If I were to write a book review of Bret Easton Ellis’ new novel about a dumb male model, it would be a straightforward thumbs down. Glamorama is shallow, pretentious, and boring, I would say. Despite Ellis’ reputation as an exposer of uncomfortable contemporary truths, his message–that celebrity culture is empty and dehumanizing–is 1) obvious, well-trodden territory and 2) rendered here in a corny and embarrassingly literal-minded way. Ellis does write some fine-tuned prose and has a really distinctive way with dialogue, but his talent is a gnat futilely hurling itself at the window of his banal imagination. He’s Jacqueline Susann with attitude. He satirizes glamour but badly wants to be seen as cool–though even in the cool category, I think he falls short. On the basic level of insider information, Glamorama tells me not one rinky-dink thing about celebrity culture that I couldn’t glean for myself from CNN Showbiz Today.
I’m happy to report, however, that Glamorama is still well worth talking about. As I read it last week I scribbled notes on several fun and even a few weighty discussion topics that it suggested. Come to think of it, perhaps this is why Ellis has remained famous after all these years. He’s a junky writer, but a peerless excuse for punditry. I expect we’ll talk this week about the perils of becoming a generational-representative novelist, as Ellis did in the ‘80s with Less Than Zero. I also expect we’ll talk about the ‘80s themselves–from the point of view, in my case and perhaps yours too, of someone who was in college at the time and who first learned about the whole greedy-cocaine-hedonistic-yuppie ‘80s scene from excessive media hype surrounding none other than Bret Easton Ellis.
First off, though, I’d like to clarify a mistaken idea that I had about Ellis before the people at Slate kindly faxed me a stack of reviews of Glamorama. My mistaken idea was that Ellis had been written off by the literary establishment after the lopped-off breasts and vaginal mutilations of American Psycho. I vaguely recalled how Joan Didion had stood up for Ellis against attacks that he had become exploitive. Didn’t she, in a bizarre lapse of judgment, even dedicate a book to him? In any case, Didion’s defense was so fierce, and made Ellis sound so alone and abandoned, that I thought he must have fallen off the literary radar, become one of those scapegoats that pious critics like to kick around from time to time. It made me feel sorry for him, and inclined to defend him.
Well, I needn’t have worried. Knopf hauled out its big guns to support this book; instead of the usual author blurbs there are letters from the well-known editors Sonny Mehta and Gary Fisketjohn asking us to put aside our prejudices and see this novel as a major, meaningful work of art. And with two major exceptions, this plea has paid off. Critic after critic in the New Yorker and Time and the Village Voice seemed to dislike a lot of things in Glamorama, but at the same time to grant Ellis a kind of muddled genius, and to accept the romantic challenge of defending Ellis against a perceived critical backlash. The result is that there hasn’t been that much of a critical backlash to speak of. The exceptions, and I admit they’re major, are Michiko Kakutani in the Times and Carolyn See in the Washington Post, both of whom wrote virulent, mystified pans.
I don’t think it’s coincidental that the panners are women. I think it’s possible that women are a little more awake than men to the kind of masculine kitsch that runs through Ellis’ book. (Joan Didion is a woman, it’s true, and a brilliant one at that. But her biggest weakness is an indulgence of the melancholy and misunderstood male-genius myth, visible in her treatment of everyone from Henry Adams to Hemingway to Jerry Brown.)
Obviously what other critics think doesn’t matter so much; we’ll have to base our discussion this week on our own reading. I only want to point out the general subtext of kid-glove gallantry in the way this book has been received. For the sake of lively discussion, I hope you liked Glamorama more than I did. Just know that if you defend it, you will hardly be alone.