The Reagan Eighties is remembered by most as a period of sterile politics and drug addiction, an era that ushered in an emphasis on anonymity and conservatism with Alex P. Keaton and threw away the taint of punk with the rise of commercial interests. It is in this dystopian world where Bret Easton Ellis served as a power play figure, uncovering the notorious drug-addled antics of America’s high-society underbelly.
Ellis, a California native, was born in 1964 to a wealthy family and an emotionally abusive father. After graduating high school, he settled into Vermont’s Bennington College, where he met the future literary Brat Pack and channeled his bleak formative years into writing a novel. The product became the bestseller Less Than Zero (1985), an unflattering portrait of the exploits of soulless West Coast youth. After chronicling similar subject matter with The Rules of Attraction, a shift occurred with the 1991 publication of American Psycho, a chilling thriller-satire about yuppie-gone-psychopath Patrick Bateman that is considered to be the author’s best and most controversial novel. Since then, Ellis has published four other novels, most recently Imperial Bedrooms, the long-awaited sequel to Less Than Zero and an attempt to return to his original form.
Despite lackluster film adaptations and a few literary bombs, the majority of Bret Easton Ellis’ novels are new classics. Clay Easton, the protagonist of Zero, hardly carries an arrogant observer’s bias, as he engages in the same outlandish behavior as his colleagues. Patrick Bateman proves similar, as he constantly clings to his world of antiseptic pop music and business personae despite his growing addiction to murder. It is this element in particular that paradoxically makes Ellis’ characters both flawed and artificial – traits that most real human beings can also simultaneously illustrate. With ethically inept eyes, the characters in his earlier novels showcase a general state of being that seems almost disturbingly commonplace in the context of 1980s America.
Of his novels, Ellis has disclosed on several occasions that he wants his characters to be unlikeable. “No one is drawn to writing about being happy or feelings of joy,” he commented in a recent interview with AskMen.com. “Each book comes from a place. A place of pain or confusion, or stress, or other things going on.” For those who have read his work, it’s hard to miss this aspect, as the author’s struggle is documented through a Plath-like vagueness of autobiographical fiction that only adds to the humanity of his characters, who have also reflected the growth Ellis has experienced throughout his life. “Every narrator I write gets older, they age with me.”
With Bret Easton Ellis, the reader is satisfied with the perfect concoction of thriller, drama and complexity, as his characters serve as satirical icons for the societies of then and now. As for his characters being deemed unlikeable or despised, maybe it is merely the perfect illustration of falling through the looking glass.