Lights! Camera! Bombs? How to Flub a Fine Satire

Glamorama , by Bret Easton Ellis. Alfred A. Knopf, 481 pages, $25.

Like all Bret Easton Ellis novels, Glamorama is the kind of roller-coaster ride that thrills some folks and makes others puke. Michiko Kakutani goes green at the mention of his name; her review of Glamorama in The New York Times is the critical equivalent of projectile vomiting. Dennis Cooper, writing about the same book in the December issue of Spin , spews something less acid, token of his unrestrained admiration. Who’s right? Well, this sounds a lot like fence-sitting, but they both are.

It’s true what Ellis enthusiasts say: The tizzy over American Psycho (I was among the righteously indignant) was a tribute to the effectiveness of Mr. Ellis’ prose. The pornography worked like a double dose of Viagra–and then the gore, putrid, reeking, jammed up against the sex: Venus and Mars coupled, rolling in the gutter hard by the slaughterhouse. All splatterporn is nasty, the scummy residue of a desiccated imagination. But when it’s convincing, when it makes you shy away from staple guns, when it gives electric carvers a whole new buzz–only then is it worth hollering about.

Eight years after the Psycho drama, Don DeLillo speaks well of Mr. Ellis. And remember: Joan Didion dedicated a book to him. Heavy hitters acknowledging a peer? Not exactly. My guess is that Mr. DeLillo and Ms. Didion hear a familiar note (sustained, flat, unnerving), and that they admire his sentences.

But what do his admirable sentences add up to? Mr. Ellis can write, yet his novels are either thin like his debut or messy like everything thereafter. Beginning with American Psycho his motto seems to have been “Never go farther than far too far” (filched, like the title of Less Than Zero , from Elvis Costello). Measure, balance, moderation, these are not concepts he can cozy up to. In stretches, his books are more boring than I can adequately describe–boredom distilled and at the same time broadcast everywhere, unendingly, like an eternity of C-SPAN lighting up every last screen.

Glamorama is Mr. Ellis at his best and worst. The first 150-odd pages are stunning. Our narrator, dimwitted Victor Ward, errant boyfriend of supermodel Chloe Byrnes, is about to open a new nightclub. We are treated to the frenzied day-and-a-half leading up to the celebrity-stuffed opening party. Victor is buzzing about like a pea-brained prima donna. He’s sleeping around behind Chloe’s back and making all kinds of mean and powerful people very angry. He’s bound to nosedive.

The writing in this first part is a hailstorm of proper nouns: celebrities, designer goods, party people, brand names, pop tunes, restaurants, clubs, more celebrities– many more celebrities. The names (too bad Mr. DeLillo already snagged that title) fall into a magical pattern, so that you think at first you’re scanning a list, a list with a few pronouns, prepositions and verbs thrown in for fun, and then all at once you realize you’re looking straight at the glitter world of New York fashion. It’s mesmerizing, thoroughly believable, abysmally depressing.

Here’s a sample: “The bar is mobbed, white boys with dreadlocks, black girls wearing Nirvana T-shirts, grungy homeboys, gym queens with buzz cuts, mohair, neon, Janice Dickerson, bodyguards and their models from the shows today looking hot but exhausted, fleece and neoprene and pigtails and silicone and Brent Fraser as well as Brendan Fraser and pom-poms and chenille sleeves and falconer gloves and everyone’s smoochy.”

The spill and tumble, the opulence, the plush vacuity of these sentences is overwhelming. Note the way Mr. Ellis caresses everything, smoothes it out, flattens it: Janice, fleece, silicone and Brendan are all syntactically and morally equivalent. One obvious hierarchical inversion (“bodyguards and their models”) is a broad wink and a nudge; for the rest, Mr. Ellis deadpans it. Imagine page after page of sentences just like that. Steamroller prose, compacting a world, flat yet whole and coherent–a world where “Uma-ish” is an everyday adjective.

Mr. Ellis might have wrapped it up right after the big bash with a quick, devastating peek at the next day’s hangover. A radically shortened Glamorama , amputated before the 200-page mark, would have been delightful: a fine satire, funny, bleak, biting. Plot? Characters? Significance beyond the superficial pleasure of artful wordplay, beyond the catchy phrase buzzing in Victor’s brain, ” We’ll slide down the surface of things “? Utterly unnecessary. Janice and fleece and silicone and Brendan (and Uma!) are all we need. The milieu is the message.

But Mr. Ellis wanted more. This is his big new novel, for which Knopf paid a whopping $500,000. And remember that motto: “Never go farther than far too far.”

The balance of Glamorama is a misguided attempt to show us what it all means. Mr. Ellis, who is brilliant at “sliding down the surface of things,” dives into the deep. What’s he after? Could he be chasing the moral meaning of the milieu?

More and more, or so it seems, celebrity and fashion share the runway with horrific violence. Gianni Versace; Nicole Simpson; Diana, Princess of Wales; little JonBenet Ramsey–those names are all the proof we need that the spotlight offers no protection from violent death. The gorgeous and the glorified beckon mayhem. Stare into those depths long enough and you begin to see a theme take shape, a deep-sea beast with the rough shape of an idea. It goes something like this: A life dedicated to appearances is a kind of death-in-life. Also–news flash!–appearances can be deceiving. Vanity of vanities!

Here’s what happens after the party: Victor, whose father is a United States senator (yeah, right), goes to Europe and gets sucked into a network of supermodel terrorists. They’re based in Paris. They plant bombs at the Ritz and the Cafe Flore. Designer demolition: “[A] corpse is hurled through a giant Calvin Klein poster on a scaffolding across the street, splattering it with blood, viscera, bone.” But wait: Victor’s hold on reality is tenuous, so it could be just a bad movie he’s starring in. The bombs and the torture could be the celluloid fantasy of a sadistic “director.”

My fingers fail me: The stupidity of the premise induces instant arthritis.

Glamorama ends with 300 pages of dreck. Get ready for indescribable boredom punctuated with the usual hyper-graphic sex and violence. (Does it make matters worse or better if I add that this time around Mr. Ellis has for the most part prudently segregated the splatter from the porn? And extended the range of the smut to include ecstatic homosexual encounters? Should I mention that many of the characters are recycled from Mr. Ellis’ other novels? That one of them is a refugee from Jay McInerney’s fiction?)

Poor dumb Victor Ward will serve as our sole example of what goes wrong. He starts out pancake-perfect, craving a part in Flatliners II ; he’s a guy whose psychic EKG shows no spikes. Pre-party, at the door to Chloe’s apartment, he runs into a girl with whom he has had sex just hours earlier, a girl who claims to have once loved him. He quotes a pop lyric at her (“You look … wonderful tonight”), and here’s how he reads her reaction: “[S]he suddenly looks like she’s shot through with pain or maybe something else like maybe something by Versace.” This is good, especially the absence of commas, which keeps haute couture and the mystery of emotion on one bland level.

But Mr. Ellis decides that post-party Victor should have depths–a furnished interior. Soon we’re plunging into his memories of a girl he knew in college: “At first she was so inexpressive and indifferent that I wanted to know more about her. I envied that blankness–it was the opposite of helplessness or damage or craving or suffering or shame.” This is shaky: We can’t accept that Victor is equipped to register shame.

Much later, he’s confronted with the body of a dead girl (yet another girl, each one indistinguishable from the next). Her throat wound is “too deep” to be self-inflicted, and this is what he thinks: “[Y]ou can’t say anything because you know that scenes are filmed without you and you know that a different script exists in which you are not a character and you know it’s too deep.” Deep … dull … drivel.

At the very end, Victor shares with us a transformative moment–the key to his, um, personality. One day, he was “lying around Gianni’s pool in the big house on Ocean Drive.” (If you know anything, you know at once what Mr. Ellis doesn’t tell you: that Gianni is Versace, and Ocean

Drive is in South Beach, which is near Miami, in Florida.) Victor had recently met Chloe Byrnes, his future girlfriend. He was “becoming famous” and “dealing with the fact that we live in a world where beauty was considered an accomplishment.” And this is what he promised himself: “to be harder, to not care, to be cool.” A pseudo-explanation of a phenomenon (Victor the flatliner) that Mr. Ellis should by no means be explaining.

The heaps of drivel in the last two-thirds of Glamorama cancel the bravura beginning. We’re left, natch, with less than zero.