MARCH 8, 1999: Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis Alfred A. Knopf, $25 hard
When I was assigned to review Glamorama, I decided not to read any press about it first, to avoid the storm of righteous outrage and pretentious reverence Ellis' novels inevitably provoke. Unfortunately, in escaping the danger of having someone else tell me what to think about the book, I bypassed the more crucial benefit of having them tell me what it was about. You, gentle reader, having taken no similar vow, have probably already digested the Times review or the New Yorker piece or the NPR commentary, and having done so can probably speak more cogently about the novel than I can. And let me cut to the chase by saying, Stop there. For though this bizarre tale of fashion models and international terrorism does have its pleasures, it is at least 300 pages too long and it just isn't worth it.
(Have you actually read on? Well, in that case I will continue, assuming that the editors at the Chronicle are as generous as Ellis' at Knopf in allowing the author to ramble on after the point is made.) The protagonist is a male model named Victor Ward, a hunky if boneheaded fellow whose credo is "The better you look, the more you see." If only. In the first of the book's six sections, Victor is gaily if desperately conducting his life in the New York celebrity demimonde. He zips around on his Vespa from fashion show to trendy restaurant to the nightclub he is opening with a friend (whom he plans to double-cross by opening a rival club, in one of many meaningless subplots introducing legions of dispensable minor characters). The good news is that this part of the book is pretty snappy and funny, displaying Ellis' obsession with consumer culture to amusing effect. For example, a typical chapter opens with this Ellisian marathon of a sentence:
"At a gym in the Flatiron District, in what last week became the most fashionable stretch of lower Fifth Avenue, my trainer, Reed, is being filmed for a segment of Entertainment Tonight about trainers for celebrities who are more famous than the celebrities they train, and in the gym now -- which has no name, just a symbol and below that the motto 'Weakness Is a Crime, Don't Be a Criminal' -- beneath the row of video monitors showing episodes of The Flintstones and the low lighting from a crystal chandelier Matt Dillon, Toni Braxton, the sultan of Brunei's wife, Tim Jeffries, Ralph Fiennes -- all in agony."
Have you heard of Tim Jeffries? I hadn't, and like many of the other names I didn't recognize, I was unsure whether this meant that I was unhip or that the name was an invention of the author. I very soon gave up trying to figure out which was which -- Ellis' intention I'm sure -- but this shtick goes on relentlessly throughout the book, though it becomes sufficiently overwhelming by page 50 or so. Really, you start wondering if he was getting paid by the word, or perhaps by the character.
However, for a while (actually, for about the length of Ellis' slender Eighties classic Less Than Zero) it works quite well. I enjoyed classic Ellis lines like, "Outside, I take note of various Tex-Mex restaurants, the post-apocalyptic mood, my pseudoreality, then head back to the Four Seasons, where all I really want to do is take my shirt off." I laughed when, smack in the middle of a conversation with Chloe, his supermodel girlfriend, Victor says: "Oh come on, baby, when you were young and your heart was an open book you used to say live and let live." (He pauses, takes another hit on the joint.) "You know you did, you know you did. You know you did." And I had fun at the parties, at least the first dozen or so: "Chloe zones out on her reflection in a mirror situated across the room while Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow celebrate her choice of fingernail polish and gradually we drift away from one another and those who aren't doing drugs light up cigars so I grab one too and somewhere above us, gazing down, the ghosts of River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain and my mother are totally, utterly bored."
By the end of the first section, Victor has disastrously fucked up his life in New York and is sent to Europe by a mysterious character named Palakon to find an old college girlfriend. At this point, a surreal motif is introduced: Victor is now apparently a character in a movie about a terrorist cabal of ex-models. For the remainder of the novel, director, make-up people, and other crew members wander in and out of scenes, line readings are questioned, re-takes are ordered, discussions ensue as to whether certain incidents were or were not in the script. This places in constant question whether various events -- including the clinical terrorism, grisly sex, and elegant murders that dominate the second half of the book -- happened at all. Negatives are altered; images are manipulated; people are forever being spotted in places they were not. Or maybe they were. Who can say?
By the later sections, one is speeding through chapters numbered in reverse -- 33, 32, 3l, 30, etc. -- as a kind of countdown to one's own liberation, half-wishing one of the plastic explosives or swimming-pool poisons could take the reader along with its other victims. But then Ellis explains, "It's not the legs blown off, the skulls crushed, the people bleeding to death in minutes. The uprooted asphalt, the blackened trees, the benches splattered with gore, some of it burned -- all of this matters just as much. It's really about the will to accomplish this destruction and not about the outcome, because that's just decoration."
So that's decoration. And what do you call it when, just a few pages later, the characters leave the bombing for a soirée? "Predictably the party got hipper as it kept gliding further along, and people started dancing to Republica and Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell arrived with The Artist Formerly Known as Prince and Tom Ford showed up with Dominique Browning and I had a heavy conversation with Michael Douglas about high-end safaris and 'I'm Your Boogie Man' by KC and the Sunshine Band blasted out. ... I ended up slumped over on a bench in the courtyard and drunkenly said, 'Bonjour, dude,' to Peter Jennings as he left."
If Less Than Zero was an anomie party, Glamorama is an anomie festival, an ultramega anomie gala. And though it demonstrates that Ellis has grown in many ways as a writer, his growth in page count must be checked now. I'm serious. Bonjour, dude. -- Marion Winik
"The name of the party is The Party You Have Been to Six Hundred Times Already. Everybody is here." --Model Behavior
Model Behavior: A Novel and 7 Stories by Jay McInerney, Random House, $24 hard
A few paragraphs into Jay McInerney's latest offering, and you know you've been here before. The scattered, self-conscious prose. The goosing of the zeitgeist. The name of the book is The Book Jay McInerney Wrote Already. It was called Bright Lights, Big City, and like Model Behavior, it followed the boozy, bloodshot misadventures of a self-destructive, tortured-by-smarts magazine writer after the love object he took for granted (a model, of course) leaves him. Undoubtedly Model Behavior lacks the luster and urgency of Bright Lights, but that's not to say that the story isn't engaging, that its goofs on celebrity aren't frequently funny, or that its hedonistic hero doesn't smack of authenticity. Model Behavior, and in particular the seven stories that accompany that titular story, is quite simply engaging. No, the problem is that for anyone who has followed the somewhat tortuous career of this rebellious literary Brat Packer from his debut 15 years ago, it's hard not to want to slap him 10 times and tell him to grow the hell up.
This time out, our narrator is Connor McKnight, a jaded WASP in the big city biding time at glossy Ciao!Bella (a Cosmopolitan-Mirabella sort of meeting of the mindless) until he writes the great American screenplay. In his spare time (of which there is much), he's emotionally tangled over the women in his life: He agonizes over his split with tempestuous model girlfriend Philomena, slobbers over the anonymous purity of his relationship with a stripper named Pallas, and nuzzles up to his anorexic sister for some Freudian comfort. Aside from forays with his gin-soaked parents and The Parties You Have Been to Six Hundred Times Already, McKnight's only genuine social outlet is Jeremy Green, an angry young writer too busy stomachaching about society's downfall to be much company. That is to say: Connor McKnight is a mess. And while McKnight and McInerney both pin some of this misery on the general absurdity of our modern times, what most seems to occupy McKnight is his relentless pursuit of that ever-elusive happiness. He is lost, spiralling toward nothing, grasping on to anything. We know he has no center; as our narrator, he switches back from first to second to third person, as if even he's not sure whose life this really is. Things just sort of happen to him, while he stands there, critical of it all (most notably himself). When a conversation about celebrity drug use calls for a juicy factoid on River Phoenix's death, McKnight spills the beans, and immediately chastises himself for his celebrity ennui. This short section entitled "Listen to Yourself" begins: "Lord, listen to you. How embarrassing that you even know this shit."
Chopped into funny little nuggets of narrative usually no more than a half-page, Model Behavior is continuously this cynical and self-critical, rolling its eyes while it bows at the altar of this tabloid culture, this world of starfucking, of info-tainment, in which news and celebrity have hopelessly melted into one scrumptious soundbite. McKnight loathes it all, but he also can't tear himself away from it, like the models he knows are hopelessly vacuous but yearns to bed anyway. And here we arrive at the story's driving conflict: Connor McKnight is bright enough to devise what is best, but he is self-destructive enough to do just the opposite. Model Behavior does not skewer celeb society, à la Robert Altman's The Player; instead, the better parts of this knowing, often goofy comedy are more in line with Terry Southern's delicious romp Blue Movie, or Woody Allen's Celebrity -- just a lot of people running around doing ridiculous things in the name of stardom. But at its core, it is the story of a little boy lost. Sometimes, you wish the narrator would stop criticizing it all and just relish the absurdity. But McInerney, bless his little heart, wants us to like our hero, to know that he's better than them all, and he imbues McKnight with just enough potential to sympathize with the poor fella as he stumbles blindly through his dark night. He's akin to Bright Lights' young turk Jamie Conway: "There's a certain shabby nobility in failing all by myself."
Although this anchoring story does stalk very similar territory for the author, the seven subsequent short stories make a welcome departure. Granted, some of them pertain to Hollywood, and all of them pertain to bright, flawed white males, but they achieve a lovely, more polished kind of prose, without the edginess and the arsenal of defenses we've come to associate with McInerney's protagonists. "Smoke," while somewhat banally titled, is a reserved and touching account of the dissolution of a relationship the summer the couple decides to quit smoking. The best of the stories are similar stuff -- failed relationships, life's heartaches, the should'ves, would'ves. But for once, McInerney's style takes a backseat, and he is content to let his stories whisper their meaning rather than yell them in your ear. It's enough to make you think twice about Jay McInerney. It's enough to make you think that maybe -- just maybe -- the big kid grew up. -- Sarah Hepola
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