Bret Easton Ellis’s reputation has suffered from the perception that he is more provocateur than serious novelist—a literary star who got lucky with his first novel, Less Than Zero, and who stirred controversy with his 1991 novel American Psycho. But beneath the hype and drama is a writer who saw more clearly than most the dehumanizing effects of living in a consumeristic technocratic society. It’s unfortunate, then, that Ellis has decided to publish White, his first collection of nonfiction, in which he says little new and seems to take sophomoric pleasure in provoking for provocation’s sake.
White has been described as a memoir and as a social commentary. It is a bit of both. It has no table of contents, which creates a kind of suspenseful, unstructured impression uncommon in nonfiction ever since Thus Spake Zarathustra. It also reflects the fragmentary commentary found in the book (about actors, Ellis’s experience writing American Psycho, the Sexual Revolution, Millennials, social media, more social media, Trump, more stuff about Millennials) and muddled distinctions that become more disjointed over the course of the work.
Ellis can be engaging and passionate, but he just as easily can be a bore, complaining to little end about political correctness and “Generation Wuss.” One thing Ellis sadly has in common with every character he has created is an abysmal wit. Take this gem right in the first essay: “We [Generation X, that is] didn’t get ribbons for doing a good job and we weren’t awarded for just showing up: there were actual winners and losers.”
To the extent that there is a theme in White, it is “Empire,” which he mentions often and defines only in passing. Empire was a romantic moment in America. People were happier. They were more trusting of authority, which ran more stable and credible institutions. Culture was more aristocratic, glamorous, earnest, and, at times, artificial. I say was because, according to Ellis, we are now in post-Empire, where no one is happy, institutions are bankrupt, and culture is anarchic, ironic, vulgar, authentic, apocalyptic.
If Empire was the Eagles, Veuve Clicquot, Reagan, The Godfather, and Robert Redford, then post-Empire is American Idol, coconut water, the Tea Party, The Human Centipede, and Shia LaBeouf. With expectations diminished, everywhere there has been a shrugging off of Establishment propriety. Outsider attitudes have been pushed into the mainstream—attitudes marked by a lack of polish, a do-it-yourself mindset, and an impulse to carelessly wear your pajamas in public.
For Ellis, post-Empire is a liberation—or should be. Everyone is free to be their best (that is, worst, most ornery) selves. Ellis chiefly embraces this through Twitter, a haven where one can be “playful and provocative, easy to read and hard to decipher, and, most importantly, not… taken seriously.” On Twitter, Ellis revived his non-feud with David Foster Wallace not long after he died, called Kathryn Bigelow overrated at the height of her Hurt Locker accolades, and campaigned to write the screenplay for Fifty Shades of Grey, an act he called “partly sincere and partly performance art.”
But this liberation, it turns out, has been fleeting. It became “watered down and clamped shut, as the post-Empire merged into corporate culture.” Ellis spends a lot of time trying to awaken—or red pill?—people into seeing this. He uses his podcast, clearly modeled as a less funny WTF with Marc Maron, to get Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, James Van Der Beek, and Jason Schwartzman to achieve beast mode, but they hold back at the last minute. There’s an urge to maintain a “cult of likeability,” he writes, in essence “a kind of totalitarianism that actually abhors free speech and punishes people for revealing their true selves. In other words: the actor’s dream.”
Somewhere in White are more than a few valid points worth defending. We are sleepwalking into a corporate morass where metrics determine quality and algorithms shape our tastes. We are already in a bitter political landscape where one part rages, another part panics, and a (slightly smaller) part wishes they could just hide until everyone cools the hell off. And it does feel like this culture “doesn’t care about art,” preferring instead to be relevant, to hector, to cancel, to conform, and to apologize rather than to explain.
When Ellis turns to film, he is endlessly interesting. It’s hard to argue with his remarks that Moonlight is an idealized, sexless, and heterosexual conception of a gay character and that The Invitation was one of the best films of 2016. This doesn’t last, however, as Ellis reverts to crude, parroted political discourse with which to hector his reader. Perhaps you, fellow edgelords, have heard that “while it’s nice to feel virtuous, it’s worth considering whether feeling virtuous and being virtuous are actually the same thing.” You have? On The Rubin Report? Oh, well, what if, also, that Donald Trump is “like the Joker in The Dark Knight” following “no rules…no protocol,” “a prankster” and a “disruptor,” rather than a politician? You’ve heard that, too? On 4chan? Ah, well, I…have to return some videotapes.
One person Ellis praises unabashedly in White is Joan Didion. Didion is “fearlessly opinionated” and “her style, her aesthetic, sold everything she wrote, and this belief in style, the precision in her writing, seemingly erased ideology…as with all great writers, the style was where you located the meaning in her work.” Didion comparisons have followed Ellis for most of his 34-year career, for good and ill. Ellis is entirely right to praise her here, but in commending her style (as many often do), he overlooks how it is informed by substance. She, along with Tom Wolfe and Janet Malcolm (whom Ellis quotes at the beginning of the book), are among the most innovative reporters in American journalism. Didion was a natural observer who could not comment on any phenomenon until she’d gathered sufficient data. Ellis does none of this legwork, and so the brave sagacity of Joan Didion mutates into the late-period petulance of Edward Dahlberg.
Ultimately what is so offensive about this book defending the right—nay, the imperative—to be offensive is its gratuitousness. Ellis has said everything he says in White in American Psycho, which he references frequently. Indeed, the point of White, and of his entire corpus, is hit on very late in the book, almost as if Ellis is himself just realizing it:
American Psycho was about what it meant to be a person in a society you disagreed with and what happened when you attempted to accept and live with its values even if you knew they were wrong. Delusion and anxiety were the focal points. Insanity crept in and was overwhelming. This was the outcome of chasing the American dream: isolation, alienation, corruption, the consumerist void in thrall to technology.
It is perhaps not new to suggest that Patrick Bateman, far from a singular entity, or, as Ellis describes him, “a ghost,” is actually an embodiment of countless Americans. Less new, though, is the idea that this is the optimistic interpretation. Railing against the throng of mass conformity was going on well before Empire’s collapse. What is often overlooked, possibly because even for satirists and moralists like Ellis it is too grim to consider, is the effortlessness with which most people become indistinguishable. The revelation of dating apps is not the ready availability of casual sex, but the seeming contentment and banality of a world where everyone thinks, wants, reads, watches, and eats the same things. But, of course, Ellis did depict this.
“Letters from L.A.” is a story in Ellis’s 1994 collection The Informers. It consists of letters written by Anne, a student at Camden College (Ellis’s stand-in for Bennington) taking a semester off in Los Angeles. It is unlike most of what Ellis has written: its protagonist is female, its style is more emotionally textured, that is, she is happy, she is anxious, she has a pulse (there are probably more exclamation points in those 22 pages than in any of his other novels). “100 degrees out and all these beautiful blond tan people (specimens!) staring into space, walking around me and toward their cars,” she writes to her comically nonresponsive recipient. “And I got this awful feeling that all of them were looking at me: no tan, not blond, not beautiful, let’s ignore her!” Over the course of the 16 letters, however, the temporary stay becomes permanent, she dyes her hair blonde and gets a tan, and the letters become more typically detached. “Carlos just put in a new videotape. We’ve been watching Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. …Randy plays them all the time. I’ve seen them a lot since I’ve been here. … Carlos says L.A. is swarming with vampires. I’m taking a Valium.” It is maybe not Ellis’s most elegant story, but it is his most humane. What is more horrifying, after all? Encountering a Bret Easton Ellis character or watching someone drift into one, as though diseased?
Though it lacks the stylistic graces of Jay McInerney and the narrative depth of Mary Gaitskill, Ellis’s fiction traps in amber the moral fever and corrosion to which modern American society is compulsively, hopelessly attracted. It’s the same moral fever and corrosion that has captured the attention of Chuck Palaniuk, even Michel Houellebecq, for years. The most detectable evidence of great writing is that, though a writer may be done with his or her work, the work is never done with us. That’s probably true of Ellis’s American Psycho, and the best thing that can be said about White is that it reminds us of this.