I first heard of Bret Easton Ellis my sophomore year in college, when I wrote a story in which a woman’s nipples were hooked up to a car battery and my professor said, “Isn’t this a scene from American Psycho?” Months later, I skipped my Monday classes to walk in the rain, thinking it would inspire me to write the short story that was due before Thursday. Hours later I was shivering so dramatically that I ducked into the Loews theater near Union Square and used my parents’ credit card to buy a ticket to the first non-animated show, one which starred the pumpkin-headed eponymous manchild of Dawson’s Creek and the now-frighteningly-butch-but-still-curvingly-caliente ingenue from 7th Heaven. This was a time in my life when I had a hatred of all things sentimental, which meant I felt a special abhorrence for the now-deceased WB, the network that had given these stars their original icky twinkle, but the poster consisted of a chart of stuffed animals in various sexual positions and I figured there was a decent chance of nudity.
The movie, The Rules of Attraction, was about college students doing pretty much what I aspired to do every weekend (sex, drugs, a character that cryptically says “rock and roll” in response to any inquiry) in a way that was unequivocally repulsive, but, moreover, sad. In the final few minutes of the movie, each main character has an exchange that essentially goes:
weak, pathetic character: I just want to know you.
powerful but equally pathetic character: No one will ever know anyone.
Aesthetically, the movie was off the reservation—several narrators, the same scene acted out from different perspectives, sequences literally rewound on screen, and a twenty-minute monologue describing one character’s drug-addled European sex odyssey. (I think the phrase “drug-addled European sex odyssey” may actually be spoken, and by several characters.) I couldn’t say I enjoyed the movie that first time I saw it, but its moral chill stuck with me, and prompted me to buy the movie tie-in book and read it on a median bench on Broadway in one afternoon. Then I read Less Than Zero, American Psycho, The Informers, and Glamorama that same week.
Ellis was a revelation to me for several reasons: First, he was funny, a trait then and now I value above all others, and he was funny in many ways at once—absurd, crass, witty, dark, satirical, pathetic, cathartic—but never unintentionally. Second, he was unafraid to be simple and clear, his themes unencumbered by intellectual games and complex linguistic play. Third, he was deeply moral, but in a manner that respected the occasionally immoral nuance of human thought. He would simultaneously appeal to the superficial lusts of the reader—drugs, sex, designer menswear—but also show the hollowness such lusts bestow or propagate or expose. While reading, I felt satiated and condemned at the same time. Finally, most important, I saw things in his writing (down to the line, I was convinced!) that I had independently thought or written—but Ellis had thought of them first, that fucker (see: car battery attached to nipples).
Having read all the books, I read them again, and every interview or article I could find in those early days of Google. Then I tried to write like him. This continued through graduation (my thesis was essentially Glamorama among Minnesotan theater people) and the directionless pair of years that followed, and even my first semester at grad school, when I wrote a story with a character like Patrick Bateman (the impeccably dressed main character/killer from American Psycho), if Patrick Bateman were obsessively cheap instead of ostentatious, and instead of committing numerous acts of rape and murder he found a mattress on the street that gave his fiancée bedbugs. My workshop said, collectively, and not in this precise, direct language:
“You do an awfully obvious impression of Bret Easton Ellis.”
I knew it wasn’t a compliment, but that’s how I took it.
My obsession hit a fever pitch in August of 2005, when Lunar Park, Ellis’s first novel in seven years and the only one to be published during the tenure of my BEE-lust, hit shelves. Ellis’s work had always had an air of the fuck-you to it (fuck critics, fuck genre writers, fuck writers who think they’re better than genre writers, fuck yuppies, fuck the squeamish, fuck celebrities, fuck terrorism, fuck heroism, fuck college kids, fuck L.A., fuck drugs, fuck brands, fuck morality, fuck immorality, fuck punctuation, fuck plot, fuck reading, fuck meaning), but Lunar Park rotated the Ellis fuck-machine inward: fuck Bret Easton Ellis. He was his book’s own main character, a character actually named Bret Easton Ellis, and he was unquestionably pathetic: a forty-something drug-addicted writer of murky sexuality obsessed with his own fame, doomed to sabotage the illusion of domestic bliss he’d created with his actress wife and estranged prepubescent son.
The book opens with an extensive mockery of himself, fame, and authors who insert themselves in their narratives, machine-gunning the reader’s hold on reality. (Did Ellis really once introduce videos for an entire week on MTV? Is it true that he encouraged a Doberman pinscher to perform cunnilingus on an unconscious groupie? On tour, did he actually demand his hotel rooms be stocked with fresh gingerroot and three large bags of Cool Ranch Doritos?) But after a few chapters the novel morphs into a strangely sentimental horror tale, with the ghost of Ellis’s daddy, bloodthirsty children’s toys, missing boys, dismembered graduate students, paranormal investigators, and a person pretending to be Patrick Bateman all haunting Ellis simultaneously. By the end we learn that his stories have literally come to life, and Ellis’s internal monologue is subsumed by a nefarious voice known as “The Writer.”
The first stop on Ellis’s multinational Lunar Park tour was the Barnes & Noble at Union Square, the one that makes the Strand look like a bookmobile. At this period in my life I was working as a bartender at a hotel in Murray Hill. With neither experience nor breasts, I had been relegated to the day shift, which was normally awful but had the advantage of allowing me to show up to the Ellis reading two hours early and secure a second-row seat. (The first row is too exposed, nothing to separate you from the stage, and at that particular event it was reserved for industry “people.”) Our uniform at the restaurant was a near-velour black dress shirt, black slacks, and uncomfortable black nonslip loafers. As I stepped onto the escalator I realized I looked like an albino Johnny Cash. I removed my dress shirt so I was just in my undersize white undershirt stained with the morning’s Bloody Mary mix, an equally embarrassing but far less formal look. I didn’t want to appear to be dressing up for the occasion.
The reading area filled up. People sat in the aisles and stood on tiptoes behind shelves in the back. The crowd was shocking to me, not just in its diversity—everyone from teenage goth types to older quasi-gay literati to buttoned-up-but-secretly-maybe-not housewives—but in its size. I’d never seen a literary reading so packed (was Bret Easton Ellis saving literature?), and it threw me for a loop because for years I’d thought I was the only one keeping his books in print. But oddly, the fans made me uncomfortable; their honesty and obsequiousness turned my stomach. Sure, I loved Ellis, and yes, I’d waited hours to see him, but I wasn’t one of these toolsheds—I was the one who got it.
Ellis emerged and there was a standing ovation and I thought: Wow, you’re a tall, not-small human. He read from the pseudo-autobiographical (more autobiographical than pseudo-) first section of Lunar Park, getting big laughs when he called Jay McInerney the Literary Brat Pack’s Jerry Lewis. I wanted to laugh but didn’t, fearing I would look like a panderer to the insiders in the front row—many of whom were probably mentioned in the book—or, worse, to Ellis himself.
Enter Q&A. Someone asked how his relationship with the Jayster was after the book (Ellis’s response: “I’m shocked but he’s actually really, really upset with me for calling him Jerry Lewis”), and I was dying to ask the follow-up, “How about your relationship with Keanu Reeves?” (in Lunar Park, Reeves is the character-BEE’s wife’s ex), but he didn’t call on me. He pointed to a young Emo-looking British (or some other non-American but still native-English-speaking-accent) dude with feathered bangs who gave a long/rambling/stuttering/nervous/very nervous/embarrassingly nervous diatribe that put forth several theories about American Psycho and Ellis’s genius-status, where the only possible in-conclusion question could be “Would you say that’s correct?”
But Emo-Brit never got to his actual question, because the guy next to me—a twentysomething with a goatee like a shaving brush—shouted out, “Save it for your master’s thesis, bro!” and everyone except me and Bret exploded in laughter. Emo-Brit retreated sadly; they moved on to the next question.
Flash forward to book-signing. Ellis saw me, eyed the gore-like stains on my undershirt, offered an enigmatic (flirty?) smile, and said, “Were you the one who told that kid to save it for his master’s thesis?”
I wanted to say, No, I’m the one who made the hilarious joke about Keanu Reeves, but I hadn’t made it (retrospect: a good thing), so I just shook my head, tight-lipped. Goatee-guy stood behind me, sort of violating the one-body-in-front-of-table-at-a-time rule, and he said, “That was moi. I asked that. Wasn’t that person a tool?”
And Ellis, trying to be kind, or at least cautiously neutral in the way that all celebrities are, said, “I think he was just excited.”
And I, instinct taking control as he handed me back my book, cut in, “And really, who could blame him? I mean,” and I gestured toward Ellis with the book and scoffed.
Ellis looked confused. I remember his eyes literally crossing. “Right,” he said, with a slow nod. He turned to goatee-guy, who had hip-checked me away from the table.
I left the stage. I beelined through the maze of people still waiting for their moment with the Literary Brat Pack’s Sinatra. As soon as I stepped on the escalator my rant machine kicked into high gear.
What the fuck was wrong with me? Had I expected Ellis to laugh at the insult, the awkwardness, to give me a jovial punch in the shoulder? To say, This kid knows what’s what, and then take me under his wing, to secure a seven-figure book deal for my cheap clones of his work? I was a faceless fan. A fan who had waited in line to insult him. What I had been trying to do, I told myself on the escalator, was employ the same self-deprecation Ellis had used on himself in the section he’d read from Lunar Park, to poke fun at his fame.
And why had I felt the need to poke fun at his fame? To establish myself as a real individual, someone who got it, unlike these bootlicking toadies in the audience? And yet I was one of these pathetic people. I deified strangers. But because I idolized Ellis so much I needed him to know that I wasn’t like everyone else, I was cool, smart, sarcastic, I didn’t buy the hype. And I felt animosity toward Ellis because I liked him so much, because he reduced me to a sycophantic, slavering fanboy.
But was it really my fault that I felt so close to Ellis, that I felt like I knew him, personally, and wanted so badly for him to recognize and appreciate me as an insightful, unimpressed insider? Lunar Park had dragged me inside his head, his voice and biography subsuming my own for the dozen hours it took me to read the book. Ellis’s prose, in all his fiction, is designed for exactly this purpose. He yanks you along in this rabid first-person, usually present-tense rush of consciousness so intense you begin to mind-meld with his characters. By the end of American Psycho, Patrick Bateman would describe passing by a prostitute on the street and I’d think, What would a power drill do to her vagina? or, I will not let that street-whore touch my Paul Smith coat even with gloves on. Worse, after finishing one of his books these thought patterns would stay with me, infesting themselves in my life, informing my behavior. I’d say, “What’s the story?” instead of hello and realize I was aping Victor from Glamorama. At parties I’d pretend not to remember people I knew well for the rush of sick pleasure it brought, like nearly every character in Rules of Attraction. Fiction bled like an exit wound into reality, as it had for Ellis himself in Lunar Park, and the sudden comprehension of this metatextual creepiness almost made me lose my footing on the escalator. (Thankfully, I was wearing my nonslip bartending loafers.)
And what about Ellis? Was the Bret I insulted the real Bret? Or was he constructing a character for his book-signing? Was this construction deliberately meant to counteract the other Ellis constructions in his fiction, in his interviews, in his private life? Was I behaving in a more or less Ellis-like (or Ellis-like Ellis-like) fashion when I tried to become someone Ellis-like to impress Ellis? There was no end to the self-reflexive paranoia that this man, this character, had inspired in me, and for all I knew that was his entire mission. Or it wasn’t. Or it both was and wasn’t. Maybe it was my own mission, applied to a separate but similar Ellis-mission. The powerfully pathetic former child star’s trite and true line from Rules of Attraction appropriately encapsulates this mental scenario: No one will ever know anyone.