Stranded in the Jungle--34

Bret Easton Ellis, Glamorama

FASHION. "The better you look, the more you see." So says Victor, the narrator of Bret Easton Ellis' 1999 novel Glamorama. Victor is a fashion model, "the It Boy of the moment." His life is a blur of drinks and joints and Xanax, designer labels and photo ops and glances into the mirror. He is dating a supermodel, opening a trendy nightclub, and angling for a role in a hot Hollywood sequel. His face adorns the covers of hip magazines. Paparazzi and video crews follow his every step, as he moves from gym to restaurant to runway. This media coverage is Victor's only proof of his own existence. In our media society, to be is to be perceived. So much depends upon how you look, and where you have been seen. If you haven't appeared on MTV, you're nothing. That's why Glamorama is filled with long lists of celebrity names. These lists are the contemporary equivalent of Homer's catalogue of ships. Everybody recognizes Cindy Crawford and Gwyneth Paltrow. Their faces appear on screens and billboards all over the world. Glamorama is the great epic of this celebrity culture. It reads like the literary version of a stylish music video. It's all slick angles, fast cuts, and glitzy surfaces. Beautiful people and prestigious brand names are prominently on display. Pop songs are always playing in the background. Ellis' prose is thick with clichés, pop culture allusions, and flat camera-eye descriptions. There's lots of conversation, full of non-sequiturs and mutual misunderstandings. The plot reaches dizzying extremes of absurdity and abjection. But through it all, Victor's first person, present-tense narration remains blank and detached. His feelings are always placed "in quotation marks." Victor is a passive spectator of his own actions, and even of his own anguish and fear. His take on things is numbingly literal. One of the book's jokes is that, whenever anyone uses a metaphor, Victor invariably fails to understand it. He is impervious to irony, as to any hint of ambiguity or depth. All Victor can do is "slide down the surface of things," in the words of a U2 song he likes to quote. There is something seductive in such stupidity. There is something exhilarating about so rapt an embrace of looks and surfaces. The world is transfigured, as if everything in it had been designed by Prada. Every object glows with an icy sheen. Every person Victor meets is too cool for words. Like the models in a Prada ad, they are all rich, white, haughty, distant, and blasé about everything. It's just like being in a movie. And indeed, as the book proceeds, Victor finds it harder and harder to tell his life apart from the movies. Film crews seem to follow him everywhere. They give him scripts to perform. They place him in compromising situations. They shoot scenes during his most intimate moments. Sometimes, they even make him do retakes. Victor also starts finding computer-altered photos of himself. And people keep telling him how they have seen him in places he hasn't been, at times when he is sure he was somewhere else. Apparently Victor has been replaced by a double: a secret agent who impersonates him precisely. All this is the fatal outcome of a life devoted to appearances. Victor has slid so far down the surface of things, that he has been absorbed by his own image. We used to think that all these beautiful looks and surfaces were reflected in the mirror of the media. But now we know that there is no such reflection. For the surface of things and the surface of the mirror are already one and the same. In the second half of the novel, Victor follows this logic to its ruthless conclusion. He is cajoled and blackmailed into joining a cell of terrorist supermodels. These beautiful people carry bombs in Gucci and Louis Vuitton bags, and plant them in cafes, hotels, and airplanes. The bombs explode to the music of Abba, or Paul McCartney and Wings. Fashion models make perfect terrorists, we are told, because "as a model all you do all day is stand around and do what other people tell you to do." And terrorist bombings, like fashion shows, are extravagant spectacles. They don't have any meaning beyond themselves. "The point is the bomb itself, its placement, its activation-that's the statement." In a world of fashion and appearance, nothing else matters. The terrorists may have shady ties to the Mossad or the PLO, to film production companies, to American political factions and Japanese business interests. But there is no deep, underlying cause behind it all. There is only a dense network of lateral connections. The novel leaves us tangled in a vast web of conspiracies. Everyone seems to be a double or triple agent, with conflicting agendas, and ever-shifting allegiances. But these conspiracies do not point to some hidden truth or center. Rather, conspiracies flourish precisely because there is nothing behind them. There are only the usual privileges of wealthy white people. Beauty is one such privilege. Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we can just barely endure; and we stand in awe of it because it serenely disdains to destroy us.

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