peers: “And as the elevator descends, passing the second floor, and the first floor, going even farther down, I realise that the money doesn’t matter. That all that does is that I want to see the worst” (Less Than Zero, 172).
It has been suggested that Ellis’s first novel echoes the existential tones of Salinger and Didion, but it also draws upon apocalyptic representations in US fiction and cultural theory. Less Than Zero, however, is perhaps first and foremost a novel about Los Angeles, a cityscape that lends the book its significant effect by association with its riots, heat, fires, floods and earthquakes. The storyline itself is insubstantial and little of the dialogue has real significance when viewed in isolation, but when these elements are considered in their context of a minimalist, scorched LA landscape, the novel becomes a component of the area’s mythology. It is a landscape of alienation, despite Ellis’s own privileged upbringing and that of his characters. Everything is viewed within the narrow social confines of lives of disaffection and emotional damage. It is this emotional damage — both personal and societal — that Ellis’s work has at its core.
The detailed depiction of the violence arising from this disaffection, for which Ellis was to become so infamous, begins in Less Than Zero. In many ways the main concern of the novel is death, and gothic portents are employed as warnings to society not to transgress: “People are afraid to merge” (9) is the book’s leitmotif of fear.
Ellis’s second novel, The Rules of Attraction (1987), was written during his senior year at Bennington and concerns a group of affluent college students at Camden College (generally regarded as a portrait that in some ways reflects upon Ellis’s experiences at Bennington). The three first-person narrative voices describe a life that mingles drug abuse, idleness and an unnervingly bloodless sexuality. Their college life has nothing to do with academia; days are spent in drug-induced stupor, in designer cars and clothes, and in high-profile clubs and restaurants. This has been claimed as Ellis’s favourite novel, although many critics loathed it, and he was widely dismissed as a one-book wonder.
Around 1987 Ellis moved to New York to take up a career in writing and here adopted a more disciplined and structured approach to his work, putting in a methodical eight-hour day, researching assiduously. He wrote outlines by hand in the first instance, completing only certain editing tasks and the final manuscript on his computer. He is said to be fascinated by the appearance of words on a page; in Didion’s influential Play it as it Lays, Ellis feels that “the whiteness surrounding the words is as important as the words themselves” (Jaime Clarke, “An Interview”, 5-6). He goes on to say that “the whiteness…adds an extra dimension of emotionality…That summed up what was going on in the book and the themes of the book as much as the action in the book” (“An Interview”, 6). Anyone familiar with Ellis’s early work will realise that the minimalist nature of the prose is something that has been carefully wrought. In his later work – American Psycho, for instance – this has become more an obsession with where rather than how writing appears: in depictions of graffiti on walls, on signposts, on labels, on doors.
In preparation for his next novel, Ellis spent significant time with stockbrokers and at clubs; drug abuse was widely reported, as was a series of short-term relationships. He recalls this as being a very dark time in his life, reading countless FBI reports on murderers and serial killers; he researched concentration camps and the Manson murders. This research resulted in Ellis’s most controversial novel, American Psycho (1991). If media response to Less Than Zero was varied, but indulgently favourable, initial response to American Psycho was almost universally vitriolic. The response began before the novel was published, in early reports in Spy and Time magazines. Simon and Schuster decided not to publish it in the autumn of 1990 after staff at the company complained about the content. Roger Rosenblatt’s article, “Snuff this book! Will Bret Easton Ellis Get Away with Murder?” (New York Times Book Review, 3), was to become one of the most frequently cited early responses.
Random House soon bought the rights, however, and it was published as a Vintage Contemporaries paperback. The media followed the publishing saga; the National Organisation of Women (LA) called for the book to be banned and for a boycott of Random House products. In Vanity Fair Ellis was accused of being a pornographer (“a monstrous book with a monstrous thesis”, March 1991, 154) and Norman Mailer questioned whether the protagonist Patrick Bateman was the monster, or Bret Easton Ellis. A level of demonisation of Ellis’s work was perceptible and this hysterical media climate left unanswered many serious questions.
American Psycho is a carefully considered book that vents its outrage at Reaganomics and the consumer culture of the late 1980s through its depiction of the boredom and the attendant casual violence of its characters. Ostensibly about the wealthy of New York, the homeless “hover … like ghosts on the edge of consciousness, a reproach, a reproof, a warning” (Young, 109), embodying the grim existence of those left behind by the amassing of wealth and objects of desire. As with everything else, they are depicted amidst gallows-black humour and in an acerbic tone.
Ellis has claimed in interviews that protagonist Patrick Bateman was based on his father, “a man obsessed with clothes, restaurants and status and unaware that none of them made him happy”. In his interview for The Times (October 4th 2005), Andrew Billen suggests that, ironically, “the son inherited many of these paternal values. The book’s disgust and rage were also aimed at their author”; to this Ellis responds that “self-loathing is an underrated virtue”.
In many ways American Psycho was the natural culmination of its predecessors; the effects of Ellis’s early works are intensified in this most controversial book. Yet far from being the break with precedent US writing that media response seemed to suggest, American Psycho establishes valuable connections with a wide range of fiction, as well as significant points of discontinuity: it is an experimental narrative abounding in representations of violence, producing, as a consequence, a significant destabilization of reader response. In this, the novel may not be identifiable as part of a fully articulated tradition, but rather the powerful culmination of a tendency that was latent in earlier American literature. Thus the infamous depiction of violence in American Psycho draws upon a tradition of writing about violence in the United States. It is also, in part, an aspect of the more general experimental narrative of a book which both plays upon the fear of transgressive behaviour, and explores the actively transgressive behaviour depicted in the moments of violence that punctuate the (albeit often amusing) tedium of endless lists of consumer obsessions. Perhaps what is most disturbing, however, is that the narrative is told from a first-person perspective so that the reader is drawn into complicity with the serial killer, Bateman, in such formulations as “I start stabbing him…”(131). Indeed, many critical responses observe that simply reading the book was, in some indefinable way, corrupting.
Repeatedly, the depiction of violence has been described as “realistic” but, if read with care, what Ellis’s fiction reveals most clearly is that his narratives are concerned with experimentalism and textuality, rather than with modes of realism. Perhaps what is remarkable about American Psycho is simply that the murderer is not caught; at the end of the book he remains at large and the victims are obliterated from collective memory: our need for justice remains unfulfilled.
In American Psycho the depiction of violence may be broken down into the minutiae of smell and taste associated with body parts and blood, but contemporary readers are attuned to violence as spectacle across a range of media. Ellis reflexively exploits this in examining equally the visible and the invisible. In Less Than Zero, when a snuff film is viewed, or a corpse is watched by a gathering crowd in an alleyway, Ellis prefigures the larger, extended moments of violence portrayed in American Psycho. Ellis, the moralist, in many ways forces the reader to confront the desire to view violence, not through conventionally realist depictions but through the conventions of gothic writing whose purpose was always, in part, to warn about transgressive behaviour of various kinds.
By the end of American Psycho the depictions of savage and mostly sexual violence have become established as ritual; what begins as shocking perhaps inevitably ends as ritualised and repetitive, not least as a result of the two highly stylised conventions of pornography and gothic writing that are exploited. The other key factor often discussed, which underlines the depictions of violence, is the question of whether any of the events described actually occur, or whether they were only imagined. For aficionados of the postmodern, this in itself is a fascinating debate in relation to a work of fiction.
In interviews since the publication of American Psycho, Ellis has claimed that his father was a physically abusive alcoholic; he died in 1992 leaving debts of over $10 million (he had spent millions on bad art, apparently) and instructions to scatter his ashes in Mexico. Still very angry with his father, Ellis has said that he placed the ashes in a safe deposit box: “But writing [Lunar Park] I became less mad and I realised, ultimately, that I had no choice but to forgive him” (Billen).
Ellis had a 1993 deadline for his next novel, Glamorama, but this came and went with no manuscript submitted and, primarily to stop the predictable coercion on the part of the publishing-house, The Informers was released in 1994. A kind of notebook written over a ten year period, The Informers is imbued with a perceptible note of distance and irony, and although it was better received than its predecessor, this may be related to the emergence of a new generation of critics more familiar with this type of writing. It was only now that American Psycho was appraised more fully, and more favourably.
Between 1995 and 1998 Ellis attended many clubs and fashion shows in Milan, New York and Paris, and he also developed an addiction to heroin. Much of his money was spent on “partying” while he worked on the text of Glamorama from the age of twenty-six to thirty-four; it was finally published in 1998 and achieved commercial success. Where American Psycho had at its heart a powerful and wealthy Wall Street broker, Glamorama has as its central characters a nightclub manager and a model whose lives provide a poignant critique of contemporary society’s obsession with celebrity and consumerism. American Psycho was a culminative novel in its rage against its time and context; to write another, some argued, undermined both.
Ellis published Lunar Park in 2005; it is dedicated to his father and to Michael Wade Caplan, his partner for six years, who died suddenly from a heart attack in 2004. The book is a very funny parody of the early fame that Ellis achieved. Presumably part autobiography (although one must be extremely cautious here; Ellis revels in the unreliable narration of his own story) and part horror story, Lunar Park pays homage both to Stephen King and to the kind of comic book horror employed by film director Quentin Tarrantino.
Lunar Park’s protagonist is Bret Easton Ellis, a middle-aged fiction writer living a peaceful family life, with a golden retriever dog, in a “McMansion” (53) in Elsinore Lane. Amusing though the book may be, and although he now commands a sizeable cult following, many feel that Ellis has yet to produce another book to equal the achievement of Less Than Zero and American Psycho.
Author now of five novels, translated into twenty-seven languages, Ellis remains, frustratingly, as evasive as ever. Sporadically he has commented upon the procedures, implications and reception of his work, but these comments have been of a somewhat restless, elusive and often antagonistic nature. His comments show flippancy and mordant wit, but, if read with care, the sheer polyvalence of his remarks reminds the reader of those conditions of debate that are the generating grounds of his work. The predominant motif may be one of mockery, but there is also the expression of a longing for affirmation, for the reassertion of a useable past, and participation in a better future. Certainly Ellis’s work is a long way from any substantial commitment to change, but there is evidence of a capacity for comparative reconsideration, and recognition that the very destabilisation and open scepticism that has been achieved may be in danger of becoming a kind of prison.
“Every word is true”, Ellis claims in Lunar Park, but a writer’s life is “a maelstrom of lying”. He still lives in his New York loft room, and divides his time between that city and his friends and family in LA. Everyone who interviews Ellis in New York seems to comment on the high book shelves full of foreign editions and translations of his own novels. And for the future, in more recent interviews, Ellis has spoken of working on a political novel set in Washington; he has also claimed to be working on a book about Hollywood. This writer’s life, at least, remains an amusing maelstrom of fabrication.
Billen, Andrew. “My Inspirations: anger, disgust, rage” The
Times online October 4th, 2005
Clarke, Jaime. “An Interview with Bret Easton Ellis.” This interview took place on two occasions: November 4th, 1996, October 22nd, 1998. http://www.weresofamous.com/docs/ELLIS%20MISS%20REVIEW.pdf
Coles, Joanna. “Leader of the Brat Pack”. Guardian 28th April, 1993: 4.
Coupland, Douglas. Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. London: Abacus, 1993.
Mailer, Norman “Children of the Pied Piper: Mailer on American Psycho”, Vanity Fair March 1991: 154+
Martin, Tim “Bret Easton Ellis: Psycho? American sweetie, more like” Independent online October 9th, 2005, http://enjoyment.independent.co.uk/books/features/article317990.ece
Rosenblatt, Roger. “Snuff This Book! Will Bret Easton Ellis get Away With Murder?” New York Times Book Review December 16th, 1990: VII 3+.
Siegle, Robert. Suburban Ambush: Downtown Writing and the Fiction of Insurgency. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins UP, 1989.
Young, Elizabeth and Graham Caveney. Shopping in Space: essays on American ‘Blank Generation’ Fiction London, Serpents Tail, 1992.