In Defense of Bret Easton Ellis

Just when we thought we had heard the last about Lunar Park, Dan Green has offered this thoughtful post on the book, approaching Ellis’ work from the standpoint of Lunar Park (Dan’s sole exposure to Ellis, but this does not stop Dan from criticizing books that, by his own admission, he has not even read) and not finding him agreeable.

It is interesting to me that Ellis, even with this latest offering (which is, I must confess, lacks the ardor of Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, or American Psycho, but is not as middling either), continues to divide people. And I would suggest that the divide occurs more between people who enjoy entertainment and people who enjoy literature and, to a greater extent, style vs. narrative.

Ellis’ work is largely episodic in nature. If you’re coming to Bret Easton Ellis for a coherent plot, then you’re best advised to look elsewhere. It unapologetically drapes itself in brand name description. And it often goes down extraordinarily atavistic routes that involve graphic mutilations of women (the source of most of Ellis’ controversy). Does this preclude us from enjoying Ellis? I don’t think so. The key to appreciating Ellis, I think, is that you’re not intended to relate or identify with his characters. (Certainly, one cannot imagine a level-headed person relating to American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman, who is clearly a homicidal maniac.) Rather, you are supposed to remove yourself and see these characters from the outside, determining whether or not you can accept the fact that terrible behavior is happening around you. Are you truly acquainted with this world? Is this a world that you’re deliberately ignoring? Ellis’ pugilistic tone does often test a reader’s limits. It might be argued that the prose itself contains a blueprint for a certain culture that Americans often overlook, framed within what seems a throwaway read.

Consider the opening of Less Than Zero:

People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles. This is the first thing I hear when I come back to the city. Blair picks me up from LAX and mutters this under her breath as her car drives up the onramp. She says, “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” Though that sentence shouldn’t bother me, it stays in my mind for an uncomfortably long time. Nothing else seems to matter. Not the fact that I’m eighteen and it’s December and the ride on the plane had been rough and the couple from Santa Barbara, who were sitting across from me in first class, had gotten pretty drunk.

If we take this at face value, then we see writing composed of repetitive details, formed through run-on sentences, composed of simple language that feels disjointed, and details that are extraordinarily general. However, if we filter this passage through perspective (and this, I would argue, is the key to appreciating Bret Easton Ellis’ work), then we see a dead-accurate portrayal of Southern California life in the 1980s: obsessed with mundanities, groping to remember things and struggling with details. Perhaps this represents a mind set that Dan Green may not find palatable. (He calls the fictional Bret Easton Ellis of Lunar Park “an extremely annoying character” and his umbrage seems to be targeted towards the character’s behavior. Because he then complains that this BEE is “unpleasant” and “utterly contemptible.”) But is it truthful? Should it be explored? I say, you bet.

And I would argue that forcing the reader to examine the rudimentary underbelly is precisely Ellis’ point.

In the passage cited above, we see Clay (the narrator) trying to take in some half-assed remark, perhaps some primitive homily to hang onto, and we immediately establish the mental timbre at which this world operates. It is not always absurd. It is often quite brutal. But it is certainly one that involves a wholesale reversal of conventions (McDonald’s seen not as a family-friendly restaurant, but as a place to eat alone in Less Than Zero; tacky and commercial records favored over the artistic in the Huey Lewis, Genesis and Whitney Houston in American Psycho; and trick-or-treating in which youngsters don’t walk from house-to-house, but hop into their parents’ SUVs to travel such a short distance in Lunar Park). In this way, we can style Ellis a cultural observer and, at least to my eyes, an entertainer. This is funny stuff.

I would agree with Dan that the book’s horror elements, hung upon mere homage, fall notoriously flat and cause the book to peter out just as it has dared to bare its soul. But where Lunar Park is ambitious in the way it adds another level to Ellis’ stylistic cultural riffing. Now, in addition to wondering whether the world and mentalities as presented within the prose can be believed, we’re also wondering how much of the extant details reflect the real Bret Easton Ellis. The metafiction, it turns out, has been there all along. No, it’s not Infinite Jest or Gravity’s Rainbow. The writing itself is often ingenuous. But I believe Ellis’ purpose in planting a version of himself into his novel is to suggest that, all along, his novels have been operating as a fey anthropological filter.

The “supremacy in imagination” doesn’t come from the characters or the patchwork plots (Glamorama is, perhaps, the most ridiculously plotted of all of Ellis’ novels). The imagination in question has everything to do with how much the reader is willing to expand his own world consciousness. And what Ellis is telling us, I think, is that this world is an ugly place, hombre, and we better start paying attention.

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  1. Ed: To the extent it seemed I was criticizing Ellis’s earlier work, which I indeed haven’t read, rather than basing my judgment solely on my reading of Lunar Park, that is a failure on my part. I did try to focus on LP, but my distaste for the “buzz” surrounding Ellis’s work as a whole perhaps also seeps through.

    I understand the view that Ellis is some sort of postmodern satirist, but I just find his satire–if that’s what LP is supposed to be–wholly unengaging and unimaginative. This is probably one of those times when readers possessed of otherwise perfectly sound critical faculties simply disagree.

  2. I love the opening of Less than Zero, but my favorite sentences are the ones that begins a section on page 61:

    “After leaving Blair I drive down Wilshire and then onto Santa Monica and take Beverly Glen to Mulholland, and then Mulholland to Sepulveda and then Sepulveda to Ventura and then I drive through Sherman Oaks to Encino and then into Tarzana and then to Woodland Hills. I stop at a Sambo’s that’s open all night and sit alone in a large empty booth and the winds have started and they’re blowing so hard that the windows are shaking and the sounds of them trembling, about to break, fill the coffee shop.”

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