Ellis, Bret Easton 1964–
Ellis, Bret Easton 1964–
PERSONAL: Born March 7, 1964, in Los Angeles, CA; son of Robert Martin (a real estate investment analyst) and Dale (a homemaker; maiden name, Dennis) Ellis. Education: Bennington College, B.A., 1986. Hobbies and other interests: Piano, playing keyboards in bands, reading.
ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Knopf Publicity, 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: Writer; appeared in the documentary film This Is Not an Exit: The Fictional World of Bret Easton Ellis, First Run Features, 2000.
MEMBER: Authors Guild, PEN, Writers Guild (West).
Less Than Zero (novel), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1985.
The Rules of Attraction (novel), Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1987, Vintage (New York, NY), 1998.
American Psycho (novel), Vintage (New York, NY), 1991.
Informers (short stories), Knopf (New York, NY), 1994.
Glamorama (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.
Lunar Park (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor of articles to periodicals, including Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Wall Street Journal, and Interview.
ADAPTATIONS: Less Than Zero was adapted as a film, produced by Twentieth Century Fox, 1987. American Psycho was adapted as a film, released by Lions Gate Films, 2000. The Rules of Attraction was adapted as a film, released by Lions Gate Films, 2002.
SIDELIGHTS: In 1985, twenty-one-year-old Bret Easton Ellis jolted the literary world with his first novel, Less Than Zero. Many reviewers' reactions to the book echoed that of Interview magazine's David Masello, who called it "startling and hypnotic." Eliot Fremont-Smith of the Voice Literary Supplement pronounced the book "a killer"—and, like other critics, was impressed not only with the novel itself but also with its author's youth. "As a first novel, [Less Than Zero] is excep-tional," John Rechy declared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review; it is "extraordinarily accomplished," a New Yorker critic concurred. Less Than Zero, wrote Larry McCarthy in Saturday Review, "is a book you simply don't forget." A college undergraduate at the time of the novel's publication, Ellis has been hailed by more than one critic as the voice of his generation. Upon the publication of his third novel, American Psycho, Ellis again attracted attention, this time for writing a story so disturbing and violent that Matthew Tyrnauer of Vanity Fair called Ellis "the most reviled writer in America, the Salman Rushdie of too much, too fast."
The somewhat-autobiographical Less Than Zero grew out of a writing project Ellis began at Bennington College under his professor, writer Joe McGinniss. Comprised of vignettes, the book centers on Clay, an eighteen-year-old freshman at an eastern college who returns to Los Angeles for Christmas vacation. Drugs, sex, expensive possessions, and an obsession with videotapes, video games, and music videos fill the lives of Clay and his jaded peers. Events others might find horrifying—hardcore pornography, a corpse in an alley, and a girl who is kidnapped, drugged, and raped—become passive forms of entertainment for this group.
The novel's grim subject matter is related in a detached, documentary-style prose, leading New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani to state that Less Than Zero was "one of the most disturbing novels [she had] read in a long time." Time magazine's Paul Gray asserted that "Ellis conveys the hellishness of aimless lives with economy and skill," while Alan Jenkins of the Times Literary Supplement found that "at times [the novel] reproduces with numbing accuracy the intermittent catatonic lows of a psycho-physical system artificially stimulated beyond normal human endurance."
Some critics drew comparisons between Less Than Zero and J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, the 1950s classic of disaffected youth. But Anne Janette Johnson, writing in the Detroit Free Press, explained that such comparisons could not extend "beyond the fact that both [novels] concern teenagers coming of age in America. Salinger's [Holden Caulfield] had feelings—anger, self-pity, desire. The youths in [Less Than Zero] are merely consuming automatons, never energetic enough to be angry or despairing." For some critics, the novel brought to mind Jack Kerouac and similar "beat generation" writers of the 1950s. And Kakutani found echoes of Raymond Chandler, Joan Didion, and Nathanael West in Ellis's evocation of Los Angeles. Ellis himself has admitted to the influence that Didion has had on his work. He told an interviewer for the Random House Web site that "Didion's essays and fiction appealed to the Southern Californian side of me and I think as a prose writer she's a genius. And I completely ripped her off when I wrote Less Than Zero, and I'm proud of it."
Ellis's second novel, The Rules of Attraction, continued in the vein of Less Than Zero; as R.Z. Sheppard, writing in Time magazine, noted: "The village of the damned goes East." Rules is set at Camden College, a fictional East Coast school which bears a striking similarity to Bennington College in Vermont, where Ellis earned his degree. Despite the academic setting, many reviewers noted the absence of the usual rigors of higher education. Richard Eder announced in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that "we actually catch a glimpse of one professor … and he is asleep on his office couch and reeks of pot." What is present, however, are "drunken parties, drugs, sex, shoplifting, [and] pop music," according to Campbell Geeslin in People. The three main characters, Paul, Sean, and Lauren, are involved in a frustrating love triangle: Paul, a homosexual, desires the bisexual Sean; Sean meanwhile longs to deepen his involvement with Lauren, who is pining after someone else. New York Times Book Review contributor Scott Spencer stated that these characters "live in a world of conspicuous and compulsive consumption—consuming first one another, and then drugs, and then anything else they can lay their hands on."
Spencer praised Ellis for "portraying the shallowness of [his characters'] desires," but objected to what he deemed the author's gratuitous use of brand names which he felt served no function in the narrative. Spencer also surmised that Ellis is a potentially adept satirist, but that in The Rules of Attraction "his method of aping the attitudes of the burnt-out works against him…. One closes the book feeling that this time out the author has stumbled over the line separating cool from cold. Where we ought to be saying, 'Oh my God, no,' we are, instead, saying, 'Who cares?'" Newsweek reviewer David Lehman also found Ellis's authorial skill to be somewhat deficient, and he concluded that "like Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction is more effective as a sociological exhibit than as a work of literary art." One unlikely proponent of the book was Gore Vidal, whom Tyrnauer quoted as remarking, "I thought it was really rather inspired…. These nutty characters, each on his own track—and the tracks keep crossing. It was a wonderfully comic novel." When Roger Avary directed the film version of The Rules of Attraction, which appeared on theater screens in 2002, he updated the tale to contemporary times rather than the 1980s.
A minor character from The Rules of Attraction—Sean's older brother, Patrick—became the central figure in Ellis's third novel, American Psycho. Like El-lis's other protagonists, Patrick Bateman is young, greedy, wealthy, and devoid of morals. A Wall Street executive who shops at the most expensive stores and dines at the trendiest restaurants, Patrick also enjoys torturing, mutilating, and murdering people at random, mostly from New York City's underclass. His crimes are described in the same emotionless detail that he devotes to his observations on food, clothing, and stereo equipment. Though he drops many hints of his covert activities to friends and authorities, he is never caught, and none of the victims seems to be missed.
Ellis has stated that he intended American Psycho to be a satirical black comedy about the lack of morality in modern America, and some critics believe that he achieved this aim. Other commentators, however, accused him of pandering to readers' most base desires by producing a novel with all the artistic worth of a low-budget horror movie. Man, woman, child, and animal all meet grisly ends at the hands of Bateman, and the book's violence toward women in particular prompted one chapter of the National Organization for Women to organize to boycott not only the book itself, but all books by its publisher, Vintage, and its parent company, Random House. The novel generated controversy from the very beginning, however. Ellis's first publisher, Simon & Schuster, refused to carry through on their agreement to publish it, even though they had already given the author a $300,000 advance.
Some critics saw little literary merit in the book. In a Washington Post review, Jonathan Yardley called American Psycho "a contemptible piece of pornography, the literary equivalent of a snuff flick" and urged readers to forego the experience. Andrew Motion echoed Yard-ley's sentiments in the London Observer, calling the book "deeply and extremely disgusting…. Sensationalist, pointless except as a way of earning its author some money and notoriety." Similarly, Albert Manguel of Saturday Night also reported that his reaction to the book was not as the author intended: "not intellectual terror, which compels you to question the universe, but physical horror—a revulsion not of the senses but of the gut, like that produced by shoving a finger down one's throat." John Leonard of the Nation, however, argued that "There is no reason this couldn't have been funny: if not Swiftian, at least a sort of Bonfire of the Vanities meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre…. Ellis has an ear for the homophobic and misogynistic fatuities of his social set…. When Patrick tells people that he's 'into murders and executions,' what they hear him say is 'mergers and acquisitions.'"
Director David Cronenberg considered making a film version, and author Michael Tolkin argued, as Tyrnauer reported: "There was a massive denial about the strengths of the book…. People scapegoated the violence, but that wasn't his sin. He made a connection between the language of fashion writing and serial murder." The film was eventually made in 2000, however, and after actor Leonardo DiCaprio first agreed and then declined to take on the role of Patrick Bateman, it went to Christian Bale. Several critics lauded the work of director Mary Harron, including Gavin Smith in Film Comment, who noted that "she and screenplay collaborator-actress Guinevere Turner … have done an exemplary job of adaptation—distilling, sharpening, and fleshing out the malignant essence of the novel," and that "the result is a mordantly funny and agreeably blatant satire with genuinely subversive bite." Similarly, Richard Corliss in Time felt that "Harron and … Turner do understand the book, and they want their film to be understood as a period comedy of manners."
The debate over Ellis's style continued with his 1994 publication, The Informers. A book of short stories constructed from loosely related short pieces which take place once again in Los Angeles and concern rich and beautiful college students, the book displays the deadpan prose and scenes of horror on which Ellis's reputation has been built. The book contains graphic depictions of vampirism and murder on a par with those in American Psycho, but violence is not the book's focus. A multitude of friends and acquaintances, mostly tan, blonde, and sleeping with each other, find their lives uprooted by several random murders and mutilations of their relatives and peers. As it turns out, two of these young trendy types, Dirk and Jamie, are vampires. But once again Ellis focuses on the emptiness of the 1980s and on characters consumed with style and materialism who have contempt for any real analysis of their lives. "The Informers is full of scintillating chitchat," wrote Leonard in the Nation. "What Ellis has digitized, instead of a novel, is a video. He channel-surfs—from bloody bathroom to bloodier bedroom; from herpes to anorexia," he continued. For Neal Karlen, reviewer for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, The Informers represented "a further slide down for an author who long ago had it." Karlen dismissed the book as full of "a rancid phoniness" and characterized all of Ellis's later work as being "opaque and bitter, devoid of both humanity and meaning" because "Ellis apparently has not learned the lesson of empathy, either on the page or in life." Conversely, for New York Times Book Review contributor George Stade, The Informers was "spare, austere, elegantly designed, telling in detail, coolly ferocious, sardonic in its humor." Stade concluded that Ellis himself was "a covert moralist and closet sentimentalist, the best kind, the kind who leaves you space in which to respond as your predispositions nudge you, whether as a commissar or hand-wringer or, like me, as an admirer of his intelligence and craft."
Ellis published his fourth novel, Glamorama, in 1999. As he explained on the Random House Web site, Glamorama differs from his previous work because, "to put it bluntly, it has a plot, or at least an identifiable narrative that my other novels really don't have." In it, protagonist and senator's son Victor Ward is a male model who leaves his shallow milieu to become unwittingly involved in a European terrorist ring. Ellis further observed, "I think the connection I'm making has to do with the tyranny of beauty in our culture and the tyranny of terrorism. Of course that's a metaphor and the idea of models actually blowing up hotels and airlines is farfetched." After quoting a particularly gruesome passage of Glamorama in a critique for the National Review, however, James Panero asked, "Now did the tyranny of beauty ever make you feel that uneasy?" Panero also presented another question about Ellis in discussing Glamorama: "The plot is nihilistic; the characters, depraved. And page after page is filled with horrible, graphic violence. So why do I get the feeling Ellis is a closet conservative?" A reviewer from Esquire was less impressed, stating that while Ellis "may even be said to succeed at rendering a certain world whole, in its squirming, teeming entirety," the author "neglects to … make the world of his choosing interesting." Likewise, an Entertainment Weekly critic felt that the novel's "overly complicated plot drags on and on." Robert Plunket in the Advocate, however, praised Glamorama as "sick, twisted, and possibly brilliant," commenting further that the book "secures [Ellis's] reputation as the Jeffrey Dahmer of novelists—dangerous and deranged…. Clearly, here is a man who is doing what he is born to do."
In 2005 Ellis penned the novel Lunar Park, a faux memoir turned horror story about a novelist named Bret Eas-ton Ellis who marries, moves to the suburbs, and is ultimately haunted by demons that torment his life. Rene Rodriguez, reviewing the book for Miami Herald, noted that "at times" the book contains "genuinely frightening and violent passages. But other elements … come off as hokey." Rodriguez added, "Lunar Park is a story about the momentous pain parents inflict on their children, and Ellis' appropriation of his own life, which initially seems like a vainglorious stunt, ends up adding an extra layer of poignancy to this most personal of novels." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly called the novel "a fascinating look at a once controversial celebrity as a middle-aged man."
In Tyrnauer's interview with Ellis, he noted that "a certain slangy level of ironic detachment informs even his most serious statements—and not everybody gets it. 'I am an incredibly moralistic person…. A lot of people totally mistake the books in some cases as advocating a certain behavior or as glorifying a certain form of behavior.'" Commenting on his role as a spokesperson for his generation, Ellis told CA that "I … don't believe that there's one or two spokespeople for a generation, one collective voice who's going to speak for the whole lot…. What you have to do … is just feel safe enough about your own opinion and go ahead and state it."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 43, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2002.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 39, 1986, Volume 71, 1992.
Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Advocate, February 2, 1999, Robert Plunket, review of Glamorama, p. 65.
Chicago Tribune, September 13, 1987.
Current Biography, November, 1994, p. 23.
Detroit Free Press, August 18, 1985.
Detroit News, August 11, 1985.
Entertainment Weekly, August 19, 1994; January 22, 1999, "Glitter Haughty," p. 95.
Esquire, October, 1994, p. 158; February, 1999, "Bret Easton Ellis Plays Tom Wolfe," p. 26.
Film Comment, December, 1985; March, 2000, Gavin Smith, review of American Psycho, p. 72.
Guardian, January 9, 1999, "Leader of the Bret Pack."
Hollywood Reporter, October 7, 2002, Frank Scheck, review of The Rules of Attraction, pp. 10-11.
Interview, June, 1985; January, 1991, p. 54.
Library Journal, January, 1991; July, 1994.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 26, 1985; September 13, 1987.
Mademoiselle, June, 1986.
Miami Herald, August 17, 2005, Rene Rodriguez, "Lunar Park: A Fortysomething Writer Tries to Straighten Out His Life in This Could-Be Autobiography Sprinkled with Horror."
Nation, April 1, 1991, p. 426; September 5, 1994, p. 238.
National Review, February 14, 1986; June 24, 1991; September 12, 1994, p. 86; June 17, 1996, p. 56; March 8, 1999, James Panero, "Ellis's Island," p. 53.
New Republic, June 10, 1985; September 5, 1994, p. 46.
New Statesman, November 11, 1994, p. 40; January 15, 1999, Scott Reyburn, review of Glamorama, p. 49.
Newsweek, July 8, 1985; September 7, 1987; March 4, 1991, p. 58.
New Yorker, July 29, 1985; October 26, 1987, p. 142.
New York Review of Books, May 29, 1986.
New York Times, June 8, 1985; January 5, 1999, Michiko Kakutani, "Fashion Victims Take Terrorist Chic Seriously," p. E8.
New York Times Book Review, June 16, 1985; June 22, 1986; September 13, 1987, p. 14; December 16, 1990, p. 3; September 18, 1994, p. 14; January 24, 1999, Daniel Mendelsohn, "Lesser Than Zero," p. 8.
Observer, April 21, 1991, p. 61; January 3, 1999, Andrew Motion, "What Do You Give a Man with Two Girlfriends? A Really Hard Time."
People Weekly, July 29 1985; September 28, 1987.
Playboy, July, 1991, p. 26.
Publishers Weekly, June 13, 1994; June 27, 2005, review of Lunar Park, p. 38.
Rolling Stone, September 26, 1985.
Saturday Night, July-August, 1991, pp. 46-47, 49.
Saturday Review, July-August, 1985.
Time, June 10, 1985; October 19, 1987; March 18, 1991, p. 14; April 17, 2000, Richard Corliss, "A Yuppie's Killer Instinct," p. 78.
Times Literary Supplement, February 28, 1986.
USA Today Magazine, July, 2000, Christopher Sharrett, "American Psychosis," p. 67.
Vanity Fair, April, 1994, p. 108; August, 1994, p. 94.
Voice Literary Supplement, May, 1985.
Washington Post, February 27, 1991, pp. B1, B3; April 28, 1991, pp. C1, C4.
Writer's Digest, December, 1986.
Good Reports, http://www.goodreports.net/glaell.htm/ (March 6, 1999), review of Glamorama.
Random House, http://www.randomhouse.com/ (May 2, 2003), "An Interview with Bret Easton Ellis."
This Is Not an Exit: The Fictional World of Bret Easton Ellis (film), First Run Features, 2000.