Literature for Life: Bret Easton Ellis is an autobiographical enigma

Bret Easton Ellis has been a controversial writer since he published his first novel at 21 years old. Written when he was still in college, Less Than Zero established themes common in all his subsequent writing, such as characters disillusioned by a commodity-chasing society. The book is roman à clef juvenilia, meaning it is loosely based on the author’s own life. In it, a rich student returns to Los Angeles for winter break from college, where he pursues drugs, sex and partying.

Many of Ellis’ books are inspired by his own life. He was born in Los Angeles in 1964 and grew up in a rich family – his father was a property developer, and his mother was a home planner. This likely influenced his work, as much of it incites a zeitgeist movement of people disillusioned by a modern capitalist society. After Less Than Zero released in 1985, it was met with huge commercial success but mixed critical reception. He was immediately placed in the literary “brat pack,” alongside other writers such as Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz, a group known for writing contemporary coming of age tales.

Though he gained near immediate notoriety for his work, not everyone was a fan. His second novel, The Rules of Attraction, was considered a disappointing follow up by many critics. His third, American Psycho, is perhaps his most well-known and certainly the most controversial. The 1991 novel follows a serial killer living in Manhattan, and garnered criticism for overuse of violence and misogynistic treatment of women. Upon reading its graphic content, Simon & Schuster refused to publish the novel, and Vintage Books published it instead. Publication of the book was a bumpy road; it was only printed in hardcover for the first time in 2012. In Australia, copies of the book are literally shrink-wrapped, and authorities in Germany deemed the book “harmful to minors.”

In 2000, the story found a new audience with the release of a film adaptation starring Christian Bale. Continuing his semi-autographical themes, Ellis has said that the story’s protagonist, Patrick Bateman, was inspired in part by his abusive father. He also described the book as a “feminist text” with a “complete critique of male culture,” saying, “The book was read so literally it caused me despair. I think I lost my innocence.”

American Psycho is considered the author’s quintessential work. His subsequent writings include short story collection The Informers (1994) and New York City fashion industry thriller Glamorama (1998). In 2005, he published Lunar Park, a mock autobiography following an exaggerated version of himself blending reality with fiction. In 2010, Ellis released Imperial Bedrooms, a sequel to Less Than Zero which follows the same characters 25 years later. Ellis is rumored to be releasing a novel this year, though he said he has “no idea” which of his books will ever be published.

Like strong coffee or war films, Ellis is an acquired taste, not meant for someone who is only half committed to seeing the whole thing through. Ellis is a rare author who writes for himself rather than what audiences want, and was still able to garner both mainstream and cult followings. In person, Ellis presents himself as clean cut and carefully spoken, a large contrast from his narrations. The mystery of how much of himself he inserts into his books and how much is fictional is perhaps his writing’s greatest accomplishment.

Book review: Night Film by Marisha Pessl: It may not be dark in an America Psycho way, but Marisha Pessl’s second feature length novel will send chills down your spine. Stanislas Cordova is a film director whose work you can only find on the dark web; his films, regarded as gory, abhorrent masterpieces, are rumored to actually put its so-called “actors” through their horrific plots while Cordova films their reactions. Investigative journalist Scott McGrath receives an anonymous tip that Cordova, rarely seen in public, is conducting illegal activities on his private property. When McGrath begins to poke around, though, his investigation is shut down, and his reputation is ruined.

Fast forward a few years when Cordova’s daughter, Ashley, is found dead in New York City. This inspires McGrath to pick back up the investigation that ruined his professional and personal life. Joined by a drug dealer and an aspiring actress with personal ties to the case, the investigation takes them through mental asylums, black magic shops and the dark corners of the internet in pursuit of what really happened to Ashley Cordova.

What starts out as a typical investigation novel quickly averts stereotypes to become a chilling and memorable tale much bigger than its beginning. Pessl’s dense narration is absorbing, creating a mystical New York City sub-reality that leaves the mind spinning. Pessl herself may be too well read for her own good; the book can hardly go a page without referencing some other form of literature, evoking specific images that fall flat if the reader isn’t familiar with them (and being familiar with each and every reference in this book doesn’t seem possible).

There’s no other writer quite like Pessl. Her debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, suffers from the same over-referenced narration, but ultimately tells a surprising coming-of-age tale for a socially inept high school students. You may have to slog through over-explanation in Pessl’s writing, but when you get to the good stuff, thunder rolls, lightning crackles, and goosebumps spread.