Spectacle and Speculation, Anti-Utopianism and Narcissism: Reading Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, Glamorama and Lunar Park, from 1984, to 9/11, to 2666
Introduction: Reading Bret Easton Ellis
Introduction: Reading Bret Easton Ellis
Aimee Light was in the graduate department at the college and, though not a student of mine, was doing her thesis on my work, despite the consternation of her adviser, who had unsuccessfully tried to talk her out of it […] She was enamored of me but coolly, objectively, and this distance made her far more alluring than the usual round of sycophants I was accustomed to […] She kept pretending that her purpose was obscure.
- Bret Easton Ellis, Lunar Park[Footnote]
Since the publication of American Psycho in 1991, its author, Bret Easton Ellis, has been the subject of hysterical controversy. The novel is narrated, for the most part and unreliably, by Wall Street businessman, Patrick Bateman. In the struggle between desires, personal and social, Patrick’s role oscillates between humanist and misogynistic speech-maker in the trendiest restaurants in New York.[Footnote] He eulogises Whitney Houston and Genesis albums before raping or killing (sometimes both, sometimes with sharp instruments) unsuspecting victims. When Patrick begins to doubt, nonplussed, his apparent place in reality, ‘Disintegration – I’m taking it in stride’, he even attempts to fax the blood of one victim to an office.[Footnote] By his own unacknowledged admission he works in ‘murders and executions’ (misheard as ‘mergers and acquisitions’ or, worse still, ‘mergers and… aqua-sessions’) and, above all, he says: ‘I… want… to… fit… in’.[Footnote] By the time Knopf decided to publish American Psycho, Ellis had already written two novels, Less Than Zero (1985) and The Rules of Attraction (1987), satirising the hedonistic vacuity of young bourgeois America, but these new heights of controversy –‘debates on CNN… a feminist boycott by the National Organization of Women… death threats’ – were unprecedented in the spring of his career.[Footnote] As a phenomenon, simultaneous misreading and deformation are pervasive influences in Ellis’s subsequent two novels, Glamorama (1998) and Lunar Park (2005). In Glamorama, both assumption and mutilation of identity and body continue to resound in another exaggerative plot, this time annexing the modelling industry and terrorism. It-boy, Victor Ward, is glamorised and disappeared in an increasingly digital and capricious, entertainment multiverse.
Duplicitously mocking and advancing the notion of autobiography, Lunar Park then sees Bret Easton Ellis (who, outside of the text, has no children) supersede Victor as the new I-narrator – a father and author. The Bret Ellis character is trying to make a success of family life while the spectres of his childhood and his book-writing, from his own dead father to Patrick Bateman, return and haunt. Clearly then, a maxim of violent and contemporary spectacle, and a maxim of personal and public speculation, interdependently explain what is meant by a ‘Brand Ellis’ – an expression recently integrated into critical discourse on Ellis by American-literature essayist, James Annesley.[Footnote] Brand Ellis is manifest intermedially in pop and alternative culture, from Mary Hannon’s 2000 cult film adaptation of American Psycho, starring Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, to celebrity magazines such as Disappear Here (a recurrent phrase in Less Than Zero, reappearing in Glamorama) edited by Peaches Geldof. Interviews with Ellis, as well as a trailer for his most recent novel, Imperial Bedrooms, are popular on YouTube. There are allusions to the books on critically acclaimed albums by, among others, Bloc Party and The National (referenced reciprocally in Imperial Bedrooms) as well as a classical composition, Glamorama Spies, by Lorenzo Ferrero. Meanwhile diverse merchandise and even fan websites, fleshing out the life stories of Ellis’s recurring characters, are available on the internet. This phenomenon, stemming from one corpus of writing, has to be taken into account if Ellis’s method is to be properly examined.
There are three underdeveloped approaches, discarded or obscured, in previous critical work on the author. Michael P. Clark touches on the first of these in his essay, ‘Violence, Ethics and the Rhetoric of Decorum in American Psycho’. Clark writes:
Patrick’s frustration may be read as the effect of a utopian impulse toward engagement with others that is realised in the rhetorical connection Patrick’s act of narration establishes with the reader […] The impulse to engage with others in any form is manifest only as momentary disruptions in Patrick’s illusion of autonomy, power, and authority.[Footnote]
In Chapter One, I will elaborate on the above connection in thought Utopianism and narcissism, a connection which immediately suggests that American Psycho has an important role to play in contemporary utopian criticism, especially for an academy employed to read, write and teach in the same consumerist society Ellis is satirising. With the escalated tension between the problem of the spectacle (the I-narrator who ‘seeks recognition rather than judgment’ in his attempts at speaking and appearing)[Footnote] and the problem of speculation (personal assumption and moral condemnation) that comes after American Psycho, Ellis continues to engage with narcissism in another hyperbolic dystopia, Glamorama. In this novel the slippery pun in Victor’s recurrent phrase, ‘The better you look, the more you see’, corresponds with the unpredictable and heinous criminal activity in a labyrinth plot.
In the development of this relationship and tension, the second and third of these commonly snubbed approaches announce themselves. The metafictional and autofictional elements at work in these novels – the promotion, as it were, of a Brand Ellis – invites the question of intellectual dishonesty. Is Ellis guilty of the very narcissism he has critiqued for so long? And would rebuttal of this accusation, through autofiction, constitute courage? Politically sealed misreadings of the novels and Ellis’s sometimes banal, sometimes explosive, referencing system for popular culture provide a means of answering these questions in Chapter Two. To my judgment, the very publication of an autofiction, Lunar Park, necessitates this analysis. Since this study becomes increasingly personal in examining the writing process of Bret Easton Ellis, it is appropriate and moreover ethically imperative – Ellis’s writing and, at least tangentially, his international fame were initiated by an abusive father – to submit the satirist to the psychoanalysis which his ‘partly autobiographical’ novels, written out of ‘pain’, demand.[Footnote] Because the line between Ellis and his fiction is deliberately blurred, one can avoid the trap of psychoanalysing the author at the expense of close-reading the text. Jacques Lacan’s seminars on fear and on language will support this argument. I will clarify what I mean in my title by ‘Spectacle and Speculation’ through reference to the French Marxist, Guy Debord, with social fragments from his socio-political critique, Society of the Spectacle. For Debord,
The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life. Not only is the relation to the commodity visible but it is all one sees: the world one sees is its world.[Footnote]
The three Ellis novels, prioritised in this essay, can be said to satirise in the following way: Lacanian fear (the hidden or hiding Real) in the spectacle (to which the author belongs) is ironically and thus successfully reconciled with the comparable anxiety which speculation about Ellis as anti-feminist or postmodernist has surfaced.
Besides improving on these approaches, I maintain that I am justified in unifying them under the argument that Ellis, as an ironist, is not only aware of the difficulty in seeing through the bleakness of his narratives, but moreover that he is motivated by society and his experiences within it to point to the absence of a world in which there is structure; a world in which, for Patrick Bateman or any American, there is no impossible struggle, elliptically, ‘to… fit… in’.[Footnote] In addition I have chosen to use Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (2004), translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (2008), as an epic novel appropriate for textual comparison. Considering the small body of critical work thus far on Ellis, finding a comparable project in contemporary fiction is useful to say the least.[Footnote] In contrast to Ellis’s minimalism and hyperbole, Bolaño’s style is more lyrical and metaphor driven. However, as Ian Thomson suggests unwittingly in his review for The Independent, 2666 can be read as a vital companion. Apart from the encouraging, if insubstantial, remark that ‘All human life is contained in these burning pages’, Thomson praises the book for its courage, the brutal social realism of which is recognisable in Ellis’s work:
(Bolaño) chose to reject the "magical realism" associated with Garcia Marquez in Colombia, and fashion a darker, more astringent fiction […] 2666, a detective novel without a solution, contains much dark philosophical humour, wickedly effective pastiche and pages of gutsy, irreverent boisterousness (not to mention peculiar sex) […] 2666 offers an apology for the novel as a vast network that links all things, no matter how trivial or disparate.[Footnote]
For its anti-utopian testimony to the uncertainty principle (both Ellis and Bolaño immerse themselves in disorder on the side of humour, trauma and critique, with neither author prepared to draw a convenient finishing line for the reader) and in the horrifying and darkly amusing pictures of amoral epochs, I recommend Bolaño’s final novel for the material discussed in both chapters of this essay.
Whether it is proved by the cutting of the cord, in American Psycho and Glamorama, between signifier and signified that privileges narcissism as the agent for anti-utopianism, or by the ensuing struggle between an intermedial cult and intellectual honesty, or through psychoanalysis, Ellis’s style, metafiction and now legacy are in truth determinedly nostalgic. This nostalgia is pointing to a morally and intellectually aware community of consumers and experts, rather than the self-enamored, destructive whirlpool of postmodernism Ellis satirises with an ironical poststructuralism.[Footnote] This whirlpool in Brand Ellis is no less terrifying than the one located on Homer’s map of fantasy, except that the contemporary author shifts the focus of nostos from the individual hero to society. The novels redescribe Debord’s Society of the Spectacle as sensationalised by flexibly monstrous and philosophically blind I-narrators. So I would submit that new readers of Ellis’s work should abstain from postmodernist indulgences, recognising in his satire of spectacle the ironic failure of such an approach and, instead, strive towards a structuralist polemic. To deconstruct the novels without addressing the ethical questions raised by their violent content or reputations would require the kind of self-protection and non-comprehension – a combined moral and intellectual suicide – through which the protagonists are condemned to be lived and disappeared.
1. Spectacles of Narcissism and the Anti-Utopian Response
As individuals and as a nation, we now suffer from social narcissism. The beloved Echo of our ancestors, the virgin America, has been abandoned. We have fallen in love with our own image, with images of our making, which turn out to be images of ourselves.
- Daniel J. Boorstin[Footnote]
We belong in a movie.
- The National[Footnote]
I have introduced the connection, glimpsed by Michael P. Clark in his essay, between narcissism and Utopianism central to American Psycho and, I argue, Glamorama. I should make it clear what I mean by both of these concepts with reference to previous work in each trope.
Considering the frequency of hyperbolic, set piece descriptions of sex and violence as narrated by Patrick Bateman, an orthodox Freudian interpretation of narcissism is immediately striking:
Those suffering from this condition […] display two characteristics: megalomania, and withdrawal of interest from the external world.[Footnote]
Julie Kristeva has updated this definition by registering the anaesthesia and narrative panic, endemic to this megalomania and thus to Ellis’s anti-utopianism:
Narcissism protects emptiness, causes it to exist, and thus, as a lining of that emptiness, insures an elementary separation. Without that solidarity between emptiness and narcissism, chaos would sweep away any possibility of distinction, trace, and symbolization, which would in turn confuse the limits of the body, words, the real, and the symbolic.[Footnote]
The privileging of vacuity, in place of reason and comprehension, runs through Ellis’s work. Its tyranny and the dark ironies that result from its vitality provide the moral-philosophical means for an anti-utopian fiction. I argue that this space lies, in a fusion of ethics and aesthetics, between Susan Sontag’s summary of pornography (‘the question is not whether consciousness or whether knowledge, but the quality of the consciousness and of the knowledge’) and her assessment of fascist art as displaying ‘a utopian aesthetics – that of physical perfection’.[Footnote] The former observation sets the task for the author of anti-utopia to meet or introduce a certain ‘quality’ in(to) the tradition, so that nihilistic details may be justified and valued. By proxy the latter observation, of fascistic art, shows how Ellis has fulfilled this task and thereby warrants critical attention; the desire towards ‘physical perfection’, requiring in its subjectivity a discourse or fashion, ought immediately to remind those who have read the novels – comprehensively and contemporarily contextualised – of the narcissistic and materialistic desperation with which Patrick Bateman and Victor Ward attempt to keep up appearances for fear of substitution, this prospect being no worse for them than annihilation.[Footnote]
However, anti-utopianism is not purely a warning system. I would submit that fiction, as a product of imagination, cannot be reduced by literary criticism to the perfunctory. Anti-utopianism, particularly in American Psycho, is the ironical flipside of the Utopian coin. Clearly important to Patrick Bateman are ‘Desire and design, harmony and hope’, and according to the sociological critic, Krishan Kumar, these ambitions ‘go into the making of utopia’.[Footnote] American Psycho, simply written, is both a horrible and funny book. Fortunately there is no longer a microphone for the hysterical rejection of this work of fiction, on the grounds that it is a ‘femicide’ – for the crime of which, ‘there are more ways than one to skin Bret Easton Ellis’.[Footnote] This change in the zeitgeist is especially true since the film adaptation in 2000, which was directed by feminist, Mary Harron.[Footnote] Those early, embittered responses can be summarised as ‘strategies for not reading, for refusing the obligation to reply that distinguishes ethical reading from moral condemnation.’[Footnote] Perhaps the only remark with the power to demoralise Ellis’s readership is the lie – the only point in their committee-essay at which Baxter or Craft has anything to say about the aesthetic of the novel – that ‘Norman Mailer thinks Ellis is a poor writer’. What Mailer in fact wrote was that American Psycho was ‘the first novel to come along in years that takes on deep and Dostoyevskian themes.’[Footnote] Ironically, Baxter’s and Craft’s non-reading prodded my research to observe a formidable link between Dostoyevsky and Ellis. In Brothers Karamazov is the famous line, now a regular citation in debates about religion, spoken by Kolya:
‘Of course, God is only a hypothesis but – I admit that he is necessary for – for order – for world order and so on, and that if there were no God he’d have to be invented,’ Kolya added, beginning to blush.[Footnote]
In the satirical discourse of the spectacle, whether morality is innate in us or whether it has been revealed through scripture is irrelevant theology. Kolya’s hesitation, in her caesura and embarrassment, suggests moreover that Dostoyevsky, like Ellis, is deeply concerned about the absence of any stable structure, rather than the absence of a deity as such. The embrace of instability sparks the maximum acceleration of the spectacle. Although elusive, like Dostoyevsky, in asserting through his writing a personal belief system, Ellis does seem to be in agreement on this first cause of absolute confusion. Incidentally in Glamorama, the apparently reformed Victor Ward includes reading Dostoyevsky in his new life of attempted, authentic interaction with people and things.
It is clear then that the narcissistic process in American Psycho, and in Glamorama prior to Victor’s transformation, is asserted cyclically by language in the following way:
The limits of representation in American Psycho are evident in Patrick’s accounts of violence when he confuses words and images (signifiers) with what they represent or signify (signifieds). That confusion makes true signification or communication impossible.[Footnote]
In the final chapter of the novel, “At Harry’s”, the reader is bombarded with this dislocation. There is a nonsensical dialogue between interchangeable characters, in which frivolous commands (‘Shut up, McDermott’), pseudo-social questions (‘How’s Courtney?’) and remarks about drugs are randomly interjected without a hint of absorption.[Footnote] Framing this sequence, in passages ‘as close as the novel gets to a genuinely political discussion’, Ellis confirms the non-comprehension worn by his American psycho(s) amid the pressure and noise of the spectacle:
On the screen now are scenes from President Bush’s inauguration early this year, then a speech from former President Reagan, while Patty delivers a hard-to-hear commentary. Soon a tiresome debate forms over whether he’s lying or not, even though we don’t, can’t, hear the words. The first and really only one to complain is Price, who, though I think he’s bothered by something else […] asks, “How can he lie like that? How can he pull that shit?”…
“Oh brother.” Price won’t let it die. “Look,” he starts, trying for a rational appraisal of the situation. “He presents himself as a harmful old codger. But inside…” He stops. My interest picks up, flickers briefly. “But inside…” Price can’t finish the sentence, can’t add the last two words he needs: doesn’t matter.[Footnote]
Price’s isolated skepticism (though it’s possible ‘he’s bothered by something else’) is a fleeting sideshow for Patrick, whose affectless use of the word ‘complain’ nullifies politics into something comparable to restaurant service. Patrick then announces himself to the table as ‘just a happy camper’ before his last written words, describing the construction of a sign in the bar, are doubled in meaning: ‘THIS IS NOT AN EXIT’.[Footnote] Bookending American Psycho, this doubling is replete with anti-utopian significance, with the very first sentence of the novel having also described the writing of a totalitarian slogan: ‘ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER is scrawled in blood red lettering…’[Footnote]
Telling Victor Ward’s story, mostly through Victor as I-narrator, Ellis then adapts this program of randomly firing, inextinguishable signifiers for a spectacular paronomasia of a novel, Glamorama, anticipating in the process the sublime photography of twenty-first century terrorism. The narrative is a portable film set decorated with prevailing confetti, incriminating evidence and amputated, flung body parts, ‘most of them real’.[Footnote] The characters ‘are just reflections of our time’, and our I-narrator is somebody who refers to himself in the third person – the archetypal Narcissus and Echo mono-dia-logue.[Footnote] In one Chapter 23 (the chaptering of the novel counts up and down with apt instability) the protagonist and his disposable associates are cataloguing at length the celebrities worth inviting to the opening night of Victor’s club.[Footnote] Hence Nielsen summarises the essence of the novel as follows:
Glamorama displays many characteristics of the contemporary extreme. But it adds to this genre two related and interconnected features: firstly, a great interest in the surface and the superficial, and secondly, a doubling of the narrative voice.[Footnote]
Narcissism accelerates correspondingly with the concept of the I-narrator, as both continue to evolve after American Psycho. The plot and narrative voice of Glamorama splice to form an even more uncertain storyteller. Victor is ‘not sure of anything’ and the double meaning in his anaphoric catchphrase, proleptic of his capitulation, is a remark on this: ‘The better you look, the more you see’.[Footnote] It is precisely because disaffection – connected to the surfaces observed by Debord in Society of the Spectacle – is a genuine social concern that the novels are anti-utopian in their satirical proclivity:
The response to the books, from a certain kind of community that is very critical of the books, is that there is an affectlessness to them, a numbness to them, and because of the numbness there is a problem with them – as if there are feelings we’re supposed to have when we read a novel, and as if numbness isn’t a feeling. Numbness is a feeling. To encounter that in a work can be very interesting […] It is a problem for very literal minded readers.[Footnote]
Ellis is not wrong about the real emotional crisis in his novels.[Footnote] Just as Victor despairs in assonant anacoluthon, ‘You try to care. But you can’t. Even if you wanted to, you can’t’, so too Patrick Bateman finds himself suffocated by an overload of culture and the subsequent aesthetic indiscrimination brought about by this; he screams in his routine refuge, the video store: ‘There are too many fucking movies to choose from.’[Footnote] Then consider that the Bret Ellis writer in Lunar Park, pitied by the real-life Bret Easton Ellis in one interview as a ‘clown’, is a predominantly amoral protagonist who would in fact have merited the non-fictional critical bypassing of American Psycho which took place after its publication.[Footnote] Here, in the compressed space between the composition and reception of a novel, lies the most salient warning about narcissism – its contagious poverty of self-criticism.
Clarence Brown, in his Introduction to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s seminal anti-utopia, We, captures the stupidity of postmodernism as a ubiquitously practised concept:
We, and all similar dystopias, are among the only works that truly deserve to be called postmodern. If modern means what any reader in any conceivable today regards as up-to-date opinion and style, then every imagined distant future will be irretrievably “post” all such notions.[Footnote]
Considering that American Psycho and Glamorama are entrenched in the present tense and in contemporary, American popular culture, Brown’s statement poses an immediate problem for any determinedly postmodernist reader hoping to govern a discourse on these novels. As far as anti-utopianism is concerned, Ellis’s contribution to, and revitalisation of, this particular genre in the English language (defined conventionally through warnings of serfdom and literal-mindedness in H.G. Wells (The Time Machine, 1895), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World, 1932) and George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949)) answers Brown’s call to restrict the application of the word ‘postmodern’. By setting his anti-utopia, not in the ‘distant future’ of his predecessors, but in the uncertain present-tense narrations of unreliable Patrick or disappearing Victor, Ellis creates ideal conditions for rebuking the postmodern (non-) perspective. Only in the poststructuralist haven of the narcissist could Jacques Derrida’s strange (I mean this non-complimentarily) assertion possibly be made sense of: ‘Critique and non-critique are fundamentally the same’.[Footnote]
When asked whether or not he was worried American Psycho would date quickly because of its preoccupation with the here and now in the Reagan years of excess, Ellis takes solace in the stream-of-consciousness method for a modern end-product, by referring to one of many predecessors, James Joyce, for defence:
There’s a kind of dead literature that worries about things like that. If you’re that kind of artist, I’m not at that table. What would Ulysses be like if Joyce did not use the most arcane, up to the minute, cultural references throughout that entire day – actresses, actors, songs, books? I mean that day in Ireland is crammed full of opera singers of the time.[Footnote]
Considering how ‘Orwell is still understood and treated as a futuristic thinker even after 1984 has come and gone as a date’, or that the myth of Ulysses and its most famously inspired novel are still encountered critically, so too the radical novels of Bret Easton Ellis have slowly attracted literary criticism, in spite of the contemporary extreme and discomfiture.[Footnote] In principle Ellis and Orwell’s corpuses are at present comparable only in their journalistic syntax and in the pathetic failure of catharsis in their writing. In the essay, ‘Why I Write’, Orwell says about himself and about fiction:
Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.[Footnote]
The personal circumstances – the ‘demon’ and the effacement of ‘one’s own personality’ – in the writing process will be examined properly in the next chapter, which provides a reading of Lunar Park. It would be ‘arbitrary and foolish to read the text (Nineteen Eighty-Four or American Psycho or Glamorama) in the mental straight-jacket of a course on utopian and anti-utopian literature.’[Footnote] Visibly reflected, however, in the narcissism and disintegration on display in Ellis’s novels, is Orwell’s belief ‘that individuality can only be destroyed when we are utterly alone.’[Footnote] Considering then that Ellis’s novels are largely narrated in the first person and present tense, remarks on style and syntax must be made if the case for narcissism, as a force in the social anti-utopia, stands.
Without Ellis’s determinedly idiosyncratic minimalism (his ‘windowpane’ prose panicking I-narrators with its ‘specks’), no such relationship would exist in the novels.[Footnote] Polysendeton or anaphora set the tone for almost every passage in his corpus, and of course both of these are devices of repetition. Words used consistently in repetition, most of them perfunctory conjunctives and pronouns (‘and’, ‘but’, ‘so’, ‘I’, ‘I’m’), outlay the banal thoughts of the narcissist, seamlessly paving the gross step from monotony to monstrous nihilism, a style inescapably anti-utopian in its detachment from tragedy:
The problem is that so many people are not ready to die, and they start vomiting with panic and fear as the plane drops another thousand feet […] the plane starts breaking up more rapidly and the dying comes in waves […] Another young man keeps shouting “Mom Mom Mom” until part of the fuselage flies backward, pinning him to his seat and ripping him in half, but he just goes into shock and doesn’t die until the plane smashes haphazardly into the forest below and the dying comes in waves.[Footnote]
This example, typical in style, shows why Ellis’s writing has been described as ‘a signature affectless, flattened prose’, though a claim made by the same critic that he comes ‘as close to journalistic objectivity as possible’ must be revised in account of the hyperbole and deliberate overload of repetition.[Footnote] I selected the above passage from Glamorama as a reminder that the narrative point of view is not always from the first person. Meanwhile Lunar Park is the first novel Ellis commits to the past tense. This decision, as evidence for reading Ellis through a social as opposed to political spectacle, is described by Colby:
Ellis’s break with the present tense at the start of a new century marks a very different social climate. No longer caught within the present, Lunar Park points to what Geoffrey Hartman refers to as “the impossibility of presenting the present.” The novel attests to this paradox in representing the present.[Footnote]
As with the rest of themes in Ellis’s novels, the I-narrator agent is unable to establish a dependable structure.
Predominantly in contrast to the above example, from Glamorama, of style sculpting the author’s thematic framework, the effect of Roberto Bolaño’s use of repetition in 2666 is more about transparent fragmentation than affectless expansion. For one thing, the word ‘body’ appears precisely one hundred times in Wimmer’s translation, and each of these bodies is depicted in the extremes of pain, pleasure or mutilation. In ‘The Part About The Killings’, anaphora and leitmotif coincide at the beginning of new blocks of text; in a suspense of aesthetic judgment not to be found in Ellis’s gore, dead bodies are always female, ‘appearing’ and ‘found’. Banality in 2666 is intoned through a distant third person and consistent past tense, hence the bodies are appearing and found, not killed (like Patrick’s victims or Victor’s co-‘stars’) in the action of text. In the absence of spoken outrage the omniscient narration is, as with Ellis’s protagonists, affectless. It is inferable that Bolaño is challenging the reader’s stamina for rejecting ethically the euphemisation of brutal and repeated loss of life, or as if the plot’s continuum of autopsy is being transmitted by an exhausted documentary maker – these effects are imbued with the Freudian notion of detachment I quoted previously. Clearly then, the crucial dissimilarity – itself an anti-utopian victory for variety over prescribed living – between Ellis and Bolaño in their unflinching fictions of violence is due to forms of narration.
I began this chapter by searching for definitions of narcissism, made by historically significant figures in literary criticism, as compatible with the I-narrators of Bret Easton Ellis. This search was born less out of convenience, and more through the fact that my study is literary and its focus is on hyperbolic descriptions of the spectacle, out of control, for Patrick and Victor – ‘a mystical abandon of the self to the transcendence of the commodity’.[Footnote] The difference when approaching Bolaño is that, as opposed to Ellis’s pathological, malleable or autofictional storyteller being confined to a specific contemporary moment in bourgeois America, narcissism in 2666 is interpretable on a web of pathology established by 898 pages of social realism, ranging in culture and time. There is an important discrepancy to be identified here: between this sometimes macabre and always social novel (2666), provoking socio-political interpretations, and the same genre of violent, socially aware fiction in Ellis. For the latter, first person immediacy tests the reader’s impulse of flight or fight, or rather patience and comprehension; do we repudiate Bret Easton Ellis, the filthy narcissist who goes as far as autofiction, or face the novels as exaggerated warnings about the threat of this condition? The questions asked by 2666 are more far-reaching and may invite criminal justice, clinical psychology, theological and philosophy of ethics, among other, discourses. These questions emerge because, unlike with the Ellis novels, reliability of text (or: Who really is the composer?) is not a perennial concern. This is, as a theme in 2666, instead enforced by dissonance in the other: the friendship between Norton, Morini, Pelletier and Espinoza forms and disintegrates in the literary and physical navigation of the author, Reiter / Archimboldi – whose final ‘Part’ in 2666 is not theirs to read. In contrast: ‘Throughout Lunar Park, Ellis is concerned with the ethics surrounding the becoming real of cultural and authorial fictions.’[Footnote]
In the final part of 2666, remaining in the past tense and third person, Reiter describes wartime conditions of abyssal, collective violence using intermediality as a metaphor. Sheer lyrical clarity is why these conditions are recognisable in the cult of Patrick Bateman, amplified by Christian Bale’s performance in the film adaptation (in which Patrick ‘is no worse than everyone else’ on camera), and in his howling garble of unstructured, endlessly signifying desire.[Footnote] The passage reads:
Meanwhile, Reiter noted, interest in sex had waned considerably, as if the war had used up men’s reserves of testosterone, pheromones, desire, and no one wanted to make love anymore. They only fucked whores […] desire was really the mask of something else; a theatre of innocence, a frozen slaughterhouse, a lonely street, a movie theatre. The women he saw were like girls who’ve just woken up from a terrible nightmare.[Footnote]
In 2666, storytelling varies wildly in time and place – a mystery of authorial identity for academics, visual art, journalism, homicide in modern Mexico and in the final part, the Second World War. Conversely for Ellis, I-narrator storytelling itself annexes the pluralism in such a spectrum; in ridiculous plots, Patrick Bateman is the erratic narrator, Victor Ward is volatile and the Bret Ellis character (in an autofictional theme park) at once analeptically and proleptically mocks the speculation and the postmodern conviction which serve to blur and pollute the different meaning of the words, ‘fact’ and ‘truth’, in works of fiction. For example, The Economist lazily assumes the protagonist in Lunar Park is a ‘carbon copy’ of the author.[Footnote] Therefore, the anti-utopian text is not necessarily restricted to an imagined society of the future, to a single tense or point of view. Indeed this multistylism, in either Bolaño or Ellis, is the basis for a literary attack against the literal-minded totalitarianism which exists in the narcissism that is generated by spectacle:
The spectacle is the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself, its laudatory monologue. It is the self-portrait of power in the epoch of its totalitarian management of the conditions of existence.[Footnote]
In this way, Debord’s text is adaptable for a variety of authors.
Private and Public Lives
The following, abridged passage is from a speech made in 2007 by Sam Harris, the iconoclast and neuroscientist:
A person one day notices that life is difficult. He notices even at the best of times (no one close to him has died, there are no hostile armies amassing in the distance, the fridge is stocked with beer) that at the level of his attention, moment-to-moment, he is seeking happiness and only finding temporary relief from his search. Our pleasures are, by their very nature, fleeting. The best we can do is merely reiterate them […] The effort required to keep boredom and dissatisfaction and doubt at bay continues […] Is it possible to be happy before anything happens, before one’s desires are gratified, in the very midst of life’s vicissitudes? I think this question lies at the periphery of everyone’s consciousness. Many of us are living as if the answer is ‘No’.[Footnote]
Putting to one side the case against religion, Harris here is identifying the primary spectacle of materialism in the United States. Later in this speech he describes an autonomy of ‘solitary confinement’ – a concept burdened by the super ego to be associated with ‘punishment’ – as a potential way of responding to the above question of everyday amorality.[Footnote] The example is useful for illustrating why Ellis’s busy I-narrators, uninterrupted by the self-criticism available in solitary confinement, manufacture the conditions for a totalitarian triptych: nihilism, narcissism and solipsism. In the American novel, this triptych is never more fanatically embraced than by Patrick Bateman. In an unpublished fragment now filed in the Salman Rushdie Archive at Emory University, Rushdie, another writer of fiction and recipient of death threats, once wrote:
The opposite of hatred is love. The opposite of tyranny is love. The opposite of censorship is love. The opposite of evil is love. The opposite of politics is love. The opposite of war is love. The opposite of God is love.[Footnote]
Love, in order to be an opposite, in order for opposites merely to be consciously registered, requires the collapse of narcissism. American Psycho and Glamorama, with determinedly numb accounts of torture, are committed to exaggerating the nihilistic collapse of structure – after which, love is absolutely deprived of anything other than Patrick or Victor’s solipsism.
This was the geography around which my reality revolved: it did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change, or that the world could be a better place through one’s taking place pleasure in a feeling or look or a gesture, or receiving another person’s love or kindness […] Intellect is not a cure. Justice is dead. Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things, emotions, that no one really felt anymore. Reflection is useless, the world is senseless. Evil is its only permanence. God is not alive. Love cannot be trusted.[Footnote]
Here, when his thoughts absurdly resemble in language what Salman Rushdie says, Patrick Bateman nonetheless falls short of moral philosophy with the solipsistic rejection of not even an argument but ‘reflection’ itself, thus erasing the possibility of reflection for others. His cataloguing of morally loaded words – as with his processes of fashion or mutilating women’s bodies – conveys a superficial familiarity only with signifying language. Nothing, for Patrick, is signified or hence significant. This solipsism is reinforced synonymously by the masculine-made, nihilism-embellished implication that interference in human affairs by an absolute, permanent authority, namely ‘God’, would mean the antithesis of evil. The triptych of nihilism, narcissism and solipsism is an anti-utopian theme because while Patrick may be wrong that ‘no one really felt anymore’, this is nonetheless an explicit assertion. Its sudden recourse to the past tense and its overload of signifiers – ‘The loss of the language of communication is positively expressed by the modern movement of decomposition of all art, its formal annihilation’ – automate the invitation to narcissism, all around Patrick in business-class Manhattan, which we have no reason to doubt in the novel.[Footnote] Although, by definition, we have every reason to reject this invitation.
To point out the totality and literary hyperbole provoked by narcissism, one needs only to recall the passage in which Patrick is disappointed that two rats he has purchased have not eaten one another. Even cannibalism has become a protean and omniscient project, let alone a measure of consumer prestige.[Footnote] Like Harris above, Ellis’s social concern is fixed on ‘moment-to-moment’ hedonism. The description by Patrick of his own interaction with others (‘surface, surface, surface’) is repeated within American Psycho and then transformed for Glamorama’s Victor into: ‘We’ll slide down the surface of things’.[Footnote] This amounts to the numbness of banality I have examined with regard to repetition and style. In the absence of true contemplation (which is neither an elaborate review of a Genesis album, nor the cataloguing of skin and hair products) and because of his indifference to other human life, Patrick’s only means of solitary confinement occurs when he is focused on his dead victims as physical objects, kept in the same room and mental breath as the china plate and Wurlitzer jukebox he has bought as if to honour superfluity. The connection between immediate, faceless, consumer service, and total violence, deepens, provoking a brutal and ridiculous account of mutilation:
After an hour of digging, I detach her spinal cord and decide to Federal Express the thing without cleaning it, wrapped in tissue, under a different name, to Leona Helmsley. I want to drink this girl’s blood as if it were champagne and I plunge my face deep into what’s left of her stomach, scratching my chomping jaw on a broken rib.[Footnote]
In this realised analogy of blood and champagne, Christopher Hitchens’s anti-utopian definition of, or justification for, the word, evil – as ‘the surplus value generated by totalitarianism’ – is adaptable for reflecting on the surplus value generated by social narcissism.[Footnote] Contemplation is so seldom admitted that we cannot be sure Ellis is not mocking Patrick when the I-narrator does in fact pause, after this episode of cannibalism, confessing: ‘I want to be loved’.[Footnote] By juxtaposing the active, verbal acknowledgement of existence (‘to be’) with the passive value of intimacy (‘loved’), Ellis’s windowpane prose captures the narcissistic failure of the individual. This is because the relationship within that juxtaposition, between lover and loved, signifier and signified, could not possibly be recognised, nor realised, by the narcissist himself.[Footnote] Ultimately for Patrick, there can be no anagnorisis – no realisation moment giving structure to his narration or moral personage. He simply continues to confuse and appal the reader; purchasing, uttering, killing. With Patrick as Wall Street clone and monster, the novel explains why Sam Harris’s familiar ethical question and different ways of interpreting solitary confinement are oxygenic to the discussion of narcissism in its anti-utopian stripe.
Controversy and speculation about Bret Easton Ellis will be examined in greater detail in Chapter Two. At this point, however, it is important to notice that a totalitarian mindset has the power to determine the controversy and speculation anticipated by, and ensuing, the novels. One Los Angeles bookstore put into each copy of American Psycho a disclaimer, saying:
Dear Reader: Book Soup is making this book available to you because of our commitment to the doctrine of freedom of expression. This should not be an endorsement of the contents.[Footnote]
The religious mindset, as Orwell observed in his writing on censorship, is on all fours with totalitarianism.[Footnote] This is not an unrelated consideration. Ironically, for a novel in which delusion can never be asserted against, American Psycho, in pre-publication and upon publication, was met with the same response that organised religion forces upon itself to provide: the permission to have free will according to an authority. Hence the irony, to the not untypical disclaimer above, is its very moral purpose, a masquerade. The apology-in-advance abolishes any authentic freedom by polluting, for the adult individual and the adult collective, conscious self-immunisation from censorship. Rather than a moral stand for – or pride in – its distribution of the work as art, the only discernible tone in this disclaimer is apology. Narcissism in the anti-utopia is not a simple force. It can be said that narcissism spreads through the misreading of the novel, not to mention its patronising packaging. Many bookstores such as the one quoted above (or for instance, those throughout New Zealand and New South Wales, where the novel is either banned or specially wrapped) as well as a cowardly publisher were bent on enslaving themselves to the sensitivity of others, to the authority of the spectacle, at the same time as they reiterated self-righteously their commitment to free expression.[Footnote] To end the discussion with humanist’s axiom, say that forbidding a work of fiction from an adult is wrong, would be to miss the point. Updating the legacy of the anti-utopian novel, American Psycho observes hyperbolically and promotes with proleptic irony a dearth in self-criticism and analysis of the other, which happens to overlap with the theme of self-censorship. To study the text and its influence is to see that this dearth can be found in real society – in the modern marketplace – no matter whether fashion or fiction is the agenda.
In Glamorama, Ellis’s satire continues to operate by stressing the void between anaesthetised and authentic interaction. One leitmotif in this process is the distinction in forms of sexual engagement between social success and personal satisfaction. In American Psycho, despite his impeccable physique and marksmanship, Patrick repeatedly experienced ‘weak’ orgasms, he is easily ‘tired of balancing’ himself, his ‘cock slides in almost too easily’ and when concerned his pleasure will be reduced by wearing a condom, he is told: ‘You’re not going to feel anything anyway.’[Footnote] The only pleasure for the I-narrator, as Murphet says, is one ‘of reification: the transformation of intensely private human relations into things, tableaux, props, prices.’[Footnote] Now Victor is the subject, asked ‘Feel this? Is this real?’, and commanded to lift up his shirt so his ‘bod work’, his reciprocation of spectacle, can be inspected during intercourse.[Footnote] The plot descends into the chaos of kidnapping, the annexation of fashion by terrorism and ultimately the appropriation of identity, and Victor will suffer the worst conceivable peripeteia for a Bret Easton Ellis I-narrator – a rape, followed by a substitution. Pleasure and image-obsession combust when the protagonist, a pawn in an unexplained political conflict about his father, is reduced to a sex slave. In this way, the anti-utopian nature of a contemporary tragedy can be defined in contrast with another American study of spectacle. In David Lynch’s Hollywood psychoanalysis, Mulholland Drive, the director, Adam’s (Justin Theroux), material and professional losses are part of a mere fantasy constructed by the jealous and failed actress, Diane (Naomi Watts).[Footnote] However, Victor Ward’s loss is neither a rival’s nor his own illusion. Illusion itself – in the malleability of Victor’s body and photographs of that body – constitutes loss.
For Ellis, sex is a powerful means of exaggerating the narcissistic crisis in real terms. Glamour and moral serfdom have become inseparable:
Being a star means specializing in the seemingly lived; the star is the object of identification with the shallow seeming life that has to compensate for the fragmented productive specializations which are actually lived.[Footnote]
Carrying into a new anti-utopia the surface and sadomasochism which confirmed Winston Smith’s subjectivity, Victor has been crushed into worshipping his own mental kidnapper. In this way, one can compare the defeats of intellect in the final lines of Glamorama and Nineteen Eighty-Four: ‘The stars are real. The future is that mountain.’ / ‘He loved Big Brother.’[Footnote] In 2666, “The Part About Fate”, Bolaño offers the following, terse response to both the tyranny of phenomenology and faith in the spectacle:
But really there’s just one star and that star isn’t semblance, it isn’t metaphor, it doesn’t come from any dream or any nightmare. We have it right outside. It’s the sun. The sun, I am sorry to say, is our only star.[Footnote]
I am prepared to go as far as to say that the elusiveness of (erotic) love, for Patrick Bateman or Victor Ward, may provide a way for Utopian criticism on Bret Easton Ellis to continue on another path. In previous scholarship, the problem of narcissism and anti-utopianism has been avoided, and instead the locus is usually occupied by narcissism and dandyism in the gothic tradition. Comparisons to Dorian Gray have been made.[Footnote] Elana Gomel has outlined the potential for progress in her essay, ‘“The Soul of this Man in his Clothes”: Violence and Fashion in American Psycho’:
But while the most famous dandy-turned-killer in literature, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, successfully resorts to violence in order to break out of the artificiality of his constructed image, Patrick remains trapped in the role as a social icon.[Footnote]
If the true dandy, as Garelick writes, “longs to recreate himself as an emblem of complete originality”, Patrick wants to be like everybody else, only better. If the dandy constantly subverts and manipulates the fashion codes of his society, Patrick declares himself their guardian. If the dandy is charming and seductive, Patrick is abhorrent and pathetic.[Footnote]
In other words, Patrick Bateman – Whitney Houston fan, cannibal, restaurant and fashion critic, and child murderer – may want ‘to be like everybody else’, but no decent or thinking individual can fully embrace the persona or plot.[Footnote] Patrick’s hamartia is the fracture of both moral and intellectual structure. Unlike Oscar Wilde’s protagonist, Patrick is not subjected to a conventional, Aristotelian poetics of flaw and fall. There is a failure of catharsis – no ‘EXIT’ from the text.[Footnote] Ellis’s critique of postmodernism is all-encompassing, from satirical detail to the untrustworthy I-narrator and his plot: ‘The lack of depth or meaning is the most readily identifiable motif in American Psycho.’[Footnote] If this is true, then surely narcissism is the concomitant hamartia, leading to the narrator’s disintegration and instigating the hubris of nihilistic set pieces. Patrick unknowingly confesses as much: ‘Another broken scene in what passes for my life occurs on Wednesday, seemingly pointing to someone’s fault, though whose I can’t be sure.’[Footnote]
This chapter has sought to convince the reader why, for the purposes of literary criticism, American Psycho and Glamorama remain extraordinary, if overlooked, novels.[Footnote] This is true not only in their revitalisation of Debordian satire on spectacle, but also in the author’s original approach to emphasising the critical difference between the ironical voice of anti-utopianism and the straight face of totalitarianism. In no Bret Easton Ellis novel is the former concept (the dystopia) a critique of the latter (absolute authority). Rather, Ellis’s voice is aimed at – before being sucked in by – a society voiding itself of authentic interaction. Absolute authority and its pathology – criteria for the anti-utopian narrative – shift with American Psycho from leadership of people to symbols, Patrick and Victor, for them. This symbolisation is the essence of satire. A totalitarian system of thought may thrive within the disaffected anonymous consumer, who happens to be Patrick Bateman but could in fact be any of his colleagues at Price & Price, and for whom physical and verbal displays of nihilism are all we can deconstruct in an otherwise banal narrative.[Footnote] In one chapter, Patrick is at a dinner with his brother, Sean, who also appears in The Rules of Attraction and Glamorama. With neither business rivals nor prospective victims at the table, Patrick prefaces with a dramatic series of commas before rubbishing their meeting:
I keep thinking of reasons why I’m sitting here, right now, tonight, with Sean, at Dorsia, but none come to mind. Just this infinitely recurring zero floats into view. After dinner – the food is small but very good; Sean touches nothing – I tell him that I have to meet Andrea Rothmere at Nell’s and if he wants espresso or dessert, he should order it now…[Footnote]
Despite the division and assonance in that first sentence, Patrick’s attempt at intelligent prosody fails. Confirmed here is the totalitarian abolition of interaction for its own sake, as Patrick’s automatic agenda, with the attention to naming and the reference to excess quintessential, even when it comes to family. The narcissist is sucked in by his blank perception of society – an inextirpable whirlpool of ‘zero’ – in which nothing is valued, save style. This notion of ‘zero’ is Patrick’s means of insubstantial reciprocity with others, a fatal oxymoron in its ethical castration.
The distinction between anti-utopianism and totalitarianism in fiction is one readily forgotten, particularly because of the fluid political relativism – characteristic of postmodern thought – Ellis ruthlessly attacks using the anesthetised Patrick and Victor.[Footnote] The role of narcissism in a new anti-utopia has, since the publication of American Psycho, been only a faint, starved suggestion.
2. Misreading (,) Brand Ellis (,) Trauma
For the moment you have got away from the lies and simplifications, the stylized, marionette-like quality of ordinary fiction, even quite good fiction, and are dealing with recognizable experiences of human beings. But what kind of experience? What kind of human beings?
- George Orwell[Footnote]
Unbeknown to Bret Easton Ellis at the time of its composition in the late 1990s, Glamorama is his one novel in which real politics, in the form of institution-sponsored violence and conspiracy, would become a speculative theme. Loaded exhaustively with polysendeton, describing terrorist atrocities while expressing the power of media to dictate emotional responses to them, Ellis’s horrific set pieces anticipate the photography of 9/11:
Dead bellmen lay scattered among magazines and Louis Vuitton luggage and heads blown off bodies, even one of a chisel-faced boyfriend of a model I knew back in New York […] In a daze, wandering past me: Polly Mellon, Claudia Schiffer, Jon Bon Jovi, Mary Wells Laurence, Steven Friedman, Bob Collacello, Marisa Berenson, Boy George, Mariah Carey […] the paparazzi arrive first, followed by CNN reporters and then local television crews, and then, finally, ambulances carrying rescue teams followed by blue-black trucks carrying antiterrorist police wearing flak jackets over paratrooper jumpers, gripping automatic weapons, and they start wrapping victims in blankets and hundreds of pigeons lie dead, some of the injured birds haphazardly trying to fly, low to the ground above the debris, and later the feet of children in a makeshift morgue are being tagged and parents are being ushered out of that morgue howling…[Footnote]
With appropriate intermediality, the connection in imagery between Glamorama and 9/11 was confirmed by the cancelation of the proposed film adaptation of the book, this, in the wake of the attacks and the continued media focus on them. The connection is acknowledged and debated, with varying levels of honesty and casuistry, by Walter Benn Michaels, David Schmid and Arthur Redding. I subscribe to Michaels’s skepticism in that Ellis’s castration of signified from signifier, and the superincumbency of pop culture in his work, warns against reading too far into this connection in order to identify any political, as opposed to social, agenda. Michaels adumbrates the plot of Glamorama to compare Ellis with another American, bestselling author of fiction, Don DeLillo, herein issuing a metacritical warning:
Glamorama is about models and terrorists—about models-slash-terrorists. The acts of destruction its model/terrorists perform are unlinked to any particular political program, while the terrorists themselves belong to rival factions whose differences are equally unlinked to politics. In an earlier terrorist novel, Don DeLillo's Mao II (1991), the terrorists are at least supposed to represent a new communist element, "an assertion that not every weapon in Lebanon has to be marked Muslim, Christian or Zionist." But even Mao II isn't early enough to make the appeal to communism anything more than a gesture of posthistoricist nostalgia; by the time it was published, there were hardly any communists in Russia, much less in Lebanon. And Glamorama, whose terrorists have allies in Dublin and Virginia as well as Beirut and Baghdad, can't work up any more interest in their religion or nationality than it can in their ideology [...] what Glamorama's terrorists like best about their new recruit is that he doesn't "have an agenda" (327), by which they mean that he doesn't have any political beliefs. They don't either. And that's why Mao II's novelist and its terrorist have "no deep disagreements at the level of ideas" (157); neither one of them has any.[Footnote]
In Falling Man, his novel specifically about 9/11, DeLillo can again be referred to in conjunction with Ellis. In remaining with the social, and by not committing a discourse on fiction to real life politics, it can be said that resemblances in spectacle and the numbing effect of catastrophes in any Utopian society are important to both authors:
The spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living.[Footnote]
That’s where everything was, all around him, falling away, street signs, people, things he could not name.[Footnote]
In the final lines of Falling Man, DeLillo’s transmission of tremendous loss of human life is comparable with the Debordianism rife in Ellis; mutilation and materialism, despair and anonymity have become nonsensically bound-up data. ‘The spectacle within society corresponds to a concrete manufacture of alienation’ – an alienation emphasised by affectlesly reported, yet subliminal, violence.[Footnote]
In his essay, ‘Glam Terrorism and Celebrity Politics’, Redding argues in direct opposition to Michaels by imposing – in an act of gross revisionism – his own political agenda onto Ellis’s writing process. Bizarrely, Redding feels the need to quote another writer (a professor of literature, not politics), Per Serritslev Peterson, simply to say that, ‘“in the case of 9/11, there was no rational political objective”’; the sentence continues, self-dramatised by ellipsis,
US military response was equally unhinged: attacked by Saudis, the Bush administration responded by targeting Iraq… The media doublethink that made this response possible underscores Ellis’s most salient lesson: genuine political struggles are reconstituted as manufactured image and militarism becomes spectacular and self-justifying; violence floats free of the gravitational tug of the social and is celebrated for its own sake.[Footnote]
Schmid is another critic who attacks Michaels for ‘missing the point’.[Footnote] Similarly mastering the postmodern art of evading, conceptually, the ethical issue at hand, Schmid claims that ‘the absence of politics by conventional means in Glamorama does not leave the novel politically toothless’.[Footnote] But at least neither Michaels nor Schmid resorts to inventing ‘the point’ on behalf of the author. Redding’s sandpapering of the novel into an anti-war metaphor is a shameful error, not least because Ellis has supported the war on terrorism: ‘I wanted to go to war, I believe we had to.’[Footnote] For this casuistry, and in completely delivering the Nineteen Eighty-Four idiom, ‘doublethink’, from its meaningful origin, Redding is guilty of an abuse of Orwell’s work not unlike the one in Michael Moore’s film, Fahrenheit 9/11 – for whom the ‘moral equivalence’ between Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania is a suitable paradigm by which to lump together the United States, the Ba’ath Party, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.[Footnote]
Redding also assumes that in both Ellis’s novel and in American foreign policy, ‘The link between any act of political violence and its anticipated goal or outcome has been irreparably fractured’. For this admission – of reluctance, via subjective deconstructing of concepts, to consider the nihilism of totalitarianism as an enduring problem – Redding would do better to turn the accusation, ‘media doublethink’, on himself as the postmodern doublethinker, since: ‘Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.’[Footnote] He quotes Peterson on 9/11 to state the obvious, though he doesn’t dare attempt to justify his appropriation of ‘doublethink’ with reference to Orwell’s text. He wouldn’t be able to. Whatever anyone’s opinions on American foreign policy (which, as Michaels shows, would have nothing to do with Ellis anyway), ‘to hold two simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory’ cannot reasonably be applied to people who have been, or are, in opposition to two different nihilisms, the Ba’ath party and Al-Qaeda, both of whom threatened and murdered heretics and preached unremittingly the subordination of women, for peoples within and outside of the borders containing their headquarters.[Footnote]
It is precisely this phenomenon – the failure to face the seductively concealed cracks in one’s moral and intellectual reasoning – Ellis is satirising in the lives of his ‘handsome and dazed’ narrators, ‘asking questions that never required answers’.[Footnote] If I have labored on this point, at the expense of close-reading Ellis, it is only because there is so little critical work on the author that it is imperative for any personally interjected, political battles with the United States to be shown up and disregarded in the discourse. It would be, and has been, disingenuous to take advantage of the affectless prose in Glamorama, or the difficulty in locating Orwell anywhere on the political spectrum, to imply that either author would have harboured, or does harbour, a pacifistic suspicion of totalitarianism in another continent. No less contemptible is the assumption that ‘Ellis does not have political intelligence’.[Footnote] The only dots one can reasonably detect and then connect, without conceit, from Glamorama to the real globe to digital effacement, are occupied by trauma and its comprehension: ‘the possibility of fiction’.[Footnote] This term is as applicable to Bret Easton Ellis as it is, Don DeLillo:
DeLillo’s writing is concerned, at its heart, with the ways in which the progression towards an ultimate, apocalyptic communicability is shadowed and undermined by an opposite movement towards erasure […] The digitally recorded voice of my partner, speaking as the event (9/11) that continues to dictate the passage of world history was in the very process of becoming, carried an unmistakable aura of loss. Deleting (by accident) this message was simply to realise the erasure of what is already spoke, to respond to its poetry of nobody home.[Footnote]
In personal and public spaces, the violently sharp thread connecting these dots – the influence of technology, the volatility of objects, or written or spoken words, and the caprice of trauma – continues to inspire new readings. Lest the thread becomes unrecognizable, these readings must not stray from honest analogy. Ellis’s social agenda of spectacle and narcissism only serves to reinforce this principle: ‘Crucially it is not the surface narratives of Ellis’s texts that define him but his critique of what lies beneath the surface of culture.’[Footnote]
The potential for misreading events in Glamorama, and the novel’s magnetism for arbitrarily creative readings, is explained by Schmid:
As long as Ellis holds their real meaning in suspension (and he does so scrupulously), the reader is given the task of choosing from a range of possible interpretations, all of which come with their own set of consequences, and all of which are thoroughly mediatized, that is, contaminated by the possibility that they have been manipulated or wholly created by media technologies and are therefore not true by any conventional standard.
Through his choice of words (‘not true by any conventional standard’) Schmid lays bare the solipsism in the claim that ‘truth’ is the property of phenomenology, changeable at whim or by epoch. Moreover, that there is an intellectual duty in ‘choosing from a range of possible interpretations’. Reference to ‘conventional standard’ also implies that because many approaches to the text are deconstructionist in nature, this means that their readings can successfully avoid the impliedly negative label, ‘conventional’. Which – in 2011, after Derrida has come and gone – they cannot.[Footnote] It is precisely because there is no stable framework, no way to distance the novel’s narcissism from our own, that Glamorama is definitively anti-utopian. If there is any ‘task’ on the reader’s behalf, it would be to recognise, and take consolation in, the irony richened through the novel of this close proximity between character and reader desire in an image-dominated culture:
There was the sound of the camera shutters clicking, there was something collapsing toward him, a hooded figure, and as it fell onto him it looked up and he saw the head of a monster with the face of the fly.[Footnote]
Really noticing ‘the camera shutters clicking’ is what enforces the hyperbolic spectacle in Glamorama; unless mediation is comprehended, Ellis will indulge or mislead narrator and reader – when it comes to human life – to enjoin the ‘fly’ with the ‘monster’, the microcosm with the macrocosm, the innocuous with the harmful and the most important of all possible dichotomies, the mythical with the real.
After reading Debord as someone claiming ‘that dialectical thought is eliminated within desublimated commodity culture’, Colby legitimately goes as far as to say that, in Glamorama,
Ellis’s double-voicing, and the terrorists’ acts function to overturn the spectacle that Ellis documents in the first half of the novel and can be seen as a way to reinstate a dialectical dimension into the cultural framework.[Footnote]
Acknowledging this, one is not trapped within the spectacle, whereby the total absence of self-criticism on Victor’s film set is then mirrored by our own imposed reading tactics; owing to Schmid’s illusion of ‘a range of possible interpretations’, the discourse has been, until recently, overdetermined by deconstructionist tinctures.[Footnote] As Schmid corrects:
Glamorama, while still containing a significant degree of undecidability, cares much more about the distinction between truth and falsehood, about the ability to say what happened and why.[Footnote]
So when Ellis says in interview, ‘I leave it open to the reader’, seconds after having… or when he describes Victor as homophobic, having just referred to his writing as autobiographical, the author is guilty neither of disenfranchisement nor self-contradiction nor amorality. Self-obsession may be turned against Ellis in a simultaneous accusation and admission of misreading. However this study is in some agreement with Colby, who openly
rejects any kind of branding of Ellis as moralist, satirist, nihilist, or postmodernist. While Ellis may embody aspects of these categories, the importance of his work resides in his resistance to the very branding his media and literary critics have been so fond of performing.[Footnote]
Narcissism, as a social theme, is connected by those verbal statements that were made by Ellis in public conversations – once again with appropriate intermediality on YouTube and in the bookstore – as the commitment to a thinking, anti-utopian space that separates ‘Two Brets’.[Footnote]
In Lunar Park, there is abundant textual evidence for Ellis’s authentic and ironical, as opposed to superficial and literal-minded, response to those who have criticized him for intellectual dishonesty. Or, as Colby phrases: ‘Bret, in Lunar Park, is the replacement self of Ellis, a self that has been reified into its media construction.’[Footnote] In the Bret Ellis character’s authorial admission of personal deceit, the elements of autofiction, metafiction and intermediality form a vital compound in this victory, and for the real author’s broader interest in illuminating the excess (and subsequent structural failure) of images:
I told Jayne that he (a drug dealer) was one of my students when she caught him here the first week of October, lounging with me in the media room while we were watching a DVD of American Psycho.[Footnote] (Lunar Park, 50)
At the same Halloween party, the Bret Ellis character tells us: ‘Someone I didn’t recognize came as Patrick Bateman, which I didn’t find funny and had a problem with’.[Footnote] This is the first time in Lunar Park when Ellis comes close to abandoning the comedy of mock confession, with reference to genuine pain. Later when the Bret Ellis character tells his student love-affair, Aimee, about the Patrick Bateman fancy-dress incident, she responds:
“It’s weird you said Patrick Bateman [...] Because I thought he looked a little like Christian Bale.”
We were both silent for a while because Christian Bale was the actor who played Patrick Bateman in the film version of American Psycho.
“But he also looked like you, give or take twenty years.”
I started shivering again. Back in the parking lot, the cream-coloured 450 SL was no longer there.
‘I noticed’, the last words in the chapter, privileged as a single-line paragraph, addresses with untypical transparency the problematic currency of social narcissism flowing through each novel. We still cannot be entirely at ease with the assumption that this currency has become visible to the narrator. Perhaps the Bret Ellis character has only ‘noticed’ that the car – whose image and brand is honoured with greater textual attention than the process of recognition itself – has momentarily disappeared from the novel.
Metafiction and intermediality do not affect Lunar Park by unprecedented coincidence; in Glamorama, a Christian Bale lookalike is on hand with a fire extinguisher when Victor begins to realise the nature of his crisis, as the atrocity of another terrorist act begins to disclose, beyond media, its previously censored reality.[Footnote] What metafiction and intermediality really allow Ellis to do in Lunar Park is to emphasise the distinction between himself and his narrators, by taking ironical aim at binary misrepresentations of his work:
It was going to contain at least a hundred sex scenes (“I mean, Jesus, why not?” I guffawed to my editor over lunch in the bar at Patroon while he idly checked his blood sugar) and you could read the novel as a satire on “the new sexual obnoxiousness” or as the simple story of an average guy who enjoys defiling women with his lust [...] It was going to make Sodomania look like A Bug’s Life.[Footnote]
Here, the ridiculous Bret Ellis character is outlining the proposition for a new novel, with any potential for anti-utopian insight deliberately eviscerated from its title: ‘Teenage Pussy’.[Footnote] However as Lunar Park, the ghost story, deepens, expression becomes as defined by psychoanalytic fear and desire as it does by the ridiculous. After all, the Bret Ellis character is haunted by Patrick Bateman and his father – the inspiration for the creation of Bateman – in the form of a toy belonging to his completely fictional son. Not concerned with Romantic poetics or cinema, this overlap of fear and desire by the ridiculous is not the same trope as established by Slavoj Zizek in his essay, ‘The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime’.[Footnote] However, I have found a different kind of Lacanian analysis to be unavoidable. This is because Lunar Park is crudely describable as follows.
The real author (Bret Easton Ellis) dedicates Lunar Park to his real father; the novel is a ghost story pointing to the ineffable ‘Real’ (the disturbing truth, which can ‘only be studied in its effect on the other two dimensions, the Imaginary and Symbolic’), by using an unreal author (the Bret Ellis character) who occupies the exaggerated spectacle.[Footnote] Convoluted as this adumbration may be, these features are undeniably present. Ellis’s single-sentence paragraphs, though traditional in the horror genre, describe the absurd and intangible vitality of fear, with especial attention to the body. For example, when the Bret Ellis character’s dog (Victor) and the Terby doll are collaboratively attacking him:
It was suddenly freezing in the house but sweat was pouring down my face.
I began crawling up the stairs on my stomach when it bit me again, right below the place it had just ripped open.
I tried to shake the thing off.
I began sliding back down toward the dog because the stairs were so wet with blood.
It lashed out again.
The teeth were now the fangs of the Terby and they sank into my calf.
I realized with an awful finality: It wanted to keep me still.
It didn’t want me to go anywhere.
It didn’t want me to rush to Fortinbras Mall.[Footnote][Soft Break]
The anxiety and ineffability of the Real also resonates in Ellis’s stylistic and metafictional idioms. The slogan, ‘Disappear Here’, popularised by Less Than Zero, reappears as a single, centred paragraph in Glamorama, ‘in streaky red letters’ reminiscent of American Psycho, as ‘DiSAp p Ear HERe’.[Footnote] Disconnection, as characters are on the cusp of substitution and annihilation, claims responsibility for trauma. Just as Lacan relates his theory to the role of the father, so too the surface, anxiety and violence of Glamorama relies on Victor’s father:
Ellis believes that “keeping up appearances” is not an option and that the objective violence that defines the Real must continue to be confronted. But Ellis also believes that this confrontation comes through engaging with representation, not in spite of representation […] The fact that the last we see of Victor’s father, the closest we come to a personification of objective violence in Glamorama, is a series of televised images can only be read as peculiarly appropriate.[Footnote]
Lunar Park, at the same time, documents and sensationalizes the haunting of the author, promised by the spectacle in the connected factors of a manipulative father and a brand.[Footnote] This is the comparison I made between Ellis and Orwell in the previous chapter, on the failure of catharsis: according to Lacan, absolute satisfaction is not possible, nor fear effable, though what can be said is that the continuum of erasure, of ethical and intellectual life, means that ‘the subjects of Ellis’s novels’, like Winston and Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four, or the women of Santa Theresa in 2666, ‘are not free subjects’.[Footnote] Exaggerating this failure of and between citizens, the end of Lunar Park is untypical in its lyrical verve and sentimental sign-off:
From those of us who are left behind: you will be remembered, you were the one I needed, I loved you in my dreams.
So if you should see my son, tell him I say hello, be good, that I am thinking of him and that I know he’s watching over me somewhere, and not to worry: that he can always find me here, whenever he wants, right here, my arms held out and waiting, in the pages, behind the covers, at the end of Lunar Park.[Footnote]
Here is the signal failure of catharsis, specked metafictionally by the ashes of Ellis’s father, elusively rising, dipping, whispering and dancing through this final chapter. Through the ‘the first – and only – house they bought as a family’.[Footnote] Facing the unreality of spectacle, the reality of autofiction knows, remembers, that the author is nobody’s father, and that the confusion and corruption of paterfamilias from early childhood, for Ellis, is unoverthrowable.
Given that this essay has rejected postmodernist interpretations of Ellis’s work on the grounds that they are self-abnegating in their insubstantiality, the ‘structuralist’ theory of Lacan must therefore be applied discerningly.[Footnote] Hence his axiom, ‘Aggressiveness manifests itself in an experience that is subjective in its very constitution’, although distinctly postmodern in its obscuring of moral code, follows with an inroad into criticism on Ellis; in the same seminar, Lacan says:
The notion of aggressiveness as a tension correlated with narcissistic structure in the subject’s becoming allows us to encompass in a very simply formulated function all sorts of accidents and atypicalities in that becoming.[Footnote]
For Lacan, narcissism as the link between ‘all sorts of accidents and atypicalities’, comprising abhorrently and amusingly the novels, is the effect of our fall into language. Narcissism, the small child ‘viewing itself in the mirror’, precedes the fall into language; this fall secures self-deprecation and self-criticism as realisable; so while this change is, for Lacan, ‘tragic’, it is nevertheless a necessary tragedy for a society of people who communicate and comprehend.[Footnote] Without this fall, neither comedy nor tragedy can be reconciled with consciousness. Briefly celebrated emancipation from the tyranny of boredom, as witnessed by Winston and Julia’s intimacy in Nineteen Eighty-Four, is the vindication of authentic words and actions for individuals. Living and loving, in knowing spite of death and cycle, is ruled out as a possibility for the narcissist. Instead of participating in the human struggle with language (with metonymical desire and thus with signifier and signified), Patrick Bateman and Victor Ward either actively or passively maximise the potential for trauma, crystallised in this principle of failure. The Bret Ellis character is the scapegoat selected for Lunar Peak, the terrorised I-narrator left to deal with these consequences. Success comes down to spectacle, such is the total force of the Brand Ellis, zero whirlpool.
When reading Ellis, it is worth noting, finally, one more observation made by Lacan: ‘Such is the fright that seizes man when he discovers the true face of his power that he turns away from it in the very act – which is his act – of laying it bare.’[Footnote] The necessity of shame – the aidos structuring the Greek tragedy – is what edifies the possibility of authentic interaction, naked in this discovery. When oblivious to this, the narrators are in codeless free fall, spectacularly clothed, terrorist and terrorised. Through the protectors of Brand Ellis spectacle – among others, Clay, Victor, Lauren, Bret, Sean and Patrick Bateman are each recyclable – the corpus becomes vulnerably meaningful, auctioneering psychoanalysis in the frame of anti-utopia. Perhaps this is why, in their readings of American Psycho and Glamorama, Elizabeth Young and Naomi Mandel have situated the novels in the same context as the cult television series, Twin Peaks.[Footnote] After all, Lynch’s work has been the subject of Lacanian essays by Zizek and Todd McGowan, and has led to successful merchandise, not to mention scores of fan websites. Similarly, Victor Ward has a life outside of his text(s), kidnapped by an alter-ego of metafiction:
The disappearance of the real reached its peak in 2004 with the online edition of YouthQuake Magazine. In Glamorama, the achievement of which Victor was most proud was that his image had been featured on the cover of YouthQuake. The online edition of YouthQuake features an interview by Christie Carnes with Victor Ward as well as an insightful essay on Glamorama by Joseph Suglia.[Footnote]
The irony to this extreme fandom is imported by Baelo-Allué’s reading, and might even have been premeditated by Ellis: ‘The literary character is transformed into a digital one by using imaging technology and digital media.’[Footnote] Redescribing Victor’s suffering, resubjecting him to alteration, suggests that the impact of social narcissism – as satirised through his unorthodox humiliation – does not end with the writing of Glamorama. As with the issue of censorship which I discussed in the previous chapter, anti-utopianism can be exaggerated negatively by forces outside of the novel. If misreading doesn’t stretch as far as the application of trauma, from the book, to a real-life superficial display, it is nonetheless the case that speculation symbolises the ethical crisis generated by spectacle.
Above all, if Lacan whose theory springs from the claim, ‘it is the whole structure of language that psychoanalytic experience discovers in the unconscious’, is to be read beside an author of fiction, then surely Ellis makes himself a candidate.[Footnote] If only, that is, for his ultimately honest adherence to the uncertainty principle when it comes to desire and fear and writing them down:
It’s interesting to be sitting here and asked very intelligent and very serious questions about my work that I am not able to answer. It’s a bit like a dream, verging on a nightmare, to be in front of an audience that I think is expecting a writer to be much more aware of his effects than the writer actually is.[Footnote]
Conclusion: Further Criticism, Self-Criticism
Sometimes, he thought, being an arts reporter in Mexico was the same as reporting on crime. And being on the police beat was the same as working for the arts page, although in the minds of the crime reporters, all the arts reporters were faggots (assthetes, they called them), and in the minds of the arts reporters, all the crime reporters were scum.
- Roberto Bolaño[Footnote]
Rereading Ellis’s novels and playing back his interviews, it has become increasingly clear that the reason behind each book’s style and synopsis is nostalgia for structuralism itself. The unenviable fates and glossed, unstable identities of the narrators serve to exaggerate through hyperbole the real threat of nihilism in the numbness of a cool, postmodern spectacle. At once and in depth, the novels have amused and repulsed with an urgency that merits discursive close reading beyond the point of frivolous speculation. This is the dilemma underpinning the relationship between the affectless narratives Bret Easton Ellis has written, encompassing the satirical and the personal, and the few, subsequent attempts at literary criticism; that no matter how self-critical or pre-empted, ironic or thin-skinned, the reader response, it is precisely because of crude speculation that his fiercely human passages have taken decades to stake a claim in an academic community. When structure is abandoned, when the link between violence, truth-telling and satire is lost, ‘non-comprehension becomes a virtue’.[Footnote] A brief glance at the range of kneejerk abuse received by authors as varied in style and form as Byron, Joyce, Orwell, Rushdie, and most recently Ellis, suggests that this hamartia is unbanishable: if a critic of Utopianism emerges in radical fiction, the initial readership will mistake irony for tawdriness and reduce, as Bolaño reminds us in the above epigraph, descriptions of horrific criminality to criminal fantasy.
Although Ellis maintains he is ‘not smart enough’ to be a part of ‘any intellectual community’ because of ‘low self-esteem’, accusing the novelist of philistinism is merely a disingenuous exit.[Footnote] Ellis should be stating the obvious when he outlines the foothold for a substantial discussion of his work:
These societies (in the novels) are problematic, they are emblematic of other societies, of overall society […] Since I use narrators who are part of the problem, people assume that I am. And it takes a careful reader to see the implied criticism beneath every line of American Psycho.[Footnote]
The purpose of this metacritical study has been to propose a new way of reading Bret Easton Ellis, to promote the perception of this author in the literary canon as a critic of Utopianism. Ellis is a novelist with a thorough and wide-ranging understanding of, and exposure to, popular culture throughout the English-speaking world. Because of his attachment to this culture, Ellis writes sometimes humorously, sometimes unmercifully, about the need to overcome a narcissism generated by spectacle. The prerequisites for an evolving critical discourse on Ellis are the same as for any author of anti-utopian fiction, or indeed non-fiction. It is only by facing the censor, by embracing irony and self-criticism, and by distinguishing between different forms of love, that an emerging readership can encounter ‘the implied criticism beneath every line’.
Page i: The correct citation, for the fragment quoting Christopher Hitchens is as follows:
Hitchens, Christopher, Letters to a Young Contrarian (Basic Books: Cambridge, 2001), 12.
Page ii: The correct citation, for the quotations ‘mask of sanity’ and ‘victim of impending slippage’:
Ellis, Bret Easton, American Psycho (Vintage: New York, 1991), 268.
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Word Count: 15, 290.