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The Gen X poster boy's endless ennui

Bret Easton Ellis won't care, but colleagues see new respect coming.

March 23, 2008|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

In his 1985 breakout novel, "Less Than Zero," Bret Easton Ellis, then all of 21 years old, created young, jaded Angelenos who just didn't care about anything: They recounted cocaine scores and semi-anonymous sex in the same tone with which they lamented their fading suntans. That ennui became Ellis' literary signature, and as he began to grow up in public, he became known as a photogenic and glamorous figure who liked booze and excess.

More than two decades later and almost four years after returning home to L.A., the city in which he grew up as the offspring of affluent Goldwater Republicans, Ellis himself claims to be in a phase in which he just doesn't care about anything -- a middle-aged wrinkle on the old Ellis ennui. "The only thing I care about," he requested when setting up a dinner interview, "is valet parking and a full bar."

Ellis in person is witty if often deadpan, good company, discussing the literary novel and popular music with enthusiasm and authority. His classic good looks have become almost conventional as he's aged. He's more down-to-earth, and more intellectual, than his party-boy image would suggest.

He can be uncomfortable as well: Sitting down at a tighter-than-expected Campanile one recent Wednesday night, wearing a black jacket over a casual shirt left mostly unbuttoned, he was unnerved by a slightly raucous, beret-wearing family at a nearby table, until his first drink arrived and he found himself in a spirited defense of Elvis Costello's "Imperial Bedroom." As he leaned into the argument -- the album, which he called "sonically, an absolute '80s masterpiece," will lend its name to a new sequel to "Less Than Zero" -- it was easy to see that he's more engaged with things than he lets on.

But while he spoke with enthusiasm about "The Wire" and Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" -- "the novel of my generation" -- he's truly uninterested in talking about his own career, his own place in the literary firmament. "I don't care anymore," he said. "I never really did care."

That's probably a good thing too: In most of the important conversations about contemporary American literature, Ellis doesn't show up. Academia doesn't take him seriously: He's not taught or written about critically like his generational peers Franzen, Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Lethem, Chang-Rae Lee or Lorrie Moore.

His work is often savaged by critics: His last book, the 2005 quasi-autobiographical novel "Lunar Park," was deemed "the worst novel I've ever read" by Steve Almond in the Boston Globe. And almost a quarter-century into his career, he's never won, or been within shouting distance, of a major literary award. Back in the '80s, he was even dissed by his idol Elvis Costello.

To Lethem, a classmate from Bennington College in Vermont, this neglect comes from the "destructive cartoon" that greeted Ellis in the early years: his image as a frivolous enfant terrible whose clipped prose was fit only for the MTV generation. His sales are good, but if sales correlated directly to a writer's reputation, Tom Clancy and Jackie Collins would tower over Thomas Pynchon and Alice Munro.

To some, he's a kind of Duran Duran of the literary world: fashionable once, but now a footnote. Or at best something that comes back for periodic rediscovery but remains a relic, like the skinny tie.

"I think in the last five years or so there's been a rather ominous silence," said Jonathon Keats, a San Francisco critic and artist who admires Ellis' work. "It seems like Ellis has never been given the benefit of a test of time. He's gone from being poster boy for everything extreme to a name that's quaintly nostalgic -- a moment from the past."

But talk to some of the more serious writers of his generation and a different picture emerges.

Many see him as an overlooked figure, one whose literary heft grows with time. It may be that like a lot of things that emerge from California, the style and vision of Ellis' work creates problems for East Coast intellectuals, but will become as enduring as psychedelia, surfing, the hard-boiled novel or fast food.

A.O. Scott, the New York Times film critic who is working on a book about contemporary American fiction, considers 1991's "American Psycho," a skewering of '80s greed sometimes seen as an endorsement of it, "one of the most misunderstood books in all of American literature." For Scott, "Glamorama," which got scathing reviews, is a book that "in 100 years might be understood as a masterpiece," the work that presaged the combustion between the Internet and celebrity.

But despite being an influence on others -- and being willing to mentor several young writers, including Jeff Hobbs and Joe McGinniss Jr. -- Ellis himself was sometimes discussed more like "an actor, or a scoundrel," said Lethem. "Someone who was subliterary, who came from someplace where it wasn't about writing, it was just about lifestyle.

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