It’s impossible to read the rest of the book without this image of Ellis – sweaty with rage, contorted over a keypad, humming with paranoia about the demands of “the machine” – coming to mind. Because White, a collection of eight essays that respond to contemporary culture, has all the sound, fury and insignificance of a misguided rant posted at 3am. Except, inexplicably, it has been given the dignity of print publication... “Maybe when you’re roiling in childish rage, the first thing you lose is judgement, and then comes common sense,” Ellis writes at the close of White, supposedly in reference to the “constant shrieking” of the left. Maybe that’s also how we ended up with such a nonsensical, vapid book, written by a man so furiously obsessed with his right to speak that he forgets to say anything at all.
I gave him a fair hearing, I really did. Some of what Ellis has to say in White, his first work of non-fiction, is not stupid. It’s true that teeth-gnashing over Trump’s presidency can seem alarmingly out of touch with the realities of modern America. I share his concern that aesthetics are increasingly, regrettably, being sidelined in favour of ideology. His film criticism is unfailingly lucid and intelligent. I wish there had been more of it.
Bad reviews, media bashing, mockery, disdain, brutal accusations of old-fartdom – will Bret Easton Ellis learn anything from this debacle? Of course not. It would be out of character and borderline disappointing if he did. A sudden onset of empathy would neutralise the snot factor so integral to his persona and voice. Upsetting the maximum number of people with the minimal amount of effort is a gift and a curse, akin to Jonathan Franzen’s earnest genius for getting on everyone’s nerves. The ability to bring out the energised best and worst from reviewers and fellow writers with even so middling, muddling a book as White – to provoke them into haughty erasure – testifies to an arch-nemesis quality that might be put to better purposes than the paltry sport of weenie-roasting millennials. Yet I don’t see Ellis gunning for bigger game in the future, raising his sights, expanding his field of fire. That would require exertion, actual research and stuff. No, I think he has found his groove and that groove is mellifluously crooning into the podcast mic about the latest online spaz-out or personal pet peeves, like some well-worn balladeer, the Leonard Cohen of kvetching. If he paces himself, he’ll be able to go on indefinitely, methodically chewing the same old cud. Fine with me, you know, whatever.
[I]t’s hard to get away from the fact that White is less a collection of essays than a prowl through what can seem like a randomly gathered set of Ellis’s musings and memories. It’s a form that suits the podcast he’s been hosting since 2013 – recent guests include Chuck Palahnuik and David Shields – but comes across as rambling when set down on the page. The results are mixed, the good parts being his recollections of the freedom of an unsupervised Los Angeles childhood in the 1970s and the incisive film critiques. I never imagined I’d read anything that made me want to see American Gigolo again, but Ellis did that for me, at least. Much less attractive are sweeping generalisations such as “Everything has been degraded by what the sensory overload and the supposed freedom-of-choice technology has brought to us, and, in short, by the democratisation of the arts.” “Everything”? “Degrading”? He dislikes, he writes, the “aesthetics” of the Black Lives Matter movement; he wonders idly whether film directing is a “medium more suited to men”. It was this sort of thing that made me want to throw White across the room; my annoyance compounded by a clear recollection of just how much I’d loathed Ellis’s most celebrated novel, American Psycho, when it appeared in 1991.
Perhaps the worst thing about the culture that Ellis wishes to damn is what it has done to him. I would have loved him to have written a novel about millennials, doing unto them what American Psycho did to his lot or Glamorama did to mine. Why do we get this instead? Midway through, reading his quite random defence of the far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, I almost gasped. Privileged, gay, hedonistic, keen to shock; oh my God, are the two men basically the same? If Ellis were three decades younger and a millennial, maybe he wouldn’t bother writing novels at all, but would have got the same kicks by abusing celebrities on the internet.
In White, his first work of non-fiction, Ellis presents himself as a fearless free-speech advocate fighting against ‘liberal fascists’, ‘whiney’ millennials, online censorship, intolerance, political correctness and the ‘authoritarian’ stranglehold of corporate culture on the American mind and art. The book is also a memoir covering his career as a novelist and his life as a celebrity, hanging out with the hip crowd in New York and LA. But where is the juicy gossip, where are the zinging, bitchy one-liners that one longs for? For a self-proclaimed bad boy, he is too nice about everyone – except liberals.
As he recounts here, sometime in 2013, crippled in bed with waves of anxiety, tamping down his fear with Xanax and tequila, he heard the whisper of a new novel, something about an actor, a car crash, a murder dressed as suicide, but it never turned into anything and, with a characteristic shrug, he gave us these essays instead. Whatever. But here’s the real shocker: they’re good, particularly the earlier ones evoking his youth as a rich, unsupervised latchkey kid growing up in California in the 1970s... had Ellis left it there it would have been the greatest mic drop of his career. Sadly, he doesn’t. His resentment over his vilification upon that book’s publication colours all that follows — what might be termed “the trolling years”, and a thin, peevish wasteland it is, as Ellis relitigates his spats on Twitter laying into millennials as Generation Wuss, dismissing #MeToo as pathetic, suggesting that Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow won an Oscar only because she was “a very hot woman”, before finally hitting the motherlode with a back-handed tweet praising then candidate Trump, that is retweeted by Trump himself, and makes international news for all of a nanosecond... Listening to his friends, he thinks “you need to stop letting the ‘bad man’ help you in the process of victimising your whole life”. In other words: suck it up like I had to. It’s bad news for millennials: Bret wants to be the bad dad you never wished you had. He’ll have to forgive those who don’t take him up on the offer.
Ellis engages with his themes in a forthright, abrasive and unapologetic, intelligent manner is no surprise given he is the author of American Psycho... All is objectified to the logical extent of murder. It is unsettling. Unsafe. Dark... You could say that, for Ellis, this is a confrontation with the dark side of the world. For him the contemporary world is a tyranny of ignoring this dark side with an insistence, as he would see it. of the overprotection, the mollycoddling, of a generation he names Generation Wuss in his tweets... This book is a refreshing and hugely interesting intervention in a debate about the nature of our times – is it the cry of a dinosaur or a timely injection of corrective truth? I recommend it.
White is a freewheeling mix of memoir and polemic. There’s never been a simple, centred self in Ellis’s writing, and there isn’t here either, but there’s a unifying theme — his disdain for what the digital world has done to us all lately...
Enfants terribles rarely age well. Eloquent and contrary though it is, White is the work of a punk now overcome with nostalgia for his own youth.
Ellis is excellent as a practitioner-critic analysing the films that inspired him in his youth (such as Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo) or those that have failed to inspire him lately (such as Moonlight, which he sees as a straight man’s vision of gay sexuality) or the career of David Foster Wallace and the posthumous cult that was determined to make a saint of him (until it wasn’t). Ellis has a lot to say about the valorisation of victim narratives in pop culture, which leave him cold, so it’s surprising that he doesn’t remark on the parallel rise of superhero movies as the dominant mode of mass culture — fantasies of powerlessness and pure power that have gripped the popular mind... Ellis’s critique of millennial fragility is weakened by his use of the stock phrases of reactionaries (“social justice warriors”) as well as one of his own coining — “Generation Wuss”. This is name-calling, and it underestimates the power of a cohort that has used technology to begin reshaping society in ways Gen X hardly attempted.
Ostensibly, Ellis is arguing that liberal outrage is stifling discourse, and that people are afraid to speak their minds when faced with the near-fascist censorship of the left, which can’t handle any opposing dialogue. (Ellis throws out the word “comrade” a lot in this section, mixing up his communist and fascist signifiers with gleeful abandon.) But the opposite is true. It is Ellis who responds with panicked admonitions whenever anyone disagrees with his “bad boy” provocations... All of White is, in fact, a massive and unoriginal exercise in projection, a defensive bray of “I’m not mad, I actually think it’s funny,” repeated for 260 pages.