Like most who went to college in the early 1990s, I had the misfortune of first encountering Bret Easton Ellis’ work indirectly via the movie adaptations. I rented Less Than Zero and thought it was okay in a rich-kids-get-the-blues-and-make-bad-life-decisions sort of way.
James Spader was simultaneously cool yet annoying. And that pretty much characterized my opinion of Ellis’ sensibility for a few years. The people he wrote about were outside my experience; though, I’d known a few self-entitled wealthy narcissists at my private high school in San Diego—daddy owned a boat and mommy took valium, that sort of thing. But what I didn’t realize was that I had been reacting to the oversimplified (maybe clichéd) Hollywood tropes that had been extracted from his writing—a serious case of lost in adaptation, particularly for Less Than Zero and Rules of Attraction.
During my MFA, my professors were so determined to dismiss Ellis—I thought, mostly out of jealousy—that their vitriol actually piqued my interest. I went through everything he had out at the time—Less Than Zero, Rules of Attraction, American Psycho, The Informers, Glamorama, and Lunar Park. I read them with an eye for plot structure. I paid attention to his use of short chapters and perspective shifts. But mostly I apprenticed myself to his idiosyncratic first person voice. I think that’s his strongest stylistic quality as a fiction writer.
Consider this beginning to one of Lauren’s chapters in Rules (and note the Hemingway-esque beginning in media res via “And”):
And it’s quiet now, and over. I’m standing by Sean’s window. It’s almost morning, but still dark. It’s weird and maybe it’s my imagination but I’m positive I can hear the aria from La Wally coming from somewhere, not across the lawn since the party is over, but it might be somewhere in this house perhaps. I have my toga wrapped around me and occasionally I’ll look over and watch him sleep in the glow of his blue digital alarm clock light. I’m not tired anymore. I smoke a cigarette. A silhouette moves in another window, in another house across from this one. Somewhere a bottle breaks.
And it continues this way. The entire chapter is a long paragraph—not atypical for the novel or its predecessor, Less Than Zero. The speaker’s voice—her tone, how she frames her perceptions in words—shows more about who she is than what may or may not be taking place in the physical setting. Just as each voice-driven passage sets up a rhythm using long and short sentences to evoke the personality of the speaker, the lengths and arrangement of the chapters does the same thing on a larger scale. By the end, we realize that the novel works not only because the main characters (speakers) have fully formed implicit arcs, but also because the novel itself has a vocal arc. Rules weaves each of the character arcs together to push beyond their particular experiences and make a broad statement: this is what’s happening to your children, America. Or, maybe, this is what happens when you give your child a gold card and send her off to college.
The broad message is what it is: disaffected youth with too many resources, upper-class dry rot. We can watch any movie about the idle rich and enjoy the cliché of the vacuous aristocrat. In my opinion, those things are less important than what we can learn by paying attention to Ellis’ writing style. He has been put down for having a trite, narrow message (and for his off-color comments on social networks and the media), but I think we definitely miss out on what’s great about his work if we let those things take precedence over the writing itself. When I want to solve a problem using voice and I don’t know how to do it, he is one of my teachers.