I went to hear Bret Easton Ellis at the LA Times Festival of Books on Sunday, which timed up nicely with my receipt of American Literary Review last week, since I have a story in this issue about Bret Easton Ellis, Donna Tartt and Jonathan Lethem.
Bret was about as recalcitrant as a writer can be, refusing to either answer questions or use them as a springboard. He just deflected for nearly a full hour. But he did get a few quips in there about persona, about the Bret Easton Ellis that people want to imagine him to be. I was sitting next to a friend I ran into who knows the short story — afterwards, she asked me, “Were you thinking guilty?!” Yes, I am totally guilty but it was also obvious that he’s attached to this persona; he certainly didn’t say anything that didn’t preserve it. We also kept joking that I should ask him if he’s ever killed anyone during the Q & A, but we weren’t allowed to ask questions.
The story Notable Alumni is from Jonathan Lethem’s point-of-view, told a couple of decades after college. He’s facing yet another interview where the interviewer inquires about his Bennington days. The concept of the story is that during those days, Bret and Donna killed a townie they met in a bar one night — Bret does the actual killing, but they’re both culpable. Jonathan begins to suspect what has happened, but because of certain social and class pressures, combined with sexual interest in Donna and writerly interest in the both of them, he never says anything. It’s the reason gumshoe detectives come up in his novels: it’s the way he’s dealing with it still. I went back and forth about what I would call my fictional Bret, Donna, Jonathan (and Jill Eistenstadt, who is mentioned.) Should they all have fictional names, or their real names? Who would “get” it and did anyone need to to like the story? In the version that appears, only Bret keeps his name. It’s the one hint at what the story’s about, but I don’t know if the journal editors who published it knew what it was about. And I still think the concept was more interesting than my actual execution.
I did a lot of research for the story, to the point that I think I began to believe it was true, or something like it anyway. I even combed through police records in the surrounding area during the early 80s to determine who I thought the victim was. I guess it’s evidence that no matter what you write about, people will assume you’re the protagonist. Unless the subject is murder. That’s the thing. Nobody assumes that is true. Both Bret and Donna have written about how the privileges of class allow certain people to be above the law, even when they confess, even when they practically beg to be caught. And I can’t help but think — isn’t that them? Haven’t they done just that?
This ridiculous theory is largely a testament to the power of Donna Tartt’s writing. It’s really the chilling prologue that just feels too true to be fiction — which means it’s the best sort. In reality, she might have been inspired, as Shirley Jackson was in her fiction, in the setting and some of the events that make up the Bennington Triangle.
Donna Tartt had an old pug named Pongo and I have an old pug named Pango, and I’m quite sure this means nothing. Not everything means something, after all.