The Secret Universe of Bret Easton Ellis Novels

Two stacks of Bret Easton Ellis books.

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The term “shared universe” is usually found in speculative stories, like the epic connections Stephen King has been quietly building by linking all of his novels and many of his shorter works together, or the way H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos continues to be the setting for new stories by various authors. Shared universes are exciting because they add a dimension of epicness that can’t be achieved in a single story and open up opportunities for the author to play around with their own creation by cross-referencing events and characters outside a single narrative. 

It’s much rarer to find that sort of meta-textual cross-referencing in non-speculative literature, though. Complicating matters is the fact that the most successful shared universes are built slowly, often without the author’s conscious plan. There’s little doubt, for example, that Stephen King had no idea he was creating a shared universe for the first two or three decades of his career. This led to some fairly incredible retcons in later books as he tried to make everything fit. But this slow revelation is also one of the chief pleasures of a literary canon — that moment in novel three when you start to see the connections is electric. You suddenly realize the author has been putting clues and puzzle pieces in front of you all along.

Bret Easton Ellis Novels

One of the most unexpected and complex shared literary universes can be found in a very unlikely place: the works of author Bret Easton Ellis. He is a divisive writer. For some people, his name is associated only with his most notorious novel "American Psycho" and the film adaptation it inspired. Christian Bale played the title role in the film. When "American Psycho" was published in 1991, the critical reaction was mixed. To put it lightly, the distasteful violence combined with the litany of name-checked designer labels led some to pronounce the novel grotesque. Chances are if you’ve read only one Ellis novel, it’s "American Psycho." You may be unaware of the incredibly complex and detailed shared universe Ellis has spun over the course of seven books and 30 years.

Camden College

The seven books that comprise the Ellisverse are:

These six novels and one short story collection can be considered in some ways as one huge story, sharing many settings, characters, and a general sense that life is a banal nightmare populated by demons who prey on each other. If you read Ellis’ books in order, the realization that everything is connected creeps up on you because Ellis often refers to characters in oblique ways without using their names.

The eye of the Ellisverse is fictional Camden College, based on Bennington College, which Ellis attended. Many of the characters in Ellis’ books went to Camden, a college that seems to specialize in drug abuse, sexual shenanigans, and emotional breakdowns rather than any sort of useful major. The Camden connection is often the key to figuring out who characters are referencing when using nicknames like “the guy from L.A.” or “Rest in Peace.”

The Batemans

The other key to the Ellisverse is the Batemans, Patrick and Sean. Patrick, of course, is the probably delusional, possibly murderous serial killer from "American Psycho," and Sean is his younger brother. Patrick makes his first appearance in "The Rules of Attraction," Ellis’ second novel, which is also Sean’s first reference. While Patrick is depicted in that novel as a pretty distasteful person, there’s no indication that he is (or imagines himself to be) a violent serial killer. What isn’t in any doubt is his mutual hatred for his brother Sean. Patrick then appears, or is referred to, in "Glamorama" and "Lunar Park," becoming increasingly ghost-like and seemingly imaginary. Sean is the main character of "Rules of Attraction" and also appears in "American Psycho," "The Informers," and "Glamorama." Sean isn’t as violently disturbed as his older brother (whom he hates right back) but he’s also not exactly a nice guy. He lives with a healthy dose of self-loathing, and attempts suicide several times.

Both Bateman boys attend Camden College.

Connections in the First Five Books

Each novel in the Ellisverse connects to every other one.

In "Less Than Zero," Ellis’ first novel, we’re introduced to Clay, who has come home from Camden College to Los Angeles. Also featured in the book are his girlfriend Blair, childhood friend Julian, and drug dealer acquaintance Rip. Clay is in "The Rules of Attraction," Ellis’ second novel, narrating a chapter anonymously as “the guy from L.A.” Several verbal tics make him easy to identify. Rip, the drug dealer, is also referred to in "The Rules of Attraction" in a note placed on Clay’s door saying “Rest in Peace” called. Rip is Clay’s drug dealer.

In "The Rules of Attraction," Sean and Patrick Bateman both make appearances. Sean is in love with a girl named Lauren and spends time with a bisexual man named Paul who once dated Lauren and is now obsessed with Sean. According to Paul, he and Sean have a passionate affair, but Sean never once mentions having sex with Paul. Lauren is heartbroken over her ex-boyfriend Victor.

"American Psycho" is dominated by Patrick Bateman, of course, who is either engaged in an epic spree of horrifying violence or suffering a complete mental breakdown, depending on your interpretation of the events. His brother Sean appears, as do Victor and Paul. We also meet Tim, a ​co-worker of Patrick’s, and Donald Kimball, the police detective investigating Patrick’s “crimes.”

"The Informers" is a series of connected short stories. Sean Bateman returns, as do Tim, Julian, and Blair, and a few other minor characters from the prior three novels.

In "Glamorama," Patrick Bateman shows up for about three lines, with “weird stains” on the lapel of his suit in what might be a hint that he really is a psycho killer. The main character is Victor from "The Rules of Attraction," and several other characters appear, including Lauren and Sean Bateman.

So far, so good. Ellis clearly imagines a world in which all of these terrible people exist. It's a world where time passes and people graduate from school, embark on careers, join terrorist groups, and deal with strange vampires (seriously, read "The Informers"). With the next two books in the Ellisverse, things get really strange.

Lunar Park and Imperial Bedrooms

Before we go further, let’s jump back to "American Psycho" and "Glamorama," and a minor character who appears in both: Allison Poole. She actually appears as a character in Jay McInerney’s novel "Story of My Life," two years before "American Psycho." Allison Poole is based on the real-life Rielle Hunter (who you might recall as the woman who brought down John Edwards’ political career). Patrick Bateman murders (?) Poole in "American Psycho," linking Ellis’ fictional universe to McInerney’s in what might be the most audacious bit of shared universing in literary history. Poole then shows up again in "Glamorama," perfectly alive, giving credence to the theory that Patrick Bateman doesn’t actually kill anyone and is just, you know, crazy.

Ellis’ next book was "Lunar Park," and this is where the Ellisverse either goes completely nuts or edges into genius, depending on who you ask. Taking a cue from Stephen King, the man character of "Lunar Park" is Bret Easton Ellis — or at least, a fictional version of himself. The book is styled as a memoir, and the early chapters describing Ellis’ rise to fame and the first five books are reasonably accurate and realistic. Then the character of Ellis meets an actress and gets married and the story takes a sharp turn into the fictional. What makes this fascinating is that characters from Ellis’ novels turn up in "Lunar Park" as supposedly real people — including Patrick Bateman and the detective who investigates him in "American Psycho," Donald Kimball, and possibly Clay (as there is a character named Clayton who resembles Clay in many ways). Jay McInerney also turns up as a character, making this a delirious land-grab when it comes to shared universes, as Ellis now more or less claims most of reality as part of his fictional universe. Even more strange, the possibility that some of these people only exist in the fictional Ellis’ fevered imagination is given a lot of traction. So who’s actually there? It might not be possible to know for sure.

And then Ellis gets subtler and yet crazier with "Imperial Bedrooms." This book is billed as a sequel to "Less Than Zero," and features the returning cast of that novel: Clay, Blair, Julian, and Rip, et al. However, Ellis strongly implies in "Imperial Bedrooms" that the Clay telling the story isn’t the same person as the Clay who narrated "Less Than Zero." The implication is that the original Clay was a fictional version of the real Clay. It’s kind of head-spinning and again demonstrates how Ellis is basically erasing the distinction between a fictional universe and the one we all actually live in. Combined with the question of who actually exists in-universe, and the uncertainty in some of the books as to what actually occurs as opposed to what’s imagined, the Ellisverse starts to become extremely trippy and hallucinatory — on purpose.

What Ellis is doing is kind of spectacular. Essentially, the events of his novels and stories are presented as real, or as real as anything in the “real” world. If Stephen King has his hands full linking all of his fictional works together into a shared universe, Ellis is trying to link everything to his fictional universe of sociopaths, drug addicts, and haunted celebrities. It just might be the most ambitious literary experiment ever undertaken.


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