Sunday, March 28, 2010

How Bret Easton Ellis made me a reader and a writer

It's been ten years since American Psycho hit theaters, shocking and appalling plenty of people. Certainly the novel, published in 1991, had been shocking far longer, and next year it celebrates 20 years (!), but I had never heard of it until the year 2000.

I was in high school, aged fifteen, and prone to reading Stephen King and Michael Crichton, and whatever else was pulpy. I had wanted to read American Psycho because of the controversy surrounding the movie (that I never ended up seeing until three years later). When I finally got my hands on the novel, I read the first two thirds very quickly, and gave up, as the violence and bizarre ambiguity proved too difficult for the fifteen year old me.

It took me another try to finish the novel a couple months later, and then, suddenly, I read all of Ellis' published material, loving almost everything, loving the cold detached feeling the prose gave me, loving the nihilistic depression it put me in, loving the sex, the violence, the trangressive nature of it all, even if I couldn't describe what it was that Ellis' fiction did to me.

The first thing I did after reading Ellis was to try on his rather unique voice in my own writing. I had only just started writing fiction at the time, and mostly I was sticking with science fiction or horror, but when I discovered Ellis, I discovered a whole new genre: satire. I started writing stories about detached pretty young people who did too much drugs and went from party to party, doing nothing but. I wrote an entire novel about a couple's monogamy threatened by a young coked out businessman with violent tendencies. It was the first full length novel I ever wrote. After that, I wrote another whole novel about a fashion model who may or may not be a terrorist.

Ellis' voice and themes simply haunted my writing. His shadow loomed over every sentence I wrote, and it didn't help that I kept reading more American fiction in the transgressive realm, starting with everyone's favourite, Chuck Palahniuk.

Oh how I wish Palahniuk had stopped writing after his first four books. I was totally behind the times when in 2001 I read Fight Club and then watched the movie. I loved that book so much, and I liked his next few books, but after that - blech. I wrote a couple stories that featured variations on Palahniuk's choral devices (I am Jack's blahblah). All of it was terrible.

Moving into university, I had sort of stopped reading all of that stuff and was focusing on other forms of American fiction, like hard sci-fi and Neal Stephenson, and what critics call "literature", like Jonathan Franzen and Richard Ford. But Ellis' violent nihilism pervaded my sensibilities.

I wrote a novel about a young drugged out teenager who worked as a hitman, was betrayed by his employers, went on the run, and turned out to be a genetically engineered clone designed for military usage, created by an Evil Corporation. The whole thing was an exercise in adolescent aestheticization of violence, including the two-gun-akimbo John Woo ballet action. It was turgid.

I had also discovered proper metafiction at the time, and I wrote a zombie novella that featured tons of memetic theory and post-modernism. I finally put all of this together, everything I had stolen from Ellis and Palahniuk and Stephenson and King, and I wrote a really long novel about a failed writer with anger management issues.

It wasn't until I was almost done university, when I started to write proper fiction, in my own voice, about things that mattered to me. I wrote one short story that I consider my masterpiece, and nothing I've tried to write since has measured up to it. 

Ellis even began my complete obsession with California. Ever since I read Less Than Zero, I have wanted to visit that state so badly. The cover of my copy of Less Than Zero made me ache for Los Angeles. 

But Ellis also made me a real reader to. There's tons of obvious symbols and metaphors in American Psycho, or at least, obvious to me now. But at age fifteen, I had never encountered metaphors beyond what King used. The best example in American Psycho, the one I remember best, is when Patrick Bateman gives his girlfriend a urinal cake wrapped in the packaging for an expensive chocolate, and she eats it and loves it, even if it's a urinal cake, because it was in brand name packaging.

I also learned to question what the narrator was even saying. Unreliable narration was new to me, and Ellis introduced it to me first. I still get into arguments about whether or not Bateman committed the murders he so carefully details in the novel, and I've never actually chosen a side in the debate.

I was taught the importance of the first line. There's nothing more important, and I can still remember the first lines of Ellis' first four novels. That goes to show how much of an impact he had on me.

I am positive that I am not the only young person whom Ellis influenced so strongly. There's tons of us out there, infected by Ellis' unique brand of nihilism and existentialism. His novels certainly got me to learn what those words meant and where they came from.

Bret Easton Ellis continues to be one of my favourite authors. I'm nervous that since I'm older and have read more widely, that when I return to Less Than Zero, to gear up for Imperial Bedrooms, that Ellis is going to seem adolescent or prurient. I'm certainly never going to forget the debt I owe to Ellis as a reader and writer, like King to Poe, or John Irving to Dickens.

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