Now that even Kate Moss has OD'd on too much fabulosity, Bret Easton Ellis has knocked out a Days of Whine and Poses for everyone who worships at the shrine of Prada. The designer line is mentioned so often in Glamorama that you wonder if Ellis cut some kind of product-placement deal, or if he's angling to be the company's new spokesmodel. "Three words, my friend: Prada, Prada, Prada," quips Ellis's protagonist Victor Ward, a model with great abs, a senator father who pooh-poohs his son's mannequin lifestyle, and a steady rotation of supermodel girlfriends. Victor is the kind of go-getter who rubs Preparation H and Clinique Eye Fitness under his eyes, knows the diff between a Galliano and a Victor Alfaro, and gets phone messages from people like "Ellen Von Unwerth, Eric Stoltz, Nicolas Cage, Nicollette Sheridan, Stephen Dorff and somebody ominous from TriStar." He is so post-macho he schmoozes an agent by tagging himself "the guy who everyone thought David Geffen was dating but wasn't."
Xanax- and Mentos-gobbling Victor and his ectomorphic, frequently photographed chums are A-list nomads on an international glamathon, schlepping from CK underwear shoot to runway show to club opening to after-party. When we first meet him in NYC he's trying to get a part in Flatliners II and playing right-hand man to ultracool club magnate Damien. He's also shtupping Damien's girlfriend, and opening his own club on the sly.
The girlfriend characters are a series of interchangeable arm-candy types who function mostly as erotic levers between our Vespa-ridin' narrator and his equally vain and catty male counterparts. The girls' problems give them some depth as they struggle with the existential challenges of professional posing. For instance, Chloe is, like, 26 ("That's a hundred and five in model years"). Victor does his best to be there for her:
"Baby, this insecurity you've got has to, like, split." I rub her shoulders. "You're an icon, baby," I whisper into her ear. "You are the guideline... You personify the physical ideal of your day," and then, "Baby, you're not just a model. You're a star." Finally, cupping her face in my hands, I tell her, "Beauty is in the soul."
"But my soul doesn't do twenty runway shows," she cries out. "My soul isn't on the cover of fucking Harper's next month. My soul's not negotiating a Lancôme contract." Heaving sobs, gasps, the whole bit, the end of the world, the end of everything.
The surface of Glamorama is all-important and as deftly fashioned as the latest Prada heel. This is a world where parties are judged by the guest list, emotions are drugged away, and conversation, baby, had best include at least one insanely specific pop-culture reference per sentence lest someone catch you without your irony. Ellis captures this scene in all its superficial brilliance, his ear for snappy patter simultaneously reproducing and mocking it. As Victor tells party organizer JD:
"Out is in. Got it?"
"In is... not in anymore?" JD asks. "Is that it?"
"I glance at him as we descend the next flight of stairs. "No, in is out. Out is in. Simple, non?"...
"But then what's out? It's always in? What about specifics?"
"If you need this defined for you, maybe you're in the wrong world."
Indeed, the relentless shallowness of the world Glamorama's figures create and inhabit is the smart part of the book, but also the part that eventually becomes as wearying for the reader as a six-hour photo shoot. The plotline is as contrived as a hip detective tableau in a Barneys window, which is probably the point. A witty Barneys window, however, doesn't have to engage you for nearly 500 pages, and the Pepsi challenge presented by Glamorama is to stay absorbed in a saga that "slides down the surface of things" but never deviates from it.
Our hero's Joseph Campbell esque journey to meet his dark side begins when he goes from it-boy to the target of enemies who persecute him with hostile faxes, chase him in black Jeeps, and eventually ruin his career with gossip-page revelations. Freshly beaten up by his boss, dumped by his girlfriend, and evicted from his apartment, Victor is lured by a Prada-wearing "kind-of-Euro-twit" on a top-secret mission to Europe in search of a missing supermodel that he went to school with. With a series of baroque plot twists involving body doubles and mysterious film scripts delivered to him, he seems to be literally caught up in someone else's film. Or he could be hallucinating the cinematographers and directors yanking the chains of his destiny by cell phone.
Victor's schlepp to cherchez la femme eventually lands him in the heart of fashion darkness: a posh crash pad for terrorist supermodels. They smuggle explosives in Gucci luggage and blow up victims at the Café Flore, the Institute of Political Studies, the Paris Ritz, and other upscale addresses. Among the bloody tatters of couture outfits, arms and legs scattered everywhere, they leave the ultimate fashion victims in their wake:
Dead bellmen lay scattered among magazines and Louis Vuitton luggage and heads blown off bodies...many of them BBR (Burned Beyond Recognition). In a daze, wandering past me: Polly Mellon, Claudia Schiffer, Jon Bon Jovi, Mary Wells Laurence, Steven Friedman, Bob Collacello, Marisa Berenson, Boy George, Mariah Carey.
The emphasis on names throughout Glamorama creates a literary effect somewhere between the catalogue of ships in Homer's Iliad and a pit-bull publicist's guest list. The casualties of the gruesome explosions are inventoried in the same laundry-list fashion, which tends to flatten out the book's emotional impact. We are invited to disengage like Victor. Ellis's voicealways on the verge of flippancycaptures fashion's endless capacity to turn everything it sees into a look, a fashion moment we quickly exchange for the next until we're numbed and agitated into a fickle state of restless desire.
All the name-dropping and product references give Glamorama an ultraqueeny veneer, and Ellis eventually takes us on an action-adventure tour of poststraight whoopie. The terrorism plot culminates with a fiesta of butch violence involving lots of guns, dismemberment, exploding bodies, and a long climactic sex scene between our hero and his narcissistic object choice: the alpha male of the terrorist supermodels. Glamorama takes the noir genre over the top, because in this case the boys actually do fuck each other rather than merely seething in the erotic tension that dare not speak its name. But Ellis isn't interested in distinguishing between straight and gay; rather, he captures a cultural moment of radical dandyhood, when distinctions of sexuality seem less important than whether you look like a model and wear Prada.
In the end, Victor's visit to the fashion inferno results in an appropriately vapid makeover from chic playboy to chic fashionable law student: "'No more drinking binges, I've cut down on partying, law school's great, I'm in a long-term relationship.' I slip on a Brooks Brothers T-shirt. 'I've seriously stopped deluding myself and I'm rereading Dostoyevsky."' And his body fat's down to 7 percent. And he has a spiritual adviser named Deepak. Unfortunately, by this time you are so sick of the wanker you feel like a supermodel at the end of Fashion Week and you just wanna get outta there already. Even so, Ellis has almost certainly seduced you along the way; his impeccable portrait of high-living mannequins exudes a glamour as cold and pitiless and modern as Kate Moss's dead-guppy stare.
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