Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The better you look, the more you see

I just finished reading Glamorama, a Brett Easton Ellis novel I'd been meaning to get to for sometime. (I picked up a used copy at a store Jacob took us to for the express purpose of buying Moxie, an odd regional soda that tastes like medicine. But I digress.) This is the fifth Ellis book I've read, having become a fan through the movie versions of American Psycho and The Rules of Attraction and gone on to read his uniquely satirical and deceptively superficial writing. (It's hard to complain about flat, vapid characters, for instance, when that is clearly the author's intent.) This one shares many of the hallmarks of the author's work: cold, aimless characters, excessive pop culture references and name dropping, gruesomely explicit violence, and narrative ambiguity. It still stands out as a unique and singular achievement, though, as a book that serves as both cultural commentary and hallucinogenic fever dream. Glamorama centers on Victor Ward, an uber-cool male model first introduced in Rules of Attraction, who we here meet in mid 1990s New York City. Like many Ellis men, he's actually kind of a douche: status obsessed to a fault, he treats almost everyone in his life poorly, from girlfriend Chloe to mistress Allison to business partner Damien. But Victor remains strangely sympathetic, maybe because he's less knowing player than lost puppy dog. The first chunk of the novel firmly establishes Victor's high rolling life: endless parties, magazine stories, preparations for the opening of a new club. (A full two pages consist of Victor approving or dismissing potential guests of varying degrees of celebrity.) The irony quickly creeps in as we realize that Victor is, among other things, fairly broke-- while he motorcycles around Manhattan in designer clothes, he can't even afford CDs at the Virgin Megastore. When opening night finally arrives, Victor's personal life basically implodes, and he seeks escape just when a mysterious man named Palakon has engaged him for an unusual mission: to find ex girlfriend Jamie Fields and bring her back from London. (It's clear that Palakon has hidden motives, but naive Victor is oblivious and thinks she's simply needed for a movie shoot.) Once he boards a ship bound for England, things take an increasingly bizarre turn. Ellis introduces the idea that a film crew is following Victor's every move, that this is all a scripted movie, although we're never sure if this is "real" or a figment of Victor's imagination. An attractive girl catches his fancy, then abruptly disappears. When he finds Jamie, she welcomes him into her seemingly idyllic social circle: good looking, successful model types-- including Victor's idol Bobby Hughes-- who mirror the elite types he's become estranged from back in New York. But all is not what it seems, and Jamie and her pals emerge as terrorists capable of acts of horrifying torture and depravity, especially Bobby. Victor gets caught up in bombings, framings, and a complicated involvement with both Jamie and Bobby. Victor professes to be straight but winds up in a bisexual threesome with both characters, a sex scene so relentlessly pornographic that it seems like it was meant to come off as gratuitous sleaze. Palakon continues to confuse Victor with mixed messages, and the protagonist finds himself doubting the motives of everyone around him as well as his own sanity. As at least one critic has noted, Glamorama reads less like a "novel"-- certainly not in the traditional sense-- than as a meditation on themes and styles, with the narrative switching between first, second, and third person narration, and employing the conventions of Hollywood filmmaking (up to and including "soundtrack" songs). Ellis sprawling book encompasses everything from our obsession with youth, beauty, and fame (which seemed to reach a new zenith in the 90s) to fears about terrorism and random violence. "We'll slide down the surface of things," Victor repeats again and again, before he begins to see what lies beneath that "glittering" surface. "The better you look, the more you see" is Victor's catch phrase, and what seems at first like an empty platitude emerges as a thesis for the book. The deeper Victor gets into the world of models and parties, the more he realizes that its one of sinister secrets-- where beautiful bodies can be tortured, hacked, and blown apart, and where powerful forces can manipulate and control your every move. It's a relentlessly bleak view of modern culture that has the ring of bitter truth.

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