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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

"I've been very coy and weird about it in a way that I didn't think I would be," Ellis says, admitting that he's curious about the sex lives of other celebrities. "I don't necessarily think that it's an invalid question. The characters in my novels often have a very shifting sexuality. But if people knew that I was straight, they'd read [my books] in a different way. If they knew I was gay, 'Psycho' would be read as a different book."

"Glamorama" begins as a satire of wealthy brats, celebrity culture and the fashion world, recurrent themes for Ellis. Even some of the characters are recycled. Ward, the unlikely son of a U.S. senator, and a few others in "Glamorama" first appeared as undergraduates in "Rules of Attraction," the 1987 novel in which Ellis came closest to nailing down the dialectic between his infatuation with, and his revulsion of, the shallowness and celebrity-adoration that he believes has become an emblem of his generation.

In a literary menage a trois, he also borrowed a character from his contemporary and friend, Jay McInerney, dusting off the rich, spoiled and drug-addled Alison Poole from "The Story of My Life" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988).

Ellis says he first borrowed Alison in "American Psycho," introducing her as a woman who had been sexually assaulted by serial killer Patrick Bateman years before. When she sees Bateman in a bar, she excuses herself and leaves.

"I won't go into it, but Jay had done something that week that really annoyed me," Ellis says, laughing. "We had gotten into a tiff and it really [ticked] me off. I was working on that scene at the time and thought, 'Well, I'm going to put Alison in peril.' That was my passive-aggressive way to get revenge. It was very childish and stupid, but I was 24 or 25."

McInerney, reached at home in Franklin, Tenn., said Ellis told him he was borrowing Alison, "but I didn't really believe him." He laughed off Ellis' explanation about a personal spat, saying he thinks Ellis actually borrowed Alison to poke fun at critics who have linked the two authors since publication of their first novels--both about youth culture.

"A lot of critics have sort of boneheadedly branded us as some sort of tag team of letters, some kind of two-headed enfant terrible monster," McInerney says. "Our prose couldn't be more different. There are some aspects that our fiction has in common. That some of our characters listen to pop music and do drugs is just a generational thing. Cheever and Updike wrote about the suburbs. I think [Ellis] is just making fun of the critics. A postmodern parlor trick."

In the new book, Alison is a main character, one of Victor's sexual partners, even though she's the girlfriend and secret financial backer of his club partner.

"I guess [McInerney ticked] me off a lot when I was working on 'Glamorama,' " Ellis says.

Reviving characters is "just a way to remind me that the books, in a way, are really about the same thing," Ellis says. "A writer writes the same book over and over again. There's a certain temperament that doesn't change that radically from book to book."

A Desire to Shock and a Drive to Say Something

The temperament in Ellis' case mixes an adolescent desire to shock--imagine a kid in study hall doodling execution scenes--with a drive to say something weighty about things that aren't. Ellis writes about sex and violence, which, he says, means he must have his characters engage in both, even though many critics have gagged at his clinical, almost depraved detail.

Ellis ignores the reviews and blames his vivid descriptions on slasher films he watched during his teen years.

"That kind of gore and violence was a titillation and made us squeal and gasp and hide our eyes," he says. "And maybe, in the end, it did desensitize us."

"Glamorama" opens on the day before the debut of a nightclub in Manhattan, a device Ellis uses to introduce most of his characters and to establish Ward as a venally empty figure, the kind of guy who'd nudge Narcissus into the pond to hog the view for himself. Victor's sleeping around on his supermodel girlfriend, has his own second-tier modeling career, is dying to be cast in "Flatliners II," though he's been rejected for MTV's "Real World," pops more pills than William Burroughs and is plotting to open his own nightclub and undercut his financial backer in the current club project.

Just as the satire begins to crumble under its own weight, Ellis abandons the theme and sends Ward to Europe, where he becomes ensnared in an international terrorist conspiracy in which doppelgangers are substituted for real models and celebrities, who subsequently are blackmailed into planting bombs.

The writing throughout is polished with some clever satirical devices. Film crews follow everyone around [an advance on Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame]; main characters are introduced with a description of their cell phones; party scenes include a catty recitation of all the real celebs attending the fictional gathering.

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