BOOKS / Bret Easton Ellis wears white socks: 'The thing is, I'm not a great believer in the nobility of man.' Shock-novelist Bret Easton Ellis explains himself to Nicholas Lezard

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One rarely gets the opportunity to interview a genuine serial killer.

Someone who delights in slicing open tramps' eyeballs, splitting financial whizzkids' faces open with axes, or doing things to ex-girlfriends and escort agency girls which could not possibly be repeated in a family newspaper. How will this psychopath comport himself? We know that he dresses impeccably; an Alan Flusser suit, perhaps, with extended natural shoulders, full chest and bladed back, soft- rolled lapels and low-slung pockets, dotted silk tie from Valentino Couture, Testoni-tasselled loafers. He is in town to promote his new novel, The Informers.

Does one, still, three years on, have to belabour this point? Bret Easton Ellis is not a psychopath. Nor, to either the best of my knowledge or the prompting of my intuition, has he ever been a murderer. He just wrote about one. But even for those capable of telling the difference between the creator and his creation, a meeting with Ellis is going to carry a certain amount of excess baggage. Vuitton, probably. With gold clasps and double-seamed stitching down the . . . oh, you get the idea.

So you could forgive Ellis for looking a little hunted. Only he doesn't. As it turns out (and was this a surprise?) Bret looks fine. Wool overcoat, loafers . . . no, not the clothes (American Psycho's tropes, its endless iterations of designer accoutrements, are catching). And he is also, from the first instant, genuinely charming, softly-spoken, engaged yet engagingly self-deprecating; you wouldn't want to introduce your pious aunt to his books, but you could easily introduce her to him. He did a lot of Coke during the interview - two big glasses of the stuff, with ice. He is taller than I thought he'd be (everyone thinks this, for some reason). He is also - get this - wearing white socks. Not the kind of attire his serial killer, Patrick Bateman, would countenance. (They - the socks - gave him a hard time in Paris. 'They didn't like them at all over there,' he says. 'They said to me. 'Thairr soo tackee, soo 'orrible . . .'.') The other surprise is that people seem to like The Informers.

On the face of it, the new novel doesn't stand a chance. It sits blinking in its big brother's shadow, the looming presence of American Psycho, a novel so achieved and relentless that even the most astute commentators floundered in its wake, victims of the very superficiality it exposed. Martin Amis: 'This sounds like a talentless book and that is why it should not be published.' (An opinion since revised, upwards, I hear.) So, unsurprisingly, critical knives were busy being sharpened (to use an appropriately murderous metaphor) to welcome its successor. A collection of tenuously- related narratives, set mainly in Los Angeles, where vapid people aimlessly screw, drink, drug themselves silly, commit the odd atrocity: compared to American Psycho, The Informers looks like it's treading water.

And Ellis is happy to concede that this might indeed be the case. He begins our chat by mentioning Charlotte Raven's glowing review of the book in the latest Modern Review.

'I think she overrated it,' he says. 'I've been reviewed eight times in the New York Times,' say Ellis, 'and each piece was horrendous, really nasty.

Except when they wrote about The Informers. Which shocked me deeply.' Quite an achievement, to shock such a man, but isn't he being a little disingenous? 'Oh, I suppose so,' he sighs. 'Constantly belittling my fourth child. Sometimes when I've been mean about it I go up to my hotel room and cuddle it, and say 'I'm so sorry. Please forgive me. Have a bit of ham.' Of course it's bound to be an anticlimax. But I like it really. I'm much happier with it than I tend to sound.'

There are some people who would laugh at the idea that Ellis is his own sternest critic. When I meet him he is recovering from an interview with a journalist from a music paper.

'It began fine,' he says. 'She gave me this tape, asked about my favourite bands (Ellis has always been an astute listener to pop music; one of the best-sustained jokes in American Psycho was Bateman's awful taste in music) . . . and then she gripped the sides of the chair - like this - and then launched into this diatribe - you know, you're misogynistic, where is your sense of responsibility, you don't place these atrocities in their context - an endless barrage of politically correct pseudo- speak.' He shakes his head.

'There's this idea that art is a balm, that it should soothe and ennoble us.

God, that is such a yawn. Such a drag. Everything's got to be child-safe, baby-proof. You've got to be able to take grandma to it and your 10-year-old snot-nosed kid.' And this is Ellis's most persistent problem, the thing that everyone goes on about, the reason that it will be a long time before any interviewer stops asking him question after question about that book (and I tried to fight it myself, believe me): what hint does the atrocious amorality of his characters offer as to the way Ellis himself acts? The Informers offers us, for example, a 10- year-old boy tied up, sodomized and videoed, a woman with her throat torn out by a vampire; a simplistic approach to such fiction would have us believe that the imaginative well from which that particular bucket is drawn has been poisoned. A S Byatt said, of that book, that the world would be a better place if it did not exist; but, as Ellis reminds me, he has come from a country where the majority of the people believe O J Simpson is innocent - 'and these are the top three main reasons they give: he is too rich, he is too handsome, and he is too well-dressed.'

The point is that Ellis is a satirist, and satirists, as he says, 'are the most moralistic, puritanical people. I'm a really uptight guy. The thing is, I'm very pessimistic. I'm not a great believer in the nobility of man.

Ninety per cent of me feels that's true. Maybe not. I don't know. Eighteen years of growing up in L A didn't help.' I wonder, then, how a product of this world can act - as Ellis seems to - morally. 'But even in an uncaring, selfish, amoral world, do I in fact act that way? Well, no' - a slightly embarrassed shrug - 'I'm not that prone to that kind of behaviour. But I am fatigued and annoyed by humans in general, men in particular. I'm not pulling myself out of that realm. But . . . I go to the movies, eat out, socialise. Simple pleasures. I have a dog. Someone totally amoral wouldn't have a dog.'

Oh, yeah?

'You're right.' A big laugh. 'Ted Bundy (notorious American serial killer).

He had a dog. Called Lassie.'

From Bret Easton Ellis's The Informers I'm trying to pick up this ok- looking blond Valley bitch at Powertools and she's sort of into it but not drinking enough, only pretending to be drunk, but she goes for me, like they all do, and says she's twenty.

'Uh-huh,' I tell her. 'Right. You look really young,' even though I know she can't be more than sixteen, maybe even fifteen if Junior is working the doors tonight and which is pretty exciting if you consider the prospects. 'I like them young,' I tell her. 'Not too young. Ten? Eleven? No way. But fifteen?' I'm saying. 'Hey, yeah, that's cool. It may be jailbait, but so what?'

She just stares at me blankly like she didn't hear a word, then checks her lips in a compact and stares at me some more, asks me what a wok is, what the word 'invisible' means.

I'm getting totally psyched to get this bitch back to my place in Encino and I even get a medium hard-on waiting for her while she's in the ladies' room telling her friends she's leaving with the best-looking guy here while I'm at the bar drinking red-wine spritzers with my medium hard-on.

'What are these little fellas called?' I ask the bartender, a cool-looking dude my age, wondering, gesturing toward the drink.

'Red-wine spritzers,' he says.

'I don't want to get too drunk, though,' I tell him while he pours a group of frat guys another round. 'No way. Not tonight.'

I turn and look out at everyone dancing on the dance floor and I think I banged the DJ about a million years ago but I'm not too sure and she's playing some god-awful nigger rap song and I'm getting hungry and want to split and then here the girl comes, all ready to go.

'It's the anthracite Porsche,' I tell the valet and she's impressed. 'This is gonna be great,' I'm saying. 'I'm totally jazzed,' I tell her but trying not to seem too eager.

She plays some Bowie tape while we drive toward the Valley. I tell her an Ethiopian joke.

'What's an Ethiopian with sesame seeds on his head?'

'What's an Ethiopian?' she asks.

'A Quarter Pounder,' I say. 'That really cracks me up.'

'The Informers' is published by Picador on 21 Oct, at pounds 9.99 (Photograph omitted)

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