Bret Easton Ellis has made a career out of thinly skinning his own experiences with a fictional sheen. All the way back to his college days with Less Than Zero (1985) and The Rules of Attraction (1987) through his layers of postmodernism with Glamorama (2000) and Lunar Park (2006). Given his fictionalized appearance in Lunar Park, the main character is named Bret Easton Ellis after all, I was sure White (Knopf Doubleday, 2019), his first work of nonfiction, would blur similar lines. It’s by no means an autobiography, but it does have those elements, as well as being based in our current consensus-less reality.
Who knew that American Psycho (1991), Ellis’s most violent and overtly ironic novel, would be the most relevant 30 years later? The Wall-Street serial psycho, avatar of detached dismemberment and manic misogyny, Patrick Bateman could be president now, and he’s nothing if not his contemporary. The way that Ellis flattened out the descriptions of Bateman’s routines is one of the most unsettling aspects of that book. Whether brushing his teeth or cutting off a human head, discussing the finer points of a Whitney Houston song or which tools work best on bone, Bateman’s affect remains steady. The heightened events are the most trivial: missing dinner reservations or sales on suits, or whose business card or haircut was best. The problem with irony as such is that it is so often lost. The problem with Bateman and American Psycho is that without the irony, it doesn’t work. It’s just layers of shiny surfaces and toned abs at best, and abject horror at worst. The problem with our current moment is that without the irony, it doesn’t work. It’s just layers of fake facts and reposted untruths at best, and abject horror at worst. Bret Easton Ellis demonstrates this in fact and in fiction. Twitter as theater. Vitriol as validation.
In the preface to his 1997 book Doom Patrols, Steven Shaviro explains that it is a work of theoretical fiction because he treats “discursive ideas and arguments in a way analogous to how a novelist treats characters and events.” At the end of the preface, he writes, “Needless to say, this book is autobiographical. Every word.” Jim Carrey and Dana Vachon start Memoirs and Misinformation: A Novel (Knopf Doubleday, 2020) with the Shaviro-echoing line, “None of this is real and all of it is true.” Their book reads like a Bret Easton Ellis novel: some obviously veiled true stories and other obviously made up scenarios contrived to make a point about real events. The main character is Jim Carrey, who has method acted his way through biopics and documentaries alike, so he knows the terrain well. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t get lost every once in a while, but those burning valleys and coastal fractals are some of the best parts of the trip.
The thing about both of these books, one ostensibly nonfiction and the other explicitly fictionalized, is that they are full of characters and events. People playing characters. Events allegedly playing out among characters. People not being real yet playing real all the same. Both approaches accurately sum up the moment we’re living in. All the promises of postmodern persona fulfilled at last. Events and nonevents flattened out all the way to the horizon.