Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis
INDEPENDENT 16 January 1999
by BRET EASTON ELLIS
For anyone wondering how Bret Easton Ellis would follow up a novel about a murderous psychopath living in a world of brand names and beautiful people, the answer is clear: he has written a novel about a group of murderous psychopaths living in a world of brand names and beautiful people. Moreover, in a bid to avoid the charges of sickness and sexism that greeted American Psycho, he repeatedly undercuts the reality he has set up, suggesting that his characters are actors in a film or figments of a paranoid fantasy, thereby placing the entire novel in inverted commas – the essential punctuation-mark of post-modem fiction.
If Jackie Collins and Dennis Cooper were ever to collaborate, the result would be Glamorama, Its narrator-protagonist is Victor Ward, the ‘It Boy of the Moment”, a successful model and wannabe actor whose empty-headed obsession with style is evident from the first page and reiterated on most of the 480 that follow. Early on, he gazes into a mirror and rewards the reader with a description; sadly, he never recounts a thought or a conversation which affords a similar glimpse into his personality. The clearest indication comes when he sees Patrick Bateman, the American Psycho himself, in a restaurant and describes him as ‘a nice guy’. The inverted commas fairly leap off the page.
The book’s first part is set among the supermodels, pop stars and brat-pack actors who constitute the in-crowd in Manhattan. Ellis’s problem is that he fails to distinguish between the triviality and banality he is describing and the triviality and banality of his own description. He does not characterise so much as accessorise (people are defined in terms of their clothes, perfumes, haircuts, even hair gels). He lists so many celebrities that his prose begins to resemble Tara Palmer-Tompkinson’s social diary. Indeed, at times, the main source of interest is how carefully the book has been checked by libel lawyers.
The novel undergoes an abrupt gear-change as Victor is sent on a mission to Europe to find a missing actress. Here, he becomes implicated in a series of sadistic killings and terrorist explosions perpetrated by a gang of supermodels. Quite apart from the utter implausibility of these on any of the narrative levels Ellis sets up, there is an utterly gratuitous emphasis on the mutilations and eviscerations of the victims. At least American Psycho offered a clear, if over-emphatic, connection between Bateman’s consumerist life and his murders; here, there is absolutely no analysis of what led these seemingly beautiful people to become murderous thugs. Without it, their actions – and Ellis’s writing – become mere snuff-movie chic… designer-terrorism.
When the novel’s implausibility becomes too intense (doppelgangers; Japanese conspiracies; the entire plot being masterminded by Victor’s Presidential-hopeful father), there is always the convenient get-out clause that it might all be taking place on a film-set on which an enormous quantity of drugs is being consumed. What is so depressing about Ellis is not that he does not play by conventional rules (which presuppose that a novel should have some emotional, intellectual, comic or narrative interest) but that he does not even play by his own. He undermines his own narrative mode by, for example, having Victor hop on his bike ‘without looking back, though if I had been I would’ve seen Lauren yawning while she waited for a cab’. But, since he isn’t looking back, how can he see?
Glamorama is a deeply offensive piece of work not because of the world it depicts but because its author is so obviously in thrall to its most sickening aspects. If the jury remained out on Ellis after American Psycho, it has now delivered its verdict; he is guilty on all counts: opportunism, sensationalism, trivialisation and a cynical manipulation of both his characters and his readers.