Truth is good, trust more effective
Bret Easton Ellis, author of American Psycho and Glamorama — please read the titles as words — has sat on stage for about a minute. The moderator, a friendly older gentleman unknown to me, has just spoken the first introductory words when he is tactfully interrupted by the star of the evening — a moment, he says pleadingly, “I’ve got to pull up my pants”.
Ellis hasn’t been to Germany in 13 years; moreover, the Cologne literary festival lit.cologne has reportedly been trying to get him to perform for 20 years. So now it’s worked, and then this: a construction worker’s gesture from the man whose books are carried by money, distinction, style consciousness, and brand names. He stands up slowly, says the sentence; the men next to him look up, and then he pulls up his baggy, pale blue jeans — and has won the favor of the audience in Germany’s largest village.
Hard to say what people were expecting — but probably not that. In any case, Ellis manages to not only subvert his reputation as a styler with this mini-performance — presenting the ill-fitting pants, then pulling them up — but also to sum up the program of the coming 90 minutes: show up to hide.
He was very nervous, he said, not knowing what kind of event it would be today and not having read in public for a long time — to then chat madly eloquently, funny, approachable, hell-bent on giving people a good time. The author as an entertainer, pure joy. It also works well because he serves the Germans what they love: the non-difference between author and work. An anecdote: He had been asked why he hasn’t written a memoir yet, to which he replied: I have, and 9 of them. All of his published books would reflect his emotional state at the given time, and so on.
These are the pants at half-mast throughout the evening: you can watch me live my life; everything is out in the open; it’s always and only about me, “I don’t write my books for anyone.” The romantic who presents himself in his thinking and feeling — there is Goethe and Schiller all over it, everybody wallows in the generously offered intimacy and the promises of authenticity.
But even Ellis’ German publisher Kiepenheuer und Witsch, based in Cologne, highlights on the back of his new novel the “trinity” of “author, narrator and main character”: “The Shards is a fascinating mixture of fact and fiction, of reality and fantasy.” The audience that evening, however, is oblivious to this little literary-scientific reflection. Even when Ellis obviously takes the piss out of everyone when he reports, for example, that he received a message “just today” from his girlfriend, who is a cast member in the novel (in which she complains about the name of her fictional character), no one is surprised — not even the moderator, who is only too happy to go along with the general atmospheric drunkenness.
You can’t blame anyone for that; why should you? The pants have to dangle. For a little joke and a good mood, everything is allowed; that’s why we are here, even without having known it before.
By the way, the novel performs the same maneuver, only in a slightly more somber register. Here, the loose pants is that the protagonist’s love interest is a serial killer. Which, as it turns out, just isn’t true. Only extremely vague connections to the real killer remain toward the end — but that’s enough for the narrator to maintain his suspicion, his distrust of the innocent guy. Although he kind of acknowledges that his suspicions have not come true, he never resolves the ominous atmosphere of the story. The twisting of the facts is admitted behind closed doors but does not change the tone that governs the narration.
We are, it is said, gently dazzled in both performances wonderfully. It is not that important, and one does not want to know precisely: whether what is told is true. Correctly fitting pants are bland; if it sounds so offbeat, beautiful and charming, it is allowed to be a little unreliable. What counts is the bond, the trust between narrator and audience — and ill-fitting trousers as an opening do valuable service to that.