More Than Zero

Knopf; 482 pages; $25

Bret Easton Ellis wouldn’t know a good novel if he wrote one himself. The proof is that he has written one himself: the first couple hundred pages of Glamorama, an epic of subversive product placement that does for Prada, Snapple, E!, and practically every other snazzy trademark that clutters the lives of the young and fabulous approximately what the Bhopal disaster did for Union Carbide. The book is a grand act of cultural slate-swiping that leaves no proper noun unsullied, no famous name unlibeled, in its giddy assault on branded reality. Until he gives in to the pull toward intellectual responsibility, betraying what’s best about the book with what he seems to feel is best for it (relevancy, an overarching theme), Ellis’s achievement is pristine. The play of the disaffected human mind over the forms and textures of its surroundings, no matter how ephemeral they may be, is a primal pleasure that needs no justification.

Glamorama ought to be awful, and is, at times, what with its presold moral hysteria over the links between hedonism and fascism. No one needs to hear again from anyone else besides George Will and company that empty souls make for cruel societies or that fashion is a kind of violence, perpetually demolishing to make room for the newer. We know all that. What’s fresh and arresting in Glamorama, though, is its uncompromising triviality, its rigorous transience. In a one-man race to the literary bottom, Ellis completes in a single book, alone, a process of degradation that ought to have taken years and scores of books by a whole generation of writers. Of all the fine arts, it’s literary fiction that seems most stuck on the idea of permanence, of somehow outlasting its time and place in a way that nothing else does anymore, and though this may be an admirable aim, it’s an inhibition, finally. By casting it off entirely, with no regrets, Ellis releases a massive energy pulse.

The human maggot feeding at the center of Glamorama’s brilliant garage pile is Victor Ward, a sort-of-famous model whose father happens to be a U.S. senator. Victor is less a human being than an ambulative digestive tract constipated with third-rate pop songs, slick-magazine ads, club-kid gibberish, and the residues of every drug available in Manhattan after dark.

When we meet Ward, he’s fronting for a hot new nightclub on the eve of its star-studded grand opening. For while he’s thick as a brick in every other way, he has a Talmudic scholar’s sensitivity to the specific vibrations of well-known names. He can discern the tiny difference, buzz-wise, between, say, Matthew Broderick alone and Broderick in the company of his girlfriend Sarah Jessica Parker. He can measure the fame gap between Smashing Pumpkins band members. In a memorable set piece, he runs through a long guest list containing these and other names, assigning coefficients of cool with decimal-point precision. Since the novel is set in the mid-nineties, half of these people are already obscure, but you don’t have to know who they are to get the joke. Victor’s mind is a celebrity spreadsheet. What’s more, the market values his talent and wouldn’t be able to function without it. Down on the trading floor of trendy faces, someone has to set the prices.

Victor’s personal life is not so highly organized. Good-looking and backed by a healthy trust fund, he buzzes around from store to store, hot spot to hot spot, picking up women like burrs. He’s part of a high-profile couple, officially, but so is almost everyone he knows who wants to get somewhere in life. Like Warren Beatty’s character in Shampoo or one of those Tennessee Williams gigolos who lounge around the hotel rooms of faded starlets, Victor is an untroubled opportunist with killer abs and an endless line of patter, most of it stolen from Top-40 song lyrics. His interior monologue sounds like a surreal gossip column: “Alison spots me, stubs out a joint and gets up from a table where she’s on her Nokia 232 cell phone to Nan Kempner and eating cake with Peter Gabriel, David LaChapelle, Janeane Garofalo and David Koresh, all of them discussing lacrosse and the new monkey virus …”

The above doesn’t read like deathless prose, admittedly, but its cumulative effect is oddly creepy, like listening to a cocktail-party motormouth and slowly realizing that he’s psychotic. Ellis has written this way before, of course, but never with such crazy focus. His run-on sentences only seem lazy, his strings of references only feel ad hoc; in fact, they’re as calculated as Victor’s guest list. This premeditation shows most clearly in the dialogue, which manages to be pointed and hilarious just when it seems most casual and screwy. ” ‘The extras are cool kids but I want to portray a lifestyle that people can relate to,’ Taylor explains. I’m nodding deeply. ‘My vision is to create the opposite of whatever smuggling Pervitin back from Prague in a rented Toyota means.’ “

As the sand drizzles down through Victor’s hourglass, measuring out the time until the club opening, which is predictably hectic and farcical, nothing of much importance happens and no real story line is carried forward. That’s as it should be in this inverted world, where a haircut appointment is high drama and a friend’s fatal overdose mere static. The problem comes when the book gets serious and suddenly starts lurching toward a statement. Condemning nihilism is a redundancy if there ever was one. It’s like speaking out against stupidity.

Yet Ellis for some reason feels the need to go the unnecessary extra mile. Out of nowhere, he concocts an artsy horror show filled with terrorist supermodels and plastic explosives concealed in Gucci bags. The destruction that went on between the lines in the earlier part of the book starts going off in earnest now, spattering gallons of ketchupy fake blood and even phonier ideas. At one point, Victor – in Paris now, having been kidnapped by glitzy evil geniuses and trapped in a film-within-a-film parallel universe – asks a shadowy spy type who’s come to free him: “So you’re telling me that we can’t believe anything we’re shown anymore? … That everything is altered? That everything’s a lie?” Answers the shadowy relativist: “I’m not sure those terms are applicable anymore.”

It’s hard to know if Ellis is truly alarmed by such dark ontological conundrums or if he just feels obliged to act like it. My guess is that he doesn’t really care but sincerely wishes he did. Either way, it doesn’t matter. There’s enough high amusement in Glamorama, enough illegitimate literary fun, to more than make up for its tedious tilt toward meaning.

More Than Zero