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The Dark Side of a Generation

Bret Easton Ellis may not look like his crazed characters, but he does draw from his anger.

February 01, 1999|SCOTT MARTELLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's a certain physical softness to Bret Easton Ellis, a slackness of muscle reminiscent of a kid still growing into his body. That's not to say he's flabby. Just loose, comfortably amassed, the springy flesh hinting at self-indulgence.

Which normally wouldn't mean anything except that the characters in Ellis' novels tend to hail from the sunken-cheek tribe. And they have impossibly flat stomachs despite constant noshing and boozing at drug-soaked parties and premieres. "Chiseled" is the usual adjective, and it crops up regularly in Ellis' current and fourth novel, "Glamorama" (Knopf), about a stupendously vapid model named Victor Ward who becomes ensnared by an international terrorism ring.

Ellis' characters tend to be depraved, sometimes viciously so. Simon & Schuster refused to release his "American Psycho" in 1991--shooting for the movie is scheduled to begin in March--because of its graphic depictions of sex and torture, usually with women as the victims. A slasher film is one thing; a slasher novel, apparently, is something altogether different.

But key to them both, Ellis argues, is that they are fiction. And despite writing consistently in the first person, he believes he has little in common with his characters.

"It's not that my life isn't dark and empty, because it is," laughs Ellis, 34. "On the other hand, if you look back on my life, there's not a lot of correlation. My life is much more easygoing and sunnier than my fictional world. But my fictional world is often influenced by periods of depression and anger. And I'm as far away from Victor Ward as any character I've written about."

Anxiety-Filled Childhood With Alcoholic Father

Ellis sits in his boyhood bedroom in Sherman Oaks, his back to the desk and window, his loafered feet resting on a corner of the comforter-covered bed. A half-full glass of soda sweats lightly by his elbow. The window is thrown open, and cigarette smoke seeps out into the shaggy grayness of a fog-shrouded morning.

Ellis, who has lived in Manhattan for more than a decade, hasn't always felt comfortable in this house at the southern edge of Sherman Oaks, where Valley subdivisions begin creeping up the Santa Monica Mountains. It's his mother's house, and until his parents split up when he was 16, it was his father's home too--a man Ellis describes as an alcoholic with a capacity for emotional and sometimes physical abuse before he died in 1992. It was a scarring combination that landed Ellis on the therapist's couch.

"There's a lot of anxiety growing up with a parent like that," says Ellis, who maintains a good relationship with his mother. "When you get older is when you realize the extent of the damage, rather than when you're still angry and upset about the particulars of the relationship."

Yet the Sherman Oaks house is also where Ellis absorbed the boredom and ennui of teenage suburban life that gave rise to "Less Than Zero," his Bennington College writing project that evolved into something of a Rosetta stone for those trying to decipher the "Why Bother?" generation.

His next project, he says, could be a Rosetta stone for those who want to understand him. He's planning a memoir of his adolescent years, although he hasn't decided whether he will publish it or simply write it as a personal exercise before moving on to the next novel.

Only recently has Ellis begun to focus on what really lurks behind the nihilism and narcissism of his fiction, in which he traces hints of Ernest Hemingway, Joan Didion, Stephen King and '80s slasher films. And despite his earlier argument that little in his books is autobiographical, he acknowledges that portions of his life have filtered through without his noticing.

"I didn't realize until I finished 'Glamorama' that this is really about a father-son relationship," Ellis says. "Does this have anything to do with my feelings about my father? Yes, it does. Books give you away all the time. The father figures hover around these books in ways that are very strongly felt, but in ways that the father figure doesn't have a lot of page time."

Usually, the figure exists as a negative motivator. Characters slide into behaviors they know upset their fathers, who tend to be financially successful and remote. Sons don't travel home to see Dad; they meet him for lunch at a power restaurant.

Keeping His Sexuality a Mystery for Art's Sake

Ellis speaks openly about most aspects of his life, such as sexual experimentation, including threesomes in college, and sporadic drug use, including snorting heroin three years ago. But he won't discuss his sexual orientation, which he says he prefers to leave undeclared for artistic reasons.

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