Combining the world of celebrity and conspiracy theory, Glamorama, Bret Easton Ellis' first full novel since 1991's American Psycho (1994's The Informers was a series of vignettes), takes on the classic Ellis topic: the amoral world. This time, that world is not just New York (as in American Psycho) or Los Angeles (The Informers, Less Than Zero) but that of international celebrity, taking in the glitterati axis of New York-London-Paris which Woody Allen has visited recently, but more lightheartedly--in contrast, Ellis is cold, cold, cold.
No vampires populate this particular Ellis work, but it's hard to believe that any warm blood flows in Glamorama's characters. Victor Ward, fashion's latest "It Boy of the moment," is the novel's memorable protagonist, an uberstereotype of the male model. "The better you look, the more you see," goes Victor's pithy saying, and he believes it. His lifestyle is the extreme of everything the current culture worships: he can't avoid thinking in brand names and image and speaks with lines from pop songs ("do you have the time to listen to me whine?"). Even honesty to him is merely another image--"The 90s are honest, straightforward. Let's reflect that". Obviously not too bright (the opening page has a hilarious scene of his asking "Who the fuck is Moi?)," Victor is obsessed with attaining celebrity, debating for hours "the best angle a designer beret should be tilted." This is his world, where "beauty (is) considered an accomplishment," where double-crossing is limited to the opening of rival dance clubs, where no one has any emotions beyond the visceral response, where all the sex scenes are described in purely pornographic terms.
This is funny enough but gets tired easily. Celebrity by itself teeters so often into self-parody that it seems too easy to bash it. Fortunately, Ellis does more than that, injecting Glamorama with a sharper plot than those of earlier novels, a plot which kicks in about a quarter of the way into the novel. Victor, for a $300,000 fee, is sent by the mysterious F. Fred Palakon (whose name echoes G. Gordon Liddy's neatly enough to hint at the web of deceit to follow) to London to look for a former Camden College friend, Jamie Fields, now a model. Slowly, he gets entangled in a much larger plot, where models are really the terrorists, responsible for bombings of the Institute of Political Studies and other major buildings. Uncharacteristically for an Ellis protagonist, Victor is terrified by all this coldbloodedness. It's the perfect nexus of all that is newsworthy, where celebrity and politics are inextricable. Given how little the models seem to care about people, it makes perfect sense. As Jamie Fields says, "basically, everyone was a sociopath...and all the girls' hair was chignoned."
This is the conspiracy theorist's tempting conceit, the assumption that someone is behind all the awful events in the world. The true terror is, of course, that no one is, and we live in a world of random horror. Still, the premise is intriguing. Unfortunately, it gets spoilt by Ellis' penchant for proper nouns. For a book whose main character is so desperately au courant, the anachronisms and inaccuracies are enough to disturb. References are still made to the late Michael Hutchence, Winona Ryder still dates Dave Pirner, and the de rigeur Startac cellphone is misspelled. A deeper problem is the namedropping. Supposedly meant to satirize Victor's obsession with looks, one cannot help but feel that it just reflects the author's attraction to glamour.
At heart, Ellis is a moral satirist torn by his attraction to what he criticizes. There are scenes which are nothing more than masturbatory lists of famous names--"Brooke Shields; John Stamos, Stephanie Seymour, Jenny Shimuzu [sic]". And so many brand names make an appearance, from Alaia to Prada to Yohji Yamamoto, you'd think he had a product placement contract. It seems to be Ellis' convenient shorthand for character sketches. When Victor undergoes a transformation to a law student, we know he is different because he now wears a Brooks Brothers suit and drinks Diet Coke. London and Paris become nothing more than a different collection of recognizable proper nouns (Notting Hill and Irvine Welsh in the first case; Chez Georges and Yves Saint-Laurent in the second).
And Ellis' annoying habit of naming the songs that are playing in the background, or even quoting them, as he does with Oasis' "Champagne Supernova", comes across like an effort to give a soundtrack to the entire book. Perhaps this is all a parody of how celebrities or people in general think in the modern world, but surely the point could be made with less. As it stands, all the names merely detract from Victor's troubles.
Still, Victor's sense of terror in being unable to distinguish the true from the false is unmistakable. The world of celebrity in Glamorama really is inescapable, not just because Victor is too shallow to comprehend anything beyond it, but because everything--from the public spheres of politics and religion to the private sphere of sex--is part of this world. The plot twists more often than Chubby Checker on speed. Reality alternates with the constructed so often that the constructed becomes real: "everything is altered... everyone will believe this". Even the novel itself borrows Jay McInerney's Alison Poole character (from McInerney's Story of My Life).
Altered photos of Victor supposedly at various parties and photo shoots appear, and he is threatened with edited photos of him ostensibly in the act of murder. It's the ultimate payback for someone obsessed with looks. This 'real truth' is less shallow than the original world of glitz we are used to--and at the same time purely superficial.
All the action, all the blood and gore of bombings is really just more material for the cameras to take in. It's the book as snuff film, real pain made distant by the act of filming. At one point, the apparent master terrorist-supermodel Bobby Hughes commands the killing, and then turns to his associate with the camcorder and says "Keep rolling".
Glamorama is a book that reads like a movie, and its constant references to Victor's life being filmed ("I think the look they exchange is over-done; the director, surprisingly, does not") without any specific motive is a tidy commentary on the creeping increase of observation. After all, when we put down the book, we can return to the 'real' world and watch When Animals Attack and Cops on prime time television.
Has the world become just like Ellis describes--one of sheen and brands? The temptation is to respond to Glamorama in a superficial way, merely enjoying the great lines and the action, not seeing it as real. And Ellis, for all his critique of style, is a master of it, using especially cutting lines to describe Victor's shallowness. As one character says, Victor thinks the "Gaza Strip is a particularly lascivious move an erotic dancer makes", while Alison tells him "the only pet you ever owned was the Armani Eagle".
"We'll slide down the surface of things" runs the constant refrain of the novel, and while Glamorama's 482 pages of vacuous characters provoke a desire to surface, to break out of the trap of celebrity, it also points out the pervasive nature of glamor. Ellis is often more interested in being cool than actual meaning (the novel opens with a Hitler quote); with Glamorama, he seems to be saying that this is the only truth we all share