The violent imagination

Profile: Bret Easton Ellis

It is funny to think that almost 10 years have passed since Bret Easton Ellis, now pudgy and balding at 36, wrote American Psycho. And yet there he was all last week, tearing about Manhattan from one event to another, all related in some way to the book. If he wasn't regaling fans at Barnes & Noble, he was conversing with them on the World Wide Web. Or he was carousing at fabulous parties. Lots of them.

It must be galling to those who excoriated the novel when it came out in 1991 and pleaded with us not to touch it for fear we might catch whatever evil it was that had driven the author. A vile work, they said. "Deeply and extremely disgusting," wrote Andrew Motion at the time. "A contemptible piece of pornography," ranted a reviewer in The New York Times, "the literary equivalent of a snuff flick".

Galling too for Simon and Schuster, the publishing house which at the last moment dropped the book, only to see Vintage, a Random House imprint, show a little more courage and scoop it up. Since then, 400,000 copies have been sold and another print run of 80,000 is planned for this year. The National Organisation of Women, which at the time tried to stir a boycott of Random House, must be wondering, too.

This week's fuss, of course, has to do less than with the book itself than with the film of the same name that is just now being released. It stars Christian Bale playing Ellis's cold-blooded creation, Patrick Bateman, the Wall Street broker whose interests lay alternately in donning Armani suits and chopping up innocent women at night. (The film leaves out the worst of the gore; there are no rats and vagina scenes).

That the book has finally emerged on the big screen is, indeed, some kind of vindication for Ellis, who even suffered death threats for it. When on tour in 1994 for his subsequent work, The Informers, a collection of loosely connected short pieces, he had to have bodyguards along with him all the time. He always maintained that those who were outraged by the book missed the point of it. It was meant not as a celebration of anything - least of all of violence against women - but rather as a satire and an assault.

Suspicions about Ellis and his motives will never end, however. One school will always hold that in American Psycho, and perhaps to a lesser extent in his other works, Ellis was exploiting his audience's most base appetites as a cynical exercise in generating shock and controversy and, therefore, sales.

If so, he has done well. He and Psycho can both be said to have attained cult status. There are no fewer than 1,084 sites on the World Wide Web somehow dedicated to Ellis. There are documentary films about him, including Gerald Fox's This is Not an Exit: The Fictional World of Bret Easton Ellis, released this month and featuring friends and peers such as Will Self and Jay McInerney. And, you could argue, he started a trend. We would surely be less shocked by Psycho today, because since its publication we have had the likes of Hannibal Lecter and Natural Born Killers.

Others argue that Ellis cannot be so cleanly separated from his writing. This is the more interesting school, which attempts to fathom what it is in the author's experience and psychology that informed the violence of Psycho - and allowed him to describe it in such detached, affectless tones - and to infect its pages with such apparent misogyny. Why did he give Bateman seven male and seven female victims, but have the women suffer deaths that were so much more protracted and sexually obscene? Ellis, whose home is a downtown Manhattan apartment, is for sure not a simple man. "I think he is a bit of tortured soul, but then why shouldn't he be?" asks Self, who occasionally catches up with him in New York.

"Given what he has produced, I think it would be bizarre to find a man who plays with puppies." Ellis admits to having spent eight years visiting a psychotherapist and taking medication to keep an even keel. He has spoken frankly to interviewers of panic attacks, of an alcoholic and abusive father and of his battles with drug taking. He also makes little attempt to quell speculation as to his own sexuality.

The fiction writing began even when Ellis was a child at private school in Los Angeles. He was the son of property developer, Robert Martin, who achieved serious wealth in the early Eighties, and his wife, Dale Ellis. With a large home in Sherman Oaks, with a swimming pool, two younger sisters and a pet dog, it might have been the perfect childhood. But his father, who died in 1992, leaving behind an unexpected $10m debt, found a best friend in drink and would occasionally lash out verbally and physically. The parents divorced when Ellis was a teenager. His father's departure was a relief. Among moments that he remembers as being seminal was going to see the rock opera Tommy when he was 10.

It was after escaping California for the far more comforting world of Bennington College, a campus of just 500 students in southern Vermont, that Ellis, in 1985, abruptly turned out a book of just 200 pages that he called Less than Zero. A novel with autobiographical strains about a group of spoiled but drifting Los Angeles youths made numb by drink, sex and violence, it suddenly transformed Ellis into the most talked-about new novelist in the English-speaking world and the so-called "voice of a generation". Ellis was just 21-years-old.

Such overwhelming and unexpected success would be hard for the most balanced of souls to handle. Critics compared him breathlessly to JD Salinger and Truman Capote.

Ellis spoke of the psychological battles that followed in an interview last year with the Long Island daily, Newsday. The panic attacks, for which he was taking the medicine, were "terrible, terrible". "The self-loathing that comes on is really heavy duty. Why me? There were 50 other books that were better than mine, and why didn't those books hit, and why did this one hit it? Then the backlash starts kicking in and the golden boy isn't the golden boy any more and people write really mean things."

The second work, The Rules of Attraction, was a similar examination of the indulgent nihilism of youth, set in an East Coast campus rather than in LA. The reviews were poor. And a film version of Less than Zero bombed in the cinemas. Ellis might, at this point, have left the literary scene with his tail between his legs. Instead, he began work on American Psycho. Even that process was far from easy, as Morgan Entrekin, then an editor at Simon and Schuster, recently told The Independent's Deborah Orr. "Bret was going to dark places, he was reading FBI reports on serial killers, he was very intense."

But he may not have been prepared for the sheer severity of the reaction the book elicited on its release. It did not help that some of the most gruesome passages somehow leaked out to a few American magazines before full publication. The impression thus arose that the entire book was about torture.

Most shocking to Ellis, however, was the discovery that people began to muddle the author and his creation.

"The tenor of the anger seemed to suggest that I was in fact a murderer, that I was in fact a rapist and that I was in fact a horrendous misogynist," he told Newsday. "What was so distressing was that I thought the book was totally the opposite. The intent of the book was satirising American male ethics at the time - the sexism, the homophobia." He went on: "I really did not think feminists would be enraged by the book. Silly me, I thought they would love it! I really did." In the same interview, Ellis speculated that his own disgust for the "American male" was derived directly from his relationship with his father and of the times during his adolescence - he remembered three - when he was actually struck by him.

Friends of Ellis describe a man who is himself devoid of violent impulses and who, instead, radiates gentleness and a sense of vulnerability. It is probably natural that people who approach Ellis for the first time should be in some fear of him. If he wrote those very nasty bits of American Psycho, then surely he must be a bit nasty himself. "That absolutely couldn't be further from the truth," says Self, who remembers a recent lunch where Ellis fussed endlessly over a wallet he had found on the floor at Grand Central Station. He wanted to return it to the owner quickly. "He is rather a sensitive soul."

But leaving all gore aside, Ellis would have trouble answering the charge that there are other parts of the universe described in his books, less than flatteringly, that he has indeed inhabited in real life. These are the fast-living parts, peopled by the gorgeous, the mindless and selfish. It is the Armani side of Bateman, rather than the disembowelling side. It is especially the fatuous and shallow monde of models and their hangers-on that he explores even more deeply in his fifth and most recent book, Glamorama - which overlays a murder thriller on to the catwalks of New York, London, Paris, Milan and Rome.

It is a condition that Self says he well recognises. "We are both people who have inhabited the milieu of flashy fashionistas, the kind of people suffused in alcohol and drugs that we satirise in our books, in the sense that we both shit out what we eat and may, to some extent, be what we eat."

"I can't deny that I have a toehold in these worlds," Ellis recent acknowledged to The Washington Post. "And yet I am pretty harshly criticising them at the same time. I mean, you can be both: You can be part of a scene and also see it for what it is." Ellis was once a regular of New York's tabloid gossip pages, with stories of late-night ribaldry and night clubbing. And he has spoken openly of having been a consumer of illegal drugs, including heroin, and of abusing drink. But nowadays he will tell anyone who asks that he has slowed down. At 36, he says, doing drugs and staying up until 3am is no fun for his body.

What he will not tell, however, is the truth about his love life. Asked recently about the identity of a lover with whom he had painfully broken up after a long-term relationship, he would only say that that person's name was "Pat". Apparently, he enjoys maintaining some mystery here. Giving readers information on his sexual orientation might change how they view what he writes, he has argued. (Would confirmation that Ellis is gay fuel the charges of misogyny in Psycho? Probably, it would). "So I play this little game", he told Newsday. But the fact that Out magazine recently included him in its list of 100 gay personalities of the year apparently didn't bother Ellis in the slightest.

For would-be scholars of Ellis, this has been a fine week to observe him. The countdown to the New York release of the movie, American Psycho, has generated a Manhattan glamorama all of its own. And Ellis was there, from toe to - possibly satirical - eye. There was the premiere on Tuesday night, preceded by a pre-premiere party at the Nino Cerruti store on Madison Avenue and post-premiere at the latest night spot, Pop. There were all those fabulous Cerruti suits, the actors, including Bale and Willem Dafoe, who plays a sleuthing detective, the models, the other famous and not quite so people in attendance. And Ellis can once more find himself in the gossip columns.

One thing must be giving him special pleasure. Some people are having trouble distinguishing between Bale and the man he portrays, Bateman. "I am not sure if I should take that as an insult or a compliment," the British-born actor was heard to mutter at the Cerruti party. "I am nothing like him at all." A feeling that Ellis would know all about.

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