Labeled the “bad boy” of the precocious brat pack of young novelists who came of age during the mid-1980’s, Bret Easton Ellis is a distinguished chronicler of the idle young rich. His popular first novel, Less Than Zero (1985), depicts a young man’s gradual drugged descent into the underworld of upper-class Los Angeles. While his Rules of Attraction (1987), a rambling multi-narrated story about Camden College students, failed to garner much attention, Ellis returned to the media spotlight with American Psycho (1991), a cause célèbre novel more discussed than read concerning a rich Manhattan socialite, Patrick Bateman, who chops up people in creative ways and never gets caught for it—Fyodor Dostoevski’s Notes from the Underground (1864) for modern times. While many people objected to the sensationalistic violence, others admired the novel for its satire, its morality, and its skewering of 1980’s- brand materialism. Was Ellis merely indulging his readers in blood lust, or was he making a cogent statement about our desensitized, superficial culture? This novel can be read either way.
With Glamorama, his first novel in eight years, Ellis steps back somewhat from the level of violence in American Psycho to focus on the fashion industry of New York, London, and Paris. Unlike the more intelligent Patrick Bateman, Victor Ward narrates Glamorama in a largely clueless way, unaware of the menace that his author has in store for him. He assumes a life of ease and luxury as a model-actor-club opener among the young celebrities of New York, but his story is one of gradual loss, some of it due to his mistakes, and some of it due to conspiratorial forces striving to remove him from the United States. At one point, a cinematographer named Felix tries to warn him by saying, “Things get mildly . . . er, hazardous,” but Victor continues on, innocently unaware of how his media-generated fame will be used against him. In many ways, he is a schlemiel: a person smart enough to remember vast amounts of popular culture trivia (album titles, artists, durations of countless songs) but fundamentally incapable of figuring out the larger picture behind it all. He is guileless, easily led by the nose, and his speech is largely dominated by tag lines and hip expressions. He judges people by their age and appearance; at one point he dismisses the lion’s share of passengers on the Queen Elizabeth II as being too old to interest him. In a world where the camera establishes its own allegiances, Victor has very few friends. What matters is that his visage gazes back at him from the cover of Youthquake. As he puts it, “The better you look, the more you see.”
For the first third of the novel, which is set in New York, Ellis explores Victor’s world with a witty, ironic, conversation-heavy style reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926). When asked how people become famous, Victor deadpans, “Oh, you know how it happens: a shoe ad here, a VJ spot there, a bit part in Baywatch, a bad indie film, then boom: Val Kilmer.” Victor’s life may be as trivial and transitory as yesterday’s fashion column, but he knows how to evaluate others based on their star status, looking through ever-lengthening lists of the famous and pseudofamous to see who deserves entry into his nightclub. Though romantically linked with Chloe Byrnes, a blonde supermodel, he makes other sexual conquests by showing off his abs and his profile. Repeatedly, his fixation on appearance and status overrules more humanistic value systems. For example, Victor concludes an account of a trip to Los Angeles:
So many people we vaguely knew died or disappeared the weeks we were there—car accidents, AIDS, murders, overdoses, run over by a truck, fell into vats of acid or maybe were pushed—that the amount for funeral wreaths on Chloe’s Visa was almost five thousand dollars. I looked really great.
Through it all, the images of the media rule. Authors have felt film, television, and popular music impinge on the attention of their readership for years, and Glamorama posits an almost complete capitulation to their fear. Television crews videotape photo shoots. Other photographers take pictures of a commercial in the making. Reproductions of...
(The entire section is 1777 words.)