Edge

The conceptual satirist of American High Society: Bret Easton Ellis

As high-rolling businessman Patrick Bateman slithers around the gleaming Manhattan social heights, boasting his ego and self-obsession in a more than sadistic fashion and careening through the decadent world of society’s elite, the self-indulgent model Victor Ward attempts to wriggle himself out of the profligate, twirling whirlpool of fame and excess whilst becoming the perfect target for terrorists.

Then, back in college, Patrick’s younger brother Sean penetrates into the bedrooms of half of his Northeastern bohemian campus in an effort to connect with someone, while the bisexual, judicious Paul strives to do the same and Lauren, writing anonymous love letters to Sean, ambivalently rides along the coiling college path–all of them wallowing in drugs, sex and Thirsty Thursday or Dress to Get Screwed Parties, then eventually ensnaring themselves in a sketchy love triangle. And foremost there’s Clay, who returns home for Christmas to L.A. from a liberal arts school in the East and observes his despoiling wealthy surrounding, but can’t do anything about it because of his deepening sense of estrangement and nihilism.

Whether these characters stem from Bret Easton Ellis’ novels American Psycho, Glamorama, The Rules of Attraction or Less Than Zero, they each display the author’s profound sensibility to human flaws and blemishes, as well as the despondent condition of high society and his mournful indignation at the amoral, disaffected adults and children of America’s upper-middle-class. Not only does he plow deep into the darkest caves of human spiritual suffering and scrutinize the desolate mind states of people that seemingly have everything one can wish for (from impeccable physiques to mountainous clusters of money), but Ellis also has an intrinsic ability to create conceptual stories by absorbing different points of view, convincingly writing from the perspective of conceited, self absorbed rich people to a bemused college girl, for instance.

Although all of his stories are set in affluent, well-heeled environments, Ellis claims that he was an outlying spectator of this contiguous world. Using up-to-the-minute dialogue and vivid 1st person narration, he impressively undertakes his characters’ personalities and embodies well what they represent. He had previously written three more autobiographical books before publishing his first novel, Less Than Zero, at the end of his college years at Bennington. Zero focuses on the moral dyslexia of the main protagonist Clay, an indifferent, well-off student originally from L.A., the city where the author grew up.

“I’ve known a lot of guys like Clay,” Ellis says on the phone from New York, “and there were a lot of things in society that were bothering me, so I decided to create someone emblematic of those problems. Clay is a character with a lot of flaws. His passivity and disaffection were the point of the book, but he’s not me at all.”

“I had a lot of friends who lived that [prosperous]type of lifestyle,” he adds. “I had friends that were ‘prostitutes’ and all, but at school most of my friends were writers. I mean we partied of course, but we were really serious about our writing. I wasn’t some spoiled rich kid or anything and I didn’t like any of those people. In fact, I hate rich kids.”

With The Rules of Attraction, Ellis digs into the lives of rich college kids that hardly have any sense of direction. Most aren’t sure what they’re doing in the future and the author explores their agonies and confusion as they all try to find solace in sex, drugs and alcohol.

“Rules was my first stab at a conceptual book as I was writing through the views of different characters commenting on the same events with different feelings and reactions to them,” he explains. “It’s about being young and miserable, about going through romantic rejection. I wanted to examine the flaws in society in terms of putting all these kids in one place, a college campus, and seeing what happens.”

Even if he is an acute documentarian and a lot of the cultural references are consistent with the time period in which the novel takes place (the mid-eighties), Ellis emphasizes that he isn’t a raconteur of a specific era in time.

“I was writing about a particular time and the shift that was going on in 1985,” he notes. “Aids was coming up big, drugs became scarier and more ominous and Nancy Reagan’s campaign was in full force, but the themes in the book are still universal. I hadn’t planned on being a chronicler of that decade. I just wanted to write a novel on certain topics that were making me angry or pissing me off. I usually just write about the time that I’m living in at the moment.”

The Rules of Attraction has just been released as a movie and Ellis is quite satisfied with the outcome, more so than with others that have been based on his novels such as American Psycho, saying that the production of Rules is closest to what he felt when writing the book. However, he doesn’t feel that his works are made for films since they don’t have a real cinematic momentum and strong plots or characters that people can empathize with, he says. He’s not too interested in films anyway and prefers to concentrate on the writing.

“I have no idea why I write fiction,” he muses. “It’s been involuntary. Originally, I wanted to be a musician and I was in rock bands, but both my parents were voracious readers and reading gave me an immense amount of joy and pleasure. I don’t write to escape or anything, I just wanted to mimic that pleasure. Eventually, as I got more serious, I wanted to let things out and writing became a more cathartic process.”

Novels like American Psycho and Glamorama depict an especially extravagant lifestyle, often with brutal and remorseless passages of violence as well as highly explicit sex scenes and orgies–such as one with the American psycho himself, Patrick Bateman, ramming a couple of escorts and watching himself curl his biceps in the mirror with loud music from the ’80s blasting in the background.

“I felt like surfaces were taking over meaning in this society and I was asking myself, where does that get us? Feeling that prompted me to write Glamorama,” he says. Nevertheless, Ellis’ interests have changed and he doesn’t think he’ll ever write anything as violent and extreme as American Psycho again. His next book, the first one to be somewhat autobiographical, will be a supernatural thriller featuring a haunted house and will focus on a writer as the main character.

Influenced by authors such as Joan Didion, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver and James Joyce, Ellis accentuates the inspiration he got from Joyce’s Ulysses, which showed him the potential of what a novel could be and taught him that there isn’t a definite formula to write one. He accordingly devised his own unique writing procedure.

“Something’s bothering me and I get fueled to write about it through fiction and characters symbolizing this anger,” he says, “then a book forms and I do the outline, making notes for the characters. Like with Patrick Bateman I’d write, ‘he can’t make any metaphors because he only sees the world in one way.’ The process becomes a clinical and technical approach once my emotional reaction is down on paper.”

“And I do identify with my characters,” he continues. “They are extensions of myself in a way. Bateman, for example, was to some extent like me coming to New York after becoming rich through my books. But I told myself right away that I couldn’t fall into this yuppie world, so maybe if I wrote about it I wouldn’t, and it did help a lot.”

While many critics label him as a moralist–arguing that he exposes people to the malevolence and many wrongs in society, then telling readers to avoid getting enmeshed in the disarray of money, power and drugs-Ellis actually doesn’t linger on these moral platitudes of right and wrong, or what you should or should not do. He notes that his good friend Jay McInerney, author of Bright Lights, Big City, displays some sort of hope in the end of his book, while Less Than Zero is more severe and pounding.

Ellis’ novels aren’t necessarily didactic and he isn’t trying to be a parent to his readers. Rather, he is a witty satirist and through his 1st person works, you feel, almost become and live with the characters, as the author, angered at the many deficiencies in American society, creates a shrewd social documentary and a disquieting portrait of human vices and follies.

Omar Sommereyns can be reached at SOASIS@aol.com

October 15, 2002

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