Writers beware: Marketing categories can be destiny. Few people in America know this better than the handful of writers gathered under the banner of the “Brat Pack.” The membership is now middle age and frankly a little testy about still having to deal with the label. “That whole ‘brat pack’ thing—Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz and Bret Easton Ellis and whoever else was supposed to be a part of it—was a myth,” Ellis told The Paris Review in 2010. “It never existed.”
There has always been a whiff of fable about the notion of a “community” of writers. The Bloomsbury set, the Algonquin Round Table, the Paris expatriates, the New York intellectuals: Each of these is a generational frame that is often posthumously applied and even more frequently disputed. We make these contemporaries into cohorts because there’s something alluring about the notion of writers conferring over coffee, brawling over drinks, or—in the Brat Pack’s case—trading lines of cocaine. It suits a certain view of the creative life and the creative process. Artists are made not only by their art; they are also made by their friends, their idols, and their enemies.
Drenching literature in social context also fits with a certain view of what the novel ought to do. A novel can offer us some kind of report from the milieu that produced it. Comedies of manners and social novels can make claims about the zeitgeist, the spirit of a particular time. Mood, after all, is the advantage that a novelist can have over the historian or sociologist. Recite all the facts and statistical figures you want; they will never quite get you to the point of what it felt like to be somewhere.
Perhaps because the pursuit of mood was at the very center of the Brat Pack’s early fiction, the idea that they also constitute something of a generation stuck. They shared a time and place in common: a certain striving iteration of New York in the 1980s—or, in Ellis’s case, a certain striving iteration of Los Angeles. The feelings they tried to capture in their early work—McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, Ellis’s Less Than Zero, Janowitz’s Slaves of New York—were also commonly shared and distinctive to their milieu: What they were after was not really feelings at all, but a lack of them. As one of Janowitz’s “slaves” complains in her 1986 short-story collection, “I had a hunger for things I knew realistically I didn’t actually care for.” Or as an Ellis character muses in Less Than Zero, “I think we’ve all lost some sort of feeling.”
In our own time, this pose of alienation—especially by debut novelists—has become so familiar that even quotes like these can sound like clichés. But in the boom years of the 1980s, the Brat Pack seemed to be offering something new. The thought that young people might no longer be looking at the American dream through Horatio Alger’s rose-colored glasses appeared bold, even radical. The Brat Packers were living in an age in which the idea of prosperity appeared to be a given, sold to the populace along with Reaganomics and junk bonds. What on earth, adults thought, could these kids be complaining about? Things couldn’t be better.
Never mind, of course, that an American literary tradition of cynicism, in particular toward wealth and success, can be traced back to F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Roaring ’20s. But there was a signal difference here, critics argued: Fitzgerald believed that money and ambition were the problem, opening lesions in the American psyche that could not be closed again. The Brat Pack appeared to offer no similar critique. Alienated as its members were, most of their early work declined into rage. It wasn’t even sad about the things they saw. The Brat Packers lived instead in a state of uncomfortable acceptance. Their fiction never exactly criticized or celebrated the excesses of their moment; it just ambivalently dwelt in them.
As an approach to the world, this conflicted sense of apathy never made much sense in the abstract: How does one feel a sense of not feeling? How does one write about the lack of spirit in the times? But it has also proved difficult to translate into their later work. Once alienated rebels, disaffected by the booming capitalism of the late 20th century, each Brat Packer eventually seems to have opted for a different mode of acquiescence: Janowitz abandoned her bohemian life in New York, Ellis turned to the entertainment-industrial complex, and McInerney became suburban.
* * *
Originally from Hartford, Connecticut, and by all accounts proud of having ended up in Manhattan, McInerney would perhaps be the most horrified by this diagnosis. His early career was defined by a pursuit of everything that was not suburban. His first novel, Bright Lights, Big City, was about a young fact-checker with literary inclinations at a New Yorker–like institution. Depressed by his uninspiring work and failing first marriage, the protagonist is more interested in the literary nightlife than in writing itself. “You went to parties with writers, cultivated a writerly persona,” he muses in the second-person narration. “You wanted to skip over the dull grind of actual creation.”
Nihilistic though this all might sound, there was something worth exploring here, this dissatisfaction of a Man Who Had Everything—or at least a man who had a job and a partner. But in McInerney’s post–Bright Lights career, the explorer’s spirit has petered out. He found himself, after his early fame, caught in a kind of loop, returning again and again to the “problem” of a man who has settled for a lesser kind of life—less successful and less ambitious, given McInerney’s self-assessed talent.
The novel he published this year, Bright, Precious Days, is an excellent case in point, a dramatization of the act of giving up. The novel is actually the third installment of a trilogy McInerney has been writing since the late ’80s. Brightness Falls, the first installment, appeared in 1992; The Good Life, its successor, in 2006. The books follow the travails of Russell Calloway and his wife Corrine as they make their way through the rarefied—but frequently impoverishing—cultural industries of Manhattan. Sweethearts from their 20s on, the Calloways have by now survived innumerable infidelities, but it’s getting late in the marriage and the lights are growing dim. Russell also suffers from career angst, as a publisher of literary books in an environment whose economics are increasingly stacked against that very endeavor.
McInerney’s prose skills are still considerable, even if Bright, Precious Days has, like almost all of McInerney’s novels, the key elements of commercial fiction. The plot is filled with familiar characters and story lines—an alluring young woman comes onto the scene, an affair resurfaces from the past. At least it’s nicely rendered: The novel’s last lines, in particular, are as clear and lyrical a statement of the disappointments of a middle-aged, entitled, overeducated New Yorker as you’re likely to read:
She knows that later it won’t be the party she will remember so much as this, the walk with her husband in the crisp autumn air, bathed in the yellow metropolitan light spilling from thousands of windows, this suspended moment of anticipation before arrival.
That said, the banality of Russell’s problems cannot be overstated. He is unhappy; Corrine is unhappy too. There may be some argument, given McInerney’s evident obsession with the ins and outs of prestige publishing, that these characters offer some kind of insight into that world, and that they at least attack their malaise with an intellectual flavor uncommon to the hoi polloi. But ultimately, there is very little difference; no one in this book behaves in any way that might surprise or shock an audience familiar with afternoon soap operas. The allure of a young acolyte, a resurfaced affair: These are all matters handled expertly by network television.
Another sort of writer would display some awareness of this in the narrative style. A cleverer novelist might try to use the familiar tropes of the soap opera to open up questions about whether his rarefied sphere is really so rarefied after all. But McInerney doesn’t give us these things. While the narrator of Bright Lights is often disturbed by the pretensions of those around him, in Bright, Precious Days, Russell Calloway accepts them completely. “What he wanted to say was that being a resident not only of Manhattan but of downtown was an irreducible core of his identity,” McInerney writes. Which is all very well and good, but put so earnestly, it is really the argument of a real-estate listing, not a novel.
* * *
Tama Janowitz is much less sentimental about it all. She’s always been that way. The people of Slaves of New York are somewhat more proletarian than the people of Bright Lights. This is true even when it comes to their sense of alienation and bohemianism. They are worried about the rent, which is how they all find themselves living together in spite of being deeply unsuitable for each other. They’re less interested in the status games of publishing and the art world and much more interested in trying to make something of themselves as actual artists.
This is not to say that most of Janowitz’s characters turn out to be any good at what they’re doing. Stash, the artist-boyfriend of the title story, is something more like a garden-variety jerk than a brilliant artist. “You’re beginning to bore me,” he says flatly to a girlfriend.
But even if Janowitz is a much more acute anthropologist of the drama and dysfunction of New York’s art scene in the 1980s, she too has struggled all her writing life with ambivalence toward the whole business of being a writer. Perhaps because success came suddenly and then never really came again, her initial posture of alienation remained intact over her career.
Janowitz doesn’t complain as often about times gone by as McInerney does. She, on some level, has given up. Although she’s produced many novels since Slaves—A Cannibal in Manhattan, By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee, A Certain Age, and Peyton Amberg, to name just a few—none of them succeeded, either critically or financially. In fact, she no longer even lives in New York City. It’s hard to say whether that’s our fault or hers; it could be both. But Janowitz is not the sort of person who feels encouraged by the challenge. Instead, she feels irritated—by fame, money, history, all of it. She is ambivalent no more.
This is clearly in evidence in Scream, her new memoir, which came out this fall. Both mercifully and frustratingly, it is a reluctant document of Janowitz’s brief fame. She hates having to write about her early years and couldn’t be more pointed about that fact, carelessly tossing off entire chapters on subjects the reader desperately wants her to elaborate on—her friendship with Lou Reed, for example, or with Andy Warhol. “He was alone. He was lonely,” she writes brusquely of Warhol. “He missed his mother, who he had lived with up until her death.” Of Lou Reed, we get merely hints of a personality: “And you could see that some part of him really wasn’t there.”
But Janowitz can write with bracing insight about the economic as well as the emotional lives of New York’s young and ambitious bohemians. Another observation about Warhol, for example, cuts into the art scene with a rough-edged honesty:
You want to have rich friends, if you are poor, but you want to have their money. But the rich people don’t really want to have to spend their money on you. The richer the person, the cheaper they are.
In some ways Andy was very generous; he always took me out to dinner.
There is an admirable spirit of rebellion here, an unwillingness to buy the notion of unhappy success that McInerney is still attempting to sell. Andy Warhol, after all, was a creature of “downtown” Manhattan par excellence. But Janowitz’s eagerness to present her alliance with him as transactional is refreshing. She is also acutely sensitive to the way that power inflects and informs the making of art. The legend of the Factory is an important one, but Warhol’s life as a businessman is just as important to consider as those long nights at Max’s Kansas City.
One suspects that Janowitz’s sensitivity to the way that power and capital impose themselves on the lives of young writers and artists is what has widened the gulf between her and McInerney over the years. Perhaps if Janowitz had been something more like an MVP for what McInerney calls “the Art and Love team,” she would find it possible to feel more of a rose-hued yearning about it, to gaze at it longingly and lovingly enough to find inspiration in it. But things didn’t work out that way. Instead, she has dropped into sourness—a kind that can be refreshing and offer a wisdom of its own, but that can also cause someone with something to say to produce a frustrated shout of a book like Scream.
* * *
Somewhere between Janowitz and McInerney lies the career of Bret Easton Ellis, now a creature chiefly of Twitter and Hollywood. That makes him sound like a frivolous younger brother, and he sometimes does seem like the only member of the trio who has managed to hold on to a youthful desire to shock. But Ellis is also the one who has managed to transcend the problems that have stranded both McInerney and Janowitz. In short, Ellis is the only one who can be said to have aged somewhat gracefully—which is not to say totally gracefully. But none of us do.
Though he doesn’t resemble Fitzgerald in style, Ellis has all of the same preoccupations. He has achieved fame and gained in stature, and he doesn’t seem to be struggling. He enjoys the glamour created by his achievements, but he also sees the problems with it. Even so, he cannot separate himself from that glamour, which is why he seems, in the last decade, to have moved on from novels and become someone who performs being a novelist. Perhaps one day he’ll come back.
But in spite of himself, Ellis is often the most interesting of the three to hear from, even when he’s dead wrong. The signal case here, needless to say, is American Psycho. Profane, violent, protested by Gloria Steinem, linked to the serial killer Paul Bernardo, disliked even by Norman Mailer, the novel created a furor that people could not ignore.
Mary Harron’s much-praised 2000 film version of the story helped rehabilitate the book, at least somewhat, from the way it had been positioned by the innumerable op-eds it inspired by its sexism and carnage. “It was a surreal satire, and although many scenes were excruciatingly violent,” Harron wrote in The New York Times, “it was clearly intended as a critique of male misogyny, not an endorsement of it.”
Ellis is aware of this ambiguity, of course. He explored it in Lunar Park, the fake memoir he published in 2005, which framed the publication of American Psycho not just as his defining professional achievement, but as the launch pad for a psychological breakdown.
Resembling a Stephen King novel in conceit and plot, Lunar Park doesn’t reflect the actual events. But there is a kind of truth reflected in Ellis’s fictional account of a deteriorating mind:
When I realized, to my horror, what this character wanted from me, I kept resisting, but the novel forced itself to be written…. It wrote itself, and didn’t care how I felt about it.
Some might see self-justification here, but Ellis isn’t a self-justifying sort of person. Likewise, he has rarely been interested in making sure that what he is up to is palatable. While this attitude of disregard can become a kind of unthinking fetish in and of itself, Ellis has never been able to let his nihilism slip into being simply nihilism.
Against his most compulsive desires, Ellis is something of a moralist. He is troubled by his flaws and the blind spots of his moment in a way that few of his contemporaries ever were; he knows there is “something wrong” with him and the world, and also with Twitter and Hollywood. But he can’t look away or stop participating in it, and this fact leaves him deeply troubled.
It is perhaps this buried moralism that gives American Psycho its power. Filtered through Harron’s lens, the novel’s protagonist, Patrick Bateman, has arguably become the signature emblem of ’80s excess and emptiness. His addiction to consumer products, his phony articulations of enthusiasm for Huey Lewis and the News, his inability to see other people as real: These are all heightened depictions of an age gone terribly wrong. In this way, Bateman is also the most socially grounded and contextualized character to emerge from the era. There is no convicted stockbroker, no hedonistic club kid, no disaffected fact-checker who better embodies the spirit of the age.
This doesn’t make Bateman pleasant to read about. Years later, I would still rather rely on Ellis’s gloss on him in Lunar Park than actually have to read long passages of American Psycho. Bateman is a character who meets the Freudian definition of the uncanny: On first encounter, you know you have seen his like before. And that gives us goose bumps, because we know that Bateman isn’t really that much more psychotic than his age.
Ellis is able to bring to the surface an uncomfortable experience of the familiar, one that can leave the reader shrinking in disgust. But it’s a disgust that teaches us something. It’s a disgust that helps us better judge the excesses of our own lives; it allows us to be more honest about them. Ellis puts this best in Lunar Park when the Bret Easton Ellis character says to himself: “No one would ever say, I will show you what happened and I will make everything perfect by taking you to the vacant places where you won’t need to think of this anymore.”
“Taking you to the vacant places” is a pretty good description of what the Brat Pack once sought to do. They wanted to create novels that might capture their moment and their generation’s sense of emptiness and alienation. The problem, of course, was what to do next. The hollowness of ’80s materialism, the loss of purpose and hope, the struggle to express oneself in new and bold ways: These observations gained their meaning and power from the era in which they were experienced. But they cannot sustain a career or a life. They also cannot keep providing literature with the freshness of insight and social observation. Ellis found a way past these vacant spaces; McInerney and Janowitz appear to be stuck in them.