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Ellis Island

Photo by Ian GittlerI’ve been spotted. “I knew it was you,” Bret Easton Ellis says shortly after taking a seat at Cafe Loup, a deserted restaurant in downtown Manhattan, at lunchtime. “I said, ‘Who’s that guy I’m starting to follow? I bet you it’s him.’ ” Then Ellis, the noted novelist (Less Than Zero, American Psycho, Glamorama) and painstaking observer of a certain modish slice of contemporary American upper-class life, describes exactly how he caught sight of me walking toward our assignation along West 13th Street. He is charitable enough not to say why he decided, out of all the dozens of people strolling along that particular slab of Manhattan real estate, I was the one who would shortly be interviewing him about his new novel, Lunar Park.There is something slightly unnerving about knowing you’ve just been followed by the creator of Patrick Bateman, the murderous yuppie antihero of American Psycho, who in the course of a feverish 400-page narrative murders exactly seven men and seven women, often in the most grisly ways imaginable. But Ellis is just kidding around, which he likes to do. Fortunately, he doesn’t remind me of Bateman at all. On the other hand, he does call to mind another memorable fictional psychopath, Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, who himself knocked off quite a few people in his time. In the movies, it’s a role that’s been played by everyone from Alain Delon to Matt Damon to Dennis Hopper to John Malkovich. But the fact is, Bret Easton Ellis would make a great Tom Ripley. There is something distinctly chameleonic about him, as well as authoritative and extremely self-confident. You can imagine him not only calmly disposing of a body, but lying fluently to the police about it afterward.“I’ll have an ice tea,” Ellis tells the waitress when she asks us if we’d like anything to drink. We’re the only people in the restaurant. Tall, with broad shoulders, pale Anglo skin, blue eyes, fine eyebrows and a head of receding reddish hair that looks subtly dyed, the 41-year-old author is dressed in a black T-shirt, khaki shorts and dark, expensive-looking sneakers. He also has on a baseball cap and a pair of droopy ’70s-style dark glasses, both of which he takes off. He used to dress up for interviews, but now he can’t be bothered, he says, picking up the menu and looking it over.“Yeah, yeah, uh-huh, okay, I got it,” he announces with studied casualness. “I’m having an appetizer and — what’s the other thing called? An entrée.” “You do an awfully good impression of yourself,” are the opening words of Lunar Park, whose hero, as it happens, is a novelist named Bret Easton Ellis. Though I’ve never met Ellis before, my impression is that he does do a good impression of himself and is probably capable of doing many different but equally valid impressions of himself and probably those of other people as well. The eldest of three children, Ellis grew up in comfortable circumstances in Sherman Oaks. His mother was a lover of reading, and his father, who died in 1992, was a wealthy real estate developer who drank heavily and was abusive toward his children. Ellis once told an interviewer that his father was “the sort of person who was completely obsessed with status and about wearing the right suits and owning a certain kind of car and staying at a certain kind of hotel and eating in a certain kind of restaurant regardless of whether these things gave him pleasure or not.” In short, his father was exactly like most of the male characters in Ellis’ fiction. Ellis may be the most father-fixated novelist around. Not only does Lunar Park take as one of its epigraphs a passage from Hamlet, but the “Bret Easton Ellis” of the novel lives on Elsinore Lane (around the corner from Ophelia Boulevard) and within driving distance of the Fortinbras Mall. And his wife in the novel, a movie star, has his mother’s maiden name, Dennis. How’s that for oedipal?Ellis’ parents divorced when he was a boy, but once he was of age, he chose to attend college on the East Coast to get as far away from Ellis Sr. as possible. He wrote Less Than Zero in 1985 while a student at Bennington, a small liberal-arts college in Vermont immortalized in his fiction as “Camden,” and became, along with his buddy Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz, the leader of a new literary “brat pack” at the precocious age of 21. His books were written in a flat, affectless prose that revealed the influence of Joan Didion and Ernest Hemingway, and their protagonists were numb, young and beautiful, not to mention pansexual and thoroughly coked up. (Other contemporary writers, such as Dennis Cooper and Gary Indiana, have mined similar themes, only much further down the social scale.) More novels (The Rules of Attraction, The Informers, American Psycho and Glamorama) followed, often with recurring characters (most of them vacuous), gruesome scenes, lots of bisexuality, and an obsession with clothes, status and name-dropping.In 1998, the British journalist Toby Young noted that Ellis’ residence in New York was the American Felt Building near Union Square, and remarked that this was rather disappointing, since Ellis wasn’t “supposed to have felt anything in his life.” American Psycho, whose extreme, stomach-churning violence and misogyny caused such an uproar even before publication that Simon & Schuster, his publisher, dropped the book at the last moment (Vintage took it on), was seen as the ultimate fictional commentary on the rampant materialism of the “Reagan” ’80s. Since the “Clinton” ’90s weren’t exactly lived according to the selfless principles of St. Francis of Assisi, this seems a little less convincing now. Ellis had been in New York for only 10 days when I met him. Until then, he’d spent the last 19 months in L.A., revising his new novel, writing movies, hanging out with screenwriters, turning down a Britney Spears movie project and (according to him) getting drunk on a daily basis. “I was living a nomadic existence in L.A. I was staying in hotels and friends’ houses who were out of town and then I was staying at my mom’s and I really couldn’t figure out what I was doing and I was kind of lost and having this midlife crisis or whatever was going on,” he explains vaguely, sounding eerily like one of his own characters. (One of the novel’s dedications, which reads simply “Michael Wade Kaplan 1974–2004,” may provide a more exact and succinct explanation of what he calls his “19-month lost weekend.” Though Ellis is notoriously blurry about his sexuality, it’s commonly assumed that he is gay, and he generally doesn’t bother to deny it.) Now, after being back in New York for less than a fortnight, he’s already plotting his return to California, where he hopes to buy a condominium and settle down. Or so he says. One senses that Ellis says a lot of different things, depending on whom he’s talking to and what his mood is. Still, he sounds fairly adamant about his desire to escape his current surroundings.“I’m tired of New York, I’m tired of the publishing scene, I’m tired of the book business, I’m tired of hanging out with other writers. There’s a certain anonymity you can have in L.A. that you’re just not capable of having here, and it’s an easier place to live overall.”Then there’s the politics. When I mention that a fellow New York novelist, whom he admires, is very bitter about the Bush administration, Ellis practically explodes. “Waste of time! Waste of total time and energy! Please!” For once he sounds oddly sincere. There’s actual heat, rather than flipness and irony, in his voice.But isn’t the entire New York literary world wasting time and energy, going by his terms, on Bush bashing?“Yeah! That’s why I’m going out to L.A. to write monster movies! What do you think? I’ve got the right idea! Shit! Sit around and bitch about Bush? Are you out of your mind?”Not that L.A.’s much different as far as that goes. “I was there during the elections, and I thought people acted ridiculously, absolutely ridiculously. I thought the whole thing was a joke. People didn’t go to work the day after the election, people were so upset that they were making plans to move, and it was like GET A FUCKIN’ LIFE! Jesus, it pissed me off! Kerry was a terrible candidate, a horrible candidate, I don’t care what you think about Bush. I think it’s all about aesthetics, basically, and I think the country’s basically centrist, and except for the religious stuff I didn’t think it was that big a deal for the quality of life among Hollywood people no matter who was elected. So that was what angered me. If they’re all poor, yeah, sure, but they’re not. I’d lost it for Kerry long before, but the moment when he introduced Bruce Springsteen at that rally, I think in Madison, and he was saying, ‘This is the walking street minstrel, Mr. Bruce Springstein,’ that was it.” The first 150 pages of Lunar Park offer a long, joyously unreliable, pseudo-autobiographical tour of “Bret World” that’s sharp, beautifully detailed, expertly written and often flat-out hilarious. This is Bret Easton Ellis as Page Six of the New York Post would see him — an egotistical monster gobbling Xanax and Klonopin, drinking from dawn to dusk, crashing Ferraris in the Hamptons, partying with Jay McInerney (a.k.a. “the Jayster,” who shows up drunk and naked in Ellis’ swimming pool), working on a novel titled Teenage Pussy and cheating on his movie-star wife (whom he neglects sexually) with various untalented but lissome students at the liberal-arts college where he teaches one extremely leisurely class once a week. (When one girl refuses his advances, protesting that he’s married, he memorably wails, “For only three months!”) Much of the comedy in the book’s first half is delicious. There’s the female shrink his wife forces him to see, Dr. Faheida, whom he calls Dr. Fajita and for whom he concocts ludicrously improbable dreams; the ghastly parent-teacher meetings he and his wife must attend on behalf of their neurotic son, Robby, at a modish school protected by armed guards; the Halloween parties and the next-door neighbors and the Latina maid and the bipolar dog and the kids on batteries of medications. All the sumptuous horrors of upscale suburban life are joyously transcribed with a genuine satirical relish. It’s as good in its way as the best passages of Don DeLillo’s own comic suburban-family novel, White Noise, only less mannered.But somewhere around the halfway point, the novel undergoes a major shift. What has been a wonderfully observed comedy about a philandering writer trying to adapt to a conventional life in a high-toned Northeastern suburb turns into a cross between a Stephen King “haunted house” novel and a demented slasher movie starring an improbably sinister doll, dead crows and a ghostly figure who is trying to replicate every murder in American Psycho in precise chronological order. For Ellis, the book is really about his troubled relationship with his dad, and what he is describing, albeit in sensational terms, is a haunting, the present being overtaken by a deeply troubled and unresolved past. It’s the part of the book that Ellis cares most about, but it left me cold and I tell him so. He has heard it before.“I remember I was talking to my assistant pretty much every other day from L.A.,” he says. “And he’d gotten a galley of the book, so I asked him, ‘So what do you think?’ He’d started it, and he sent me some e-mails saying, ‘I’m loving this book. I think it’s your best book, I really love it.’ And then the e-mails stopped. And we had a couple of conversations, and he didn’t bring the book up anymore. And I said, ‘Lookit, Cole, what’s going on? Did you like the book or not?’ And he said, ‘I really loved it up to a certain point, and then I thought it began to totally fall apart, and then it came in for a save at the end and it kind of all worked.’ And then I got furious, and I said, ‘I don’t pay you for your fucking opinions. Shut up! Why did you tell me that? You’re fired!’ ”Ellis leans back in his chair and manages a laugh. “No, I didn’t fire him.” Ellis’ obsession with his father — while eviscerating him, he dedicates the book to him — is oddly characteristic of the worst aspects of American therapy-culture, not something you’d expect from such a sophisticated ironist. But the novel’s treatment of its suburban children, and their insanely overambitious, overweening, neurotic parents, is brilliant. Ellis is regularly classified as a satirist, except that, because he writes in the first person, he never steps back from what he’s commenting on. There’s no external viewpoint or standard against which to judge the horror of what’s being described. There are parts of Lunar Park where it’s fairly clear what the author believes. “I think a certain kind of sincerity is inevitable as you get older, and that may be part of why the book reads this way compared to the other books, where the satire, the novels themselves, are much more conceptual, and trickier and more outrageous and punky,” Ellis says. “Because of the subject matter, the way I approached the book was different from the way I approached the other books. I felt actually more earnest and more genuine than I had ever felt before, writing a book. I didn’t feel like I was playing a big game or like constructing some kind of hoax. I say that, yet I look back at American Psycho and I see an incredibly earnest book. I was really afraid to re-read it because I thought it was going to be horrible. I always thought that everyone who hated it was right, and that it was going to be an awful, pretentious novel. I was really relieved. It really just is this funny, fast-moving book about this crazy guy, who I actually agree with a lot of the things he’s criticizing. But I did see things I didn’t like. I thought a lot of the criticisms I was making about society at the time were broad and earnest and the satire could have been lowered a couple of notches and it would have been a better book. I guess I’ve always been earnest, just in a different way.” Was Ellis, as he claims in Lunar Park, really invited to the Reagan White House and did he meet George W. Bush and Jeb Bush during the Less Than Zero era? Or is that yet another of the novel’s fanciful “autobiographical” embellishments? “I was invited to the White House for dinner,” Ellis replies. “I asked why, and I was told that George and Jeb Bush were fans, and that was why I was being invited. That’s what I was told. And I didn’t go.”“That really spoils the anecdote.”“It does! There is no anecdote. I was 23! I didn’t want to go to the Reagan White House. I would rather have gone to a club that night. Of course, now I regret it, I think it would have been, like, fun, but . . .”And what about the kind of fashionista characters Ellis writes about? (Famously described by one New York editor as “a bunch of coke-sniffing, cock-sucking vampires.”) “Are there more of them than when you wrote your first novel? Has your work been prophetic in that respect?”“Yes. It’s horrible and depressing,” Ellis concludes with a sigh. “That horrible scene I was writing about did replicate. Society became that. It’s terrible, terrible. Or is it just a matter of getting grouchy as you get older?” Bret Easton Ellis will read from Lunar Park at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., on Friday, August 26, at 7 p.m., (626) 449-5320; and at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., on Saturday, August 27, at 7:30 p.m., (323) 660-1175.