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The novels of Bret Easton Ellis portray a violent subculture of white youths who live promiscuous lives desensitized by drugs and the video revolution. Their depravity reflects the moral and spiritual deterioration of American society. Reviewers have praised Ellis’s novels as incisive social commentary. Ellis’s third novel, American Psycho (1991), solidified his reputation as an author of shockingly graphic fiction.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Privileged Upbringing and Posh Education
Bret Easton Ellis was born on March 7, 1964, in Los Angeles. As a young man, he attended a prestigious college preparatory school called the Buckley School. After graduation, he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree at Bennington College in Vermont, a private and very expensive school that inspired the fictional Camden Arts College, a setting in his novel The Rules of Attraction (1987), among other books.
In the 1980s, before pursuing a serious career as an author, Ellis played keyboard in various bands. However, just before he graduated from Bennington, he wrote and published Less Than Zero (1985), a story of wealthy, disconnected teens in Los Angeles who obsess over drugs, sex, and money. Critics praised the novel, even going so far as to compare it to the classic novel of teen age disillusionment The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J. D. Salinger.
Bret in the Brat Pack
In 1987 Ellis moved to New York City for the publication of his second novel, Rules of Attraction, which contained themes and characters similar to his first novel. At the time, other authors such as Tama Janowitz and Jay Mclnerney were also focusing on the ennui of passive, detached characters and, with Ellis, became what critics called a literary Brat Pack. The popular Village Voice named the Brat Pack’s writing style ”socialite realism.” During the age of MTV and framed by President Ronald Reagan’s doctrine of progress and prosperity, novels about the spiritual bankruptcy and moral downfall of privileged teenagers exposed the negative effects of excess and decadence that many social critics believe typified the 1980s.
Ellis generated further buzz with the books that followed Rules of Attraction and Less Than Zero. Simon & Schuster pulled out of publishing American Psycho (1991), a first-person narrative of a high-class Manhattan serial killer, calling it too violent and disturbing. The novel was eventually printed by Vintage Books, a division of Random House. Many critics blasted American Psycho for its scenes of extreme violence against women. on the other hand, others labeled its raw style groundbreaking. In either case, the book inspired discussions about censorship, artistic freedoms, and literary standards. Today, American Psycho, a book Ellis calls a ”black comedy,” has reached cult status.
After American Psycho, Ellis returned to his Los Angeles setting for his collection of short stories about vampires, called The Informers (1994), as well as his violent themes in Glamorama (1998), a novel dealing with high fashion, politics, and terrorism. The novel also gives major roles to characters from Rules of Attraction, Lauren Hynde and Bertrand Ripleis.
Self and Other
In 2005 Ellis departed from the novel genre to write a hybrid work (part autobiography, part horror) called Lunar Park. Ellis fictionalizes himself and his career, framing the story around the time of Glamorama’s publication. The tale focuses on the haunting of the house Ellis shares with his wife and son in a suburb outside New York City. Ellis has said the book was partly an homage to horror novel writer Stephen King.
Ellis’s most recent project is a television series written for Showtime. Created in true Ellis fashion, the series, called The Canyons, is a dark drama about twenty- and thirty-somethings who find themselves in violent and unusual circumstances that may or may not be real.
Works in Literary Context
In an article for the Taipei Times, Ellis called himself a “moralist,” as his characters are sinners who often must find redemption or do penance. He often frames his discussion about the conditions of the American dystopia—violence, oppression, disease, excess, greed, and inhumanity—in the lives of characters who are consumed by materialism and could care less about the world around them. In this respect, Ellis takes part in the tradition of such Progressive Era-authors as Upton Sinclair (author of The Jungle, 1906) and John Dos Passos (author of Manhattan Transfer, 1925), who, along with other authors like them, pointedly criticized American consumerism.
Ellis’s work contributed to a literary movement called ”socialite realism.” While the realist novels of the nineteenth century focused mainly on offering unvarnished depictions of the working class and poor, these novels focused on the excessive, glittery, empty worlds of the rich and privileged. Tama Janowitz was also part of this movement, and Ian McMechan s characterization of Janowitz fits Ellis as well: ”Few can match Tama Janowitz s commentaries on the race of fakes, freaks, and flakes who inhabit the sprawling metropolis of social non-achievement. These works differ from the novels of such writers as Evelyn Waugh and Aldous Huxley, both of whom gained fame for their sharp satires of the urban elite during the 1920s, in that they offer little direct criticism of their characters.
Works in Critical Context
Criticism on Ellis varies widely. Some align Ellis with twentieth-century writers like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald because of Ellis s ability to depict a particular era, place, and attitude. Ellis captures the youth culture of the 1980s, revealing its moral and ethical decay. His language is uncomplicated and stunning. Other critics consider Ellis s work nothing more than shallow ”yuppie lit. In the early days of Ellis s career, he was seen by critics as a reflection of his work: a jaded man of privilege looking at the world with indifference.
Less Than Zero
The novel tells the morality tale of privileged youth in Los Angeles. These young people are made numb by American consumerism and try to cure their boredom by drug addiction, sexual promiscuity, and violence. In the end, they are driven to gang-raping a twelve-year-old girl. Critics lauded the cool, distant tone of Ellis’s prose; the voice keenly demonstrates the narrator, Clay, as affectless and self-absorbed. Overall, they noted that Ellis’s representation of youth begins with language, specifically the tired and inarticulate speech of these “lost” teenagers. For example, in terms of style, John Rechy of the Los Angeles Times Book Review wrote: ”Expertly, Ellis captures the banality in the speech of his teenagers.”
In the novel, as horrifying incidents pile atop each other, the tone and affectation of Ellis’s characters push the reader to grow accustomed to the atrocities. Some critics insist this technique was carefully engineered by Ellis to emphasize the inertia experienced by Clay and his jaded companions.
The protagonist of American Psycho is Patrick Bateman, a young, successful investment banker. He uses a flat, dispassionate tone to discuss his materialistic lifestyle, his obsession with his appearance, and the series of brutal murders he has committed. Many critics see Bateman as a symbol of the greed and inhumanity associated with the American upper class, while his victims represent voiceless and disadvantaged groups of society. British novelist Fay Weldon observed: ”Those who are killed don’t rate—they are the powerless, the poor, the wretched, the sick in mind, the sellers of flesh for money: their own and other people’s.”
But some critics view this novel as having all the artistic worth of a low-budget horror movie. At the time of its publication, the novel’s violence toward women prompted one chapter of the National Organization for Women to boycott not only the book itself but all books by its publisher, Vintage, and its parent company, Random House.
The book has continued to receive critical attention since its publication, most of it positive. Jonathan Keats in an article for Salon comments that Ellis ”has advanced beyond the workaday concerns of character and plot and found truth and beauty, the bookends between which our classics stand.” Keats suggests that Ellis’s work has earned a place in the literary canon, arguing, essentially, that ”it misbehaves so severely by existing standards that it demands a scale of its own—one on which future works, previously unimaginable, can at last be built.”
- Bottoms, Greg. ”The Strange Fame of Bret Easton Ellis.” January 1999. Gadfly Online. Retrieved August 24, 2008, from http://www.gadflyonline.com/ archive/January99/archive-ellis.html.
- Keats, Jonathan. ”Great American Novelist.” January 22, 1999. Salon . Retrieved August 24, 2008, from http://archive.salon.com/books/feature/1999/01/cov_22feature2.html.
- Tama Janowitz Biography. Biography.jrank.org. Retrieved August 24, 2008, from http:// biography.jrank.org/pages /4464/Janowitz-Tama.html.
- Vane, Sharyn. ”Bret Easton Ellis Loses a Few Marbles in ‘Lunar Park.”’ August 21, 2005. Taipei Times. Retrieved August 24, 2008, from http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/feat/archives/2005/08/21/2003268662.
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