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Tome On The Range

The Whitey Album: Bret Easton Ellis Runs Out Of Steam
John Quin , May 12th, 2019 10:18

What do you do when your best work is all over thirty years old? Well, if you're Bret Easton Ellis, you write a book of essays devoted to whining about "millennials"…

Bret Easton Ellis has a problem: the current moment. He can’t be having it and so instead of giving us a new novel we get White, an extended whine that often sadly undermines its serious intent with trivial digressions on the likes of The Bangles or Charlie Sheen. Millennials might well ask: who they? Weren’t they popular in the 1980s like, ahem, Bret Easton Ellis himself?

So what’s getting Mr Ellis’ goat? Millennials for one. He’s annoyed with “strangers on social media who offer up their rash opinions and judgments, their mindless preoccupations, always with an unwavering certitude that they were right.” And so in turn he gives us his own brash opinions on what he calls ‘Generation Wuss’ and what he perceives as their “oversensitivity, their sense of entitlement” and does so in a tone of righteous ire.

Here too are diversions into his own (some might say mindless) preoccupations, musings on other twentieth century figures like Joan Jett or Tom Cruise. However critics needn’t worry about not liking White because Ellis gives us a blessing; he’s “entirely comfortable in being both liked and disliked, adored and despised.”

Fine and dandy. And there are some good things in here. He admires Paul Schrader and acknowledges the surface sheen influence of American Gigolo on American Psycho. He name checks Joan Didion and Louis-Ferdinand Céline as literary influences, winks that beg us to nod along. He rates The Thing and in a passing comment on Stanley Kubrick calls Eyes Wide Shut “a masterpiece”. There’s a neat cameo appearance too of another 80s figure, Tina Brown, who he describes niftily as: “soft-spoken, petite, with a no-nonsense air of British formality, and she could stare you down with a laser-light intensity. I found her stillness intimidating…”

The references here to the genesis and workings of his first three novels (and we must remind ourselves these were written, incredibly, before he was thirty!) are of some interest. But what do you do after you have crafted the key cultural character of your time, uh, thirty years ago? And given that the subsequent movies based on your books haven’t exactly set the heather on fire and you’re now in your mid-fifties… well, what comes next? White: an extended rant against likeability.

Mr. Ellis is fixated on actors and likeability. He thinks that social media is turning all of us into actors, a clump of puerile needy weeds in constant demand of positive feedback, intolerant of critique. There may be something in this. He might be right too about the seemingly increasing inability of commentators to separate the flawed behavioural patterns of some artists from their creations.

But then he pushes his irritations into territory that is calculated to cause upset. Defensively, disingenuously, he warns “in fact I was never good at realising what might offend someone anyway”. But this excuse can’t be extended to his editors and publishers. How to explain away the provocations in the second half of White? Here he talks dismissively, flippantly, of “microaggressions” and examples “a drunken guy tries to grope you at a Christmas party” or “some douche” trying to “cop a feel”.

And he goes much further, with his disinclination to join in the widespread condemnation of President Trump. Ellis “began tuning out anyone who shrilly insisted Trump had called all Mexicans ‘rapists’.” The novelist defensively points out that this happened “only once”.

Ellis, a non-voter in the last election, sees Trump as a prankster, a disruptor, and reminds us that he made him the hero of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. He talks of Trump’s “odious business practices, his casually brazen lying… the whiffs of racism” but declines the opportunity to get particularly angry with these. He’s careful not to overtly condemn; he’s well aware that anger is an energy but this punk emotion is for him… uncool. He likes to take what he calls an ‘aesthetic’ approach, a distanced view; he’d rather give us what he considers a cold appraisal but the heat of his indignation here scalds and is intense and repetitive. He takes against the “high moral tone seized by social-justice warriors, and increasingly an unhinged Left” that he sees, ironically, as “always out of scale with whatever they’re actually indignant about.”

His ‘aesthetic’ now inclines to a taste for country artists. He would take Jamey Johnson (who he?) over Kendrick Lamar and delights in imagining the offence this might cause in a manner not dissimilar to an adolescent troll amused at his own sneering.

Ellis is tired too of the “relentless Hitler and Nazi comparisons” on social media which he finds “especially repugnant since my stepfather, a Polish Jew in his seventies, had as an infant, lost his family to the Holocaust, and I could no longer even pretend to sympathise with this hysteria, even as a metaphor, it was weak and basically moronic.”

Now this may be the view of a self-confessed transgressive white privileged male in the America of 2019, but seen from this side of the Atlantic, a historical perspective on the Weimar Republic and its trials cannot be dismissed as merely “moronic”. The challenges of that era chime with our times with the likes of Orbán and their ilk. Ellis, with his fascinations about acting and actors, might do well to recall the fate of some performers from this inter-war period; the men and women who chose to flirt with the Axis powers and side with those who saw critique as shrill, uncool. There is the risk of becoming the literary equivalent of a co-opted Gustav Gründgens figure, a Mephisto in thrall to the tricksters, the jesters, who will interpret a non-critical stance as approval.

Bret Easton Ellis defines himself as a Gen Xer. This one time wild youth now appears to be going round and round on the tightly constricted Circle Line of his mind. He senses that his contemporary relevance has a date stamp. He wants to slap us in the face and make us cry. But with White it looks like, as Elvis Costello once sang, he’s in the doghouse instead.

White by Bret Easton Ellis is published by Picador