Sunday, April 25, 2010

Mr. Sardonicus: Bret Easton Ellis at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

When I was writing fiction in college, Bret Easton Ellis was a demigod – a controversial writer who had published his first novel while he was still in college himself. His first four novels, beginning with LESS THAN ZERO (pub. 1985) and culminating with AMERICAN PSYCHO (pub. 1991), were savage and funny… but there seemed to be some question in the critical community about the author’s intentions. Were the novels intended as criticisms of self-destructive behavior or were they simply explorations of it? Was AMERICAN PSYCHO a work of genuine existential angst or a cool satire of Wall Street life in the 1980s? Was the author trying to be sincere or funny? Mr. Ellis’s appearance yesterday at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books offered an answer to these questions: All of the above.

Ellis said that his earliest draft of LESS THAN ZERO was much more autobiographical and strongly influenced by Joan Didion’s 1970s essays on Los Angeles culture. He was, he said, playing the role of a reporter. Over winter vacation during his freshman year of college, he wrote a draft that moved away from the details of his own life and became more “novelistic.” The central character of Clay took on a life of his own. Ellis continued to edit for the next two years, under the tutelage of his writing professor Joe McGinniss, until he had a publishable novel. McGinniss wanted to call the book WINTER VACATION. Ellis opted instead of LESS THAN ZERO, naming his debut novel after an Elvis Costello song about “the rise and acceptance of fascism in the UK,” which seemed to have “parallels” with Clay’s story. This explanation of the title suggests that Ellis instinctively believed that the novel had a “message” to impart, but for the narrator that message is impossible to extract from the overwhelming ennui. Again, the model seems to be Joan Didion, particularly her L.A.-based novel PLAY IT AS IT LAYS (pub. 1970). Ellis readers should instantly recognize stylistic similarities in the following passages from Didion’s work:

She walked back to the car and sat for a long while in the parking lot, idling the engine and watching a woman in a muumuu walk out of the Carolina Pines Motel and cross the street to a supermarket. The woman walked in small mincing steps and kept raising her hand to shield her eyes from the vacant sunlight. As if in a trance Maria watched the woman, for it seemed to her then that she was watching the dead still center of the world, the quintessential intersection of nothing...

...In the aftermath of the wind the air was dry, burning, so clear that she could see the ploughed furrows of firebreaks on distant mountains. Not even the highest palms moved. The stillness and clarity of the air seemed to rob everything of its perspective, seemed to alter all perception of depth, and Maria drove as carefully as if she were reconnoitering an atmosphere without gravity...

...She imagined herself driving, conceived audacious lane changes, strategic shifts of gear, the Hollywood to the San Bernadino and straight on out, past Barstow, past Baker, driving straight on into the hard white empty core of the world. She slept and did not dream.

PLAY IT AS IT LAYS ends with the main character’s desperate flight from L.A. LESS THAN ZERO begins with the main character’s reluctant return.

By the time LESS THAN ZERO was published, the author had nearly completed his second novel, THE RULES OF ATTRACTION (pub. 1987) – a companion piece with the same sensibilities (mainly, ennui) but a more assured narrative voice. Contrary to everyone’s low expectations – the publisher printed only a few thousand copies – LESS THAN ZERO was a huge success. Word of mouth made the author a celebrity within the year. Soon after, Hollywood was making a film adaptation of LESS THAN ZERO. Ellis says he didn’t want to be involved until he read the first draft of the screenplay, and by then it was too late. The final film was more like a sequel to ST. ELMO’S FIRE than an adaptation of Ellis’s novel. But, the author adds, “I’ve grown fond of it over the years… even sentimental about it.” He seems to be generally nostalgic about that time period in his life, when the success and attention were new and exciting. But he admits that, ultimately, he was not ready for all the attention.

One day, he realized “I was dying and this thing called Bret Easton Ellis is taking over.” Henceforth, he had to grapple with the reality that he would be defined by a persona, largely imagined and created by the public. It took him a long time, he says, to accept this as a reality. And to learn not to take the persona seriously. One can see the change in Ellis’s writing. THE INFORMERS (pub. 1994) is a transitional work – half of it exists in the world of disaffected youth that Ellis explored in his first two novels; the other half is more violent, more horrific, focused on the soul-stealing reality of fame. For the first time, the author is unwilling to choose a single narrator. “I tend to give the novels over to my narrators,” he admits, “and they inform a great deal of how the book is structured, how it reads, what the sentences are like.” Thus THE INFORMERS is fragmented.

Ellis’s next novel AMERICAN PSYCHO completely embraces the soulless narrator. It started out, he says, with a lot of “extremely pretentious ideas… the book I was imagining was much more self-important.” In a sense, Bret Easton Ellis is Patrick Bateman. He is not violent. (The violence in AMERICAN PSYCHO, he says, came mostly from what he was reading at the time: graphic novels rather than conservative literary fiction.) But he does exist in two worlds, just like his fictional creation. In one world, Ellis can be himself. In another world – speaking in front of 400 readers at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, for instance – he must play the role of author “Bret Easton Ellis.” A lot of people don’t know how to distinguish between the two. We assume we know more about Bret Easton Ellis than we really do. “You have to separate the art from the artist,” he insists.

Above all, this Q&A made me realize how intuitive Ellis is as a writer. He says he “gives the novels over” to his narrators, suggesting that his own “real” voice is suppressed. In his mind, the storyteller is not Bret Easton Ellis; it’s a fictional self. Ellis is certainly not the only writer whose creative process sounds a bit like automatic writing – I heard a number of other authors yesterday make similar statements: You have to surrender yourself to the process, and allow the voices of the characters to come through you. Ellis says this is a requirement for novel-writing, and he distinguishes it from screenwriting as follows: “A screenplay is just a blueprint. A novel comes from your unconscious, kind of like a dream.”

In AMERICAN PSYCHO, the narrator doubles back. The narrator Patrick Bateman realizes that he has become a different version of himself: a persona instead of a person. “I simply am not there,” he advises. No doubt this reflects the author’s original vision for the book, which was largely about his own struggle to preserve himself as a person, while his persona grew larger than life. (In college, we were taught to call this “meta-fiction.”) Of course, AMERICAN PSYCHO only added fuel to that particular fire. The book became so controversial that Bret Easton Ellis became a household name. The controversy began when his original publisher (Simon & Schuster) refused to publish the book, fearing that readers would find it purely sadistic and misogynistic. Vintage picked it up, and prompted the author to do another revision – which, Ellis says, ultimately helped the book by making it less self-important, funnier and faster-paced. (Perhaps it was this revision that made the subtle difference between sadism and satire.) Critics still roasted the author… but he says that’s their right and it doesn’t affect the work.

Nevertheless, the author had to face the charges. After AMERICAN PSYCHO, some people treated him like the Antichrist (whether they’d read the book or not). Others treated him like a hero, assuming that he was an anarchist who had consciously set out to explode the world of literary fiction. Personally, I can’t help thinking of T.S. Eliot, whose poem THE WASTE LAND did explode the world of English literature in the early 1920s… but who later dismissed his own work, saying that it was simply a personal “grouse about life.” Better still, what about Wes Craven’s LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, which shocked audiences and outraged critics in 1972? Craven has said that the film was a personal outlet for years of religious repression, but it also became (for the receptive audience) an outlet for repressed feelings about the Vietnam War: onscreen violence presented as a protest of real-life violence. AMERICAN PSYCHO, I think, was mostly Ellis’s personal catharsis. The fact that it resonated so strongly within American culture shows that a lot of people needed the same kind of catharsis – a belated reaction to the look-good, feel-good surface mentality of the 1980s, especially in New York. The book became a cultural touchstone for a new, psychoanalytic decade. It was a desperate attempt to peel back the persona and get to the person underneath… if indeed there was a person underneath.

A movie adaptation was inevitable. At first, David Cronenberg was slated to direct with Brad Pitt starring as Patrick Bateman (!). Ellis, who was at the time known as the most notorious “horror writer” in America, says he was nervous about meeting the famous horror director: “I was thinking, oh man this guy has made so many crazy, violent movies… he must be a total freak.” When Cronenberg turned out to be a normal guy, the meeting served as a reminder to Ellis that you can’t confuse the art with the artist. His meeting with Christian Bale, who ended up playing Patrick Bateman in the movie, went a little differently. Ellis says that Bale showed up at a restaurant and introduced himself as Patrick Bateman, and didn’t break character for a full ten minutes – at the end of which Ellis said, “You’ve got my approval… Just don’t hurt me.” The author suggests that maybe the actor internalized that character a bit too much. He’s been playing constant variations on the same over-intense persona ever since AMERICAN PSYCHO (onscreen and off?).

In person, Ellis is obviously (and admittedly) uncomfortable being the focus of so much attention. David Cronenberg and Wes Craven, perhaps because they are filmmakers rather than book-writers and therefore subjected to more media coverage, have a self-assuredness that Ellis lacks so far. As Bret Easton Ellis in writing, he can make bold jokes (like his recent Twitter post in which he rejoices that J.D. Salinger is finally dead). As Bret Easton Ellis the public speaker, he has a harder time balancing the writer and the person. When he makes a sincere statement in person, his readers often assume that he’s making a bold joke. “It’s a strange juggling act,” he says, but what can he do at this point besides accept the way the public sees him?

Perhaps the only thing he can do is to work through it in his writing. After his novel 1998 GLAMORAMA went further down the rabbit hole into meta-fiction insanity (and created more confusion than controversy), the author apparently felt a need to reinvent himself. In his real life, he moved from New York to L.A., where he has tried his hand at screenwriting. Perhaps encouraged by Roger Avary’s film adaptation of THE RULES OF ATTRACTION (which Ellis says is the best of the four films made from his work, in terms of “capturing my sensibility”), Ellis wrote the screenplay for THE INFORMERS (which he says is “undeniably the weakest of the four adaptations”). In his fictional life, Bret Easton Ellis became the main character and the narrator of his 2005 novel LUNAR PARK… but the Bret Easton Ellis on the page is NOT the real Bret Easton Ellis. He doesn’t represent the real author as a force within his story, the way Stephen King appears in his last DARK TOWER novel. And LUNAR PARK isn’t a fictive memoir, like Dave Eggars’s A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS. The narrator of LUNAR PARK is an alternate universe version of Bret Easton Ellis. (The author spoke briefly about the possibility of a forthcoming film adaptation, starring Jude Law as Bret Easton Ellis… and reiterated that the character is “not really me…”)

If you think that’s confusing, get this… Ellis has just written a follow-up to his first novel LESS THAN ZERO, featuring Clay as the narrator. In the new novel, IMPERIAL BEDROOMS, Clay comments on LESS THAN ZERO, a novel written in the third person by his fictional self and a film featuring yet another fictionalized self. I’m not even sure we can classify this as meta-fiction. Ellis has gone from writing about himself as a fictional character to writing about a different fictional character writing about himself as a fictional character. When the Q&A moderator tried to disentangle this explanation, the author urged him to move on, saying, “Whatever… It’s Sunday morning. It’s early.” I can’t help thinking that it must make sense to him when he’s writing it – because he’s not trying to disentangle, but rather operating purely on intuition, doing what writers do. Whether it works for readers remains to be seen, but I’m hopeful because I’ve never been drawn to Ellis’s work because of the ideas but because of the narrator’s voice. I like getting lost with them.

The title IMPERIAL BEDROOMS also comes from Elvis Costello – it is the name of an 1982 album that, according to critics, reflected a new maturity in the singer/songwriter’s career. Bret Easton Ellis says he doesn’t think that IMPERIAL BEDROOMS reflects a new maturity in his own writing. “I see it actually as a kind of regression,” he adds, “which I embrace.” It’s a return to the minimalist prose of his early novels; an “un-funny Hollywood novel” influenced by Raymond Chandler. He maintains that he wrote it for one deeply personal reason: he wanted to know what ever happened to Clay. Since IMPERIAL BEDROOMS casts Clay as a screenwriter living in Los Angeles, it’s hard to escape the idea that Ellis is wondering what ever happened to the young man that wrote LESS THAN ZERO, after his long struggle between person and persona, writer and celebrity.

I, for one, am very eager to find out. IMPERIAL BEDROOMS will be released in June.

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