“Bret Easton Ellis: It’s Actually Shakespeare”
In The Era of Suspicion, published in 1950, Nathalie Sarraute thinks she can predict the evolution of the novel: a world where no one will be able to rely on anyone else, where the reader will stop taking the narrator seriously and where characters will dissolve slowly but surely into a kind of impressionistic soup. No one will know “who is speaking.” And certainly no one will care whether “The Marchioness went out at five” or at six.
In France, this tendency has a name: the Nouveau Roman. Still, it can’t be said that Butor and Robbe-Grillet begat many descendants (unlike Duras, unfortunately), nor that Paul Valéry’s comment about the Marchioness, as quoted by Breton, ever really sank in. What Chloé Delaume calls “the good-little-story-novel” mostly continued to be written. Of course, the experimental novel exists, to the tune of a prize here, a few thousand copies there; but what really sells, always and forever, is the ultra-canonical form of the realist 19th century novel, with its good old narrator–hello, hello, kind narrator--who takes the reader by the hand, like a favorite teddy bear.
A BROKEN “CONTRACT”
And then there’s Bret Easton Ellis, whose books are bestsellers from here to the moon; glamorous symbol of American literature; absolute must-reads that should (choose one): depress, repulse, or exhaust us. Stories about serial killers, brain-dead models, coked-up students; name-dropping to the gills; hype to the point of nausea–no thanks. Except that what is in play in BEE’s novels is a thousand leagues from the complaisant social satire (although no doubt it exists) we think we recognize.
He’s compared to Jay McInerney, to Houellebecq, to novelists who have an undeniable gift for capturing the spirit of the times, but in such classical literary terms that we already know they won’t leave their mark on literary history. Bret Easton Ellis is different. Like everything new, he’s a synthesis: it’s the Nouveau Roman + Dexter. Cervantes + 24. Pirandello + Kubrick. It’s the era of suspicion in Hollywood.
The standard contract between novelist and reader has a name, borrowed from Coleridge’s formula: “the suspension of disbelief.” Although he knows that what he’s reading is fictional, the reader accepts, for the time being, to believe that what the novel recounts is real. He trusts what he is told within the fiction. If he’s told that the hero likes to go to bed early or that he was at Waterloo or that he likes his martinis shaken, not stirred, he believes it. But BEE, precisely, does not honor the contract: in his novels, there’s always a moment when the story breaks down.
His aesthetic can’t be reduced to serial-killer-chic or filthy-rich-young-druggie (those are merely motifs). Instead its singularity is located in a process we might call, a little heavy-handedly, “insecurity-making in fiction.” This can be either a slow process of decomposition or furtive indications slipped into the text, but for him the basic rule remains the same: take nothing at face value because the text is a trap and the narrator is unreliable. All terms are built on quicksand.
WHO TELLS THE TRUTH?
When Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of American Psycho, holds forth at length on the Gulf War only to confuse it with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; claims that America was discovered in 1590; and, upon meeting Tom Cruise in an elevator, compliments his performance in a movie that doesn’t exist, we’re set up to believe that the narrator speaks nonsense, including, perhaps, when he’s recounting his murders. What’s more, when he returns to the scene of one of his crimes, he is surprised to find that “No one had heard anything about it.” In Glamorama, those in Victor Ward’s entourage constantly maintain that he was seen in places where he was not, with photographs to back their claims. Lunar Park starts out like an autobiography: books, glory, drugs, domestic problems between author and wife in their suburban home–and then progressively turns into a thriller à la Stephen King. At the end, the author’s son’s teddy bear (BEE doesn’t have a son) tries to kill him. His wife leaves him–but he never had a wife. Imperial Bedrooms opens with a brilliant mise en abyme: twenty years later, the protagonist of Less Than Zero attends a screening of the film adaptation of his story, and, of course, does not recognize himself. Bad faith on the part of the narrator? Betrayal of the movie? But was the novel itself anything more than an artifact? In Laws of Attraction, each episode is recounted by several characters and no one recounts the same story. Who tells the truth? No one. The truth is a deception. His novels are machines for dissolving reality. A subliminal message circulates incessantly from one novel to the next: “Disappear. Here.”
“EXPLANATIONS ARE BORING, RIGHT?”
Obviously, we don’t owe the discovery that reality is questionable, subjective, and unstable to Bret Easton Ellis. But BEE’s genius is to make of this instability a dramatic motor of incomparable efficacy. In American Psycho, all the yuppies look alike and merge in their designer suits. Which is precisely why Patrick Bateman can elude the police: when the noose tightens and he’s about to take the fall for the murder of a colleague, miraculously, the colleague is seen in London, alive. Mistaken for someone else? Perhaps.
The reader who hurries through Glamorama may never know why Victor Ward is regularly seen where he is not: in a cryptic dialogue, two characters lead us to understand that they were hired by his father to play the roles of Victor and his girlfriend. For what purpose? We have our theories but we remain in the dark. Nothing is made explicit.
And there’s the key. In Lunar Park, the “writer” comes clean: “…(but there could never be any explanations because explanations are boring, right?).” Doubly true: on an existential level, any attempt at explanation is pathetic, because it seeks to give meaning to a life that has none. On a fictional level, it ruins the charm. It’s always a little disappointing when the enigma unravels at the end of the intrigue, because we like mystery. Best then to supply a few imperfect explanations, to leave some areas in shadow. Nausea + Lost. As Stendhal used to say, the novel is “a mirror traveling down the road”; only deformed by drugs, swollen with steroids, stuffed with Xanax.
Life is a dream, the vocation of the novel is to restore this baroque truth, and BEE is the best player at this game, because it’s actually Shakespeare–“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
“Glossary of Literary Received Ideas”
Angot, Christine: in serious decline since Incest.
Apostrophes: mythical talk show, featuring drunk writers.
Autobiography: a kind of novel.
Autofiction: a French malady.
Beigbeder, Frédéric: sub-Bret Easton Ellis.
Book: the writer’s baby. Once published, the book no longer belongs to him. It goes and lives its life. Like children. One day, you have to let them go.
Book Fair (Paris): too many people. (“There were too many people, I didn’t sign anything.”)
Book Fair (Provinces): not enough people. (“Nobody was there, I didn’t sign anything.”)
Breton, André: Pope of Surrealism.
Céline: greatest French writer. Don’t confuse the man with the oeuvre.
Chance: doesn’t exist. (“As if by chance (but I don’t believe in chance)…”)
Characters: live their own lives.
Closerie des Lilas, La: Kundera still comes by from time to time.
Collection Blanche (Gallimard’s): “the place to be.”
Cremisi, Teresa: see “N’Diaye, Marie.”
Critic: Anyone can pretend to be a critic on the internet. If a critic displeases you, accuse him of being a failure as a writer or an anti-Semite.
Darrieussecq, Marie: nice. See “Laurens, Camille.”
Death of the author: invoke from time to time, just in case. But not too often.
Debord, Guy: see “Death of the author.”
Doubrovsky, Serge: Pope of Autofiction.
Drieu la Rochelle: Drieu la Rochelle: very chic in A-levels.
Duras, Marguerite: ex-greatest living French writer.
Fiction: superior to reality.
Flaubert: reread his letters.
Gallimard: missed Proust. Missed the turn, with Camus.
He (She): personal pronoun (third person singular). Use as often as possible to indicate that literature is in the making. See “Period.”
(“He knows tons of Rastas in the Caribbean, he’s totally into the music. He goes from one island to another. He produces records, he holds concerts. He doesn’t think of Helen, whom he just met in a hotel. He spends his time in the studio. He records, he rehearses, he writes songs. He makes a living this way.” Christine Angot, The Little Ones.)
History: “One can rape History as long as one produces beautiful children” (attributed to Alexander Dumas). Quote this sentence at least once a year.
Houellebecq: greatest living French writer. Sulfurous.
(“After breakfast they walked down past the pyramid. The pond was deserted. They lay down in the sunny meadow. Christiane slipped off his shorts and began to masturbate him.” Elementary Particles, trans. Frank Wynne.)
Ireland: land of contrasts.
Je (I): always another.
Jeu (Play): always with language.
Killer: Words can kill. The writer is a killer.
Kindly Ones, The: first 21st century French novel. Helps one comprehend Evil.
Kundera: prefer his Czech period.
Language: see “Sentence.” (“Language is the only part of my work I try to do well.” Philippe Dijan.)
Laurens, Camille: not nice. See “Darrieussecq, Marie.“
Lautréamont: always say “Isidore Ducasse.”
Le Clézio, Jean-Marie Gustave: overvalued Nobel Prize.
Littell, Jonathan: Tolstoy + Grossman + Aeschylus.
Literature: seal of approval (“Marc Levy is not literature”).
Literature, French: navel-gazing.
Luchini: opinion leader.
Madame Bovary: greatest French novel. Torrid. Reread once a year.
Manuscript: sent by snail mail.
Mass market paperback: if your name is Julien Gracq, be against them.
Map and the Territory, The: finally, an interesting thought about contemporary art!
(“‘At this moment, my value is going up a little, not too quickly. In my view, nine hundred thousand euros.’
‘What?… What did you say?’ he had almost screamed.
‘Nine hundred thousand euros.’
Jasselin fell back onto the sofa and remained motionless, prostrate, mumbling incomprehensible words from time to time.
‘Have I helped you?’ Jed asked hesitantly.
‘The case is solved.'” Trans. Gavin Bowd.)
Montana: club for the Prix de Flore afterparty. (“I’m so fucking sick of Montana, let’s go to Castel.” Frédéric Beigbeder.)
Muray, Philippe: rediscovered, finally!
N’Diaye, Marie: powerful woman.
Narrator: “strangely” resembles the author but must not confuse the two.
Novel: any story. Examples of certified novels: André Breton’s Nadja, Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man, Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Disappeared, Claude Arnaud’s What Did You Do with Your Brothers, Yasmina Reza’s Dawn, Dusk or Night.
Ormesson, Jean d’: has laughing eyes.
Paper: appreciate the odor of.
Pernaut, Jean-Pierre: rediscovered, finally!
Period (one): punctuation mark. Use as much as possible to indicate that literature is in the making.
(“To write. I can’t. No one can. We have to admit: we cannot. And yet we write.” Marguerite Duras, Writing, trans. Mark Polizzotti.)
Periods (three): ellipsis. Archaic variant of the period.
(“I shall come back to Flora… Fantastic ‘temperament’… Given to fantasies too… Bit of a medium… Inspired… Genuine… False… Frightful… Charming… But there are other actors I have to bring on… Other performers of both sexes… Starting with myself… I suppose I’d better tell you a bit of my life history…” Philippe Sollers, Women, trans. Barbara Bray.)
P.O.L.: demanding publisher. Discovered Marie Darrieussecq.
Princess of Clèves: first anti-Sarkozy novel.
Prix de Flore awards ceremony: see “Collection Blanche, The.”
Proust: see Céline, minus the restriction. (“This summer, I reread Remembrance.” Always say: “Remembrance.“)
Question: the writer has no answers, he only has questions.
Racine: better than Corneille.
Reality: doesn’t exist.
Real: always vulgar.
Rimbaud: better than Verlaine.
Roberts, Jean-Marc: took all the risks. Published Justine Lévy.
Saint-Germain des prés: in Saint-Germain, you’re never more than ten feet away from a writer.
Salammbô: boring. Too many descriptions. Too perfect. Good first sentence.
Sentence: see “Style.” (“The problem is the sentence.” Dijan.)
Skip a line: (optional) reinforces the effect of the period (see “Period”).
No one can.
We have to admit: we cannot.
And yet we write.”)
Sollers, Philippe: specialist in women. (“Now that he [DSK] will have time to read and listen to music, I’m going to send him my novel Women, which will teach him many things…”)
Style: is everything. Gargle with it as much as possible.
Stylist: title given to certain writers according to varied criteria. (“Let’s admit it, Dijan is a stylist, whether you like him or not.”)
Universe: you have one or you don’t.
Vampire: the novelist is a vampire, he sucks people’s lives. (variant: cannibal. The novelist is a cannibal of the human soul.)
Voice: see “Universe.”
Wikipedia: don’t forget to thank.
Words: Words make love. The writer caresses words.
Write: preferably in the morning or in the evening.
Writer: has all the rights.
X: “After all, it’s the only thing that’s of interest, the details of the life of X or Z…” (Sollers, Women).
Yasmina: epicene name. Don’t confuse Yasmina Reza and Yasmina Khadra.
Zeller, Florian: friend of Carla Bruni. Blond.