Does serious fiction still have an instructive purpose? The old Leavisite notion, if I remember correctly, was that by immersing ourselves in the inner lives of fictional characters, our own inner life, by some mystical process of moral transubstantiation, would in some way be "improved". What then should we make of this passage from American Psycho: "Turning her over again, her body weak with fear, I cut all the flesh round her mouth and using the power drill with a detachable, massive head I widen that hole while she shakes, protesting, and once I'm satisfied with the size of the hole I've created, her mouth open as wide as possible, a reddish black tunnel of twisted tongue and loosened teeth, I force my hand down, deep into her throat, until it disappears up to my wrist"?
Since its appearance in 1991, American Psycho has been hailed as a transgressional classic. Bret Easton Ellis's pitiless, deadpan portrait of Patrick Bateman, a murderous Wall Street trader, fuses the psychopathologies of murder and of late-20th-century consumer life in unexpected ways. For Bateman, the buying of six tubes of shaving cream at Bloomingdales, the eating of an eggplant and goat cheese lasagna, the watching of The Patty Winters Show and the beheading of a prostitute are events equally devoid of ethical significance. Hyped as a morally challenging writer, laying bare the emptiness of the contemporary consumer soul, Ellis produced, in truth, a profoundly amoral book. Yet the stylistic conviction of American Psycho is so relentless, its moral vacuum so airtight, that the novel succeeds not only in questioning our every received notion of civilisation, but the life-affirming role of fiction itself.
As ever, the problem for a successful author was the follow-up. The Informers (1994), while having none of the visceral power of American Psycho or any discernible subject, was an intriguing enough exercise in gender-shifting atmospherics. Now we have Glamorama, easily his longest novel, at 482 closely printed pages.
The main innovation here is plot. Unlike his previous work, consisting of loose strings of "modern moments", Glamorama has a clearly defined parabola of narrative events, leading towards a powerful resolution. The central character, Victor Ward, is a male model and aspirant nightclub impresario. Having been caught in flagrante delicto with his business partner's wife, he is sent, by the mysterious Mr Palakon, to London and Paris, where he is meant to rescue a film star from the clutches of a group of international terrorists who are, ironically, making a movie about international terrorists in London and Paris. Get it! Gradually, as the body count rises, Victor learns that the terrorists may be in cahoots with Mr Palakon, who himself may be in cahoots with the Japanese. And so it goes on, with everything not as it seems. The spectral presence of an omniscient "Director", overseeing his own "script", adds to the blurring of the boundaries between fiction and reality.
The unreality of reality is a familiar Ellis trope, and something of a postmodern cliche, too. Still, the notion was effectively deployed in American Psycho, where you were never certain whether Bateman had actually committed his horrific murders, or whether they were fragments of his overheated imagination.
But here the technique, like so many of Ellis's stylistic trademarks - the blizzard of dropped names, the baroquely inane dialogue, the narrator who feels nothing but is continually on the verge of tears - has hardened into mannerism, if not cliche. Nothing is what it seems any more, Mr Palakon explains to Victor, who replies: "So you're telling me we can't believe in anything we're shown any more. I'm asking, 'That everything is altered? That everything's a lie? That everyone will believe this?' . . . So what's true, then?"
Since Truth and the Author have long been added to postmodern fiction's lengthening body count, this is hardly the most original observation. And with a cast of cardboard cut-outs from the fashion industry, none of whom is capable of any inner development, and with a style resolutely determined to "slide down the surface of things", 482 pages of this knowing narrative relativism make for dismal reading.
Picador's publicity blurb would have us believe that Glamorama is a "wonderful indictment of the greed and vanity of the 1980s and 1990s". Yet the longer you read this "indictment", the more you are left with the suspicion that something in the author actually takes the world of male modelling seriously and he is furtively indulging in wish-fulfilment. Victor Ward may be a dupe but he is so handsome that every woman he meets willingly has sex with him. And like Milton's Satan, he does have all the best lines. "The petty ugliness of our problems seems so ridiculous in the face of all this natural beauty," observes Victor, as he lies sunbathing beside a drained swimming pool filled with rubble, "eating Vicodin and listening to Nico-era Velvet Underground tapes, looking at Elton John-shaped topiary".
Admirers of Ellis's line in designer sex and violence will not be disappointed, though - a Chinaman has an electrode inserted up his anus and is also castrated; there is a plane crash; another character has his limbs blown off by four separate time bombs; and if this isn't enough, there is also a wretched buggery scene.
The German painter Gerhard Richter once wrote that "Andy Warhol is not so much an artist as a symptom of a cultural situation created by that situation and used as a substitute for an artist". The same could be said of Ellis. And his publishers are doing him no favours. Fearful of what his books might represent if they are not "indictments", and even more fearful of cutting his text, Ellis's editors are left muttering about "satire". The bigger his books become the more they are inflated with the spurious notion that Ellis's nihilistic narrators are somehow spokesmen for a generation. Yet sooner or later something or someone in this "cool" fictional universe is going to have to mean something, otherwise nullity will become just another cheap disposable designer commodity.