Less Than Zero, and frankly all of Bret Easton Ellis’s novels, are about how awful self-obsessives are in their privileged lives, whether ironically or not. It’s basically all luxury porn, reading about these people without a care in the world except having sex with whoever, doing drugs, enjoying the perceived “finer” things in life and all the way ignoring any consequences that come along with it. I find the novels of Ellis are most enjoyed as a slice of life type story. The stunted writing and formatting of Less Than Zero helped well in conveying these short blurb-esque thoughts of the main character Clay.
The Rules Of Attraction is basically a spiritual sequel of sorts to Less Than Zero but I didn’t quite connect with it like I did the previous novel. There’s only so much you can read of people doing drugs and cheating on people and them wondering why everyone hates them when they continue to do horrible things to each other. “Why, oh, why, does this person hate me, all I did was sleep with their BF/GF!?!?!?” It does kind of lead into the negative immediately where Ellis tries to recapture the fervor of his first novel by copying the same generic ploy, with less than stellar results compared to the first. Throughout his career, and one of his big drawbacks I’d imagine, is the idea that he really only had one idea that he tried to milk for multiple books over all these years, to varying ends.
American Psycho definitely lives up to its name. Pre-eminently extreme luxury porn mixed with extreme gore porn. Might be a weird thing to say, but I loved just living in this world where everything’s done to excess without fear of the consequences of what comes next. I think this is Ellis’s most coveted and praised novel because it maintains a lot of the same themes and exploration of wealth, relationships, substance abuse, one’s own self and focuses it all through a better narrative than his previous efforts. It actually pins these ideas to a more constructed story and avenue of focused expression rather than just being like his two previous novels and just relatively haphazardly documenting a bunch of young people’s partying and philandering ways with little to hold it together. I think it’s far from being any sort of masterpiece, but Ellis’s writing is so fun (such a weird thing to say about a book about a serial killer who does some insane acts with his victims) and feels so lived in and of this time period. I rarely laugh out loud when reading books, comedy or not, but I did multiple times with this and it was solely because of how great Ellis is at capturing characters and making them all feel so unique and fleshed out even if we were just introduced to them. Here’s a fun drinking game for you if you’re reading American Psycho for the first time or entering the world yet again: Take a drink every time you see the word “hardbody” and be guaranteed to be belligerently drunk by the fifth chapter. If you want to take it to the extreme you can take a drink every time you read something misogynistic, but that’s just an unruly suggestion on my part because I don’t think you’d make it past the first page. And please don’t attempt that misogny thing on his whole bibliography, unless you’re a cat with some extra lives to spare.
I was really looking forward to Glamorama because Ellis seems like the perfect person to satirize celebrities and the idea of celebrity and the life and culture it entails. Unfortunately it wasn’t as good as his previous novels, but there was still a lot to like. What I’ve briefly mentioned before with the work of Ellis is that I like that he always has a defined voice, whether you like it or not, and I happen to enjoy how he strings words together. I wish it hit the celebrity satire a little harder, because that stuff is my kryptonite, but it does enough well in its exploration of the idea. The book kinda goes a bit off the rails in the latter part, but it’s all in service of depicting this wild delusion that is celebrity, so it works for the most part.
Lunar Park works a lot because Bret Easton Ellis seems to be the perfect guy to write a pseudo-memoir about himself. He takes it a bit further and makes it into a twisted type of ghost story that does well in its means and gives off a creepy vibe throughout. Like I mentioned earlier I have a small feeling of dread about how Ellis’s later novels are just retreads or capitalizing off Less Than Zero and American Psycho, his two most famous and successful novels, and how he can’t write anything “new” and has to resort to his past. Although, in this aspect it kind of works well in helping him with the stringing of the idea of him writing American Psycho and it coming back to put him into this serial killer story was really clever and well-done, especially within the memoir part and as a response to the criticism of the novel. Father issues are a prevalent theme in all of his novels and this one provides a good vessel that doesn’t feel too cheap and works organically within the story that doesn’t seem like he’s just using loose strands of a book to just cry about his daddy issues. Ellis seemingly intended to cover a lot of ground within this small concept and I was impressed that he largely pulled it off without seeming too cheap and using his previous novel ideas and criticism to work towards creating something new, rather than just retreading.
Imperial Bedrooms has enough of what made Less Than Zero good, but spins it into a deeper and darker place that doesn’t entirely work in the end. This is the most clear sense of “I have only one idea, so fuck it, let’s just make a sequel to my most celebrated novel.” It seemed like a lot of the novel was going to be about the how a Less Than Zero-esque story would take after this 25 years of difference since he wrote that first novel, but that seemed to fall by the wayside early.
I came off reading Bret Easton Ellis of two minds. I had a lot of fun reading his novels, living in these worlds as an outsider and experiencing excess to its fullest extent. Every criticism rang exceedingly true, though, whether it was him largely writing the same book seven times and his constant misogny. A defence of him would be, yes he’s a satirist, but that excuse only works a few times until every novel features the same things and just feels like an easy conduit for him to say what he feels behind the guise of awful characters. Kind of like how Quentin Tarantino’s last few films have largely fielded characters using the n-word (granted this is his whole career, but most specifically with the last few movies), where he claims it’s intrinsic to the time, but when it’s used so exceedingly in multiple movies it has you questioning the intent behind its machinations. Bret Easton Ellis seems like the exact type of writer whose had one masterpiece and his whole career has been trying to replicate that success or prove he’s up to that standard. I mean, it’s kinda like that, except for the whole “having a masterpiece” thing. Less Than Zero and American Psycho are good and definitely have something to say, but largely they just remain as a cultural piece of zeitgeist, us looking back and seeing how far we’ve come and how so much has changed.