Saturday, 13 April 2019

Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis

Broadsheet litcrits consider Glamorama among the blackest of Bret Easton Ellis's sheep. It's over long, it's repetitive, it goes nowhere, it's needlessly graphic, and dwells too hard on the superficiality of consumer culture like so many novels have done. For a novel heavily and self-consciously laden with mid-late 90s fashionistas, getting panned as unoriginal and derivative upon publication is pain indeed. Yet this is to miss a trick. Glamorama is a novel of its time, like all novels are, and was absolutely tethered to the contemporary zeitgeist.

The 'critique of consumerism' argument is as lazy and a superficial a take as the culture Ellis sends up. What species of criticism is this? Of the shopping sucks killjoy-leftydom variety? Or a wearisome conservative worry about materialism (in the conventional, bourgeois sense) displacing real meaning and connection? This is why, read in their context, Ellis's novels are so compelling. They eschew the earnest and the trite, and instead inhabit the spectacle of trinkets, branding and celebrity. Less a panorama of all that glitters and more a, ahem, glamorama. Ellis's (often clueless) characters inhabit a dimension of artifice, of lives consumed by the pursuit of fripperies, the casual encounter, and the endlessly (tediously) novel. In American Psycho yuppie anti-hero Patrick Bateman embodies the psychopathology of consumerist narcissism, the laughs mostly located in his disinterested connoisseurship of stuff. Thanks to Christian Bale's portrayal of Bateman, in one of the best remembered scenes he is anything but disinterested when his business card is trumped in the style and cost stakes by one of his fellow executives. But the novel is full of observations on brands and style, of women's body types, and sharp, sensitive career overviews of Phil Collins, Whitney Houston, and Huey Lewis and the News.

Glamorama's Victor Ward (AKA Victor Johnson, a bit-parter in 1987's The Rules of Attraction) is not dissimilar to Bateman. Whereas he has a cunning, semi-detached-but-appreciative relationship to the artifice surrounding him, Ward is totally immersed in this universe with barely a hint of self-understanding. Whereas it was all about the brands for Bateman, for Ward, as an upcoming supermodel, he goes where the celebrities go. The book opens with Ward planning a big club opening, and on the guest list is virtually every hot New York glam scene celeb from the mid 90s - pop and rock , fashion and film, the novel begins as it means to go on. As Ward takes a trip later on to Paris and London celebs keep popping up, including then-in Britpop bands that never really troubled American markets. And over to Paris an impressive roster of French celebs crop up. In fact, apart from a stint on the QE2 mid-novel, celebrities are everywhere Ward goes. Even later on when he becomes embroiled in terror plots to blow up Parisian hotels and cafes, we usually find celebs somewhere picking their ways through the carnage and rubble. Though, it has to be noted, no celebrities are harmed during the course of the narrative.

Like American Psycho, the tone grows darker as Glamorama wears on. Here, inconsequential razzmatazz is traded in for relationship breakdown and international terrorism. Ward is pressed into a cell of fellow supermodels and, against his better judgement, becomes complicit in the execution of a number of gratuitously described atrocities, and a party to a handful of murders. Why supermodels? Because celebrity gives them the best cover. As we now know in real life thanks to the exposure of several sexual predators and paedophiles on both sides of the Atlantic, hiding in plain sight is the best way of avoiding suspicion (interestingly, a certain Harvey Weinstein never makes Ellis's tally of the silverscreen notables who flit hither and thither across Glamorama's pages). Ward eventually tries to extricate himself from his predicament, but is hampered by the fact a doppelgänger has assumed his place back home in New York and is making a good fist of turning his scandal-addled life around.

Like Patrick Bateman, Victor Ward is an unreliable narrator. Bateman descends into madness and we're led to question whether he's a serial killer at all. Though he does have a cameo in Glamorama, and Ward notes weird stains on Bateman's collar. Ward undergoes a similar breakdown which invites a barrel load of side eye questioning. About a third of the way through a camera crew appears from nowhere as if they've always been in the background. As the intrigue, double-dealing and questions of motive are raised, so other camera crews appear filming other leading characters, talking over film scripts, discussing what's about to happen, and Ward and other characters getting freaked out and reacting when things start happening that aren't in any of the scripts. There's also questions about the terror attacks. The first, in London, is actually part of a film production with dummies, papier-mâché body parts and all the rest of it. After this, they are for real, or at least present themselves as such. People are vaporised, crushed by falling masonry, blown through windows, burned, dismembered, every kind of death is detailed and afflicted on passers-by. The purpose, however, is absent. Is it done for the benefit of one of the film crews, who are always on scene? The whys and wherefores, the cause is always up in the air. Is it to replace Ward with someone less embarrassing as his father, a US senator, contemplates a run at the White House? Do they actually happen at all? In the end, it doesn't matter. A downward spiral of despair and, when the cameras stop rolling, rejection and discard alls upon Ward as everything is lost. His character literally breaks apart with a flash back, a visit to the reformed character Ward's double is carrying off, and a moody contemplation of his future without the life he used to lead. Were the bombings, the murders, the fights, the doppelgänger, and the camera crews eruptions of delusion into a life without a real sense of self, effortlessly passing through a celebrity system lacking any centre apart from the craving of attention? It sounds like Ward's rocky road and miserably uncertain future is a narcissistic projection of someone who is noticed and addicted to getting noticed, even if that means leaving a bloody trail of bodies and atrocities.

And yes, the violence. As per American Psycho, when it happens it is gratuitous. Detailed descriptions of the torture and murder of people. Detailed descriptions of people blown apart. Detailed descriptions of the last moments of passengers on a jet blown apart in mid-air. Detailed and pornographic descriptions of sex, oral sex, and MMF sex. Detailed descriptions of interiors, fashions, and the ever-present celebrity cameos. Gratuity and excess is the hallmark of all Ellis's novels - something his mainstream critics don't really pick up. It's ceaseless and relentless, the repetition mimicking our over-stimulating consumer cultures and attention economies. Ellis seizes the pile-on and pushing them to absurd degrees. His characters are vain-but-empty vessels because they are carriers of these logics, a parodic collapse of use and exchange value whose lives are nothing but the means by which the accumulation of a particularly stunted symbolic and social capital is expressed. This is a world of objects, and Ward (like Bateman) is an object of objects.

If this sounds a bit Baudrillardian, it is - if the number of learned journal articles using Baudrillard as a way into Ellis's work are anything to go by. By pushing these logics to their ends, Glamorama, like American Psycho, are fruits not of a critical but of a fatal strategy. Agency is surrendered to the (commodity) flows of objects, the characters are buffeted along, and what we are left with is a novel of comic absurdity. It satirises consumerism through its affirmation, of taking vicarious pleasure from rubbing shoulders with luxury brands and exclusive people, not its denial. Therefore to be appreciated, the reader needs to be carried along the same fatal trajectories as Ellis's characters. Like life, the destination is always uncertain and is probably a let down, the journey dark, dangerous and repetitive, but there are always a few laughs and fleeting enjoyments to be had along the way.

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