A Visceral Dissection of Bret Easton Ellis’ First Non-Fiction Work: White
May 12, 2019
“That is to say, the intellectual is no longer to direct individual perception and judgment but to explore and to communicate the massive unconsciousness of collective man.”― Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy.
Apparently Bret Easton Ellis used to be a big deal. As part of the literary brat pack that emerged in the 1980s he had a bad boy aura. His books were young, edgy and depicted a darker America, something that to outsiders seemed both glamorous and destructive. He appealed to that eternal hunt for the fountain of youth. But Bret is a writer whose literary legacy is stuck in the 80s and 90s and his edginess has been subsumed by society and culture at large. He can’t write the same books any more when life is more entertaining than fiction. It is not surprising then that he has moved from fiction to talking quite literally about the exact same themes.
Early in White, his first book in ten years and his first work of nonfiction, Bret laments that while he may have the inkling for a novel in his head, he has not found the will nor ability to carry through with the task, unsurprising in a culture that seems so schizophrenic it can’t concentrate on anything longer than a blog post. Despite the malaise it is not like he has been idle. Aside from working on a number of projects including The Canyons and The Deleted and saying or tweeting controversial things over the years, he has also produced a podcast series interviewing guests from Quentin Tarantino to James Van Der Beek. On the podcast he proclaims his thoughts on movies, culture and political ideology. Thanks to a film-soaked upbringing in L.A. and a seemingly endless array of friends and acquaintances from his publishing fame, listeners come away with a genuine insight into the clash of creativity with the commercial. While his guests are at times reluctant to say what they really think, Bret himself does not pull punches and you have to admire his search for the truth. Like any good novelist Bret tries to discover the best and the worst in people. Lately he’s been finding the worst.
As the author of American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis is familiar with criticism. Initially the book was slated to be published by Simon and Schuster but the board of the company that owned the publisher eventually pulled the book. Yet it was picked up by another publisher and became a cult classic. “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,” he says of the novel, and it is this book above all his others that is a running reference through White. He sees himself in Patrick Bateman, not the psychotic killer part but as a man distraught over who he really was and how he could live in a superficial world. As Bret says, the book has become more relevant every year. In fact, there was a theatrical version that bombed on its Broadway release in early 2016. Despite its relevance to the social milieu people were not willing to look at the dark truths it told, and tellingly Hamilton rose to extreme popularity at the same time. Compare also the censorship of American Psycho with the same publisher pulling the plug on Milo Yiannopoulos’ book, Dangerous, this time not because of editorial oversight but because of a baying crowd. History repeats but the bit parts change.
Not one to censor himself, Bret has for three decades dealt with an ever cascading torrent of disapproval to what he has to say, even as what he says becomes more considered. The initial reaction to his new book—even though he has been saying these things for years—is dismissal, outrage and calls for cancellation. Over the years on the podcast Bret has unleashed his scorn on various topics, notably the liberal reaction to Trump and his scepticism of #MeToo. Given how many people he knows in Hollywood he has plenty of stories, especially ones about secret Trump voters and irreconcilable liberals. Truthfully, White isn’t much more than a finessed transcript of his podcasts, yet it is still a delight to read his voice. Every essay explores the nature of identity and the masks we wear, and the title “white” refers to his perceived white identity, among many other signifiers. As a series of linked essays it builds into a fulfilling whole that is so much more than what his critics say it is.
So, being misunderstood, what Bret has written is bound to be lost in the white noise that is our cultural climate. White is a polemical text against identity politics and how the private life versus the public persona has been warped and that because of this we are losing our freedom. He writes with such nuance and subtlety that his critics never really grasp at the core of the book, hoisting themselves on their own petard and doing exactly what Bret highlights as liberal fallacies. He begins the book on what appears to be a tangent, discussing Richard Gere and American Gigolo as precursors for the male image. This is but an early example of a stronger theme throughout the book: what is the difference between the actor and the real person? There are similar sections about Tom Cruise, Charlie Sheen, Kanye West and David Foster Wallace and essentially it is the same commentary. These are men who have been ruined by their fame in different ways. Who are these people, what facade do they put up and most importantly what image does the public walk away with? The fundamental question underlying these portraits of famous people is what has happened to ourselves.
On the Bret Easton Ellis podcast there is a noticeable difference between the actors and others. The actors are far more careful with what they say than the novelists, and Bret comments on this and its wider application. He writes, “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 other words: the actor’s dream.” People, like actors, become pigeon-holed and we tiptoe around life because we want to be liked. When you can be fired from your menial job because someone reported your Tweets to your employer, we are now all living the actor’s life. When Bret talks about how he was uninvited from the GLAAD awards, he makes the very clear point that he was not the type of homosexual that they want to support. That is, happy and positive. He is a forthright man, and has been critical of certain depictions of gay men in film, notably when he called out Moonlight for winning Best Picture. His complaints focus on the weak victim narrative portrayed by the heterosexual director, and that this is what an ideological voting bloc saw as the deserving winner post-Trump (victim and hero as one). Bret is vehemently against this type of insipid mediocrity in all its form and that is the crux of his aesthetics versus ideology argument. In his view ideology melts everything down to a sameness of vision, whereas concentrating on aesthetics allows for greatness. He says, “Feelings aren’t facts and opinions aren’t crimes and aesthetics still count—and the reason I’m a writer is to present an aesthetic, things that are true without always having to be factual or immutable.” This is a remarkably similar line of thinking to Mashall McLuhan, author of The Gutenberg Galaxy, when he writes, “Today our science and method strive not towards a point of view but to discover how not to have a point of view, the method not of closure and perspective but of the open ‘field’ and the suspended judgment.” There is a greater truth than adhering to dogmas of anti-racism, anti-sexism and social justice. When we are all play-acting and virtue signalling we are not concentrating on beauty.
Hidden in these essays is an astute connection Bret makes between this current moment of ideology and the explosion of the digital age. Think back to 2007. The iPhone was released and Facebook was taking off. You could only “like” things on Facebook. Apple products were uniform. At first this was a novelty, but there is no denying these technologies have had an effect on our culture. Bret says, “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 democratization of the arts.” Moonlight won because it was the safe, progressive movie, not because it was good. Hollywood had a reputation to uphold. Similarly Yelp, Facebook, Instagram and all these social media “services” are based on the reputation economy. We have all become actors as a result. Does that make reality fake? Are we allowed to remove the mask? These are serious questions that Bret pokes at, and while he never really answers them there is enough room there for an astute reader to perhaps sit up and interrogate their own role. His remarks are pithy and on point and you would be hard pressed to ignore them. It’s more philosophical and probing than the usual “social media is ruining our lives” click bait.
As a result White will become a seminal work in the history of the culture war. Not only is Bret a man in neither camp, standing still as the river of acceptable discourse changed course around him, but the book outlines exactly the point at which we moved from a visual culture to an oral and aural one, as laid out in The Gutenberg Galaxy. Those familiar with McLuhan’s writing know that while the printing press stamped its mark on society for hundreds of years, things changed with the electronic age. Technology has no politics, but it shapes ours. Bret would agree with McLuhan when the latter says, “… as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside.” In a way Bret echoes this sentiment throughout the book, especially in the line: “…once you start choosing how people can and cannot express themselves then this opens the door to a very dark room in the corporation from which there’s really no escape. Can’t they in return police your thoughts, and then your feelings and then your impulses? And, finally, can they police, ultimately, your dream?” The only issue with this commentary is that Bret doesn’t go far enough. Only one team is currently in control of the thought police.
With this reshaping of culture and politics by new technologies, it’s no wonder that Bret has been unable to write a novel since 2010, around the time the new wave took over. It has fragmented many of us so that we can only hold the most simple narrative in our heads, and it’s amusing that his last novel, Imperial Bedrooms, was a sequel like so much unimaginative content produced by Hollywood today. Instead, Bret tracks his thoughts through the aural/oral medium of the podcast, repeating stories that become myth. Much of our communication comes through how we speak—intonation and the like—and you get a far better picture of someone from what they say, not what they write. There is another link to The Gutenberg Galaxy that proves White is a revelation to McLuhan prophecies. To McLuhan childhood is an oral culture and we move to adulthood when we learn to read and write. So it strikes as particularly relevant (especially considering that people are having less sex) when Brett discusses what he sees as childish antics. He says:
“…she [Joan Didion] also found something ominous at work in the feminist movement, beyond its objection to being discriminated against. ‘Increasingly it seemed that the aversion was to adult sexual life itself: how much cleaner to stay children forever.’ This particular wish—the desire to remain a child forever—strikes me as a defining aspect in American life right now: a collective sentiment that imposes itself over the neutrality of facts and context.”
The obvious example is the reaction to Trump’s presidency. The Resistance has been like a child throwing a tantrum because things did not go to plan, and Bret’s ire is mostly directed at Millennials, or Generation Wuss as he calls them. Plenty of people will complain that Bret comes across as a Boomer haranguing the youth, but he’s right. Millennials do want everything to be Nice. They can’t believe someone might have a different opinion to them and they spit the dummy on a regular basis when a celebrity is outspoken. When Australia passed same sex marriage, young progressives on Twitter vehemently called out the 38.4% who voted No. They had won the vote, yet still demanded authoritarian control over what others thought. The last line in White reads, “…maybe when you’re roiling in childish rage, the first thing you lose is judgment, and then comes common sense. And finally you lose your mind and along with that, your freedom.” If childhood moves to adulthood when you learn to read and write, then when society moves to an oral tradition then it also reverts to childhood. We see this now as everyone via social media is given a voice. Bret presages his detractors when he says that he doesn’t want to appear as the grumpy old timer. As someone who sent up his own generation with Less Than Zero and someone who lives with a Millennial he must have some empathy for this generation of perpetual children.
Since it utilizes the written word White has a narrative, but people will read it differently through their ideological lens. Critics will read Bret as a Boomer-type grumbling about the youth today. Free speech proponents will gleefully delight in the take downs of progressive politics. But the real reading of the book is deeper than both. White is the story of one man but is indicative of the whole. His unique insight straddling the world between Hollywood and New York is what gives this book its punch. Despite all this Bret can’t muster the will to care. White is on one level a provocation of identity, but it also implies Bret’s neutrality on the subject matter. He is a mere observer. This is not good enough. Go one level deeper. A white-colored flag waving over the parapets. That is the story.