I meet Matt at BookCourt an hour and forty-five minutes before the reading in Brooklyn. I haven’t seen him in months. Every time we reunite, I think the same thing: this room isn’t big enough to contain two people as beautiful as this. I consider loathing myself for this — it’s not a competition — but there it is all the same. In my head the words take up physical space and I visualize pushing them aside so they disappear somewhere near the ear canal.
Matt and I are catching up on summer cocktail recipes when I spot a publishing nemesis across the room. Matt wonders aloud if, like the Kindle, the price of Botox will go down in this city. The tension is thick and we’re both feeling exposed in front, but we’re determined to sit close enough to the podium to smell the magic of Bret Easton Ellis. Someone has crossed out the word “Ellis” from the poster on the podium so that it now reads “Elvis.” I smile at no one in particular.
Matt reiterates his distaste for Bret’s latest novel and the reason we’re here, Imperial Bedrooms, even as we plot our autograph strategy. I concede that I don’t like the title and would have chosen The Sequel or Subzero. He hands me the coveted bound manuscript, size 8.5 x 11, not even a galley, given to him by The Advocate magazine, his sometime employer.
“You’ll basically read it in an hour,” Matt says of the 168-page book.
“That’s cool,” I say, knowing that I can’t likely read my shampoo bottle that fast.
“Oh please,” Matt says. “It’s absurd.”
Matt has a really heavy Australian accent that always makes me feel more glamorous in spite of the fact that I usually don’t approve of Australian accents. I opine that he wants the sequel to Less Than Zero to be more the size of Glamorama, but how far can you go when you’re already starting below the line?
We recognize people in the crowd: Miranda July’s favorite author, Tao Lin, is here. Tao Lin turns to look at me and I turn to look at him at the exact same moment and then we look at each other and nod. He asks me how I am, which I know actually means: are you still an agent? Tao Lin talks in lowercase. I mumble something indiscernible even to me. He is the first Asian guy I’ve ever been attracted to. (That’s not true -– there was also the one guy from “Lost” who wasn’t Jin.) I think I just think I’m attracted to him though. He always walks around accompanied by a beautiful woman and I admit some part of me finds that exciting. My Blackberry keeps buzzing in my purse, and I check to see that Lee Bob Black has sent me a text message from somewhere in the depths of the crowd. I turn it off.
The second hour goes by in what seems only as long as a song by The Hold Steady. I look around the room, it’s filled to capacity. Maybe 245 people. Bret Easton Ellis is led up the narrow aisle marked by too few chairs by a size-zero publicist in the requisite Knopf publicist’s uniform –- a black sleeveless cotton shift dress from Banana Republic, Tiffany earrings, and black kitten slingbacks. I imagine her struggles with food, her secret smoking. She is young and yet seems older than I am. Of course I measure her beauty next to mine, not how I really look, but how I imagine I do. I think I might have permanent beer goggles when it comes to my own image, though I believe my looks actually peaked at age 23. Of course lots of people see a distortion of what’s really there, lots of people when they regard themselves see a grotesque monster. It’s sad.
Bret is introduced. He is wearing a navy blue polo shirt by Lacoste. His skin is the color of Aspen -– reddish Caucasian. He has been out in the sun. He likely has a swimming pool at his place in West Hollywood. Men never wear sunscreen. Bret has been working out. He is handsome, but in person the hair is just as thin as it would be, the hairline long ago receded. Matt and I agree that the thicker hair portrayed in some recently published glamour shots is simply the result of Photoshop. There is a standing ovation.
Bret looks nervous. He says “thanks you, guys” and announces that he will read for about 5 minutes, then take questions from us since he’s both bored of reading and feeling generous tonight. I assess the crowd. It looks to be made up of mostly 20-somethings. Only a smattering of suited, plastic surgery failures litter the front -– I assume those members of the audience belong to ICM, Bret’s agency: so much Escada. Lots of young writers: so much American Apparel.
Bret reads too quickly from a section of the book that depicts a party in the Hollywood Hills. He puts his hand on the back of his neck as he reads, like a jock giving a book report. His voice is so sexy, I wish he would slow down. All too soon it’s over. He must be really shy.
A girl wearing microscopic short-shorts with a spray tan and hideous platform clogs raises her hand. When she speaks you can tell that she’s lost her voice, no doubt from screaming like a maniac for one of these ever-present soccer matches Americans suddenly get so riled up over now.
“I’m really sorry but I’ve lost my voice. I’m going to try though.” [Bret looks pained. I am already cringing. This is what we have come to see.] “My question is…given that your characters are admittedly autobiographical…at least to some degree…do you ever see yourself allowing those characters to be redeemed?” [She clears her throat, it makes it worse] “Will they ever grow? Will you ever like them?”
Bret regards her for 3 long seconds. “I’m sorry, can you repeat the question?”
The girl opens her mouth to laugh but no sound comes out. I imagine a large bullfrog sits in the back of her throat. The room is quiet. Bret tries to sum up the question for the people in the back.
“The question is do I like my characters, and will they ever be redeemed? Also, do I like myself and will I ever allow myself to grow as a human being? Look, I don’t worry about this kind of thing when I’m writing. I think numbness is a feeling worth looking at. I’m not interested in redeeming these characters. I like flawed characters –- they’re more realistic, and like flawed people, more interesting — and I differ with the publishing industry that books need happy endings and that characters need to grow and find what they’re looking for. If that’s what you’re into, you know, you should go read Nicholas Sparks. Or The Help.”
God I love him. He’s my favorite writer, hands down. Of course I admire all kinds of books and writers, and sure, every once in awhile a novel comes along where it just touches my heart or whatever, but it’s just on another level with Bret. His books have made me laugh, marvel, get jealous, dream about being him, recognize that nothing lies at the bottom of the abyss, feel cool, try new drugs, consider bisexuality, jerk off unexpectedly, think about “the culture,” feel isolated and emotionally desolate, leave the east coast, then stay, vow never to fall in love with an actor or a producer or anyone in the business, and break up with boyfriends when they begin to remind me of Patrick Bateman. Bret Easton Ellis’ characters affirm the way that I sometimes feel about the world when I am feeling suspicious of the world, but before I read Less Than Zero I was too ashamed to admit it. After, I was still ashamed but I admitted it anyway. I see what Bret sees, except he sees it all the way to the bank.
From now on the questions will all be some variation of this first one. When will your characters be less vapid? Do you even like your characters? Are you inside all your characters? What percentage of your novels are autobiographical? What’s the difference between the Bret Easton Ellis who wrote ‘Lunar Park’ and the one that stands before us now? Do your friends get mad when they see themselves in your books?
Bret is exasperated. He is disappointed in the crowd and frankly so am I.
“How do you deal with writers block?”
“I don’t get writer’s block. Partly because I think about the book so long before I start writing it. I don’t write every day. I write when I feel like it and I’m usually very focused and I’m enjoying it.
“If people in L.A. are “afraid to merge” what are New Yorkers afraid of?”
“I can’t answer that. That’s like a Match.com question. Next.”
“Which is your true love –- screenwriting or the book thing?”
“Are these the only options? What about drinking tequila? Look… guys, I like both those things, but they’re very different. Writing a novel, you’re isolated. Screenwriting is totally social. It’s a collaboration with a bunch of movie people. It’s not about what I want, it’s about what will ultimately get made, and anyone who thinks differently is not living in the real world.”
“Who is your favorite rapper?”
“Look, guys, I’m old, okay? I listen to The National.”
“Do you worry over your place in The Canon and do you consider how you’ll be written about after you die?”
“No, I do not worry about my place in The Canon. No. Jesus. No.”
If you’re a person who believes that bad feelings and repression can give you cancer then Bret Easton Ellis is probably not the writer for you. His books are not uplifting. He writes in a style that can only be described as cocky. His characters are authentically, grossly narcissistic. They are Prada clad zombies who engage in analingus and have vapid conversations while dining in restaurants called Comme Ça. They’re lowly, overweight screenwriters who have sex with teenage boys at the Chateau Marmont — thank god for executive producer credits — and blonde, paper thin MAWs who would trade you-know-what for a topless role in a movie about a reanimated flesh-eating beanbag monster. There are no winners, there are no journeys, nobody ever gets sober, nobody knows how to love, women are disappearing one by one, and so much cocaine is snorted that nobody can smell the puddle of blood they’re standing in. Elegantly depraved youth never need to grow, they’re perfectly content just to live at all.
Can’t you hear it? That’s Jonathan Franzen whimpering in a dark corner because he had no idea what the Great American Novel really was until he read American Psycho. Think about it.
Finally the owner of the bookstore announces that it’s time to get in line so Mr. Ellis can sign our books. Matthew and I push our way to the side of the bookshelf with the rest of the herd. The line looks endless. We are in the first quarter of it, but Tao Lin is way in front. Just then I see a female author of some notoriety walk right up to Bret at his table and whisper something flirty in his ear. I hear her giggle something along the lines of “from one author to another…”
“Did you hear that?” I whip my ponytail around, hitting Matt in the face. “She’s pulling the author card!”
Bret appears to be falling for it. He’s beaming and ignoring the nervous looking publicist, saying something like “that is SO nice, thank you.” I call the notorious female author’s name –- we’re friendly –- but she neglects to hear me or respond.
Bret begins to sign and pose for pictures with NYU students. Dammit, why didn’t I think to bring a camera? Matt tells me the name of one of three young men that sit on a VIP couch near the table where Bret signs. Some young artist dressed like he’s gonna shoot the Billie Jean video after this. I can’t stop staring at the perfectly symmetrical blonde boy sitting next to him, wearing a bespoke suit and studying his cuticles. He’s the one rumored to be Bret’s love object du jour. His skin is dewy with youth.
Sixteen minutes later it’s my turn. I slide the bound manuscript of Imperial Bedrooms in front of Bret. The publicist is about to ask my name when she sees it, then says, “I made that myself.” Bret is excited for me.
“This is pretty rare,” he says, making eye contact.
“I know,” I say. “I work in publishing, so I know.”
“I’ll just sign it where it will be worth the most money,” he says, and does, too quickly. And then it’s over.
Matt is waiting in front for me so now it’s time to go. I don’t want our alone time to end.
“This is my friend’s ARC,” I say to Bret, pointing to Matt. “He was gonna review it for The Advocate but the piece got pulled or something. You know how it is…”
“Miss,” the publicist says, not unkindly, “we have to keep this line moving. You understand…”
Matt says he’ll walk me to the F train. On the way to Bergen we stumble upon a strange art gallery neither of us has ever seen before. Once inside, after we’ve made use of the facilities, we’re both immediately drawn to a table in the center of the room. It’s an installation of a dinner table set for two — two place settings, but with silverware that measures 4 feet long. The only way you could eat with it was if you used your fork to feed the other person sitting across from you and vice-versa. The piece costs $13,000.00.
“You know what?” Matt says absentmindedly, moving on. “I think my next novel’s gonna feature cannibalism.”
“The young adult one?”
I really should try, I think, as Matt kisses me goodbye under another radioactive Brooklyn sunset, to do something more inventive with my nail color.