Ah, satire. That most misunderstood of creative outlets. How I love you. Everyone should love a good satire, or at least I’d like to imagine they should. Satire is everywhere, in movies and music and literature; usually as a little pinch of sardonic humor thrown into a work for flavor. Then there comes along a satirist that pushes satire onto a level of absurdity so profuse that virtually no one understands the point of it. One such as this is usually the type of person to be ignored in his lifetime and lauded as a genius long after his demise. A person like Bret Easton Ellis, for example.
You might know Bret Easton Ellis indirectly through the movie American Psycho, which is based on his most infamous novel. That’s the limit of the average person’s knowledge of the author. It’s understandable, as his books are not for everyone. And by not for everyone, I mean they aren’t for anyone sane. For the most part, all of his novels concern violent narcissists and deviants who go through life floating in a drug-induced haze while experiencing the occasional bouts of wanton murder. You end up hating virtually every character he creates. So why bother to read any of his stuff at all?
Well, because the man is going to be considered one of the great satirists of the age, and if I know hipsters like I think I do, they will want in on this before everyone else starts to like him and he becomes mainstream. I recently finished, after picking at them for the past few years, every book in Bret Easton Ellis’ repertoire. I’m going to take you through the written works of the man and give you a little taste of the whip smart insanity you are sure to encounter.
Less Than Zero
This should be your first foray into the world of B.E.E. Less Than Zero concerns the character of Clay, a college kid home in Los Angeles for his Christmas break who rapidly falls back into the high class Hollywood teen lifestyle of the 80s. If this novel is to be believed, that lifestyle consists of doing cocaine, sleeping with just about every person you come into contact with, and going to some really disturbing parties. It’s not so much a story as it is an unblinking look at what a glitzy, glamorous life can lead to when there’s nothing else to offer from it. Expect vivid descriptions of decadence and snuff films to plague your senses.
The Rules of Attraction
This is by far my least favorite of his books, but it’s by no means bad. Taking place at Camden College, the story follows a group of art students as they work their way from drug deal to one night stand and back again against the backdrop of “Dress To Get Screwed” and “End of the World” parties. At the forefront are Sean, Paul, and Lauren who form a sordid “love” triangle that has little to do with love and more to do with sexual (and bi-sexual) escapades and more than a little insanity, as by the end almost every narrator the novel offers up turns out to be unreliable, seeing things through personal lenses so warped that we aren’t sure what’s real and what isn’t.
Ah, here’s the big one. Ellis’ most controversial and infamous work that is still banned in places, which for a book usually means it’s really good. I can’t in good conscious recommend it, because it is to put it lightly, fucked up. Here we have Patrick Bateman, New York yuppie and card-carrying materialist who spends his days dining at the finest restaurants and arguing over who has the most beautiful business card and his nights propositioning prostitutes whom he then proceeds to rape, torture, murder, and in some cases, eat. Maybe. It’s an incredibly violent book, told through the eyes of a man so lost in the emptiness of his lifestyle that he describes his wardrobe and love for Huey Lewis with the same deadpan voice that he describes his unspeakable acts of violence that we aren’t sure even really happened by the end. Nothing will prepare you for what you will find in this book, so just be ready to be shocked if you’re going to go through with reading it. But go into it with an open mind, as the point is lost on a number of people, who see it as a misogynistic manifesto of horror, rather than the skewering of the insanity of materialism that it’s meant to be.
Ellis switched formats for his next release in the form of a collection of interconnected short stories set during the time of Less Than Zero. (I should pause to note something here: each of these books is set in the same screwy universe and often characters from earlier novels drift in and out of others. I dig it.) Anyhow, the collection of stories find a group of individuals trying to live their drugged up, vapid lives in Los Angeles. The characters include rock stars, pretty boys, aging starlets, international rock stars, and vampires. Yes, vampires. It isn’t the greatest on this list, probably because most of these were written when Ellis was still in college and hadn’t yet formed the authorly clout he would later posses.
I will put forward that not only is Glamorama the best on this list, but it has become one of my all time favorite books. Which might say something terrible about my personality, but I’m not ashamed. For now. Victor Ward, first introduced as a minor character in Rules of Attraction, is spending the late 90s as a rising star in the New York modeling world. He’s opening clubs and doing photo shoots for the covers of teen magazines and dating actresses. He’s also completely idiotic, barely noticing what goes on around him if it doesn’t concern a celebrity he can name drop. And speaking of celebrity name dropping, the first half of the books is made up of almost entirely that, with a few lengthy bouts of fashion and movie industry buzzwords that string together to paint an accurate picture of the glam obsessed culture Victor wallows in. As the story progresses, Victor finds himself drawn into a weird conspiracy that lands him in London as part of a group of ultra-violent terrorists who are all models and actors under the tutelage of a mad former supermodel named Bobby Hughes. Unlike most of Ellis’ other novels, Glamorama has a full story arc and a mystery for a reader to get hooked by, and I think it works much better than most of his other novels. In talking of this book, it would be criminal not to at least mention the fact that the movie Zoolander ripped this story off hard, and a settlement with Ben Stiller was made out of court. Which totally means that Focker was guilty, am I right?
Lunar Park was a drastic change for the author, as it removes itself from his normal written universe to become a sort of faux autobiography. The protagonist this time around is Bret Easton Ellis himself, who satirizes his own rise to stardom in the 80s and his fall from grace after writing Glamorama that led to him reconnecting with an old flame, getting married, and raising a family in suburbia. Just when you think the story is set, murders linked to the novel American Psycho start happening in the neighborhood, and very weird things begin to take place in Ellis’ McMansion. Things like possessed toys, monsters, ghosts, and a blending of the “real” world and the “fictional” world in his novels. Not unlike his other novels, there’s the usual satirizing of a lifestyle at work, here being the life of a strung out suburbanite and unwarranted family man. Where the book really shines is in the dissecting of Ellis’ relationship with his father and his son, which takes up the core of the story.
Just last summer, Ellis’ most recent books was released. It was a sequel to Less Than Zero, picking up with the characters from that novel in their particularly disturbing midlife crisis. Clay is now a screenwriter struggling to help cast a movie he wrote that is a thinly veiled mockery of the poor adaptation of Ellis’ own The Informers. Just as vapid and hollow as ever, Clay reconnects with people he knew in youth and finds Hollywood an even more decrepit and violent place than before. As the lifestyle consumes him again, he descends into the depths of his own depraved obsessions and the reader follows. The novel doesn’t work as well as most of his other ones, and is stripped down even by the standards of the usual Ellis fair, but it’s a manageable take on being middle aged (and possibly insane).
There you have it. It’s very difficult to describe a book by Bret Easton Ellis and then follow it up with a sincere plea to read his stuff. The books are hard to get through, to be sure. The style, while fascinating to me, can turn a lot of people off with it’s deadpan delivery and dry humor. That’s to say nothing for the vivid descriptions of violence and sex that border on anthropological in the attention to detail offered. And American Psycho is best read on a dare or for money or something. The point is not to miss the point. Used as a cross section of the process of satirization, Bret Easton Ellis’ body of work is top notch. His books even have a weirdly moral leaning when viewed objectively. If only for one hell of an experience, I suggest giving him a try.
I’m sorry I used the word “satire” so much. I didn’t have my thesaurus with me. Or maybe I was satirizing the satire of satirists. We’ll go with that, because it means I’m secretly a genius.
Yep, genius. Pure genius.