By Bret Easton Ellis
Bret Easton Ellis is one of those writers that you either "get" or you don't. Having read most of his books, I think I get him to a certain extent, but I won't pretend to be an Ellis expert. The first of his books that I read was American Psycho, which is still my favorite of his works. After reading Lunar Park and Less than Zero, it became clear to me that there was more to Ellis than Patrick Bateman, despite the fact that he was at his best with him.
This time around, we have Victor Ward, a vain, effeminate male model who cares for nothing but himself and his own personal promotion. He constantly stabs his girlfriend and his business partner in their respective backs while schmoozing with Skeet Ulrich and using selected lyrics from New Order and Everything But The Girl in the place of substantive answers to questions posed to him. He is involved with the opening of Damien's club but not-so-secretly harbors the ambition of opening his own. Victor is rather openly bisexual but detests gay men. A giant swastika is on the ceiling of the club. Victor has a penchant for appearing in two places at once, being simultaneously at a club and at a Calvin Klein show, yet photographic evidence proves he was at the latter when he can only recall the former (appearance is more reliable than memory). Then a mysterious man named Fred Palakon makes the poor little rich kid an offer he can't refuse: travel to Europe and locate his ex-girlfriend Jamie Fields for $300,000. In doing so, Victor becomes embroiled in an international terrorist cell run by the charismatic, domineering Bobby Hughes, a former model and peronsal "inspiration" to Victor. After unwillingly taking part in several bombings, Victor simply stops caring about the group's threats against him (including doctored photos that implicate him in a murder he did not commit) and tries to escape. And yet external forces (especially "the Japanese," whatever that implies) try to prevent this. I won't spoil the ending, but I'll discuss what Ellis gets right and what he gets wrong.
Glamorama is prefaced by two quotes: one by Krishna and the other by Adolf Hitler. The first says "there was no time when you nor I nor these kings did not exist;" a comment on the bending of reality that is a theme throughout the course of the book (Victor is always somewhere else and can seemingly be replaced at the drop of a hat; the interchangeability of people was a strong theme throughout American Psycho as well). The second quote reads "you make a mistake if you see what we do as merely political;" that is, the National Socialist movement in Germany was naturally political, but there is an argument that it was part of a broader aesthetic theory of existence that featured crisp uniforms, swastikas, runes, and a Nordic ideal of humanity. I think Ellis intends to make us imagine the flipside of that statement as exemplified by Victor Ward and the fashion industry in general: "you make a mistake if you see what we do as merely aesthetic." The painful vapidity of Bobby Hughes' terrorist "ideology" is, for Ellis, the natural consequence of the vapidity of the aesthetic concerns of fashion. When you just step back and think about it for a second, who actually cares what some clone from So Cal is wearing or the next one or the next one or the next one? What effect does this have on anyone or anything? (The references to "out being in and in being out" refer both to shifts in reality and also prefigure the nihilistic rationale for the terrorism of Bobby Hughes.)
The book is set up into two parts: the first, which runs for approximately the first 200 pages is Victor Ward before the Palakon meeting; the second, which runs for basically the rest of the book, comes after the meeting and sees Victor "join" the cell. The book is intentionally set up this way to draw parallels between the two situations; Damien and Bobby are similar in the archetypal way that Krishna discusses in the quote before the book as are Lauren Hynde and Jamie Fields. The sexual and economic betrayals in the first half of the book mirror the geopolitical intrigues of the second. The trip across the ocean from New York to London (and Paris) symbolizes the transition between the aesthetic and the political, the superficial and the subtextual.
As far as the deeper meaning goes, Ellis got much of it right and I think that I correctly understood much of it. The execution, on the other hand, was somewhat lacking. For starters, the book is too long. This is most painfully apparent in the first 200 pages which, despite being a truly precise satire of the culture of the 1990s, are banal beyond belief. This was arguably intenional on the part of Ellis, but it does little to illuminate the plot or to make the book any more interesting. Similarly, Ellis has a jumpy style of writing that paradoxically becomes predictable, especially when it is spaced out over the course of about 600 pages. The following type of structure is not uncommon:
I ran and I saw Bobby.
He had a gun.
He was pointing it at me.
I was going to die.
And so forth. Another stumbling block is the completely unsympathetic nature of the protagonist, Victor Ward. Well, this is only half right; plenty of great books have unlikable protagonists (A Clockwork Orange, the Stranger, Pale Fire, Ellis's own American Psycho, and maybe even Frankenstein) but they are all one thing that Victor Ward is not: interesting. Perhaps the hyper self-awareness of the book creates this problem; all of Ellis's protagonists eventually experience an epiphany of some sort that changes very little in their behaviors or their attitudes, but makes them mopey and angsty for the rest of the book. Regrettably, this post-epiphany Victor constitutes about the last 150-200 pages of the book.
Overall, "Glamorama" explores interesting themes and has certain important points to make, but gets bogged down by the weight of itself (is this Ellis's longest book?). Recommended for hardcore Ellis fans as well as those who want to see what Zoolander would have been like if it were serious. (Fun fact: Ellis is on record as hating Zoolander and has said that he contemplated taking legal action against Ben Stiller for copyright infringement. If only he had.)
I also posted this review to Amazon.com, so if you go there and see it, don't think I stole it from there.