Ellis, Bret Easton
Bret Easton Ellis 1964–
The following entry provides an overview of Ellis's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 39 and 71.
Brett Easton Ellis has been called the voice of a new generation by some critics, and accused by others as being "superficial." He leaves few readers indifferent to his work. Critics compare Ellis's frank representations of rich but desensitized young Americans to the works of authors Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ellis's novels also share affinities with the work of Raymond Chandler and Joan Didion, the latter an author Ellis acknowledges as an important influence. Music-video and film aesthetics also mark Ellis's style and themes. American Psycho (1991), arguably his most notorious work, has been the subject of extended critical discussion and the object of public scorn for its graphic rendering of violence against women. Ellis has enjoyed commercial success, but the artistic and sociological value of his work is a source of ongoing debate.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Ellis's early novels focus on events similar to experiences in his own life. Ellis graduated with a B.A. from Bennington College in Vermont in 1986. A year earlier, he made a sudden and spectacular appearance on the literary scene with his novel Less Than Zero (1985), at the age of twenty-one. The novel grew out of a writing course at Bennington, and was reworked over a period of several years. Ellis's second novel, Rules of Attraction (1987), continued in the same vein as his first, focusing on thrill seeking teen-agers, and is infused with MTV imagery and allusions to suggestive commercial slogans and rock band titles. Rules of Attraction drew mixed reviews, and was not as successful as Less Than Zero. American Psycho was published by Random House after it was rejected by Simon and Schuster, and the book provoked a violent reaction from many sources, including reviewers who urged readers to avoid the novel. The Los Angeles Chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) objected to its vivid depiction of violence against women. NOW mounted a boycott of Random House, and Gloria Steinem publicly promoted the idea that Ellis should be held accountable for acts of violence against women that were inspired by the novel's misogynist narrator. Ellis's next book, The Informers was published in 1994.
Ellis' novel Less Than Zero focuses on the experiences of the young narrator, Clay, a wealthy student from Los Angeles who attends college on the East Coast. The novel recounts a trip home for the Christmas holidays which plunges him into a world where young teenagers buy Porsches, indulge in casual sex, abuse drugs, and watch music videos and pornography with the same detachment as their parents. Ellis has observed that his novels portray a lifestyle that "a lot of teenagers hunger to be in." Less Than Zero was praised for its cool prose and critics admired Ellis's ear for language. The Rules of Attraction covers similar territory. One reviewer summarized the characters' lives and the plot in the following manner: "they drink, get high, get tranquilized, spend a great deal of their parents' money, and practice junk-food sex." The values underlying this lifestyle are dramatically represented in Ellis's best known work, American Psycho—the narrative of Patrick Bateman, a character introduced in Rules of Attraction. Bateman is a twenty-six-year-old investment banker, serial killer and quintessential citizen of consumer society who consumes the victims of his madness, all with the same detached obsession he uses in choosing outfits advertised in magazines. Many commentators view American Psycho as dangerously exploitative and irresponsibly reliant on shock-value. Others read American Psycho as a metaphor, seeing in Bateman's story a symbolic criticism of greed and "inhumanity" of the American upper class whose victims are the disadvantaged underclass. In The Informers, Ellis returns to focusing on rich and beautiful college students, and incorporates deadpan prose and scenes of horror similar to that seen in his early work. In the novel, a multitude of friends and acquaintances find their lives uprooted by several random murders and mutilations. The murderers are revealed to be Dirk and Jamie, two of the friends in the group who turn out to be vampires. Ellis weaves thematic and narrative features of his other novels into this work, and also includes an experimental element that drew a comparison to William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury.
Heated critical debate surrounds Ellis's relatively small oeuvre. It centers around the shocking qualities of his characters' actions and attitudes. Scott Spenser praises Ellis's use of deadpan humor: "There are flashes of wit that can lead you to suspect he sees and even recoils from the hollowness of the young lives he writes about." However, Spenser derides Ellis for his passivity in his regard for social malaise, stating: "… it [is] within his grasp to become a satirist, but for now his method of aping the attitudes of the burnt-out works against him." In a review of American Psycho, Alberto Manguel suggests that the book produces "a revulsion not of the senses but of the gut, like that produced by shoving a finger down one's throat." Norman Mailer, a writer similarly known for vivid depictions of brutality, finds it difficult to defend Ellis's approach to writing, due to its apparent lack of moral purpose. Nevertheless, defenders of Ellis's work abound. Gore Vidal feels American Psycho is "a wonderfully comic novel," and other positive critical commentary centers on the metaphorical dimension that was missed by those who, compelled to act on the outrage the work provokes, are quick to ban and censor the book. American Psycho is seen by these defenders as an indictment of unprincipled materialistic consumerism. Richard Eder commends Ellis's sharp "ear and eye for the patter and drift of his contemporaries" and the satirical thrust of his work, but complains of the lack of contrast due to the absence of "an alternative … standpoint."
SOURCE: "Flopsy, Mopsy, Paul, Sean and Lauren," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 13, 1987, pp. 3, 8.
[In the following review of The Rules of Attraction, Eder critiques Ellis's style and examines the author's themes.]
Bret Easton Ellis' characters have an odd resemblance to Beatrix Potter's.
True, they drink, get high, get tranquilized, spend a great deal of their parents' money, and practice junk-food sex. The comparison with the chaste Miss Potter may seem farfetched. Furthermore her rabbits and squirrels are more human than Ellis' college kids, and livelier.
But the resemblance is there. Both groups live snugly in burrows, do their things, pay each other visits, and have infrequent contact with the outside world. Adults appear rarely, and, when one does, it is a Mr. MacGregor, whose vegetable patch is briefly and perilously raided (Ellis' is a rich parent appearing now and then to moo and be milked). Afterward, they scamper home for tea (Ellis: cocaine and tacos).
Of course, Potter's point is the coziness of small, furred things who set their table with real Spode. Ellis' point is the bleakness of a lost generation with platinum credit cards. But both the coziness and the bleakness are laid on; neither is earned.
It is only human to prefer unearned coziness. It is harder to accept Ellis' post-adolescent...
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SOURCE: "Love Me, Love My Porsche," in New York Times Book Review, September 13, 1987, p. 14.
[In the following review, Spenser critiques the superficiality of Ellis' characters in The Rules of Attraction.]
With his first novel, Less Than Zero, Bret Easton Ellis made a name for himself here and abroad with an account of life among the overdrugged, underloved rich kids of southern California. It was a kind of Valley of the Dolls for the 80's, but it had its own oblique power, and there was something remarkable in the fact that the author was merely 20 years old. Now, two years later, Mr. Ellis gives us The Rules of Attraction—maybe the first expose of what really goes on in the coed dorms we've heard about. It serves to establish Mr. Ellis's reputation further as one of the primary inside sources in upper-middle-class America's continuing investigation of what has happened to its children.
The Rules of Attraction is a not-quite-random collection of voices, all of them giving their points of view about the sexual rites and rivalries in a place called Camden College. As in Less Than Zero, Mr. Ellis isn't concerned about constructing a novel with a plot. His interest is in misbehavior patterns, and it could be that some of his older readers are experiencing his work on the level of social psychology. Here, threaded through the indistinct mixture of...
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SOURCE: "Wishing for More," in Telos, No. 76, Summer, 1988, pp. 143-54.
[In the following essay, Pan looks at the stylistic features of Less Than Zero in relationship to the visual media of television, video and film.]
The first question which comes to mind in reading Ellis' bestseller, Less Than Zero, is "Is Los Angeles really like that?" This astonishment betrays not only the vague feeling that one has somehow missed out on all the action in Los Angeles, but also the compulsion to continue reading in order to experience, at least vicariously, all the sordid details of life in the American "elite." This voyeuristic query fits perfectly into the framework of a book in which the closest thing to a plot is the attempt of Clay, the first person narrator, "to see the worst" and in which the characters continually try to certify the authenticity of their experiences. After watching a snuff film, the characters voice the same concern as the readers:
"Yeah, I think it's real too," the other boy says, easing himself into the Jacuzzi. "It's gotta be."
"Yeah?" Trent asks, a little hopefully.
"I mean, like how can you fake a castration? They cut the balls off that guy real slowly. You can't fake that," the boy says.
The voyeuristic impulse which grips the snuff film viewers and...
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SOURCE: "Bret Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero: Entropy in the 'MTV Novel'?" in Modes of Narrative, Königshausen & Neumann, 1990, pp. 68-87.
[In the following essay, Freese contemplates the narrative qualities and social commentary of Less Than Zero.]
In 1985, a twenty-year-old Bennington College undergraduate named Bret Easton Ellis published a book which, as rumour has it, he had typed on his bedroom floor in about a month and which he entitled Less Than Zero. The young man, who had grown up in Sherman Oaks as the son of a well-to-do real estate analyst, wrote about what he seemed to know well from personal experience: the aimlessness and angst of rich Los Angeles youngsters in their hectic world of drugs, casual sex and violence. In a surprisingly short time his lurid tale about "the seamy underside of the preppy handbook" turned into a craze in Los Angeles and a must on many American campuses. The movie rights were secured by independent producer Marvin Worth before the novel had even appeared in the stores, and Penguin Books bought the paperback rights for $100,000. Meanwhile the film has been released, and the book is out in a fast-selling German translation. Ellis has followed his successful debut with a second novel, The Rules of Attraction (1987), which the blurb of the paperback edition describes as dealing with "the couplings and capitulations, the dramas and the...
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SOURCE: "'But This Road Doesn't Go Anywhere': The Existential Dilemma in Less Than Zero," in Critique, Vol. 33, No. 1, Fall, 1991, pp. 23-42.
[In the following essay, Sahlin considers Ellis's Less Than Zero in the existential tradition of writers such as Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.]
In Less Than Zero (1985), Bret Easton Ellis joins the tradition of Hollywood writers who have been capitalizing on southern California, its landscape, and its lifestyle for more than fifty years. That group includes writers such as Nathanael West, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and, more recently, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. Hollywood has long served as a setting for fiction that reveals the corruption lurking behind glamorous lifestyles or, in the case of crime and detective novels, the intrigue and masquerade so suited to a city whose business is a form of deception. By the time Joan Didion published Play It As It Lays (1970), the Hollywood tradition had dispensed with a large portion of the glitter, moving toward heavier doses of cynicism, which Didion parlayed into her own brand of existentialism or even nihilism. Yet even as early as Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust (1939), "the absurdist tradition" was putting down roots in Hollywood, and, for the next few decades, major novelists hired as screenwriters were...
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SOURCE: "The Beast in the Jungle, the Figure in the Carpet," in Shopping in Space, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1992, pp. 85-129.
[In the following essay, Young appraises American Psycho as a postmodern text.]
The publication of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho in 1991 was replete with ironies. It seemed as if the world had decided to add to the book all the old-fashioned fictional qualities that it so conspicuously lacked: melodrama, plot, characterization, irony, hubris. The story of the book—its publication history, its author, its controversial aspects, its fashionability—had to stand in for the lack of story in the book which no one seemed to bother to read in any detail. Bret Easton Ellis started making notes for his third novel, which he intended to be the monologue of a serial killer, whilst still working on the proofs of The Rules of Attraction. The publishing house Simon and Schuster offer a $300,000 advance for the book only to withdraw from publication in the autumn of 1990 after some exceptionally violent, gory excerpts from what is now known as American Psycho appear in Spy and Time magazines. Sonny Mehta immediately acquires the manuscript for Vintage Books. It is published as a trade paperback in America in February 1991 and in Britain, under the Picador imprint, in April of the same year. Its publication was attended in America by...
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SOURCE: "Attack of the Anti-Heroes," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 8, 1994, pp. 3, 8.
[In the following review of The Informers, Karlen critiques the development of Ellis's work.]
Joe McGinniss' gravest crime against literature was not The Last Brother, the author's recent and ridiculous faux-biography of Ted Kennedy. Rather, McGinniss' worst felony was rushing Bret Easton Ellis, his fiction-writing student at Bennington College, to publish Less Than Zero at age 21.
Ironically, the 1985 first novel was an excellent beginning for an obviously talented writer; Less Than Zero provided a provocative snapshot of a time when the anomic ditherings of idle, rich, drug-addled, white-bread Los Angeles young adults was considered fresh material. Bearing a canny journalist's eye for detail and dialogue, Ellis' storytelling already carried the complete lack of sentiment and empathy of a seasoned nihilistic novelist.
Ellis became a famous, best-selling young writer and was touted as the voice of a generation. But like a rookie phenom pitcher without a second pitch, Ellis immediately ran out of what ballplayers call stuff.
Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer earned their material and early anomie through actual life experience; both had been to war by the time they were famous writers in their early 20s. Bret Easton...
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SOURCE: A review of The Informers, in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 211, No. 10, September 5, 1994, pp. 46-7.
[In the following review, Star identifies Ellis's themes and his stylistic contributions to the "L.A. novel."]
As if to make up for the city's incessant boosterism, the Los Angeles novel carries a strong current of disaffection. Brooding despair mocks buoyant dreams; cynicism poisons the sunshine. This tradition distilled itself in Joan Didion's Play It as It Lays, where the entire metropolis was coolly reduced to a few locations (restaurants, hotel rooms, the freeway) and an even smaller number of emotions (anxiety, disengagement). Play It as It Lays may have been intentionally fatigued, designed to sound like the last book of its kind. But it inspired a legion of imitators. For many Californian writers, the L.A. novel became a trip to Didionland.
Bret Easton Ellis's Less Than Zero, which appeared in 1985, cleverly adapted Didion's narrow range and brittle style to the age of MTV. Not surprisingly, Ellis became an instant object of emulation as young writers everywhere began composing their own stripped-down novels about drugs, sex and driving. And then, his ambitions inflated by early success, Ellis saw his stock fall. American Psycho, his third book, was intended as a nightmarish indictment of Wall Street, serial killers and the American...
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SOURCE: "Hopping, Popping and Copping," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 99, p. 14.
[In the following review of The Informers, Stade links features of Ellis's novels and addresses the author's thematic concerns.]
The setting of Bret Easton Ellis's fourth novel is that of his first, Less Than Zero (1985), a critical and popular success made into a movie that was neither. In these two novels, the setting, Los Angeles and environs, has more motive force than any character. But the method of the new novel is pretty much that of Mr. Ellis's second. The Rules of Attraction (1987), set in the fictional and farcical Camden College in New Hampshire. In these two novels, affectless voices (to which names are attached) speak directly to the reader of their party hopping, narcotics popping and sexual copping, all of it joyless. In those three novels, the main characters are well-off college students who spend little time studying.
In that respect, they differ from Mr. Ellis's third, the notorious American Psycho (1991), set among New York wheeler-dealers a few years farther into Reaganomics. The publication of American Psycho was at first forestalled and then denounced by our cultural commissars and professional hand-wringers. What mainly aroused their censorious zeal was a tone of moral neutrality and the particularized descriptions of some especially nasty...
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SOURCE: A review of American Psycho, in National Review, Vol. 48, No. 11, June 17, 1996, pp. 54-7.
[In the following review, Gardner considers American Psycho among a group of other "transgressive novels."]
Thirty years ago the art of fiction began to undergo a change similar to one that had already befallen the theatrical arts. Though theater had once been the best loved form of mass entertainment, it yielded that title to film and then turned inward, catering to an elite taste that saw theater as art rather than diversion. As a result, these two factors, which had formerly been united, increasingly went their separate ways. Fiction also used to fulfill the Horatian injunction to delight as well as to edify. But in recent years it too has split, not into different media, as theater and film have done, but into different forms of fiction. On the one hand Stephen King and Jackie Collins are widely read for their entertainment value. On the other, novelists like Thomas Pynchon and William Gass intentionally and provocatively suppress the element of pleasure, as if it were incompatible with serious fiction.
The logical consequence of this latter trend, and easily the most hyped novel of the decade, is David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, a thousand densely printed pages of plotless abstrusity punctuated by a series of brainless pratfalls. These are followed by a...
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SOURCE: "Historical Violence, Censorship, and the Serial Killer: The Case of American Psycho," in Diacritics, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1997, pp. 44-58.
[In the following essay, Freccero discusses reactions to American Psycho and explores the significance of the novel's violence.]
US mass media has become a much-publicized target of censorious commentary within American public culture in recent years. Censorship, as E. S. Burt notes, may take at least two forms: philosophical censorship, such as that discussed by Leo Strauss's Persecution and the Art of Writing, and the more commonly applied form of US censorship enacted against "pornography" or "obscenity." Philosophical censorship, in this reading, entails the state's persecution of message-bearing texts or utterances that counter the doxa and threaten to disrupt the state, while the second form of censorship involves "a language use that falls outside the interpretive scheme defining the work as the intentional act of a moral being". In the United States, state censorship of the first kind may perhaps be practiced through the "incitement to riot" escape clause provision in the First Amendment, while obscenity censorship—in certain forms—is explicitly written into legislation as excluded from speech protection.
Extending Strauss's argument to the liberal state, Burt suggests in effect that these two forms...
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Barnes, Hugh. "Young Ones." London Review of Books 8, No. 10 (5 June 1986): 22.
A review of Less Than Zero that considers the novel alongside "postpunk" writing by Julie Burchill.
Brown, Rosellen. "The Emperor's New Fiction." Boston Review 11, No. 4 (August 1986): 7-8.
Looks at the style and content of "postsixties" fiction, including Ellis's Less Than Zero.
Hendin, Josephine. "Fictions of Acquisition." Culture in an Age of Money, edited by Nicolaus Mills, pp. 216-33. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1990.
Presents an overview of "youthcult fiction" of the 1980s, including that of Bret Easton Ellis.
Irving, John. "Pornography and the New Puritans." New York Times Book Review (29 March 1992): 1, 24-25, 27.
Discusses American Psycho in the context of censorship and the relationship between writing and criminal acts.
Klavan, Andrew. "The Shrieking of the Lambs." Boston Review 19, Nos. 3 & 4 (June 1994): 30-4.
A defense of violence in fiction that discusses several violent works and includes a consideration of American Psycho....
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