- Glamorama Vanitas: Bret Easton Ellis’s Postmodern Allegory
In his New York Times review, Daniel Mendelsohn calls Glamorama “a bloated, stultifyingly repetitive, overhyped book” full of vacuous characters “who talk to one another and about themselves in what sounds suspiciously like ad copy” (8). In short, Mendelsohn’s suspicions are well-founded. Glamorama is repetitive and bombastic (though also, at times, wickedly funny). The characters do without a doubt speak in ad copy. But his glib judgment bypasses the most important function of aesthetic criticism—that is, not to “make taste” but rather to illuminate the historical situation of a particular aesthetic act. The question is: why has Ellis moved steadily further into the realm of allegory, and what relation does this allegory bear to the culture of postmodernity?
To say that Glamorama is a novel would be misleading. Although Ellis plays with and against the conventions of the first-person Bildungsroman, Glamorama is less a novel than a system of textual effects analogous to other scripted spaces: themed architecture, animated digital games, and special-effects films. Erik Davis has noted that adventure games cast the player in a first-person allegory, a highly structured space through which players wander, gathering objects and deciphering clues (213). A number of recent films, including The Matrix, Existenz, and Eyes Wide Shut, have explored this allegorical landscape. Yet, judged by traditional novelistic criteria—particularly the staid psychological realism that still prevails in many American creative writing programs—such texts inevitably fail. Characterization appears facile, tone flat. Plots seem gimmicky, often thematically overloaded and unbalanced, juvenile, or incoherent. Yet, given their prevalence and visibility in various media, only reactionary criticism can continue to dismiss these immersive allegories that offer the opportunity to act within a scripted space from the vantage point of a model identity. Our model in Glamorama is Victor Ward (née Johnson), semi-famous It-Boy and son of a US Senator, who falls in with a group of high-fashion terrorists. In a scene near the beginning of the book, Victor explains that Super Mario Bros. mirrors life: “Kill or be killed.... Time is running out.... And in the end, baby, you... are... alone.” Near the end of the book, as Victor’s narrative slides occasionally into second-person, it is clear that this wisdom refers to the allegory of Glamorama itself.
Ellis’s interest in this kind of allegory appears to date back to his first book, Less Than Zero (1985).1 But Glamorama foregrounds allegory with new intensity. This movement into the forest of allegory may relate to the controversy that has surrounded his books, especially American Psycho (1991). This debate has focused rather narrowly on representations of violence in Ellis’s work, and whether these representations are justified by a didactic satirical intent. Moving to the stage of international terrorism and conspiracy, Glamorama attempts to reframe these issues in terms of a historical thesis: Victor Ward and the enchanted panorama through which he moves are symptomatic of a cultural condition. In this respect, we might recall Walter Benjamin’s suggestion that allegory arises during historical periods of radical change, when cultural referents are stripped of their traditional values and must be re-signed through allegory. Benjamin might argue that the violence, confusion, amnesia, and enchantment that characterize Victor’s condition should not be seen as mere thematic content; such conditions are manifestations of allegorical form.
In allegorical narrative, surface is the essence of the thing. In Glamorama this rule applies not only to consumer commodities and designer fashions but also to male and female bodies, indiscriminately. Victor acts as a beautiful-but-disposable avatar within a textual labyrinth. In his Xanax-laced dreamstate, he cannot recall many past events or effectively account for his own movements. He’s a “sample size” with “the standard regrets,” cast in this role for his “’nonspecific... fabulosity.’” Superficial from the start, he struggles feebly to stanch an ontological leakage that leaves him empty and used up. He struggles to awake, but manages only relative degrees of wakefulness. His limbs keep going numb, then finally his entire body...