(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bret Easton Ellis 1964–

American novelist.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."