ROME, ITALY - 2019/10/17: Bret Easton Ellis attends the "Motherless Brooklyn" red carpet . (Photo by Andrea Staccioli/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Bret Easton Ellis — the enfant terrible who finally grew up

How he at last lived up to his promise

This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

What happens when an enfant terrible grows up? The literary world is littered with the corpses of former wunderkinder — and many of the deceased are still alive.

Martin Amis’s fiction started with sex, then drugs, but with late work like The Pregnant Widow and Lionel Asbo, dwindled into self-parody — making a mockery of what used to be satire — and found a subject to meet his mature style only when he stopped trying to be funny.

Meanwhile Ian McEwan, known early in his career as Ian Macabre for his frisky tales of incest and sexual murder, has developed into the elder statesman of English letters, who can say with a straight face, “It’s an aspect of getting older that I find in my social circle a handful of judges.” 

Bret Easton Ellis was even more an enfant than Amis and McEwan — publishing his first novel at the age of 21, when he was still at college — if not necessarily more terrible. He was the future once, and until this year he looked very much like the past. He was, we thought, another washed-up former child genius who believed it was the books that had got small when his last novel, Imperial Bedrooms (2010), faded quickly away; another like Amis who reduced himself to tedious talking points (“Generation Wuss”); another who, tragically, pivoted to podcasting.

As it happens, his story doesn’t stop there. But to get to the surprise ending, first we need to begin. 

Ellis was launched into the dazzle of immediate success with his novel Less Than Zero (1985), which he began writing when still at school. Its opening line — “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles” — didn’t just introduce three of his recurring motifs (LA, cars, fear) but perfected out of the box his affectless style, even if Joan Didion had pioneered it 15 years earlier with Play It As It Lays.

The milieu is the young, wealthy, west coast — with the emphasis on young. And on wealthy too. In fact, the emphasis is on everything — brands, songs, outward appearances — and therefore on nothing. 

Ellis’s characters were so rich in easy experiences that they were numb, so filled with everything they wanted that they were empty, and so far from intellectual inquiry that a pressing question for them might be “Are my sunglasses crooked?” (The characters’ monosyllabic names — Clay, Rip, Trent, Blair — only enhanced the sense that anything longer might be too hard for them to remember.)

Less Than Zero was received with the combination of admiration and horror that a good publicist can only dream of. “Mr Ellis clearly possesses talent, and the drive to do something with his gifts,” wrote the New York Times, adding that the book was “one of the most disturbing novels I’ve read in a long time.” 

The book was frightening because it showed the world its author knew

The book was frightening because it showed the world its author knew, and the blankness of the style meant its satirical intent wasn’t immediately clear. (The New York Times reviewer “read it with the worrying sense that it might all be true”.) Still, there’s no doubt that Ellis, like Evelyn Waugh before him, was half in love, or at least half-obsessed, with the world he was simultaneously mocking.

We know this because Ellis has continued to draw on the same world throughout his career, a move which enables those who dislike his stuff to claim that he has nothing to say. But a career-long focus on the same location and types didn’t do Flannery O’Connor or Virginia Woolf any harm, and the dead-eyed teens of the San Fernando Valley in the 1980s are no less valid a subject than Fitzgerald’s lost generation was to him. 

Of course, no writer who does their growing up in public can avoid pratfalls and faceplants, and Ellis’s hasty follow-up, The Rules of Attraction (1987), failed to fill itself up with his talent. Partly this was because the choppy structure of first-person narratives meant it lost that distinctive hypnotic tone — all Ellis’s other novels have a single, intense narrator — and partly because the edginess was less shocking second time around. (This despite the British publisher Picador illustrating the cover with parent-horrifying emblems such as a condom, a spliff and a can of full- sugar Coca-Cola.)

Clearly Ellis needed to develop his art, and the way he did it moved him from that oxymoronic category, literary celebrity, to the properly infamous. By going entirely over the top, much further than he had in Less Than Zero — which included, for example, the gang rape of a twelve-year-old girl — Ellis’s next work would surely be seen as the satire it was. Right?

But with the publication of American Psycho (1991), Ellis learned never underestimate the stubbornness of performative sincerity. Indeed, in a move which may have seeded Ellis’s mid-life complaints about “moronic cancel culture”, the book was abruptly dropped and depublished after advance word leaked about its gross violence, before being picked up by another publisher with a canny eye for controversy.

The result was a sensation in every sense

The result was a sensation in every sense. The narrator of American Psycho, Patrick Bateman, is a Wall Street banker, a gourmand of brand names and cheesy pop music, and sexual sadistic serial killer. The scenes of violence in the book are truly disgusting, though the gruesomeness is the point, just as graphic death in a film carries a stronger moral repulsion than cartoonish bloodless shooting.

People loved it and hated it, but on the latter the book’s finer points seemed to be lost. One critic complained Bateman never faced any consequences for his actions, despite several pointers in the book that the violence isn’t really happening, but is in Bateman’s head. Another said “were it not the most loathsome offering of the season, it certainly would [unintentionally] be the funniest”, when it is one of the funniest, with comic brio in Bateman’s thoughts about Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, or competitive business cards. (The film of the book, released in 2000, unbalanced the story by over-emphasising the comedy.)

This widespread revulsion was the price to be paid by a writer who believed, as Oscar Wilde did, that “there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are either well written or badly written. That is all” — or who was, in his own words, “drawn to aesthetics rather than identity”.

How to follow that? Ellis took his time — seven years — over his next novel, putting out a strong collection of stories, The Informers (1994; more busy teens popping Xanax, now with added vampires), in the interim. Glamorama (1998) took a turbo-powered approach to Ellis’s established themes of aesthetic beauty and ultraviolence, with what can only be described as a tale of terrorist supermodels. It was his funniest book yet — the first 200 pages constitute a perfect self-contained comic novel — but also his most mature, cloaking a tale of pathetic innocence beneath its coruscating surface.

It was with Glamorama and his next book Lunar Park (2005) that Ellis achieved his critical and artistic heights. Lunar Park introduced an element of metafiction — the novel is ostensibly narrated by Ellis himself, and begins by reflecting on his previous books as well as work on imaginary films such as a Harrison Ford vehicle Much to My Chagrin — and becomes a surprisingly affecting, elegiac horror story about parenthood. 

A fall inevitably followed, with Imperial Bedrooms (2010), a half-baked sequel to Less Than Zero, after which it seemed that Ellis had abandoned fiction altogether. 

His pals — the early-80s US brat pack of writers — were doing no better. Tama Janowitz has published no novels since 2008, and Ellis’s bestie, Jay McInerney, made the disastrous decision to try to be a serious novelist, not realising he was already a serious (comic) novelist. He became a sombre novelist instead.

Ellis did what any washed-up novelist would do. He wrote a memoir. The title, White — shorthand for privileged white male — and his jibes at millennial “snowflakes” (“I enjoyed using this term because it seemed, amazingly, to press so many buttons”) showed that Ellis’s appetite for controversy had not left him but simply assumed new, if predictable, forms. 

The reaction to the book (“nonsensical, vapid … narcissistic, reactionary and boring” — the Guardian) obscured the fact that amid the tedium there was valuable thinking on writing, art and especially film: the moral blankness of Richard Gere in American Gigolo was always known to be a strong influence on Ellis’s fiction.

Still, when Ellis last year announced a new novel, The Shards — his first in 13 years — expectations were muted, not least because it promised a return to the world he had never left for long in the first place: early 1980s LA, where the beautiful people’s body parts (abs, pecs, tits, glutes) are as abbreviated as their names, and the longest words are brand names for luxury cars and prescription medication. 

This time it was the same but different. Adopting the fictional memoir style of Lunar Park, The Shards purports to be the true story of Ellis’s traumatic time at Buckley School, when he was writing Less Than Zero. The drama for once is both external — a serial killer stalks the school but nobody else seems to care — and internal, as narrator Bret discovers sexuality, love and the pain they bring. It is a book of memory, excavating the gap between who we thought we were and who we turned out to be.

The success of The Shards is that Ellis makes his bleached milieu as emotionally frightening as those early readers of Less Than Zero thought it was intellectually — with the added terror that this time, there are no jokes. 

Late in the day, four decades into a career begun when he had barely escaped adolescence, the grand chronicler of the surface of things has finally discovered the most layered mystery of all: the human heart. 

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