By Bret Easton Ellis
When I tell a close friend that I am reading a book by Bret Easton Ellis, he makes the face I made when I tasted kombucha for the first time. “Isn’t he … bad?”
I imagine that Ellis would find this reaction delightful. That it is uttered by a purebred coastal elite with a crush on A.O.C. and a refrigerator full of overpriced organic produce would make it all the more delicious.
Because here is the caricatured target of Ellis’s new book: a millennial who borrows many of his cultural opinions from woke Twitter; who experienced something close to shell shock when Robert Mueller’s report was finally completed and impeachment proceedings did not immediately commence; and who — sin of sins, as far as the author is concerned — confuses aesthetic differences with moral failing.
Ellis has been a public bad boy since 1985, when his debut novel, “Less Than Zero,” was published while he was still a college student. In those days, the author’s vices were obnoxiousness and large quantities of cocaine. Now he is sober. And the obnoxiousness has migrated, naturally, to a podcast and a Twitter feed.
If the author’s name rings a bell for the members of “Generation Wuss,” as Ellis has dubbed millennials, including his longtime (and surely long-suffering) boyfriend, it is likely because of one of his various headline-making tweets. Perhaps you’ll recall the one about the Oscar-winning director of “The Hurt Locker”: “Kathryn would be considered a mildly interesting filmmaker if she was a man but since she’s a very hot woman she’s really overrated.”
Now, at least in theory, snowflakes on both coasts in withdrawal from Rachel Maddow’s nightly Kremlinology lesson can purchase a whole book to inspire paroxysms of rage. “White” — even the title is a trigger — is a veritable thirst trap for the easily microaggressed.
It’s all here. Rants about Trump derangement syndrome; MSNBC; #MeToo; safe spaces. He thinks “Moonlight” only won the Oscar for best picture over “La La Land” because voting for it could be seen as a “rebuke to Trump.” He thinks that Black Lives Matter is a morally significant movement, but says its “lurching, unformed aesthetic” is why it never reached a wide audience. Had the “millennial mess” mimicked the look of the Black Panthers, he suggests, it would have taken off. I’m not exaggerating. Speaking of Black Panthers — yes, you guessed it — the author thinks that movie was insanely overhyped. It will not escape reader notice that the author of a book called “White” happens to be particularly fixated on black culture.
Oh, and in case you were wondering: Ellis didn’t vote in 2016. “Not only because I lived in rest-assured California, but also because during the campaign I’d realized I wasn’t a conservative or a liberal, a Democrat or a Republican, and that I didn’t buy into what either party was selling.” I put the book down after that particular riff. (I did the same after his take on the tragic case of Tyler Clementi, the gay Rutgers student who killed himself after he was bullied online by his roommate.)
Ellis recently told The Times that “this is kind of a book for a Bret Easton Ellis completist.” Perhaps he is right that superfans will love to hear him go on for pages about “American Psycho” being transferred from page to stage, where it closed after two months and lost $14 million. I did not.
But one suspects that his editor must be one. Nothing else justifies seven pages on Charlie Sheen’s 2011 breakdown. Ellis summons more detail and color about Alex Gibney’s 2015 HBO documentary about Frank Sinatra (three pages) than he does in the two paragraphs he dedicates to snorting coke and talking about race with Jean-Michel Basquiat on a random October afternoon at the Odeon in 1987 — an anecdote that any person with a pulse would be interested in.
Ellis told The Times Literary Supplement that this book was “a lament from a disillusioned Gen X-er” and I think to read it as anything more than a sustained wail would be a waste of energy.
That is not to say that I don’t share some of Ellis’s bugbears.
I think those writers who boycotted PEN for honoring the surviving staffers of Charlie Hebdo are moral midgets. I think it’s a very bad sign about where we are as a culture when friendships are unable to survive elections or the appointment of Supreme Court justices.
Indeed, many of the topics Ellis blithely skates over in this ranting, stream-of-consciousness book would be rich fodder for a real analysis of the Great Awokening and its excesses. On the face of it, it would seem Ellis would be the ideal person to write it.
He was canceled decades before canceling became a thing. It was November 1990 and Simon & Schuster was set to release “American Psycho,” Ellis’s anticipated second novel, until it caved in the face of criticism, much of it internal. “The noise from the offended was too loud,” Ellis writes of the episode — a concise phrase diagnosing our current cultural malady.
Back then, outrage had not yet become our dominant mode. A more prestigious publishing house swooped in within 48 hours and “American Psycho” became a best seller. Today, young-adult novels deemed politically or culturally insensitive are pulped before they are even put out.
And one of the earliest casualties of our fun-deficient, conformist age (Ellis is entirely right about this) has been the intellectual gadfly. Ellis is one of them.
Yet he refuses to own the role he has chosen. “I was never good at realizing what might offend someone anyway,” he writes. And you want to throw the book across the room because you know that the very reason it was written was to offend.
This move — starting a fire and then feigning surprise when people accuse you of being an arsonist — is like a boxer slipping to avoid the counterpunch. It’s particularly grating when plenty of others — more driven, more disciplined, more principled — are in the ring. If Ellis wants in, he would do well to follow his own advice: “It was time for everyone to pull on their big boy pants, have a stiff drink at the bar and start having true conversations, because ultimately we shared only one country.”