Letters, Reviews & Speeches


By Brad Fraser

When Brett Easton Ellis's first novel LESS THAN ZERO, a tale of morally bankrupt and emotionally blank young people, was released in the mid-eighties it caused something a sensation. It made Ellis a wildly successful debut novelist and gave him the difficult task of writing a follow up that would match the success of his first book. LESS THAN ZERO, when I was a morally bankrupt and emotionally blank twenty-something, spoke to me with a directness and honesty that few other novels even attempted. I was alternately moved and repulsed by this world of snuff movie watching, drug taking, sexually ambiguous characters. I could relate to them. It's still one of my favorite novels.

The second book, THE RULES OF ATTRACTION, a tale of morally bankrupt and emotionally blank twenty-somethings on campus suffered from second album syndrome. Like TRUE COLORS, Cindy Lauper's follow up to GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN, it seemed to lack focus and identity. To be truthful, I didn't even bother to finish it. It seemed like a minor exercise while everyone, including Ellis, waited for him to write the next big thing.

The next big thing was AMERICAN PSYCHO. This third novel, a violent tale of really morally bankrupt and really emotionally blank thirty-something Yuppies in New York caused an even bigger sensation than LESS THAN ZERO. The original publisher of the book withdrew their offer to print it when some at the company found themselves too faint hearted to endure this alternately hilarious and gory story concerning a serial killer living the high life in the Big Apple. When the book was finally published it was to a chorus of murderous reviews accusing Ellis of promoting misogyny and violence against women. Apparently the early nineties press, suffering from that oppressively politically correct, left wing, knee-jerk eighties hangover that has since, thankfully, been abandoned most everywhere but Toronto, was unable to recognize savage satire when they saw it.

AMERICAN PSYCHO, while badly edited and a victim of it's own need for controversy, was an entertaining read and not nearly as shocking or evil as it was painted to be. My own feeling when I reviewed that novel was that it was no more damaging or dangerous than the books of Harold Robbins or Jacqueline Susan while being imminently more interesting. Even though parts of the book were excessively and, it seemed, intentionally boring I gave the novel major points for chutzpah. The fact that AMERICAN PSYCHO still continues to insight hostility and censure, as recently evidenced by the announcement from Vancouver's Red Sky Entertainment to film a movie version of the book starring everyone's favourite teen-age heart throb Leonardo DiCaprio , the resulting outcry, and lovely Leo's hurried departure from the project, says a great deal about Ellis's appeal and power as a writer. Far better novels have been written. But few of them have created quite this sensation over an extended period of time.

I approached Ellis's new novel GLAMORAMA with high anticipation.

GLAMORAMA clocks in at a bloated 481 pages. This time Ellis has left the world of morally bankrupt and emotionally blank Yuppies for the world of morally bankrupt and emotionally blank fashion models.

The narrator is Victor Ward, a semi-successful, unbelievably shallow fashion model. Victor is our conduit into the supposedly glamorous world of the Supermodel. Through Victor we are witnesses to runway shows, club openings, late night parties and the various sexual and romantic doings of a number of beautiful characters who are just as shallow, annoying and hard to relate to as our protagonist. Not one of the characters, male or female, is in any way distinguishable from any another. They are all beautiful. They are all vacuous. They are all selfish. They are all models. The really horrible ones are models who want to become actors.

The first half of the book takes place in New York. Victor's involved in the opening of a hot club while sleeping with his boss's girlfriend. Victor's own girlfriend, the supernaturally stunning Chloe, red hot supermodel of the moment complete with past drug history and an eating disorder, is having second thoughts about her relationship with Victor. Characters are constantly searching for pictures of themselves in newspapers and magazines, as if such appearances somehow verify and validate their existence. There are endless descriptions of designer labels and goods, endless crowd scenes composed entirely of the names of famous people (Canuk superstars k.d. lang and Atom Egoyan make appearances.). Everyone takes a lot of drugs. There's some sex- most of it clinical and lifeless. Analingus (Rimming to those of us in the city. That Thing We Don't Talk About to those in the regions.) plays a large part in the flat sex sequences and manages to be about as erotic as invasive surgery on television. I've noticed a number of more mainstream writers using analingus in their sex scenes. Analingus is apparently the new fellatio. At some point in the first two hundred pages of GLAMORAMA a plot finally starts to take develop. Victor, who seems to have trouble differentiating between fantasy and reality, is offered a large sum of money to go to England and convince a girl he once dated but can't remember to return to America with him. After Victor's affair with the club owner's girlfriend is revealed by a compromising photo in a newspaper he is roughed up by the club owner's guys and dumped by Chloe. Victor decides to accept the mission to England.

What follows is a rather hazy voyage on the QE2 filled with something like intrigue, something like strange sexual encounters and a shadowy cast of characters who all seem to be from Victor's past only Victor can't seem to remember anything from his past. This leads Victor to the wild and exciting world of European Underground Model Terrorists.


Some impossibly handsome older, now retired, male model semi- seduces the hero worshipping Victor into some strange goings on. Victor, who's now in a constant drug induced stupor, discovers that behind the benign, trendy fašade of the world of fashion there is a dark underbelly. A dark underbelly where gay sons of Korean diplomats are sexually tortured to death after being delivered to his tormenters by an unsuspecting Victor. Video clips and photographs are magically transformed through computer technology implicating Victor in situations he had nothing to do with. Victor is drawn into a three-way relationship with the malevolent male model and the model's faceless model girlfriend. There's a menage a trios sequence between the three characters that involves more analingus and some penetration but still seems to read more like a description of a racy Bruce Weber magazine photo shoot than actual sex between human beings. Victor is forced to plant bombs in famous European landmarks. He thinks he's in a movie where he has a different script from everyone else.

Victor, while lacking a working brain, does manage to develop something like a conscience concerning the wanton acts of destruction he has been involved in and decides to come clean to the authorities. He does so and promptly find himself drawn into an even more complicated plot involving his senator father's Presidential aspirations.

Delusional and paranoid, Victor is reunited with his true love Chloe and given a reason to live. Unfortunately the vengeful older male model terrorist manages to poison Chloe's champagne with a concentrated dose of the abortion drug RU486. Victor is forced to hold his dying supermodel love in his strong arms as she excretes most of her internal organs, both whole and in parts, through her nether orifices.

This is all followed up with a rather uncertain ending in which Victor may or not be the son of the President of the United States. Or he may not may not be being held prisoner in Europe while a more politically savvy and, one hopes, smarter double pretends to be Victor in America.

If this all sounds ridiculous I suspect it's because it's meant to be ridiculous. There's a loopy hucksterish Movie of the Week quality to this story that has tons of potential for farce, satire and comedy. There are moments when Brett Easton Ellis, with his sometime clever song lyric quoting dialogue and fascination with the material minutiae that forms the North American class system, comes very close to brilliant satire. At his best Ellis is a sort of literary Andy Warhol, taking our garbage, our desires and the twisted things that fascinate us and reflecting them back to us in a way that causes the reader to see the image with some added understanding.

Unfortunately Ellis is so busy brilliantly reflecting our society back at us that he seems to have little time for such old fashioned elements as character growth and narrative. This novel doesn't meander, it spreads. The name dropping and cameo appearances of such near stars as Cindy Crawford and Skeet Ulrich, the numbing descriptions of every label a model is wearing, the dialogue that evolves from clever to precious and the stiff characters all start to wear thin rather rapidly. The plot goes from initially intriguing to confusing to outright stupid. After three hundred pages I began to feel like I was being had. There is no racing to a climax in GLAMORAMA. The novel simply peters out in fits and starts. After a point it becomes a series of atrocities presented without wit, comment or context. It's like being told a slightly different version of the same joke over and over again. My interest waned well before the end. I came away from the book feeling as if I'd gorged myself on a meal of equal parts meat and cake.

I do think there is a good novel in GLAMORAMA. I believe this in the same way that a sculptor once saw the faces of American presidents in Mount Rushmore. The raw materials are all there but they need a tremendous amount of shaping. Editorial input seems to have been even more limited with Ellis's fourth novel than it was with AMERICAN PSYCHO. This is unfortunate. Satirical and comic writing demand a precision and timing that are only found sporadically in GLAMORAMA. A pointed comment, barbed and razor sharp, can make a point once in a way that the reader will never forget. Brett Easton Ellis manages this occasionally but invariable follows the razor cut up with a quick, unnecessary jab of the chainsaw. A good editor would have at least restricted him to a hatchet.

Jay McInerney is the author of (among other things.) BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY, another novel by a young writer that created a stir in the eighties. It's a book I've always meant to read but, after it was made into a movie starring Michael J. Fox; I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

I don't have the familiarity with McInerney's work that I have with Ellis's. After the corpulence of GLAMORAMA I approached the idea of reading yet another novel set in the fascinating world of high fashion with the same enthusiasm I might find for a Steven Segal film festival. I needn't have worried. MODEL BEHAVIOUR was like a crisp sorbet after a too rich dinner. In this novella McInerney covers much of the same material as Ellis but in a third of the time and with twice the wit.

The narrator is Connor McKnight, a writer of hack articles for a trendy magazine with the usual guilt complex about squandering his talent for the almighty buck. Connor lives with and loves Philomena. Philomena is a world famous fashion model whom Connor met in Japan prior to her ascent to stardom. Connor loves Phil but can't commit to her because of his own feelings of inadequacy. When Philomena takes a sudden and mysterious business trip Connor is forced to confront the fact that Philomena has left him for someone else.

With this simple premise McInerney takes us into the rarified often-comic world of upper echelon New York with an emotional urgency that makes the transition effortless. We meet a fascinating cast of characters who walk a fine line between stereotype and refreshingly recognizable. There is Jeremy, Connor's best friend. Jeremy is a blonde Adonis of a man who bears no resemblance to the rest of his Jewish family. Jeremy is a militant and obnoxious vegetarian and an insecure and endearing writer. Brooke, the much beloved sister whom Connor is almost uncomfortably close to, is brilliant and anorexic. She is not anorexic because she wants to be beautiful. She's anorexic because she feels too much of the world's pain. We meet Connor's co-workers at the magazine. They're a brittle, cut throat, self obsessed lot who engage in conversations that sound like Dorothy Parker if she were a Vulcan with PMS. We encounter Connor's dysfunctional family in a hilarious restaurant scene that has Connor's fading beauty mother talk about giving her teen-age husband to be a handjob. Connor's father, offended and upset, ends up drunkenly exposing his member in a the restaurant. Each of these characters and the few secondary ones are illustrated with a firm but gentle hand. Their failings and foibles are exposed mercilessly. But their fears and hopes, the things that make them human and sympathetic are also subtly apparent.

The differences between the two writers are sometimes astonishing. Whereas Ellis will spend three pages listing celebrity's names, McInerney uses the appearance of a known personality only once or twice and always with fine effect. Ellis's main female character, if she can be called that, is a mannequin with an attitude. McInerney's Philomena is a true flesh and blood woman. She's only ever seen through Connor's eyes and almost entirely in absentia. But she is not only beautiful; she's also shy and flawed. She has smells she leaves in the apartment. She is remembered conversations that actually were conversations about people and feelings rather than designers and labels. Through Connor's memories of Phil we also learn a great deal about Connor and come to understand Philomena's exasperation with him.

There's even a sly little hint of a thriller in the book. A subplot involving an e-mail stalker comes together with Connor's ongoing search for an elusive celebrity he's committed to interviewing. The celebrity turns out to be heart-brokenly attached to Phil's disappearance. McInerney quite wisely allows the more sensational aspects of the plot to lay in the background, surfacing to advance the story only when we've become truly taken with the plights of the various characters. These many plot threads are wrapped up in an elegant and ironic package that says some very provocative things about love, relationships and betrayal.

McInerney's tantalizingly brief novel is followed up with a handful of tart short stories that serve as the perfect finish for a light literary meal. The McInerney book managed to completely cleanse the bad taste of the Ellis novel from my literary palate. No easy task when one has been forced to eat equal parts of cake and meat.