In a lilac-colored room lined with yellowed manuscripts and hardbacks on the third floor of the Language and Literature building, Jaime Clarke read from the opening pages of his second novel “Vernon Downs” on Monday night.
The roman à clef novel tracks lonesome 20-something Charlie Martens’s growing obsession with Vernon Downs, a thinly veiled Bret Easton Ellis, famed author of “American Psycho” and “The Rules of Attraction.” Martens moves from Phoenix to New York City to ingratiate himself in Downs’s world in increasingly unusual ways (e.g., briefly living in Downs’s loft and impersonating the author by answering his emails and giving interviews).
Clarke, a Phoenix native and University of Arizona graduate, says he was drawn to Ellis after he saw a midnight showing of the film adaptation of “Less Than Zero.”
“I was staggered to know that it was written by someone in college and published when the author was merely 21,” Clarke said in an interview with ArtSake.“The idea that someone close to my own age was doing what I wanted to do obsessed me.”
When Clarke moved to New York City following the completion of a Master of Fine Arts program at Bennington College (the real-life inspiration for Ellis’ Camden College), he just happened to meet and befriend Ellis. This relationship would later become the inspiration for “Vernon Downs.”
“I loved the idea of using my acquaintance with Bret as background for a story about young writer’s admiration for another and everything that that means,” he said. “So I wrote a draft of Vernon Downs in 2005 or so.”
The draft got left in a hypothetical drawer for a few years, though, while Clarke got married, had a kid, and rescued Newtonville Books in Boston. By the time he returned to the draft with notes from Ellis himself, he felt it was easier to “enrich the narrative with all I’ve learned as a writer and reader over these last eight or so years.”
While the expository bits fed to those at the reading were bogged down with unremarkable details and an extensive backstory of Martens shuttling from state to state following the death of his parents, advance reviews of the novel promise a tale that is “moving and edgy in just the right way” (Gary Shteyngart, author of “Super Sad True Love Story”) and a “hypnotically written and unnerving look at the dark side of literary adulation” (Tom Perrotta, author of “The Leftovers”).
Clarke followed up his reading with a brief Q&A;, where he talked about the role of social media and modern technology in fiction, and joked about the idea of J.D. Salinger having a Twitter.
With Twitter, Facebook, etc., “there’s all this noise around every author … but it’s the mystery that keeps you interested. … With Twitter, I can find out that Bret had lunch with Marilyn Manson last week,” he said.
One has to wonder, then, why write “Vernon Downs” now? Once upon a time in the late eighties, then 21-year-old Ellis entertained such an exorbitant amount of fame from the publication of his debut novel “Less Than Zero” that being a writer became almost incidental to his incredible celebrity. He frequented the hottest nightclubs as a member of the Literary Brat Pack and graced dozens of magazine covers — a far cry from the lifestyles of any prominent voices of contemporary fiction.
At first glance, a portrait of such outlandish literary fame seems a little outdated; however, the nature of obsession and celebrity culture remain equally as relevant — if not more so — to a generation of aggressively tweeting celebrity hopefuls. The pursuit of an identity in an age of superficiality and celebrity — as evidenced by Martens’s journey in the novel — is as hopeless of an exercise now as it was in 1985, when “Less Than Zero” came out. While hopeless, it’s certainly good fodder for fiction.
Both Clarke’s “Vernon Downs” and its inspiration, “Less Than Zero,” certainly belong on every summer reading list.
(“Vernon Downs” was released April 15 from Roundabout Books. Buy it here.)
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