The Book Club

Understanding the Importance of Surfaces

Dear Sarah,

Thankfully, I did like Glamorama more than you did. In fact, I liked it very much. It’s a terrifically funny, well-observed novel–Ellis’ dialogue is, as you suggest, especially strong–and far from being shallow, I think it’s also one of the deeper, stranger books I’ve read in a while. And stylistically, it’s a total tour de force.

Okay, so I liked it and you hated it. But the things that I liked about it are not necessarily the things you hated about it. Most importantly, I don’t think that Glamorama’s message is that celebrity culture is empty and dehumanizing. In the first place, the novel doesn’t have a message. It’s much more about the story it tells and the atmosphere it evokes than about any lessons it’s meant to impart. In any case, rather than simply mocking celebritydom, a lot of what Ellis does is just show us a particular world, paying close attention to the way people speak and the way they look. Much of the book is a kind of lean realism.

Now, of course the book satirizes the world it’s depicting, but the satire is mixed up with–as you say–fascination, and I think it’s a much stronger book when the fascination (or maybe just the attention) overpowers the satire. The parts of the novel I like least, in fact, are those which try to contrast the supposed emptiness of celebrity life with the imagined fullness of some other kind of life. When, near the end of the book, Victor Ward (the main character) remembers, “On the verge of tears–because I was dealing with the fact that we lived in a world where beauty was considered an accomplishment–I turned away and made a promise to myself: to be harder, to not care, to be cool,” I was not convinced.

In other words, if Glamorama really were just a book about how empty-headed and morally bereft models are, then I would happily toss it in the dustbin (or at least sell it to the Strand). But it’s not.

What I think the book is about instead–insofar as it’s about anything–is about the dependence of identity on culture, and about the illusion that who we are is ever separate from how we dress, what we eat, how we speak, and what we do. One of the book’s refrains is “We slide down the surface of things …” Inevitably, we read that as a lament. But it’s more interesting to read it as a description or even a prescription. As the result of the unhappy collision between Romanticism and Freudianism, most of us–to generalize in a ridiculous fashion–walk around thinking that who we really are has to do with the emotions rushing around in our “psyche,” with our most secret desires and needs. And we also think that the supposed uniqueness of those emotions is what makes them most valuable and us most distinctive. But the privileging of depth–in a psychological sense–over surface (which is to say, behavior) is a purely modern conceit, and one that I think Glamorama challenges.

In that sense, what Glamorama–and American Psycho, for that matter–immediately reminded me of was the passage from Portrait of a Lady where Madame Merle explains to Isabel what people are really like:

When you’ve lived as long as I you’ll see that every human being has his shell and that you must take the shell into account. By the shell I mean the whole envelope of circumstances. There’s no such thing as an isolated man or woman; we’re each of us made up of a cluster of appurtenances. What shall we call our ‘self’? Where does it begin? Where does it end? It overflows into everything that belongs to us–and then flows back again. I know a large part of myself is in the clothes I choose to wear. I’ve a great respect for things!

Isabel, of course, says “Nothing that belongs to me is any measure of me; everything’s on the contrary a limit, a barrier …” You say that Ellis is corny and kitschy. But at this point in the history of the novel–hell, at this point in history–I’d be hard-pressed to think of anything cornier or kitschier than a novel with a modern-day Isabel as its hero.

Among other things, that’s why the grouping of Ellis with Jay McInerney just seems like a mistake to me. McInerney, as Model Behavior suggests, is fundamentally a dismayed romantic in the Fitzgeraldian mode. Although he obviously loves a good party (but then who doesn’t), almost all of his books tell the same story, namely of good hearts and true love corrupted by drugs, celebrity, and fashion photographers. Now, I have a soft spot for that story (Brightness Falls, his novel about the late 1980s, is a wonderfully sweet book), but it’s one we know by heart. Ellis, by contrast, started off in the hardboiled romantic vein with Less Than Zero (in tone a cross between the noir films of the 1940s and Didion’s The White Album, and a book I love) but has gone in a very different direction since. The stories he tells are not ones we know by heart.

I hope this is fertile ground for discussion. And there’s a lot more to say about generational spokesmen and why Didion loves Ellis.