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Books: In is out and dumb is clever

Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis Picador pounds 10
The hero of this book, Victor Johnson, aka Victor Ward, is a modern- day Tom Jones. He is the son of a US senator, a drug user of prodigious appetite, a male model, a minor celebrity and squire of many women, the most notable of whom is the supermodel Chloe Byrne. His main attraction to New York club society is his extraordinary good looks. When the book opens he is assisting with the opening of a new club, uttering hip pronouncements - "In is out", is his most delphic judgement - and suborning his extensive list of acquaintances to come to the party.

Celebrity is the subject, the subtext, the object of Ellis's satire. These are celebrities from the world where fashion meets Hollywood, and there are lists of them festooning every other page. Something of the effect of F Scott Fitzgerald's famous list in The Great Gatsby is achieved by the constant and intermittently telling juxtaposition. Place-names and the names of restaurants are listed endlessly too, to numbing effect. What Ellis is trying to do is to write a book from within the extraordinarily dumb world of fashion-celebrity, as experienced by the addled and none too intelligent Victor Ward. Herein lies the problem. It just doesn't work. You can't help marvelling, however, at the ambition and the singlemindedness.

The plot, for what it is worth, turns out to be the stuff of extremely minor thrillers. Having exhausted his thin stock of credibility in New York, and alienated most of his friends, Victor is falling apart. Falling apart for Victor is, in truth, a vocation. His father, concerned about the effect of his drug-crazed son's life on his own chances of nomination for the presidency, decides to get Victor out of the way by sending him on the QE2 on a wholly contrived mission to Europe. After a couple of hundred pages of listing every celebrity in America, this seemed more like a ploy to get some Brits and French on to the scoresheet. As the action becomes still more gruesome, with torture, murders and pornography, more place-names from "Charlotte Road" and St Germain are trotted out. Even Rachel Whiteread ("Whitehead") and Gary Hume get a mention.

On and on it goes: hotels, clubs, restaurants. This is a typical paragraph: "To get into the house you have to deactivate an alarm and walk though a courtyard. Inside, a swirling circular staircase joins all three floors and the color scheme is muted olive green and light brown and soft pink, and in the basement there's a gym, its walls lined with Clemente drawings. An expansive open kitchen designed by Biber contains cabinets made from makassar [sic] ebony and dyed tulipwood and there's a Miele oven and two dishwashers and a glass-door refrigerator and a Sub-Zero freezer and custom- made wine and spice racks and an industrial restaurant sprayer installed in a stainless-steel alcove with teak-lined drying racks holding gilded polka-dotted china. A giant mural by Frank Moore looms over the kitchen table, which a silk Fortuny shade hangs over." (Almost every location has the "glass-door refrigerator".) Another couple of paragraphs in similar vein follow.

We get the idea all too soon that Victor is involved in something that he does not understand, but this is no surprise as he understands very little. Even the very dumb women he has sex with, constantly and in explicit detail, remark on his stupidity. They all seem to be involved with ex- model Bobby Hughes in some way, and Bobby Hughes is involved in terrorism.

The plot is so confused and so nightmarish - deliberately, because it reflects Victor's chemically challenged understanding - that we really don't care as people are eviscerated and raped, and bombs begin to go off. Poor Victor thinks he is in a movie. Film crews follow him and his friends all the time, or perhaps Victor simply confuses the paparazzi and lifestyle videos with Hollywood.

Bret Easton Ellis is making a serious point about celebrity and he is concerned about the oldest philosophic chestnut of all, appearance and reality. The trouble is he is as fascinated by the appearance as his benighted creation Victor.

This novel is almost certain to sell in bucketloads.