Ten years ago, Bret Easton Ellis wandered onto the best-seller lists with the kind of nonchalance only a 21-year-old Southern California boy could muster. He didn't even understand why his agent and editor were so excited. After all, he'd only made it to No. 10.
Now other 21-year-olds are pushing copies of "Less Than Zero" toward him at readings, like the one at Bibelot in Pikesville last night. They tell him how important his flatly told tale of sex and drugs and MTV was to them.
"I love your book, I really do," says Raven Schneiderman, 19, of northern Baltimore County. She has an older paperback copy of "Less Than Zero" along with two other books by Mr. Ellis.
Overall, about 30 people show up, mostly young, but not all, many clutching copies of his various works.
For Mr. Ellis, who counted "Ulysses" as the most important book of his young life, it's flattering, if a bit mystifying. And dark, of course, very dark, because life always looks black to Mr. Ellis. As black as the Wayfarer sunglasses his characters wear, which are OK, because it's still the 1980s in Ellis-land, and Wayfarers are still the height of fashion.
"My view of the world is probably much more classically nihilist than people give me credit for," he says, settling in for an interview. "Neal-list or nile-list? That word always enters the conversation somehow, and I still don't know. Neal or nile?"
Um, not sure.
"Well then, bay-sil or bah-sil?" he asks. "I say bay-sil, but I'm pretty sure it should be bah-sil."
You're expecting the Nosferatu of American literature, and he's practically singing a Gershwin tune. That's the problem with Mr. Ellis. He's completely disarming, and not in the literal sense of his most famous character, Patrick Bateman of "American Psycho," or the misfits that people "The Informers," his latest book, now in paperback and the reason for this national tour.
Usually portrayed as a pasty-faced bundle of nerves with an uncanny resemblance to the young Richard Nixon, Mr. Ellis has rosy cheeks, a souvenir of a summer in the Hamptons. And he seems relatively calm, speaking easily in the droll cadences of his Valley boy youth. The only sign of any discomfort is his twisted posture and the longing looks at his pack of Marlboros.
Yes, he considers himself shy. His hands shook when he faced more than 200 fans in Philadelphia earlier this week. The Baltimore visit is a little less intimidating. "I have the feeling Baltimore is ready for something really wild," he says with enthusiasm before the reading.
He reads from "The Informers," a series of connected stories, set in the pre-O.J. Southern California of a decade ago. By the author's count, it has at least 20 people killed, usually messily, and vampires roaming the landscape. Some reviewers hated it, but there have always been reviewers who hated Mr. Ellis' work, especially at the New York Times. Others loved it, including writer Carolyn See, who said it was the work of "an extremely traditional and very serious American novelist" in a review for the Washington Post.
Traditional and serious? Maybe. Definitely not easily cowed. After the vitriolic reaction to "American Psycho," published in 1991, one would understand if Mr. Ellis wanted to write a polite novel of manners in which no blood flows, and nail guns are used only for home improvements.
The title character, a young Wall Street investment banker, alternates droning recitations of clothes and consumer goods with extremely graphic scenes of torture and mutilation. Mr. Ellis says it was intended as satire and finds it interesting that a book meant to critique superficial lives was read only in the most superficial way.
Ultimately, he was picketed by the National Organization for Women and received death threats as imaginative as his own fictional slayings. But he says he is unaffected by all reaction to his work, negative or positive.
"I can't imagine why anyone's reaction to anything would sit down and alter what you wanted to write in the privacy of your own home. Even death threats," he says. "You should write exactly what you want to write and suffer the consequences."
The consequences, to date, have been a relatively lucrative writing career, although Mr. Ellis says the uncertainty of his profession is one of many things that he worries about at night. In the case of "American Psycho," the original publisher, Simon & Schuster, rejected the book at the behest of its corporate parent. Mr. Ellis kept the $300,000 advance and then sold the novel to Random House's Vintage division.
The year was 1991, long before the debate over violence in popular culture began, and well before "Reservoir Dogs" and "Natural Born Killers." Now that the battle has been joined, no one seems too concerned about the role of books in all of this. When "The Informers" came out last fall, it made barely a ripple outside the book pages, with the exception of news that one particularly gruesome scene had been excised, possibly because Mr. Ellis was scarred by "American Psycho." (True, Mr. Ellis acknowledges, but only because he couldn't make the scene work. Plenty of gore remains.)
Inevitably, he was called an enfant terrible. Few realize he was literally a child when he started writing his dark stories.
His first novel was about a boy who woke up as a pancake. It would have been an homage to Franz Kafka, if 9-year-old Bret had yet heard of Kafka's "The Metamorphosis."
"My more ambitious follow-up was about the angel at the top of the Christmas tree, who falls on Christmas Eve and has to work her way up the tinsel trail by morning, so as to regain her place at the top of the tree," he recalls.
Good ornaments tried to help the angel, while evil ones tried to block her path and take her rightful place at the tree's summit. What is an evil Christmas ornament? "I remember there were a couple of swans that I thought looked capable of bad behavior."
"It was very kind of sophisticated and black sort of story," he adds. "And, probably, I would think it would give pause to a parent whose 9-year-old or 10-year-old gave it to them at the time. I would think: 'This is an awfully precocious kid. I'm a little worried.' And they, I think, probably were."
Mr. Ellis survived his angel story, but "Less Than Zero" proved to be a more difficult trial. "I became a total, major wreck. I had a nervous breakdown. I started seeing shrinks. I started taking medication. It really drove me nuts. I couldn't figure it out. Then you sort of resign yourself to stop trying.
"Then 'American Psycho' happened and that was very bizarre. And you wonder, why did this happen? Maybe it's just my career. It's been an odd career. It's not been the normal, well-groomed literary career."
Mr. Ellis being Mr. Ellis, he could always find the dark side of his success. If having a best seller at age 21 was a 1-in-a-million shot and dying in a plane crash was also a long shot, wasn't he more likely to die in a plane crash? (Actually, no, but it's difficult to argue mathematical probability with someone whose neuroses are this well-developed.)
BTC However, tales of his drinking and drugging during this phase of his life were exaggerated -- primarily by Mr. Ellis, he admits. "You get a strange sense of yourself when you're interviewed all the time, you get a heightened version. When someone says I took drugs in the '80s, it could mean anything from, 'I smoked a joint once,' to 'I had a full-fledged drug habit' -- which I never had."
But the '80s are over, even in Mr. Ellis' fiction. His next novel, a story about the fashion world which he put aside to work on "The Informers," will be set in the middle of this decade, which he feels has a less pronounced personality.
"I think the '90s are so weird and so diaphanous -- that I almost think that the clarity of the '80s, no matter how horrible, looks pretty good now," he says. "The '90s are cranky, depressing, sad, ugly. All the things I wrote about in the '80s came true in the '90s."
Now that's dark.