It's a name that pretty much everyone will recognize, even if they’ve never picked up one of his books: Bret Easton Ellis.
He published his first book, Less Than Zero, while he was still in college, leading to a lot of public attention. A buzzy New York Times review called it "one of the most disturbing novels in a long time", and at the mere age of 21, Ellis found himself with a burgeoning author career.
His third novel, American Psycho, is likely the book people know best—be it for its popular 2000 film adaptation with Christian Bale or the controversy that arose amid its publication (being delisted and banned by his first publisher, negative media attention...the list goes on).
Ellis has also written a number of other novels and screenplays, including one essay collection that errs towards being bold and controversial as if on brand. Perhaps it is, yet the Bret Easton Ellis portrayed on the page is a lot like the Bret Easton Ellis seen in the media: a brandable persona/character all his own.
If you haven’t taken the dive into his bibliography, Ellis will surprise you: Each book carries his trademark laconic, addictive voice as he delves into an entirely new—though no less dark—genre.
It makes sense to start with what is likely to be the book he is remembered for most, his “masterpiece.” American Psycho remains a controversial, disturbing psychological thriller in modern-day 2023 as much as it was when it was first published in 1991.
The misogynistic, void-like Patrick Bateman works on Wall Street at Pierce and Pierce while spending every moment of his day chasing this idea of hyper-consumerist conformity. He frequents trendy New York City establishments, buys designer… everything, and takes pride in how much he makes in a given year. He is also a closeted serial killer with an increasingly horrific urge to dismember and destroy.
Ellis has spoken about how Bateman arrived to him based on a sincere dislike of how he was living at the time, feeling disconnected and disaffected amid a world of expense and designer living. The novel echoes the madness of capitalistic fixation, and like the title itself suggests, the “psycho” at the center of the book is a byproduct of an America in dire need of looking inward.
Less Than Zero
His debut novel acts as a sort of foundation for many of his later novels. In the Shards, Ellis the character is in the midst of writing what would become Less Than Zero; Imperial Bedrooms is a direct sequel to Less Than Zero where Clay, Blair, Julian, and others have reached middle-age and are dealing with a new set of internal demons. His story collection, The Informers, anchors itself between his debut novel and perhaps the high-concept thriller Glamorama.
Less Than Zero wears its heart literally on its sleeve. In fact, the point of the novel is to not have a heart at all. Clay returns to Los Angeles on holiday break from attending college and falls back into a life of partying, with all its recognizable vacuities and traps. Throughout the novel, Ellis examines morality by testing the very essence of wrongdoing. Hell, there’s even a snuff film in the book. That fact that so much of what is at the root of what makes the novel so disturbing remains timeless, ever-present in our modern day, is the real lasting horror of the book.
His 2005 novel, Lunar Park, is when Ellis really leaned into autofiction. Conceived as a “mock memoir,” Ellis begins the novel with an extensive overview of his career from Less Than Zero to present day, with all its partying, controversy, and antics. It’s exaggerated and written with an eye for satire yet it intentionally uses Ellis’s own career as the bedrock for the forthcoming novel.
Lunar Park begins with Bret Easton Ellis the character living in a McMansion in the suburbs with wife and kids, doing his best to stay out of trouble (read: less partying, less drugs, less booze). The effort is sound but doesn’t last as, once again, figments of his fiction seep into the would-be reality of the novel. Patrick Bateman appears in various scenes, a mock threat; and then things get supernatural. His daughter’s Furby-style doll comes to life, things go bump in the night, and Ellis begins to fall deep into his old ways.
In many ways, Lunar Park is Ellis impersonating his past work in order to write a refreshingly original supernatural thriller.
So think Zoolander but with the volume (and vacuity) turned to eleven. Though Ellis has gone on-record stating that he and the films producers were in talks of some kind of settlement due to Glamorama having been published widely years before Zoolander was anything more than a script, it is still worth mentioning in the same breath because Glamorama really is the horror, Ellis-defined version of the comedy classic.
In Glamorama, we meet a vain and irritating Victor Ward, a seemingly perfect, zero-percent body fat supermodel living in the haute fashion circles of 90s Manhattan, wafting between endless parties and exclusive events. The cameras are always watching, the paparazzi documenting his every move, even before he’s made his step.
Glamorama captures what we can’t stand about networking, the transactional nature of name-dropping and flexing for validation. Ellis goes one step (you could say many steps) further when he takes Ward and other celebrities and turns them into terrorists, vessels for various bomb hits and domestic terror.
His first novel in 12 years is out this month and in many ways is a sendoff to the autofiction approach Ellis has always orbited—though he's only fully committed to the form in his last couple of books.
In The Shards, Ellis returns to his 17-year-old self—or at least a fictionalized version—attending a prestigious preparatory school. The novel takes its time, another Ellis trademark, building out the vacuity and aimlessness of the novel’s characters, all the while a growing menace, a serial killer named the Trawler, inches closer to Ellis and his friend group.
The novel, acting as a unifying bridge across Ellis’s other novels, is sure to satisfy fans.