Making his debut at age 21 with the dark and twisted “Less Than Zero,” Bret Easton Ellis is one of the few authors to achieve both celebrity level fame and vitriol in equal levels throughout his career. For many, his stories are written simply to shock and titillate from a misogynistic viewpoint. For others he is the master of populating the page with terrible human beings that draw the reader into their sordid affairs. As part of the literary brat pack (with Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney), Ellis is also often linked to Generation Xers and his more contemporary works have suffered comparatively by most critical measures.
When deciding how to read Ellis’s bibliography, part of the fun is in the use of shared characters and settings mainly by reference. Much like Stephen King and his small towns in Maine, characters in Ellis’s work often know about events from other books or interact with characters from Ellis’s (and even other authors) earlier novels. For that reason, a fun way to read his works is chronological order, starting with Less than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, American Psycho, Glamorama, and Imperial Bedrooms. The Informers and Lunar Park don’t take place in the same reality as those books, so if you are going this route I would read The Informers first and end things with Lunar Park. If you are not interested in diving into the entirety of Ellis’s catalog, here’s how I would rank his books overall, from worst to best:
Release Date: 1998
I would describe the plot of this book as Zoolander in the style of Guy Ritchie. Models being used as killers with numerous identity deceptions and possible double identities… even trying to recall the plot is a recipe for a headache. The biggest problems with the book are that the beginning takes a long time to get to the plot of the book, that plot is completely outlandish, and then Ellis never seems to be willing to wrap it up. Even hardcore fans of the author seem to agree that at 500 pages the story meanders. Recurring metaphors don’t really work either as they are drowned out by lengthy descriptions of drug use and ménage a trios. My only enjoyment in reading it was the numerous ties it had to other Ellis works, none of which were worth the time spent getting through this disappointing book.
6 . The Informers
Release Date: 1994
The only other book by Brett Easton Ellis that I would describe as skippable, even for fans of his writing style. The Informers is a collection of short stories that are seemingly unconnected (though not totally) that often withholds the name of the narrator of the stories making the actual connections more troubling to put together than they are worth. With another set of characters that might not have been an issue, but because so many of these characters are wealthy bi-sexual males I had trouble distinguishing between them for much of the individual stories. However, unlike Glamorama, Ellis keeps things moving at an exciting pace and several of the scenes were particularly memorable.
5. Less than Zero
Release Date: 1985
I was born a year before this book came out, so by the time I got around to reading it I’d already read several books done in the same style (and even several other Bret Easton Ellis books). The story of a handful of the most shallow characters in literature, it’s iconic and preposterous at the same time. Clay is on vacation from college and tries to reconnect with his best friend (Julian) and his girlfriend (Blair). The drug use in this novel is so frequent, the plot could be described as three friends deal with varying level of drug problems in the 1980’s. The problem is that reducing it to that misses the broader picture that Ellis portrays. Reading this book is like opening a time capsule and immersing yourself in the contents. The detachment that the characters express have the effect of numbing you to the tragic outcomes they face, which makes the read feel more real and unique than a similar story would as told by anybody else. Unfortunately, that can make it a difficult read for many and an unpleasant one at other times for all. Still, this is well worth checking out and making up your own mind. (Also, more than any other book of Ellis, the film adaptation of this is awful. If you’ve seen it, don’t let that sour you on reading this.)
4. Lunar Park
Release Date: 2005
The Charlie Kauffman entry of the Ellis catalog, Ellis inserts himself into the story and goes down the rabbit hole. Narrated by Ellis, the famous author of Less than Zero and other books, Ellis juggles personal issues (with exes, drugs and family) while possibly confronting a supernatural one (a killer identifying himself as Patrick Bateman, the lead character of Ellis’s American Psycho). Reading Lunar Park is greatly enhanced by reading American Psycho beforehand. Everything about this book works just right, combining what the reader knows or expect to know about the author with how characters would respond to these freak occurrences. I should say, everything worked just right until the ending which spiraled a bit out of control. With a fictionalized book about a real person I don’t know what sort of ending would have satisfactorily resolved the mystery and horror of this book, but lackluster ending aside I found this to be highly enjoyable.
3. Imperial Bedrooms
Release Date: 2010
This choice will be controversial. Taking place 25 years after Less Than Zero, Imperial Bedrooms follows Clay returning to Los Angeles to cast a film. Much like Lunar Park, there is ambiguity in terms of how much is truth and how much is fiction, with the truth at issue concerning the events in Less Than Zero and their depictions in a popular book and movie. Delving into dark territory of rape, murder and snuff films, the book takes away all the sentimentality that seems to surround Less Than Zero and reminds the reader of the amoral characters at its center. For that reason I preferred it to its predecessor, as Ellis seemed upfront about the subject matter he was tackling. I get that for many readers, this book cheapens Less than Zero or feels like a cash in by Ellis. While I enjoyed LTZ, I don’t hold it in such high regard that revisiting it bothered me. When I compare the two novels, I enjoyed this one much more, hence the ranking.
2. The Rules of Attraction
Release Date: 1987
If you have never read Bret Easton Ellis and are looking for a book that encapsulates all his strengths and oddities, look no further and start reading here. I’m surprised that Ellis hasn’t returned to the shifting perspectives he utilizes in this book in later writings because it’s perfectly executed and provides a very memorable reading experience. Mainly told through the perspective of three students, Paul a bisexual man who formerly dated Lauren but is now extremely attracted to Sean. The characters often interact and will recount the same events in previous chapters from vastly different perspective to the point that one or all must be lying about what took place. Also mixed in are fantastic chapters by other narrators including the world’s fastest trip to Europe and a very moving suicide. (Less successful is another section of the book entirely in French.) Along with my number one pick, this book features frequent laughs and disgusting moments intertwined.
1. American Psycho
Release Date: 1991
Although I’d recommend The Rules of Attraction to new Ellis readers, I prefer American Psycho as his best work. However, for many the graphic nature of the writing and the extensive time spent discussing designer name brands and band discographies will immediately turn them off. While almost every character in a Bret Easton Ellis novel is detached and amoral, taking a deep dive into the mind of a (possible) serial killer during 1980’s corporate America could also be a lot to ask of a new reader unaccustomed to Ellis’s style. In addition to that, American Psycho (and Ellis in general) also are often accused of being misogynist. For my perspective, I would agree that Patrick Bateman is very misogynist. However, he’s also a sociopathic, materialistic psychopathic sadist and the book is just telling a story from his perspective.
Those are the criticisms with the book. They don’t mention how perfectly Ellis straddles the line between satire of an entire lifestyle and realistic conversations that take place in that place. The result is a book filled with very funny moments drawn from the absurdity of that contrast. Much like the excellent film that was adapted from it, American Psycho is very dark humor. Scenes of Bateman being normal and fitting in with a crowd are followed nonchalantly by statements about him eating handfuls of sand on the beach following a party. A coworker getting reservations at a new restaurant is an existential crisis. The unreliable narrator is used to great effect as entries vary in length and relevance to what is occurring in his life. Much like Ellis’s writing style, American Psycho is certainly not for everybody. However, many other it is without a doubt Ellis’s best work.