Bret Easton Ellis: Books & Life

Instructor: Ann Casano

Ann has taught university level Film classes and has a Master's Degree in Cinema Studies.

Bret Easton Ellis is one of the most controversial and renowned writers of the 20th century. In this lesson, we will take a look at one of America's most popular Generation X authors.

Who is Bret Easton Ellis?

Bret Easton Ellis (born in 1964) is known just as much for his party-time bad-boy image and Twitter rants as he is for his critically acclaimed novels. His work is often satirical, as he criticizes the excesses of the modern day and makes upper-class society look like greedy morally-bankrupt elitists who sometimes even become delusional maniacs.

American Author Bret Easton Ellis
Bret Easton Ellis

His novels are frequently both violent and hysterically funny at the same time. Ellis is also self-referential. Sometimes, characters from one novel will randomly reappear in another novel. Ellis also uses his old school of Bennington College in Vermont as the fictitious framework for Camden College. Camden College is mentioned in Less Than Zero. It also serves as the main setting for Ellis' second novel The Rules of Attraction.


All of Ellis' novels are controversial. However, for the most part, his novels have all been critically acclaimed bestsellers. His literary goal seems to be to expose what he deems as the pratfalls of society by using extreme graphic violence juxtaposed with biting satire. Here are a few of his most popular works.

Less Than Zero (1985)

Ellis became an instant literary celebrity with his debut novel Less Than Zero, which was named after a song by Elvis Costello. He published the novel at the age of 21 while still a college student. The critically acclaimed novel is written in the first person and introduces readers to Ellis' minimalist style. The novel is meant to be read as autobiographical. Ellis grew up in the wealthy and privileged lifestyle of Beverly Hills, California, as do the jaded characters in the novel.

Less Than Zero Book Cover
Less Than Zero

Less Than Zero is like a snapshot of the drug-spilling, over-excess attitude of the 1980s. The narrative follows the protagonist Clay who is visiting his hometown of Los Angeles while on winter break from Camden College in New Hampshire. We immediately see the excessive use of hard drugs, like cocaine and heroin, inside the backdrop of luxurious mansions. The LA parties are attended by misguided youths whose parents are wrapped up in their own world of plastic surgery and infidelity.

Clay initially partakes in this excess of sex and drugs but finds himself becoming alienated from his old friends Julian, Trent and Blair. Soon he becomes totally disillusioned and disgusted by the horrific behavior of the people that he used to know. He realizes that Julian has become such a heroin junkie that he has resorted to male prostitution in order to pay back his drug debts. Clay is pushed to the brink when Rip, the local drug dealer, shows off his 12-year-old sex slave. Clay leaves Rip's house in disgust but it's implied that Trent plans to rape the girl.

The popular novel was adapted for the big screen in 1987. It starred some of the hottest Hollywood actors of the time, including Andrew McCarthy (Clay), Robert Downey Jr. (Julian), Jami Gertz (Blair) and James Spader (Rip). Ellis was unhappy with the adaptation and said that the film was nothing like his book, which was cleaned up to be more public friendly. The film received mixed reviews but performed well at the box office.

Ellis wrote Imperial Bedrooms in 2010 as a sequel to Less Than Zero. Imperial Bedrooms was named after an Elvis Costello album and gives readers a look into what became of the characters of Less Than Zero as they approached middle age.

American Psycho (1991)

American Psycho Book Cover
American Psycho

Ellis once again satirized over excess in American Psycho. The novel was so incredibly graphic and violent that Ellis' publisher chose not to print the book (it was later printed by Vintage Books.)

The story is written in the first person. It follows the life of a young and wealthy Manhattan business man/serial killer named Patrick Bateman. We read his daily, stream-of-conscious rants about hygiene, clothes and pop music. He lives the excessive upper-crust-socialite-yuppie Manhattan life by day. However, he takes to killing prostitutes and colleagues by night. As the narrative moves forward, the violence increases as Bateman's tenuous hold on reality seems to slip.

Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho
Patrick Bateman

Ellis creates an unreliable narrator in Bateman with postmodern qualities. Bateman will even directly address the reader. We begin to question the integrity of Bateman's reality. He becomes delusional to the point where he even confesses his crimes to his co-workers but everyone thinks he's joking. In fact, he leaves a full confession on his attorney's answering machine. However, his attorney thinks it's a joke and tells him that he just had dinner in London with one of the men that Bateman claims to have killed.

This leads the reader to an open-ending. Did Bateman actually commit the murders? Did he hallucinate everything? We can't really know for sure.

American Psycho was adapted for the screen in 2000. The film is as funny as it is violent. It starred a young Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman. The film was a critical success and lives on today as a monster cult-classic.

Lunar Park (2005)

The opening chapter of Lunar Park begins by introducing the reader to the protagonist, a novelist named Bret Easton Ellis who became an instant celebrity with his debut novel Less Than Zero. Sound familiar? Once again Ellis experiments with postmodern sensibilities by writing Lunar Park as a mock memoir.

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