Born of Frustration

Review of Bret Easton Ellis’ White

A few weeks ago, days before the release of his first nonfiction book, White, Bret Easton Ellis was ambushed—or “punked,” as he later put it—by the New Yorker. In an interview that reads like a cross-examination, “Q and A” specialist Isaac Chotiner bombards the Glamorama author (that, not American Psycho, is his best novel) with questions about his views on Donald Trump, making his derision known with surly demands and sarcastic responses to Ellis’ rather feeble efforts to explain himself. “Tell me what you meant.” “That’s not true, but OK.” “Oh, OK.” “Do you think [Trump] is a racist or not?” “Well, you said it—of course you agree.” “Yeah, I could tell.” When Ellis says he thinks politics are “ridiculous,” Chotiner counsels, “Maybe don’t write a book about it,” and closes the exchange with a gallant “Thanks so much for talking.”

New Yorker subscribers—I’m told they exist—could be forgiven for coming away with the impression that White is a sort of Coulterian apologia for Donald Trump and his vile brand of politics. If it were that, Chotiner’s prosecutor act might be warranted, albeit not on journalistic grounds. But since Ellis’ book is nothing of the sort, we can assume that Chotiner either didn’t read it or read it, disliked it, and decided to mislead his readers as to its content. Either way he seems satisfied with himself; good for him. In fact, White is a sprawling and at times rambling social critique, the tone and subject matter of which will be familiar to anyone who has listened to Ellis’ podcast or read his handful of essays. Donny Boy makes his first appearance on page 141, more than halfway through the book. He’s discussed for 25 pages, dropped for another 100, and then summoned again, with Kayne West for context, in the last 20 pages. Forty-five of 260 pages have anything to do with Trump. Yet the book is about Trump—a marvelous feat.

The Trump sections are not White’s finest. Ellis is at sea when commenting on politics, which is why he bases most of his arguments on the irrationality he observes in other people—mostly his friends and acquaintances—who are equally at sea but don’t appear to realize it. He writes at length, oftentimes amusingly, of his much younger boyfriend’s Trump-induced crack-up. For example, “During the months after the election I could count the number of times my inconsolable boyfriend had left the condo—and didn’t need more than two hands to tally them up. His hair became long and tousled, he hadn’t shaved for months, and he also developed three nonopiate addictions: Russian conspiracies as discussed on Reddit, Rachel Maddow detailing Russian conspiracy theories on MSNBC, and playing Final Fantasy XV.” Also, “At times he resembled a bedraggled and enraged Russian peasant, ranting and stomping around the condo, MSNBC blaring, yelling ‘Piece of shit!’ whenever Trump’s visage appeared on the TV screen in the living room.”

“He was part of the supposed resistance,” Ellis writes, “though too tired and stoned to actually go out and resist.” This is both funny and insightful, as it reflects the sheer uselessness of a political “resistance” whose definition of activism is to rant and rave about the latest anti-Russian conspiracy theory, dreamed up by Democratic hacks and disseminated by out-of-control propagandists like Rachel Maddow, on Facebook and Twitter. There’s a reason The Resistance is the object of ridicule among leftists who tune into MSNBC only when they feel like torturing themselves. (I don’t have a TV and so am unable to indulge my own masochistic impulses.)

Ellis is, as he would probably tell you, a political idiot. Evidence: “in the summer of 2015 something began to distract me, something odd was happening, something didn’t seem right: the mainstream news that I had read and mostly trusted my entire adult life, legacy institutions like The New York Times and CNN, wasn’t tracking what seemed to me a shifting reality.” “At some point I found it distracting to be living in a country whose press had become so biased and highly corporate.” A flash of the old satire? No, he means it. Presumably Ellis has never read Manufacturing Consent or any of the other numerous studies detailing the corporate media’s … difficult relationship with reality. The “legacy media,” as Ellis terms them, certainly have a legacy—so too does Charles Manson.

With that written, Ellis makes valid points here and there. “Surely there were people—DACA recipients, or the targets of ICE raids—who had a right to freak out, but the white, upper middle class in colleges, in Hollywood, in the media, and in Silicon Valley? … The rich and entitled liberals I knew always had the hardest time and were always the most hysterical.” There is something rich about filthy rich Hollywood types (Ellis, employing a right-wing tactic, erroneously brands them “the Left”) throwing temper tantrums over Trump. They’re the same people who sang Obama’s praises while he smashed Libya, bailed out Wall Street, set a new record for deportations and expanded our nuclear weapons systems. They’re also the same people who were glad to hobnob with Don the business celebrity, who was no less vulgar and objectionable than Don the president.

“The young men, Wall Street guys, I hung out with as part of my initial research [for American Psycho] were enthralled by him,” Ellis recalls. “Trump was an inspirational figure, which troubled me in 1987 and 1988 and 1989, and also why he’s mentioned more than forty times in the novel. He’s who Bateman is obsessed with, the daddy he never had, the man he wants to be.”

The writing was on the wall in the ‘80s. Trump was always a scourge. Ellis saw it; many other people did not. Now he’s accused of being blind to Trump’s malignancy. This hypocrisy evidently winds him up and goes some way in accounting for his anti-anti-Trump stance. Mostly, though, Ellis is simply irritated that Trump’s election has made it difficult for him to talk with other people about the things about which he’s passionate:

My moral ambivalence about politics in general has always left me the neutral guest at many tables. As a writer I found myself more interested in understanding my friends’ thoughts and feelings than in debating the accuracy of their political forecasts or who should have won the Electoral College, or if it should even exist. I preferred, as always, to talk with them about movies and books and music and TV shows.

He relates at least half a dozen anecdotes about dinner dates spoiled by crazed political tirades. On one such date, Ellis was read the riot act by two old friends who were appalled to learn of his insouciance re Trump. “One of them said the Electoral College was ‘bullshit’ [it is] and that Los Angeles and New York should determine who ‘the fucking president’ is. ‘I don’t want any goddamn know-nothing rural hicks deciding who the president should be,’ he growled. ‘I am a proud liberal coastal elite and I think we should pick the president because we know better.’” Foul, but standard upper class rhetoric. Another meal was wrecked by a spat over Moonlight and Black Lives Matter. “Sometimes,” Ellis admits, “when listening to friends of mine, I’d stare at them while a tiny voice in the back of my head started sighing, You are the biggest fucking baby I’ve ever fucking heard in my entire fucking life and please you’ve got to fucking calm the fuck down—I get it, I get it, you don’t like fucking Trump but for fuck’s sake enough already for fuck’s sake.

White is born of this frustration. If Ellis can no longer discuss his interests with friends, he’s going to discuss them with himself—and anyone who cares to read him. Thus, we get long (sometimes painfully so) meditations on all his abiding hobby-horses, as well as a few from his past. Large columns of text are dedicated to the pernicious impact Ellis says social media is having on society, tying this into his triad of “cults”—likability, inclusivity and victimhood—as well as his “reputation economy.” He laments the reluctance of his podcast guests, especially actors, to air their opinions publicly, arguing that in today’s outrage-prone culture one is perpetually walking on eggshells, worried about hurting other people’s feelings and provoking a digital lynch mob. Earlier he asserts that “we’ve all become actors. We’ve had to rethink the means with which to express our feelings and thoughts and ideas and opinions in the void created by a corporate culture that is forever trying to silence us by sucking up everything human and contradictory and real with its assigned rule book on how to behave. We seem to have entered precariously into a kind of totalitarianism that actually abhors free speech and punishes people for revealing their true selves.”

In support of this theory Ellis cites his GLAAD dust-up, Milo Yiannopoulos, the Charlie Hebdo attacks, his Twitter troubles and, of course, the row surrounding the publication of American Psycho. Ellis still maintains that said row blindsided him, writing that the prospect had never occurred to him until his then-boyfriend, perusing a gory bit of the manuscript, warned him: “You’re going to get into trouble.” I think we can take him at his word at this point. If nothing else, and regardless of what you think of him or his writing, Ellis can and should be commended for his unswerving defense of free speech, without which we have nothing. That individuals and organizations posturing as liberal attempted to impose prior restraint on a work of fiction at the tail end of the 20th century is still unnerving to contemplate. Ellis was right to feel persecuted—an attack on one person’s right to free speech is an attack on everyone’s. In case anyone forgot:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Needless to say, there’s plenty in White about contemporary film (Ellis’ main obsession), including a prolix segment comparing Moonlight with the lesser known King Kobra. Ellis prefers the latter since it depicts a group of knotty characters who happen to be, among other things, gay (i.e. their sexuality is incidental to their story; it’s a, not the, theme), whereas Moonlight deploys homosexuality as a narrative propeller and instrument of extreme pathos, rendering the protagonist a righteous, victimized, character—a tragic hero for the postmodernist age. I haven’t watched King Kobra, but I more or less agree with Ellis’ assessment of Moonlight, namely, that its success owes more to its political (Ellis would say “ideological”) utility than its aesthetic value. This signals a peculiar shift in the way we, as a culture, consume and rate works of art. “The only way you can judge Wagner or Beethoven or any other composer,” novelist Anthony Burgess argued, “is aesthetically. We don’t regard Wagner or Beethoven or Shakespeare or Milton as great teachers.” By “don’t” he means shouldn’t. History is replete with evidence that great art does not presuppose a moral superiority on the part of the artist—the two things have nothing to do with one another. A very bad person can make very good art and vice versa, a truism fewer and fewer people seem willing to accept.

For Ellis, Moonlight also highlights an issue he has with popular media representations of the gay celebrity: “as some kind of saintly, adorable ET whose sole purpose is to remind us only about tolerance and our prejudices, to encourage us to feel good about ourselves and to serve as a symbol.” He points to Morrissey as an exception, “calling out contradictions and hypocrisies in society yet he always seems to be chastised by the press and on social media because he’s speaking honestly and doesn’t buy into the accepted narrative of the Applebee’s Gay.” But Morrissey, similar to Gore Vidal (described favorably by Ellis as an “I-don’t-give-a-fuck Empire celebrity”), has always rejected the gay-straight dichotomy and has never identified as homosexual, stating on more than one occasion that the concept is beneath him. “Unfortunately, I am not homosexual,” he wrote in 2013. “In technical fact, I am humasexual. I am attracted to humans. But, of course, not many.” Morrissey’s views on sex are more in time with remarks made by a TV producer whom Ellis obliquely criticizes in White:

A few years ago when a viewer complained to Shonda Rhimes, a top TV producer and showrunner, that there was too much  gay sex on certain series she had created, Rhimes shot back, wagging her finger, that what people were seeing was not “gay sex” but simply “sex.” Some of us scratched our heads—it was? … I understood what Rhimes was going for, but this notion that all sex is the same and we shouldn’t label any of it as being “different” for fear that we aren’t being “inclusive” enough is a nice “progressive” idea that in reality serves no purpose whatsoever.

That notwithstanding, Ellis shares with Morrissey a certain disdain for modern culture, in particular the restraints not-so-subtly being placed on speech and expression by an overzealous liberal media. As natural contrarians, both artists delight in goading their critics, to the point where they probably caricature their own positions. Ellis, for his part, confirms as much, confessing that he likes using “snowflake” as an epithet “because it seemed, amazingly, to press so many buttons.” Also, with regard to his behavior on Twitter:

Now I was trolling. And my desire was to have a good time, to be a provocative, somewhat outrageous and opinionated critic, to be a bad boy, a douche, to lead my own dance in this writers’ funhouse—all in 140 characters or less—and it became a problem for my Twitter self.

Nonfiction Ellis is most readable in autobiographical form (one tires of his polemical style). Memoir punctuates White. We’re given small intimate glimpses into various periods of his life. Growing up, he had a penchant for bloody horror films—shocking—and an infatuation with Richard Gere—shocking again. He writes nostalgically and with unabashed pride of his “pessimistic and ironic” Gen-X upbringing, which he contends is the polar opposite of the millennial experience:

As a 1970s kid there were no helicopter parents: you navigated the world more or less on your own, an exploration unaided by parental authority. In retrospect my parents, like the parents of the friends I grew up with, seemed incredibly nonchalant about us, not at all like parents today who document their children’s every move on Facebook and pose them on Instagram and urge them into safe spaces and demand only positivity while apparently trying to shelter them from everything. If you came of age in the 1970s this was most definitely not your childhood. The world wasn’t about kids yet.

He goes on to declare, as he has many times before, that overweening parents have created a generation of people—“Generation Wuss”—ill-equipped to stand the failure, disappointment and cruelty that define human existence. While I feel no inclination, let alone responsibility, to defend “my generation,” Ellis makes sweeping generalities about millennials that bear little, if any, resemblance to my own experiences and observations. Most of the millennials I know and have known are cynical and sardonic, avidly apolitical, and never harbored any illusions about what life was preparing to throw at them. When Ellis describes his teenage acquaintances, I’m reminded of my own. Of course, I’ve also known the sort of melodramatic and frail “snowflakes” he derides, but they were of a minority, at least in my world (which was garden-variety suburban middle-class), and something tells me the same type of cosseted, thin-skinned kids could be located in previous generations. Moreover, the corporate liberal order he rails against for its preening self-righteousness was engineered by his, not my, generation, though mine is happy to take up the reins.

Early in the book Ellis tells of the nightmare that was the production of the film adaptation of his debut novel Less Than Zero. Nightmare productions would become a recurring theme in his professional life. It seems he toiled over countless TV and film projects that came to naught. Few were produced, none of which did anything financially—nor were they well-received. Even American Psycho: The Musical, slowly developed over a period of ten years, closed “after eighty-one performances including a month of previews, at a cost of fourteen million dollars that was never recouped.” And it was supposed to be “lucrative.” That such a successful writer meets with such regular failure is less consoling than it is depressing. But I digress.

In recounting the production of The Informers, a 2008 film based on Ellis’ short story collection of the same name, Ellis reveals that he’d “fallen for” an actor who was after a role in the movie. This actor thought it might be worthwhile to string Ellis along, and so he did. Reflecting on his realization that “maybe that actor you’ve become intimate with is only that: an actor,” Ellis writes that “The mutual degradation that revealed itself to me was a kind of absurd Hollywood joke without a punch line, one that, years later, I’m thankful for.” The bruising encounter is poignant to read because of the honest and neutral (and implicit) fashion in which it’s related. It’s also interesting in that it shows us the other side of the showbiz exploitation coin: instead of predatory producers, directors, writers manipulating and abusing vulnerable actors, we see the process working in reverse: a sly actor exploits a writer who pays an emotional price. Ellis’ recollection of his troubled life in the summer preceding 9/11 is equally poignant, again because it’s told simply and objectively, with minimal exhibitionism and no self-pity attached.

Nor was I able to pick up on any of the self-aggrandizement charged by some of the book’s detractors. White is predictably being savaged in certain corners of the internet. It is, according to one reviewer, “disingenuous,” “bait,” “childish” and “shapeless,” its author “a racist and a misogynist” with a “laughably derivative vocabulary”—to be contrasted with said reviewer’s majestically original one, using formidable words like “mélange” and “perseverate.” Meanwhile another reviewer, challenging Ellis’ “aesthetics versus ideology” fixation, educates us that “there is no such thing as non-political art.” I’m still waiting for someone, anyone, to explain to me how Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, the height of art, is political. I’ll keep waiting.

White is not a great book. The prose is patchy—clean and taut in some areas, shabby and cumbersome in others. The arguments are repetitive. It’s too long for what it contains. It devotes many a word to Charlie Sheen and Kanye West. But it’s not a bad book, either. It’s Bret Easton Ellis, this time without a fictional sheath for protection, unplugged, spilling his brain on the page. If you don’t like it, don’t look at it.

Michael Howard, a writer and teacher living in Vietnam, has published political and cultural commentary in a variety of publications including Paste Magazine, American Herald Tribune, Creative Loafing and CounterPunch, among others. Contact him at mwhowie@yahoocom. . Read other articles by Michael.