Bret Ellis' 'Glamorama' -- less than 'duh'

January 03, 1999|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,special to the sun

''Glamorama,'' by Bret Easton Ellis. Knopf. 504 pages. $25

Write what you know. That dictat has been delivered by editors to novelists since Samuel Richardson wrote ``Pamela.'' For Bret Easton Ellis, this mantra worked so successfully that his first novel, ``Less than Zero,'' written in 1983 while he was a 19-year-old student at the elite Bennington College, received significant critical attention.

``Less'' detailed the lives of disaffected L.A. white youth with too much money, too much access to drugs and too little motivation to do much but spend and snort. When ``Less'' debuted, friends grumbled Ellis' depictions were so effectively drawn because he had taken the editorial theorem to heart: Not only did he write what he knew, he wrote whom he knew.

Two novels and one short fiction collection later, ``write what you know'' has pigeonholed Ellis as the cataloguer of the disaffected - first of '80s youth, now of '90s slackers.

His latest effort, ``Glamorama,'' depicts in excruciatingly specific detail the lives of a coterie of models, celebrities, club kids, chic queers and other New York glitterati led by 27-year-old male model, would-be club owner, pansexual ``It Boy'' Victor Ward (nee Johnson, scion of a wealthy Washington politician) as they make their way from one vanilla hazelnut decaf latte Downtown to another killer super-iced martini Uptown on an icy fashion runway laced with Xanax, Klonopin, Prozac, endless name-dropping, excessive overspending and continual trendspotting.

``Glamorama'' is also an ``Alice through the Looking Glass'' (or disco mirror) allegory about life in the fast lane, and a bit of a cautionary tale. For Victor the center does not hold - moral, personal, professional, psychological. He literally loses his way as his identity dissolves (his agent doesn't know who he is, people keep seeing him places he hasn't been, he insists he's been places others say he never was, etc.).

His reality shifts and careens from navigating the pseudo-perils of the bitchy and back-biting to surviving international violence. Life as a social-climbing, celebrity-grubbing, icon-grasping, self-absorbed ``It Boy'' may not be all it seems.

As myriad characters in ``Glamorama'' might say: Duh!

As for audience, ``Glamorama'' reprises earlier Ellis and thus devotees might bite (though it's hard to imagine Knopf's 100,000 printing ending up anywhere but on next year's remainder table at Borders).

But readers who don't spend their days flipping through ``WWD,'' ``Interview'' and ``Details,'' don't hang on Liz Smith's or Cindy Adams' every caustic tidbit, don't live in Manhattan, don't follow the careers of Vivienne Tam, Matsuda and Itzak Mizrahi, never crave baby shrimp tempura, never touched heroin in any form (Ellis' own declared habit caused this book to take eight years to pen) may find themselves at sea amid names that have no resonance. As for the chic-lettes themselves, anyone reading Ellis knows they don't read, merely skim.

Those who openly scorned but secretly loved Ellis' last novel, ``American Psycho,'' will experience some deja vu: lurid sex and grisly violence (and that book's eponymous protagonist Patrick Bateman). Readers of Ellis' literary doppelganger Jay McInerney (''Bright Lights, Big City'') will recognize the character of Alison Poole (''Story of My Life''), here seen playing Lewinsky (with less body fat, far better clothes and much more clout) and setting some unpleasant plot devices in motion.

Ultimately ``Glamorama,'' like the world it depicts, bores. Neither classic Chanel nor the nouvelle chic designer du jour, ``Glamorama'' holds neither the staying power of ``Less'' nor the shock value of ``Psycho.''

The ennui is deafening. As Victor would note: Spare me.

Victoria A. Brownworth is the author of several books and editor of seven. She has taught writing for over 15 years. Her most recent collection of short fiction, ``Night Shade'' (Seal Press) will be published this spring.

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