Bret Easton Ellis on Drugs, Death Threats, and Critical Rejection
This article was originally published in RS 802/803, December 24th, 1998-January 7th, 1999.
The last time he published a novel, he received death threats. Nasty ones. “There are better ways to take care of Bret Easton Ellis than just censoring him,” reads one posting on the Internet regarding American Psycho, his 1991 book in which matter-of-fact accounts of the shopping, dining and grooming habits of an Eighties New York executive are interspersed with equally matter-of-fact accounts of the gruesome murders he commits. “I would much prefer to see him skinned alive, a rat put up his rectum, and his genitals cut off and fried in a frying pan in front of not only a live audience but a video camera, as well. These videos can be sold as ‘art’ and ‘free expression.’ “
Response from the American literary community was more quietly vicious. Reviewers trashed him. Invitations dried up. When Ellis suggested to his agent that he write some book reviews, she had to tell him that no one was interested. He’s still angry about that.
Eventually he carried on with his own work instead. The result is his new novel, Glamorama, a book about models and nightclubs and terrorism, and about how, if you make too many shallow, bad decisions, they will eventually strangle you. There will be no death threats this time, unless they’re from people excluded from the party guest lists and fashion-show seat allocations that litter the book’s first half. Though there are moments of ghastly violence and destruction, and of methodically explicit sex, in this book the sex and violence keep a polite distance from each other.
Glamorama is Ellis’ longest novel, and also his first to have a plot. His previous four books could be glibly summarized as complementary exercises — Less Than Zero (aimless, decadent Los Angeles youths carry on), The Rules of Attraction (aimless, decadent college students carry on), American Psycho (aimless, decadent, shopaholic New York psychopath carries on) and The Informers (various loosely connected decadent Angelenos carry on) — that gathered much of their power not from the ways in which their characters changed but from the ways in which they failed to. While there is plenty of aimlessness and decadence in Glamorama, there is also some suspense, and the characters — particularly the narrator, Victor Ward — alter as time passes. One of Ellis’ first decisions was that the book would begin with the word specks and end with the word mountain. “And there was going to be this connection between the two words,” he says. “From specks to mountains was going to be the trajectory of Victor Ward.” Ellis is now thirty-four; he began writing American Psycho twelve years ago. “The older I’ve gotten, I realize that lives do have narratives,” he says. “They do have arcs. When you’re twenty-three, you tend to see the world as a series of random events that happen.”
Bret Easton Ellis has lived in this large studio apartment of white walls and wooden floors ever since he moved to New York in 1987. For ten years he had no furniture to speak of — he slept on a mattress, surrounded by stacks of books, and worked at a small desk just inside the door. The floors were soiled with the trampled-in reminders of too many good parties.
He worked on Glamorama for eight years. It can take that long when life keeps getting in the way. There was the tumult that surrounded the publication of American Psycho; the death of his father and the subsequent protracted legal wrangling over his estate; the end of a seven-year relationship; an interruption to finish a series of interconnected short stories (The Informers) to stave off his publishers.
And then there were the various lost weekends . . . lost weeks . . . lost months. Ellis would try to work in the day. In the evening he would usually go out, and sometimes the going out would overwhelm his schedule entirely. “I was really incredibly fucked up all the time,” he says in a tone that is neither regretful nor self-congratulatory. “I drank and did every drug conceivable, and I was really paranoid and freaked out.”
When I explore the phrase “every drug conceivable,” Ellis allows that he went through a heroin phase fairly recently — about three years ago. He was dating an addict at the time, and after a while he wanted to get on the same plane. He didn’t inject, just snorted or smoked it. After three or four weeks, he started missing weddings and close friends’ birthdays. He’d either be sick or just completely zoned out. So he stopped. “I was kind of smart enough to get it,” he says, “to know what it was about and to say, ‘God, I really love this, and I’m really going to stay away from it because it is . . . problematic.’ ”
About a year ago, Ellis decided that in some ways he needed to grow up. During the past few months he has added to his apartment a bed, bookshelves, bedside cabinets and counter stools. To talk, we sit on the stools, though he endlessly complains about how uncomfortable they are, as if to show that upgrading your surroundings only brings more problems. Ellis’ voice has none of the flat, affectless tones often found in his books. He’s actually rather chirpy and warm, and he flips between manic self-deprecation and to-hell-with-it arrogance in a way that advertises his insecurities and makes him much more likable.
The process of growing up, at least in furniture terms, seems to be ongoing. During our first interview, a new office chair is delivered. The next day, a sleek, minimal sofa arrives.
Ellis Grew up in Los Angeles. “I remember very clearly, even in kindergarten or first grade, wearing black turtlenecks and walking very slowly with my hands in my pockets in the rain,” he says. “I just couldn’t take a lot of pleasure in the things that my classmates would take pleasure in: jungle gyms, merry-go-rounds, sand pits, buckets and pails, sing-a-longs . . .” — his voice swells with derision as the list continues — “. . . holding hands and dancing in a circle around some kind of plant, pulling toys out of bags and putting the toys back into bags, queuing up for chocolate milk . . . it all seemed hopeless to me.”
He always loved writing and had a heady confidence in his talents, finishing three adolescent novels (never published) before heading off to Bennington College, in Vermont, where the writing continued. His mother, Dale, remembers getting a report from one of his teachers, writer Joe McGinnis. Part of what he said thrilled her — that her son wrote beyond his years and was already publishable — but he also said that he thought Bret was in pain. “Reading that really hurt me,” she says. “That he was in pain and someone else could see it.”
Even then, Ellis polarized opinions. “This is a guy,” his friend Ian Gittier says, “who was getting hate mail from people in writing workshops his first year there.” His sin was to write frankly about people he knew at college — his drug-dealer ex-girlfriend and her lover-supplier; the person who spiked the party punch with MDA; the guy who bit a girl’s neck so hard she had to go to the infirmary — and, through some mixture of naiveté, arrogance and indifference, fail to disguise them.
Ellis had written the rough draft of his beautifully jaded first novel, Less Than Zero, at the beginning of 1983, during an eight-week crystal meth binge in Los Angeles. (This was the last time he would take crystal meth and his last successful attempt to write under narcotic influence.) It was published in 1985, during his third year of college, and was a big success. But with it came the attention such success brings. Toward the end of his last year at Bennington, Ellis caved in. He woke up one morning sobbing hysterically and couldn’t get out of bed. “Had I not been through this and heard someone else talk about this, I would think, ‘What a wuss’,” he says.” ‘What a wuss’ — I think that should be the title of your article.”
Ellis characterizes this episode as some kind of nervous breakdown. His mother insists it was mononucleosis.
Last summer, the life of Bret Easton Ellis became somewhat complicated by the broadcast, on British TV, of This Is Not an Exit: The Fictional World of Bret Easton Ellis, a documentary in which he enthusiastically participated. “I am a victim,” he explains, “of my own vanity and narcissism.” Though he has many reservations about the project, particularly about the filmmaker’s over-the-top dramatizations of his work, most of the trouble has derived from the final scene, in which he was encouraged to take a limousine to a club with two writer friends, Candace Bushnell and Lawrence David. Ellis had been drinking and had taken some cocaine. He says his main regret is that they come across as idiots, but some moments had more specific repercussions. When Ellis mentions fish sticks, Bushnell says back at him, “Fish sticks, or fist up the butt?” At another moment, she asks him, either drunkenly or incredulously or both, “Bret, have you ever been with a woman?” and he retorts indignantly, “I have been with a woman!”
The implication seemed clear enough: that Ellis was willing, in this way, to let people know that he was gay. And after the broadcast, he appeared to only confirm the interpretation. “Yeah, well,” he told a British reporter, “I’m probably going to destroy any mystique I’ve managed to build up on that subject. Well, if it’s out, it’s out. . . . Oh, it’s been such a charade! Living a lie in public. Well. Those days seem to be over.” Ellis says he intended the response to be grandiose and flippant, and to confirm nothing at all. It was not taken that way. Back in New York, the gossip columns started churning. It is, consequently, a subject he feels a need to address, if only in an attempt to place it back on the sidelines. His position is still as it always has been: that his sexuality is undeclared. Insomuch as that British episode masqueraded as the outing of BretEaston Ellis, this article could represent his in-ing.
Perhaps almost to prove that he is not scared of talking about such matters, Ellis is happy to share an informal history of his developing sexuality. He says that losing his virginity was not something he actively pursued, even when it happened. He was sixteen at the time. “Actually, it was very strange,” he says, “because that was the same week three things happened: I lost my virginity [to a woman], I slept with a man, and I got my driver’s license. That’s a heavy week for a sixteen-year-old.” Both sexual experiences occurred with classmates his age, at their instigation. “My interest in sexuality really wasn’t that defined,” Ellis says. “It was very hazy for me. It was a cerebral thing in a way for me, and a lot of the pleasure of it was divorced from feeling. And, I have to say, that was true for me for a long time.”
Afterward, he says, he thought about both encounters equally, and although he did not have sex again for two years, he was freaked out by neither. His next relationship was with a girl (who was the basis for the principal female character, Blair, in Less Than Zero), but while dating her, he also started seeing a male classmate. . . .
“. . . you know,” he says, interrupting himself, “this sounds like such a thing that I would be talking to my shrink about, and in many ways I’m ashamed and embarrassed to talk so comfortably about my teenage sex life for a magazine. It just seems odd that we live in a culture where I might be comfortable enough to talk about this, because I do, at heart, think your sexuality is not something to talk about. Especially with reporters!” I begin to respond; he silences me. “But I have a desire to talk about it, so just don’t interrupt me right now. . . .”
And so he continues. “And then there were the Bennington years. Orgies! Threesomes!”
“I was involved in an inordinate number of threesomes while I was at college,” he says. “I really was. I liked the idea a lot.” These threesomes were always made up of him as the third person with a male-female couple. Again he insists that it was not he who took the initiative. And that is about as far as the gender-specific specifics of his sexual history go. His longest relationship — “we’ll call it The Relationship,” he helpfully suggests — was with someone in politics, lasted from December 1988 to October 1995, and was ended by Ellis. They’re still friends. He’d prefer, as his privilege, not to say more. If he declared himself straight, gay or bisexual, he argues, it would limit and direct the interpretation of what he has written, in a way he wouldn’t like.
I ask him whether it worries him that, since his faux outing, people who now assume he’s gay will now also think that he is in denial.
He nods, but only to recognize the point. “I guess they could have the sort of disposition to think I was — what’s the term? — a self-loathing fag,” he says. “I don’t know if I necessarily want to meet that reader, or if I really want to spend the time enlightening them.”
Now he can be more honest. When American Psycho was dropped by its original publisher amid a media storm based around the book’s most extreme passages, Ellis was forced into a fairly narrow and serious defense of the book’s purpose. Though he meant the things that he said — that the book was a satire on the values of the Eighties and was feminist rather than misogynous in intent — there were things he couldn’t say. It wasn’t the time to point out that for all its horrifying aspects, it was also a very funny book and that he had often laughed hysterically while writing it.
Other omissions were more personal. He didn’t much want to point out that in some important respects (though not in terms of the violence that Patrick Bateman, the narrator, inflicts on other humans and animals), Bateman was Bret Easton Ellis. “In many ways I was writing about myself and the life I was living,” he says. “The book is much more autobiographical in many ways than I ever gave it credit for. It is an accurate reflection of who I was at the time of writing it and the kind of life I was living. It was a detailed manifesto about what I would experience on a daily basis, and it was also a very harsh criticism of the way I was living at the time. There was a major dose of self-loathing surrounding that book.”
The other person on whom he based Patrick Bateman was his father. Their relationship had always been difficult. Ellis’ father, a prosperous real estate agent, had a drinking problem and at times was violent. He left the family home when Ellis was sixteen. The theory that Ellis and his shrink subsequently came up with was that his father’s sense of worth never recovered from the loss of one eye in a childhood rock fight and that he foisted this sense of insecurity on his family.
“I think, consciously or unconsciously, there are a lot of things about my father that I did not like that became elements of Patrick Bateman,” Ellis says. “The playboy ethic. The yuppie stuff. The desire for status and the obsession with the way he looked. How he spoke and how he presented himself: a kind of hopeless, bleak vision of life.” His father would refer to American Psycho, in the manner of a joke, as “that dirty book.” His son never told him of his part in its makeup.
All of Bret Easton Ellis’ five books share characters. The narrator of Less Than Zero, Clay, turns up in The Rules of Attraction, where one of the principal characters, Scan Bateman, has a brother — Patrick — whose unsettling lifestyle is later detailed in American Psycho. Another Rules of Attraction character, Victor Ward, narrates Glamorama, in which other familiar faces also return, including both Bateman brothers. Ellis explains that he feels comfortable with these people. It reminds him that “the books are basically concerned about the same things, and I’m basically writing about the same world.”
Those things being?
“A kind of shallowness, vanity, narcissism, an obsession with surfaces, finding the truth in surfaces.”
Are you going to spend your whole life writing about shallow, prosperous white Americans?
“Yes,” he says, grinning. “The next novel is about that.” (That book, set in the same Ellis universe, involves the world of politics. He is also writing a memoir, tentatively titled Where I Went I Would Not Go Back, about his adolescent and college years.)
The more general themes that his books share show themselves in various ways. Ellis enjoys sitting supposedly momentous activities (killing people, having an abortion) next to supposedly trivial ones (washing one’s hair, eating a brownie) and treating them both in the same pedestrian, affectless way, as if to suggest that our pretense of being able to tell the difference, and our attempts to act as though we know the difference, are just that: a pretense. The real bleakness in his books doesn’t so much derive from the terrible things that sometimes happen as from the way that nothing seems to matter any more than anything else.
The first 185 pages of Glamorama detail — in a typically Bret Easton Ellis, literal sense of the word — the intrigue of New York models and nightclubs. But it is in the second half that he really covers new ground and finds a new kind of voice. The action moves to Europe, the plot becomes more mysterious, and the tone of the book becomes surreal. There are competing camera crews wandering around, filming the action as it happens. Sometimes they seem real, sometimes not. If you try to piece together every last thread, you will fail. “What does the confetti mean?” Ellis asks, rhetorically, about a recurring image. “The smell of shit? I really wish I could give you an answer.”
Perhaps this new interest in narratives that actually progress will mollify some of his detractors, but I doubt it. If you say you like his books within eavesdropping distance of the American literary community — and I have tried this — you can generally expect scorn and contempt. It is not just because of the American Psycho fuss.
Perhaps he was successful too young and partied too publicly. Sometimes it simply seems as though his critics see his characters’ lack of imagination as reflecting his own lack of imagination; their obsession with trivial pop culture and numbing intoxicants as reflecting his own shallowness; their moral purposelessness as reflecting his own. He is certainly suspected of being addicted to sensationalism.
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Ellis has no time for this. “They’re losers,” he retorts. “I don’t care. . . . It’s a joke to me. I don’t believe it. I just don’t care about those people. They’ve been so nasty about the books for so long, literally it would be exhausting to give a shit after fourteen years.” Later he reflects more thoughtfully: “I think people think that anyone who could write the books I’ve written must be a real son of a bitch, a real asshole.” Writing a book is, he insists, a totally selfish activity, and that’s how it should be. “I truly am not that interested in what people say about the work,” he says. “In the end I have complete confidence about my work, and what I’ve published so far is exactly what I wanted to do. Glad I did it. Fine. No regrets.”
One evening, Ellis and I go to a book party in honor of Jim Harrison. In the cab uptown, Ellis talks to his friends about the appearance in print of the phrase the Bret Set (“I was offended, I was flattered . . . just like the rest of my life”) and considers how to behave at the party. “I’m going to do a couple of handstands,” he says, “and people will morosely applaud.” In fact, there are no handstands, no applause. Nor is there any nastiness. Ellis sweeps around the room with ease, chats with friends like Jay McInerney and slips down a couple of vodkas. At the bar, I find him nibbling on a cheese stick. “At least it’s not a fish stick,” he says.)
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