When Bret Easton Ellis visited Australia last year, antipodean readers revisited their fascination with the cult American writer and his novels, including new addition Imperial Bedrooms, American Psycho and Less than Zero. Bethanie Blanchard’s essay, ‘Notes from the Underground: Why Bret Easton Ellis Fails on Film’ appears in Kill Your Darlings Issue 4.
It is a strangely disorienting feeling – seeing, in the flesh, someone whose work you have spent four years of your life analysing and dissecting in a thesis. The weight of expectation, that curious, dizzying feeling you get whenever you see a celebrity in real life – where they look both bigger and smaller, more three-dimensional and yet still oddly unreal, as though you are viewing them through a carnival distortion mirror.
I was in America for the Imperial Bedrooms book tour, and the first of the readings was at Largo, a nightclub in LA. They screened an unnamed short film, based vaguely on the new novel, but working mostly to evoke the feel of all of Ellis’s works. It’s funny and vacuous and dark and without emotion, and narrated in a rapid-fire way that mirrors Ellis’s prose style. In one scene, they drive to Dan Tana’s – a high-end restaurant in Beverly Hills I had partied at just days before.
These were the first of the weird coincidences, the blurrings of fiction and reality so prominent in Ellis’s work, that I was to experience in my time in America. A Netherfriends lyric goes: ‘I live a Bret Easton Ellis novel’ and for three weeks it was as though I did. Throughout the city all I saw were places from the novels – Cedars Sinai, drives down Wiltshire and Sunset Boulevards, shopping at the Beverly Center, being constantly and quite literally ‘afraid to merge’ as we drove on the opposite side of the road.
And the surreality only intensified at the reading, as James Van Der Beek – ‘Sean Bateman’ from the film adaptation of The Rules of Attraction, and the short film just screened – walked on to interview Ellis. It was an oddity to be repeated at the New York reading, with Ellis interviewed by ‘Clay – actor Andrew McCarthy – from the film version of Less than Zero.
Ellis stood on stage with his glasses, and read the first five pages of his new work. He had a slow American drawl that I hadn’t expected – a calm, smooth, soothing voice that would sound odd reciting passages of violence. But Ellis didn’t read anything violent or erotic in any of the appearances I went to; instead he stuck with safely ironic metafiction. And the audience laughed along with him, hanging on his every word.
This was the first of the three times I was to see him on his book tour, on two continents and three cities – from Los Angeles to New York to Melbourne – and little changed at each appearance. All of Ellis’s novels are populated with a recurring cast of characters, and so too, it seemed, were his readings. The vacuous questions, the coolly evasive answers from Ellis, the fans in line clutching their first editions and proofs, hipsters spilling out onto Collins Street, or Union Square, or the palm-tree lined La Cienega.
And each time it was the same Ellis – coolly nonchalant, sarcastically funny and deliberately unenlightening about his work. Any question that began with a phrase such as ‘what is the significance of…’ was met always with a groan and fake snoring from Ellis. At the Barnes & Noble gig in New York a man asked about the impulse in Ellis’s novels that sees him working always within a closed circle of characters. Ellis answered simply ‘Tequila’, and when pressed said, ‘That’s a term paper. It’s a great question, and incredibly smart and all that, but I can’t answer that. Tequila was the answer.’
The readings were also consistently devoid of discussion of the new book. Indeed, by the time the Melbourne reading came along, almost two months later, Ellis had dispensed entirely with reading from the novel. There wasn’t even an image of the cover anywhere in sight, because Ellis the novelist has always been far more interesting to his audience.
In fitting style, the final questioner at Largo asked: ‘Given we’re the Facebook generation, where nothing happens unless it’s caught on camera, can we take a photo of you?’ Ellis was surprised that we had been instructed not to – Largo has a strict no pictures policy that I was sternly informed about as I went in – and said ‘Yes’. And as the soft red glow of the room suddenly burst around me into a thousand tiny explosions of light, I thought of the first sentence Ellis had read less than half an hour before: ‘They had made a movie about us.’ Of how era-defining, once again, his opening line is.
An earlier version of this piece appeared in Farrago.