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Maria Wyeth = Patrick Bateman

I’m reading Play It As It Lays for the first time. I don’t recall reading about how Bret Easton Ellis stole his entire style from Joan Didion. How could I have missed that? The deadpan delivery of line after line by vacuous cyphers in Didion’s Hollywood read almost exactly like those of Ellis’s Wall Street. The pacing, the eerie hallucinogenic effect of having characters talk over one another and barely listen. The stock-like characters presented as so much dreary wallpaper in scenes whose purpose is to convey a sexually-charged alienation.

At the table on the terrace where Maria and BZ sat for dinner there were a French director, his cinematographer, and two English Lesbians who lived in Santa Monica Canyon. Maria sat next to the cinematographer, who spoke no English, and during dinner BZ and the French director disappeared into the house. Maria could smell marijuana, but it was not mentioned on the terrace. The cinematographer and the two Lesbians discussed the dehumanizing aspect of American technology, in French.

I’m not finished yet, so this post is obviously premature. But so far I’m stunned by the similarity. Has this debt already been well-established? Or am I way off base?

6 thoughts on “Maria Wyeth = Patrick Bateman

  1. Maybe it’s the holidays! No, the debt that Ellis owes to Joan Didion has been common knowledge since _Less than Zero_ was published:

    “Mr. Ellis has a good ear for the sort of dumb exchange of non sequiturs, bad jokes and half-hearted shrugs that pass for conversation between Clay and his friends; and while his descriptions of Los Angeles carry a few too many echoes of Raymond Chandler, Joan Didion and Nathanael West – his novel contains all the requisite references to driving the highways, listening to the desert wind and watching beach houses slide into the sea – they nonetheless demonstrate a keen eye for grim details (the dead fish in the Jacuzzi, the cigarette butt stubbed out on the kitchen floor, and so on) and a sure sense of the absurd.” Michiko Kakutani, “The Young and Ugly,” NYT, 8 June 1985.

    “It would be more fun were the novel more artfully constructed. Ellis is at an impressionable age, and the impressions show: a lot of Hemingway, a lot of Joan Didion, a bit of Ann Beattie.”Jonathan Yardley, “Empty Affluence: A Grim Slice of the ‘Good Life,'” Washington Post, 30 June 1986.

    Someone from the Toronto Globe and Mail called Less than Zero “startlingly well written debut, limning the same West Coast angst as Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays and Alan Rudolph’s film Welcome To L.A.”

    1. Nice! Thanks for digging up those quotes. I’m a little disheartened to learn I haven’t made the literary discovery of the year, but happy to know I’m not imagining the resemblance, scene after scene.

      Here’s another choice bit from Play It:

      “I mean I thought we were kind of separated.” That did not sound exactly right either.
      “If that’s the way you want it.”
      “It wasn’t me. I mean was it me?”
      “Never, Maria. Never you.”
      There was a silence. Something real was happening: this was, as it were, her life. If she could keep that in mind she would be able to play it through, do the right thing, whatever that meant.
      “I guess we could try,” she said uncertainly.
      “Only if you want to.”
      “Of course I do.” She did not know what else to say. “Of course I want to.”
      “Why don’t you sound like it.”
      “Carter, I do.” She paused, abruptly exhausted. “Maybe it’s not such a good idea.”

  2. Play It As It Lays was one of those books that I read way too early to really appreciate–I think I was around twelve: it was a moment when I knew I liked reading and read everything I could get my hands on whether I understood it or not… I’ll see if I can dig up that old copy…

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