Bret Easton Ellis: Escape from utopia
By Joseph Suglia
May 27, 2004
America is a utopia. A placeless “place” in which all desires are answered even before they are articulated. A non-place without a history and without horizons.
The “America” to which I refer is less the nation that bears this name than that nation’s ideal, one that posits a world which is seemingly disconnected from the contingencies of time and space. One could object, of course, that America is hardly “utopian” or paradisiacal: There is, after all, misery everywhere. And yet utopianism does not exclude the possibility of misery. Like all ideological constructions, the image of America contradicts the existing conditions of its societies. America interprets itself as a locus of absolute plentitude, overflowing with whatever one may need/desire; it presents itself as a space that is anti-spatial, anti-temporal and anti-historical, a non-place in which desires are quickly converted into needs and in which “new” desires proliferate infinitely.
It is America’s utopianism that Bret Easton Ellis addresses in his fiction. His novels are populated by those who, theoretically, have everything — except “something to lose” (“Less Than Zero”). They are the illiterate “glitterati” — ridiculously stupid and narcissistic people who say ridiculously stupid and narcissistic things (e.g., “She wasn’t looking at my abs, but she wanted to,” from “The Rules of Attraction”; “You’re tan, but you don’t look happy,” from “The Informers”). Members of the “beautiful elite,” each of his “characters” (if this word even applies — the personages have no identity) is vapid and vacant, precisely because their desires are produced by mainstream consumer culture — a culture that is fundamentally shallow. Although they numb themselves with drugs and sex, they cannot even be called “hedonistic” because they don’t enjoy themselves. The majority of Americans would say that Ellis’ “characters” are without problems: after all, they are rich, gorgeous and frequently young. But the absence of problems is, in itself, a problem.
In Ellis’ first truly “political” literary work, his aptly titled third novel, “American Psycho” (1991), the white, rich and impossibly handsome Wall Street yuppie Patrick Bateman is, strictly speaking, the “perfect” American — and the “perfect” representative of a “perfect” world. He has no flaws. He’s a trust-fund baby with an immensely well-paying job that seemingly requires no effort; women fall for him wherever he goes; he is young and beautiful. He lives at the center of American culture and, for this reason, wants for nothing. And yet the tragedy of his (and of all) “perfection” is that it must constantly reestablish itself: No one who is “perfect” can afford not to be vigilant.
Patrick Bateman is “perfect” — and also perfectly vicious. He is a murderer — and also at the center of American culture. These statements are not contradictory.
The following question plagues the readers of “American Psycho”: How is it that others are seemingly oblivious of, or indifferent to, the murders that Bateman commits? The answer is obvious. There is nothing extraordinary about homicide; indeed, homicide has become completely normalized. Whether one has committed homicide is less significant than whether one wears Armani. Throughout the novel, descriptions of dismemberment occur in the same paragraph as discussions of insipid, 1980s pop-music kitsch. In fact, much of the book is a recitation of such trivia interspersed with gruesome descriptions of the mutilation of women. What is one to make of this? Is Ellis a violent misogynist, as many have claimed?
On the contrary, “American Psycho” is the most radical critique of American culture in general — and of American misogyny, in particular — in novelistic form. American culture is “evil,” the novel suggests, because “evil” no longer matters. One’s moral value is insignificant in relation to one’s physical appearance and the size of one’s bank account. The smug, self-preening Bateman is able to commit the most ghastly and monstrous acts imaginable with impunity, precisely because he looks good and has a hierarchical position in society. When Bateman “dissects” his victims — who, for the most part, are homeless people, prostitutes and ethnic minorities — the reader should remember that such acts are “business as usual” in the United States. There is nothing unusual about anything that Bateman does; his murderous behavior is representative of the mainstream. If he dissertates on the greatness of Genesis, Huey Lewis and the News, or Whitney Houston before slicing up a prostitute, this is because there is no essential difference, the book suggests, between the stupidity of American pop culture and the monstrosity of evil. “Evil,” the book suggests, is not some Mephistophelean figure that springs up from the depths of hell. Nor may be it explained by the Kantian concept of “radical evil,” in which the senses are maximized and elevated to the basis of moral decisions. No, for Ellis, “evil” is the money-grubbing, racist, homophobic and misogynistic yuppie businessman: the axis and apotheosis of American culture.
Bateman, the “American psycho,” is perfect, and perfection is the American psychosis. More specifically, the American psychosis is the drive to be perfect, to have an apartment more expensive and better situated than Paul Owen’s. Anyone outside of the sphere of perfection is regarded as trash. “You are not … important to me,” Bateman says to his equally materialistic and vacuous fiancée: Such is the ethos of Reagan’s ’80s. And it is precisely this maxim of conduct that Ellis represents in “American Psycho.”
The eerily open-ended “conclusion” of “American Psycho” ominously hints at the impending apocalypse of heterosexual white upper-class male domination. A Middle-Eastern taxi cab driver and a homeless woman — evocative of the disenfranchised minorities killed off by the hard-hearted yuppie earlier in the novel — take their symbolic revenge on the majoritarian Bateman. As he enters his 28th birthday, he faces the inexorable demise of his regime and his self-deceptions.
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Ellis’ next experiment, “The Informers” (1994), seems, at first glance, to be nothing more than a collection of short stories and drafts for Ellis’ more ambitious novelistic projects (“The Secrets of the Summer,” for instance, reads like an early version of “American Psycho”). It is far more than that, however. Each story connects with all of the others; the book has an inner continuity that is staggeringly intricate. There are complicated interchanges between the “characters”; each one of them is absolutely interchangeable with everyone else.
“The Informers” is set in Los Angeles in the 1980s. No one in the book has an individuated personality. All of the characters take Valium and drink Tab. All of them say the same things and have the same desires. Indeed, all of Ellis’ “characterologies” are the same. This is not a flaw in his novelistic practice. It is, rather, a sign of his writerly strength. In “The Up-Escalator,” a middle-aged woman cannot distinguish her son, Graham, from any of the other tall, blond boys that populate the novel. In “In the Islands,” William cannot distinguish his son, Tim, from Graham. One stoned pool boy is identical to another stoned pool boy.
“Perfection,” it would seem, may be bought and sold in mass quantities. According to the logic of the work, one’s identity is founded upon the products one buys. Because products are available in mass quantities, identity is also available in mass quantities. If commodities are equivalent to each other (through the medium of money), there is no reason that identities should not be posited as equivalent as well. It is the logical consequence of living in a culture that valorizes consumerist equivalence that its citizens should also be indistinguishable from each other. The most dominant figure of “The Informers” is the destruction of individuality by the exchange of equivalents.
Another of the novel’s obsessions is the effect of a highly technologized media culture on social relationships. Rather than bringing the “characters” together, audio-visual technology drives them further apart. One person can only relate to another by relating him/her to a media image. While on a plane to Hawaii, William and Tim both listen to headsets, each playing a different kind of music; they can only endure each other through the magic of technological “communication.” In “Another Grey Area,” Graham identifies his father’s corpse by likening it to Darth Vader. His “friend” Randy drapes his face with a copy of GQ and effectively becomes John Travolta, whose image is featured on the cover. One character, Ricky, is murdered on the night of a Duran Duran look-alike contest, which is a propos because everyone in The Informers participates, whether intentionally or not, in a celebrity look-alike contest. In “Sitting Still,” Susan dislikes her father’s fiancée (partly, at least) because the latter likes the film “Flashdance.” Most pathetically, in “Letters from L.A.,” Anne is slowly swallowed up in the media culture of Los Angeles — a culture that she once disdained.
* * *
Ellis’ most recent novel, “Glamorama” (1998), is a departure for the author, insofar as it does not merely concern the hollowness and superficiality of American culture, but also the way in which the whole of reality is structured within the context of this culture. In “Glamorama,” the entire structure of reality may be choreographed. It is impossible to tell, throughout the work, whether a character is in a “real” scenario or whether that scenario has been rehearsed, scripted and staged. In “Glamorama,” the surface of things overtakes all depth. We have reached, Ellis seems to suggest, a hyper-Kantian moment in which appearances are finally liberated from the things that they would represent. Indeed, the novel “itself” — a panorama of hollow, glitzy appearances — is an endless play of surfaces without profundity.
The “star” of “Glamorama,” semi-model Victor Ward, is photographed at film premieres and fashion shows that he never attended; these photographs take on the status of the “truth.” Only that which is mediated by the media, the novel seems to imply, is regarded as “real” in American culture. The “characters” of “Glamorama” — models and celebrities and those who serve them — can only recognize something as “true” to the extent that it is simulated. In particular, for the lovable idiot Victor, the “living” instant exists only in terms of, and for the sake of, its media duplication: that is to say, he can only recognize something as significant insofar as it recalls a popular song lyric, television show or film. A human being has value for him only inasmuch as s/he resembles an actor/actress such as Uma Thurman or Christian Bale (“You’re looking very Uma-ish, baby” is a typical remark). Like all of Ellis’ figures, Victor is essentially vacuous, a media sponge, a mediator of transitory sound-bytes. In the first and second sections of the novel, for instance, Victor is nothing more than a vehicle for the words of others (a running joke throughout “Glamorama” is Victor’s tendency to respond to questions, inanely, with decontextualized popular song lyrics). He is so vacant of meaningful content that he becomes the scapegoat of various political factions, who exploit his naïveté for their own programs. Victor becomes involved with fashion-model terrorists who are even more superficial than him and who “teach” him that a world of pure surfaces is a world without ethical limits.
A Bildungsroman for the early 21st century, “Glamorama” charts Victor’s gradual transformation into a person of substance. At the end of his metamorphosis, Victor fastens his mind on the image of a mountain that he must “ascend” in order to escape from the world of self-referring resemblances. An agent of “the real,” Victor yearns to break free from the network of appearances that constitutes American culture. He yearns to break free from his culture (“Have you ever wished that you could disappear from all this?” MTV asks Victor in an interview) precisely because it is utopian. Only after the traumas of the latter sections of the novel does Victor become aware of the drawbacks of America’s utopianism. He is “[o]n the verge of tears — because [he is] dealing with the fact that we lived in a world in which beauty was considered an accomplishment.” A world in which “supermodels” are automatically qualified to be actors, filmmakers, artists, writers, representatives of the United Nations — and terrorists. A world in which physical appearance and money are the only significant power-categories.
Ellis’ equation of beauty with terror may strike one as capricious. It is not. In America, it is not surprising to see the televised image of a “supermodel” such as Claudia Schiffer wearing a T-shirt that reads “EVIL” or to learn that a popular fashion-designer (Von Dutch) was a Nazi. Fascism intersects with fashion at multiple points. Fashion makes raids on human consciousness no less damaging than terrorist initiatives. Both assault memory and self-perception. Both destabilize one’s sense of security and well-being. Ellis demonstrated the conjunction of terrorism and performance before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In its conflation of fashion with fascism, “Glamorama” recalls Stockhausen’s callous but nonetheless accurate remark that the terrorist assaults on the World Trade Center constituted a work of performance art. An accurate statement, insofar as Sept.11 would not have existed were it not for the spectacle of television.
There is nothing new about any of this. Indeed, fascism has traditionally used aesthetic means to take hold of the human imagination and exert its dominion over human life. Such is the meaning of the Nazi swastika on the ceiling of Victor’s New York nightclub and the Hitler epigraph at the beginning of the novel: “You make a mistake if you see what we do as merely political.” By using the epigraph and the figure of the swastika, Ellis suggests that fascism is not merely a political, but also an aesthetic movement. But the reverse is also true, according to the logic of “Glamorama”: What once appeared as merely aesthetic reveals itself as a political movement.
Victor, then, wants to escape from utopia. It is this swerve away from shallow phenomenality that leads one to believe that Ellis is not a “postmodern” novelist — that is to say, one who has resigned himself to the omnipresence of empty images. Far from it. Indeed, as a novelist, Ellis traces the limits of postmodernism. There is, “Glamorama” suggests, a space beyond postmodern culture — a culture in which image ceaselessly passes into image, in which signs have no order except for that constituted by their own formal arrangements. Ellis beckons away from the image sphere toward the space-time of consumption. In terms of the “society of the spectacle” (following Guy Debord, a philosopher to whom Ellis alludes at least once in “Glamorama”), reality exists only insofar as it is converted into an image. Ellis’ most recent novel suggests that it is still possible to engage with “the real” outside of the sphere of simulation.
French philosopher Jean Baudrillard once said of America: “This country is without hope.” In a typically American fashion, Ellis refuses to resign himself to hopelessness. He is a writer who relates to his own culture (a culture with which he also, to a certain extent, identifies) by ridiculing it mercilessly.
A satirist with a razor-sharp wit, Ellis opens up the imaginary possibility of liberating ourselves from the space in which each of us is imprisoned. But Ellis is not a politician, only a writer. He seems to have no desire for radical social change, and that is refreshing. Ellis relinquishes utopian alternatives to America’s utopianism. He merely presents American culture through the distorted speculum of his own fun-house mirror. By doing so, he ventures further than any of his contemporaries have dared.