Naomi Mandel, ed., Bret Easton Ellis: American Psycho, Glamorama, Lunar Park.

Posted by Neil McRobert on January 19, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , , , , , , ,

Review: Naomi Mandel, ed., Bret Easton Ellis: American Psycho, Glamorama, Lunar Park. Contiunuum, 2011. ISBN-10: 0826435629. ISBN-13: 978-0826435620

Reviewed by Neil McRobert, University of Stirling

This collection of essays provides a long overdue critical examination of perhaps the most divisive contributor to contemporary literature. Bret Easton Ellis, enfant terrible of the postmodern novel, beacon of the so-called ‘blank generation,’ and controversial author of American Psycho, has only recently begun to garner serious critical attention. As several of the contributors to the collection suggest, previous discussion of Ellis’s fiction has been overwhelmingly focused on the controversy it provokes rather than the content and meaning of the work itself. Naomi Mandel has drawn together a collection of essays which (largely) eschew the tone of outrage or besieged free-speech which has obscured much of the previous critical response to Ellis’s fiction. Mandel asserts in the introduction that the collection is “less interested in determining whether Ellis’s books are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ than in uncovering what these novels, and the debates they occasion, can tell us about such issues as artistic merit, social commentary, publicity, the media, and Ellis himself”(3). Each of the contributors adheres to this remit.

The structure of the book is logical. Concentrating on Ellis’s ‘mature’ fiction, it is broken down into three sections, each dealing with one of the novels outlined in the title and each comprising three essays. Mandel’s introduction summarises Ellis’s earlier work (Less Than Zero and The Rules of Attraction) and offers a brief overview of the salient aspects of his oeuvre such as the use of intertextuality, branding, and the increasing self-reflexivity of his fiction. The introduction also contains an appropriately concise discussion of the American Psycho controversy which frees the subsequent essays for a more insightful examination of the novel on its own terms. Mandel establishes a position that persists throughout the collection: that any study of Ellis’s work is indivisible from an appreciation of its societal context. Each of the following essays, whilst approaching the author from a range of subject positions, are consonant in perceiving Ellis as an author very much of his time.

Fittingly, the essays themselves begin with American Psycho. Alternatively regarded as the apex or nadir of Ellis’s career, it is unarguable that the novel remains his most iconic. Michael P. Clark attempts to reinvigorate the aesthetic debate surrounding whether or not American Psycho can be considered ‘art’ by examining its relationship to the changing concept of decorum. Mapping the notion of decorum, particularly as it applies to the enactment of violence on the stage, Clark argues that Ellis maintains artistic integrity by toying with the limits of representation. Using Dryden’s theory of decorum, Clark suggests that violence enacted in front of an audience will result in a moral response and an emotional disconnect. Hearing a verbal description of the same act will, however, engender a social bond between audience and narrator. According to Clark, it is the latter that both Ellis and Patrick Bateman attempt in American Psycho.

Alex E. Blazer, in ‘American Psycho, Hamlet, and Existential Psychosis,’ examines the role of the absent father throughout Ellis’s fiction. More commonly associated with Lunar Park, Hamlet does nonetheless provide a useful allegory for the oedipal issues at play in Patrick Bateman’s narrative. Blazer interprets the novel in both Freudian and Lacanian terms and concludes that Patrick’s absent father has been replaced by the ‘all meaningful god’ of fashion (47) which, when revealed as an empty signifier, results in Patrick’s recourse to sadistic violence as an empowering, stable structure. Blazer’s essay is a useful companion piece to Henrik Skov Nielsen’s later comparison of Ellis, Shakespeare and their protagonists. Most interesting, however, is Blazer’s suggestion that Ellis’s fiction is not so much concerned with different protagonists as with the same character at a different stage of life. Such an argument is compelling. However, as Blazer himself acknowledges, such a monological structure limits the possibility of the psychoanalytical approach that he attempts. Furthermore, the majority of clues as to Patrick’s relationship with his father are derived from The Rules of Attraction. In an intertextual world such as Ellis’s, where characters are depthless and signifiers lose all meaning, is it reasonable to use the Bateman Sr. of one novel to inform the reading of another?

Elana Gomel concludes the section on American Psycho with the most interesting essay of the three. Gomel’s essay is a well-structured piece suggesting that the novel is actually an anti-serial killer narrative in which fashion is more important than murder. In a move away from conventional readings of the text, Gomel suggests that fashion/brands function not as Baudrillardean simulacrum but are actually the novels only instance of the Real. Clothes, and the rules that govern them, are an obsession for Patrick because they provide the only stability in his otherwise disintegrating personality. Rather than fashion it is murder that has become the simulacrum. The essay concludes with an alternative reading of Patrick as a sympathetic character. In an apathetic world, he is the only character who apportions any significance to whether or not a murder has actually been committed. Gomel’s interpretation is especially interesting as it manages to add a new dimension to the debate over whether the violence in the novel actually occurs. For Gomel it is not the truth of the narrative that is significant, it is the extent to which the characters do not care about the truth.

The section on Glamorama is perhaps the weakest of the three insomuch as the essays, whilst themselves insightful, are too similar in their focus on the novel’s preoccupation with celebrity and the media. It could be argued that Glamorama is so single-minded a text that to avoid these themes is impossible. However, the repeated emphasis on the media’s influence on reality would have been well complimented by a contrasting point of view. Also, each of the essays relates the violence and terrorism in Glamorama to the events of September 11th, 2001 which will only occur three years after the publication of the novel. Ellis’s prescience is noteworthy but somewhat overstated. The most convincing association of Glamorama and 9/11 is performed by Sonia Bella-Allué who sees the novel as an enactment of Jean Baudrillard’s statement that “the media are part of the event, they are part of the terror, and they work in both directions” (Spirit of Terrorism 31).

Bella-Allué addresses the use of intermediality in the novel. She examines how the narratives progresses from an enactment of Guy Debord’s ‘society of the spectacle’ towards a Baudrillardean ‘virtuality,’ and how Victor’s narrative control disintegrates in the process. Intermediality, she argues, aids the disappearance of the Real in Glamorama. Finally, in the essays most innovative contribution, she discusses Victor’s transference into cyber-space as an online presence. Comparing Victor’s online existence with Bret Easton Ellis’s own difficulties in establishing an online ‘reality’ suggests that the virtuality posited in Glamorama may well have come to pass in the phenomenon of social networking. This avenue of query leaves scope for further study into an element of the novel’s prescience that seems more rewarding than any attempt to link Glamorama with 9/11.

Both David Schmid and Arthur Redding approach Glamorama as a political novel, though both make a case that it is the absence of any overt political message that paradoxically promotes its real political agenda. Schmid attempts to liberate the novel from the repetitive application of the usual postmodern theory (Baudrillard, Jameson, Debord) by introducing the ‘unusual suspects’: Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou. The essay focuses on the representation of violence in Glamorama; a violence that Žižek regards as divisible into objective and subjective violence, subjective being visible, performative violence and objective the violence that occurs in the everyday functioning of systems of power. Schmid relates the unrepresentability of objective violence to Badiou’s conception of the Passion for the Real. These two theorists are thus linked by Ellis’s use of the conspiracy narrative as both concerned with objective violence and simultaneously working to defer the resolution of the Real.

Arthur Redding’s essay examines the novel’s ‘celebrity politics’ and argues that the political message is one of political disconnection. Whereas most criticism of American Psycho – and the novel itself – was concerned with narrative reliability, Redding argues that Glamorama is about the irrelevance of truth. As such Redding’s essay echoes Elana Gomel’s. Both approach the protagonists of their respective material as sympathetic characters attempting to make connections in a disconnected, apathetic world. Redding’s article is a useful comparison of the politics at work in Glamorama with those operating in American Psycho. His scholarly tone is somewhat undermined, however, by the repeated adoption of Ellis’s own rhetorical tone. When discussing Glamorama’s refrain, “we’ll slide down the surface of things,” he offers the metaphor of Victor as “a hunk of shit sliding down the wall.” (109). Such phrasing is jarring and ill-suited to the critical tone of his essay.

The collection culminates with three essays focusing on Lunar Park. As the most recent of Ellis’s novels (at the time of publication) Lunar Park has so far accrued little critical attention. Slightly disappointingly, the three essays included all focus on the question of reality in the novel. The issue is obviously crucial to the novel but Lunar Park is such a complex work that there other are elements to be considered. Nonetheless, the essays do offer contrasting interpretations of Ellis’s mockubiography.

Jeff Karnicky considers the ‘truth’ of Lunar Park in relation to Derrida’s notion of testimony. He provides an overview of the, often confused, critical response to the novel and concludes that most critics “assume a strong connection between the content of Lunar Park and the world outside the novel.” (120). Karnicky’s opinion is more nuanced, suggesting that it is possible to read Lunar Park without the need to ascertain any degree of truth. The essay is a very useful introduction to the complexity of Ellis’s novel. In particular he addresses the numerous iterations of Ellis within the novel (as author, protagonist, narrator etc). His discussion of the crucial first line of the novel does seems slightly confused, however. He fails to mention that the repetition of this first line in the second chapter offers the possibility of the first chapter being paratextual rather than part of the novel; a possibility with significant consequences for any metafictional reading of the text.

Henrik Skov Nielsen appropriates the photographic terminology of double-exposure to denote the superimposition of different narratives. With fiction superimposed on non fiction and character superimposed onto the author, Lunar Park uses the technique at several levels. Nielsen then also remarks upon the intentional allusions to Hamlet throughout the novel and poses a multiplicity of connections between the two texts and between their authors ‘real’ lives. Nielsen’s insights are refreshingly original and his review of the author’s manipulation of his own celebrity is appropriate to a novel concerned with the conscious construction of identity.

The theme of celebrity status is resumed in the closing essay. James Annesley explores the metafictional aspects of Lunar Park in relation to Ellis’s awareness of his own ‘brand.’ The essay is an apt conclusion to a chronological survey as it demonstrates how the increasing self-reflexivity of Ellis’s work has terminated in his self-application of satirical impulse and media awareness. This literary development can be summarised by Annesley’s observation that “Lunar Park shows Ellis recognising that his own name has become a brand and circulates alongside other commodities in his text.”

Mandel’s collection fills a glaring lacuna in contemporary criticism. Ellis’s work deserves a book-length study and this collection largely succeeds in providing sober discussion that is necessarily contextual but free of the hysteria occasioned by the extremity of the source material. Each of the sections would have benefited from a greater variety of critical approaches. Ellis’s texts have a single-mindedness that enforces the acknowledgement of core elements, but in places the essays are too accordant. The collection still remains an excellent introduction to Ellis’s work of the last two decades, with useful suggestions for further reading on Ellis and his ‘blank generation’ peers. Mandel’s effort will hopefully inspire future work to widen the critical perspective on the author.

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