The man knows how to touch a nerve. Relishes it, in fact, despite his protestations that he “was never good at realizing what might offend someone anyway.” Please. This is Bret Easton Ellis we’re talking about, author of Less Than Zero, creator of Patrick Bateman, Twitter provocateur par excellence. He’s been offending – and astonishing – readers since he became a best-selling novelist at the age of twenty-one.
Beginning with Less Than Zero in 1985, Ellis has displayed an uncanny eye for dissecting – and satirizing – the horrors of our culture. He holds up the ugly looking glass in cool, clean prose. He dares you to look away. Each of his books – six novels, a collection of stories, and now, White (Knopf), his first work of nonfiction – are autobiographical in the most uncomfortable ways. The central characters of each are more or less stand-ins for Ellis himself, each white and privileged, and roughly the same age as the author when he wrote it.
This includes, of course, American Psycho and Patrick Bateman. Indeed, Bateman, America’s most famous fictional serial killer this side of Hannibal Lecter, might be the character he relates to most. In White, he writes at length of his empathy for his crazed creation: “someone I loathed but also considered, in his helpless floundering, sympathetic as often as not. And his social criticism sounded to me almost entirely correct.”
Now that American Psycho is at least as remembered for the movie and Christian Bale’s all-time performance, it’s easy to forget just how transgressive the book felt when it came out – to much furor – in the spring of 1991. His first publisher refused to publish it, offended as they were by the perceived misogyny. This, of course, sparked massive buzz, along with death threats and endless “pearl-clutching.” (Ellis appears to love this metaphor; it’s used no less than three times in White.) When a new publisher (a more prestigious one, he notes) picked it up and released it as a trade paperback, it found its audience. When I first read it in the late 90s, during my first weeks in Manhattan at age 23, I remember being deeply unsettled. I had nightmares about it. It remains one of the defining reading experiences of my life, though at the time I wasn’t even sure if I liked it. I certainly wasn’t sure if I was allowed to say I liked it. I was working my first job out of college, as a fact-checker and assistant at Rolling Stone, and while I was there, the magazine published an excerpt from his 1998 novel, Glamorama. When I excitedly asked the Managing Editor if I could read it the moment it was filed, the editor asked if I was a fan. I remember hesitating, looking at my feet, and mumbling something lame and noncommittal like “sort of.”
Was I a fan? Goddamn right. But that didn’t feel permissible to come out and say. It still doesn’t. I suspect Ellis wouldn’t want it any other way.
Two decades later and it’s clear that he still delights in offending one and all. Finally, it seems it was time to step across the divide and start telling the truth. Or dealing in facts, if such things even exist any longer. Introspective to the core, this first book of nonfiction is at its best when Ellis turns his analysis inwards. The first third of the book reads as memoir – an excellent one. Then, once we’re settled into Ellis-land, things turn weird, as they do. The word “Empire” is capitalized in every instance, yet it’s a period, pre and post, that’s never really clarified. He jumps from personal experiences on 9/11 to long digressions on Frank Sinatra to Charlie Sheen’s meltdown to Kanye West’s meltdown to his millennial boyfriend’s repeated meltdowns. A lot of folks go to pieces in Ellis’s universe. At first, these ADD-like digressions seemed sort of sloppy, as if writer had won a battle over editor. It felt as if he’d run amok and refused every suggested track-change. Then, I thought of his previous work (it’s been almost a decade between books) and I realized that’s his aesthetic, or part of it anyway. He’s a master at desensitizing the reader. He’ll seem to glide along the surface with so many observations, until you, rather suddenly, find yourself reading about things so offensive, you wonder how he gets away with it.
Ellis claims again and again not to ‘get’ why people keep getting so upset. This professed cluelessness rings false. White is essentially a long dialogue proving the old Fitzgerald trope that “the sign of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Ellis’s mind is first-rate. Of all the opinions professed in this book, the only one that feels dishonest is his insistence that he just can’t grasp why he tends to piss some people off so much. If this is true, it’s a crater-sized blind spot wedged inside an otherwise brilliant brain.
In any case, he spills much ink detailing just how less-than first-rate the mind of the Left has become. In the wake of the Trump presidency, those liberal coastal elites (he is one; so am I) have appeared to lose all ability to function in any coherent way. The offended insanity of the Bubble-dwellers has gone well past fever pitch. It’s difficult to admit. I’m among the guilty. Ellis, it appears, is not, or at least he’s gone out of his way to antagonize so many fellow liberals by not buying into the Armageddon despair of the Left’s present state. He claims not to have voted; vows to have little interest in politics; takes evident pride in having friends among both the Right and the Left – and this, comrades, is tantamount to Bubble-land Treason. His take on Liberalism post-2016: “a warped authoritarian moral superiority movement.” He also notes that Donald Trump was Patrick Bateman’s idol. Bateman mentions Trump forty times in American Psycho. The tacky vulgarian president is Patrick Bateman’s male ideal. (Well, he probably wouldn’t approve of Don’s physique, but they are certainly kindred spirits.) And so, if Ellis admits that he was Bateman, “my own worst version of myself, the nightmarish me”, then is that a roundabout way of finding sympathy – or at least common ground – with the Left’s Orange Devil?
Yes, White is going to upset a lot of folks. That seems to be his intent, just look at the title. It’s already worked. On March 27, Book Forum published a “review” that was so hysterical and unhinged that it delegitimized the critical authority of what’s regarded as one of publishing’s go-to sources. Lit Hub eagerly linked to it. I’m sure there will be others like it.
Yet these things tend not to trouble Ellis much. Perhaps he’s been through the wringer so many times that another round of vilification won’t get his pulse racing. He attributes it to “armor built so long ago” that one assumes those over-sensitive types on social media can take it too. They can’t. He knows this.
He also knows that most of his targets don’t grasp their own hypocrisies. How many of those smug coastal elites are aware that one of their living saints, Joan Didion, was a Goldwater Republican; a hater of hippies and Beats; a writer who penned scathing opinions of feminism in the 1970s? When you see those self-satisfied sorts toting their Joan Didion tote bags, which were ubiquitous for a while around Union Square, you wonder who they’re identifying with? Is it Joan Didion, the acerbic social critic, or Joan Didion, the cool ass ice queen, smoking her cigarette with that level gaze?
Or what about Walt Whitman? It doesn’t get more saintly in certain liberal, literate circles. Soon after the 2016 election, a mass of rattled poets released a 740-page ode to the Resistance and titled the collection after one of Whitman’s most quotable lines: Resist Much, Obey Little. Yet, Whitman was always an inconvenient avatar for the Left too. He wanted nothing to do with identity politics. He longed to speak for all of our democracy – the businessmen too. Whitman would have almost certainly resisted the Resistance. He would have loathed the president, no question, but he too would have seen the mad fault lines and been uncomfortable with the behavior on both sides.
Did I just compare Bret Easton Ellis to sacred scribblers like Didion and Whitman? Well, the guy did create perhaps the single most enduring fictional character of the last thirty years. (Ok, aside from Harry Potter.) ‘Patrick Bateman’ has become shorthand for, well, damn near everything that sniffs of Wall Street soullessness. He was a musical for fuck’s sake. He is ingrained in our cultural lexicon in a way that’s comparable to Rip Van Winkle or Huck Finn – American archetypes who reveal much about our collective character.
That should make Americans very uncomfortable. And it does. It has. Bret Ellis doesn’t get “bad reviews”, he gets character assassinations. Certain readers go rabid over his sentences. They froth and spew. They lose the ability to function. I think Ellis enjoys witnessing this. So often, his words are delivered with evident sadistic delight.
In his 1845 essay-cum-short story, The Imp of the Perverse, Edgar Allan Poe reveled in that little demon that cajoles us into mischief and self-destruction. The devilish imp likes to urge us into doing things “merely because we feel we should ‘not’.” Poe’s title could also summarize the career of Bret Easton Ellis.
White is available April 15.
About Bret Easton Ellis
Bret Easton Ellis is an American author, screenwriter, and short story writer. His works have been translated into 27 languages. Ellis was first regarded as one of the so-called literary Brat Pack, which also included Tama Janowitz and Jay McInerney.