Bret Easton Ellis
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019
When you see Bret Easton Ellis emerge as a Generation X elder, you know you’ve moved pretty far along the abattoir ramp. Technically he’s not Gen X at all, as he was born in 1964, but Simon & Schuster brought out his first novel (Less Than Zero) when he was still an undergraduate at Bennington, and Ellis’ precocity was part of the sales pitch. First writer of the new generation! (Well, okay, if you say so.) There were a lot of twenty-somethings in the 1980s Literary Brat Pack, beginning with Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City). But they were all Baby Boomers.
I remember hearing about Less Than Zero when it was still in galleys (publishers still used real galleys then for markup, not bound proofs). Everyone despised this kid, hoping he’d be one-and-done. But then came that third novel! Ellis wanted to be something more than a precocious Boy Novelist, so he produced a gross-out snuff-porn story about a serial-murdering Wall Street yuppie. Someone had to do it, of course; the Eighties were ending. Simon & Schuster decided it was just too offensive, and dropped it two months before publication date. But Knopf brought it out in 1991! And American Psycho sold – where bookshops didn’t boycott it. Book and publisher were denounced from coast to coast, and Ellis supposedly received thirteen anonymous death threats.
And now here is White, Bret Easton Ellis’ first non-fiction book. It’s a loosely-related set of essays, some of them patched together from articles and podcasts. Originally, this memoir-cum-apologia-cum-social-critique was supposed to be called White Privileged Male, a much more apt title. For the last five years, Ellis has been complaining about victim culture and its various liturgies: ”trigger warnings,” “safe spaces,” “micro-aggressions,” and so on. And in response, his criticism gets put down as the subjective opinion of a “white privileged male.”
The notices have been pretty bad for White, but be not deceived. The reviewers have it in for Ellis, in a way we don’t often see anymore. Maybe they always have, the same way the press kicked Nixon around. The Guardian’s reviewer said it “has all the sound, fury and insignificance of a misguided rant posted at 3am.” The Washington Post: White “baits readers into calling Ellis what many of his critics have long said he is: a sexist, a misogynist, a racist.”
Any book that gets denounced like that is going to get a lot of curiosity-seekers, but people looking for outrageous opinions are going to be disappointed. Ellis’ most egregious crime, his original sin (other than writing American Psycho thirty years ago) is inconceivably minuscule: he once mocked super-sensitive millennials, calling them “Generation Wuss.” Most of Ellis’ essays are an easy read, full of some unexpected but not particularly provocative observations. Some of them are so insubstantial you wonder why he bothered. That was my reaction to his first essay, about a comfortable but vapid-sounding childhood in Sherman Oaks. Mainly, he remembers watching movies.
But then we get to the second essay, which talks mostly about movie rubbish, but is really a tour of Ellis’ creative faculties. It begins with a rhapsodic appreciation of a stylish and underrated film that came out in early 1980, American Gigolo. Ellis saw it when he was 15. It starred Richard Gere and Lauren Hutton, with Gere on a clearly upward career trajectory (first top-billing, I think), and Hutton still young but coming down the slope; she’d been a superb face of Revlon in the ‘70s but didn’t respect acting enough to be really driven. When Ellis lingers over Gere’s appearance, it’s not clear whether his gaze is sexual or whether he’s taking in the whole production Gestalt. But moving on, talking about the film version of his first novel, he shows himself a visual magpie, always making notes, like a film critic aiming to be a director.
And then a big surprise. He contemplates the eternal, inexplicable phenomenon known as . . . Tom Cruise! Most of us think Tom Cruise is beneath our notice, and yet there he is out there, a reliable star in the firmament for decade after decade, like Robert Taylor.
In 1990 . . . few could see what a polarizing figure Tom Cruise would become. There was something so innocent and white and distinctly American about him: the seminary student from Syracuse who’d already married and divorced an older actress was already the biggest star in the world . . .
Cruise never really erased the persona of the sexy geek boy toy he played in Risky Business . . . we’ll have that initial image of him in our collective head forever.
And so we get to Empire, Ellis’ elusive, useful trope. Some stars and notables are Empire, and many today are post-Empire. Robert Taylor (I’m sure Ellis would agree) was Empire, and Tom Cruise comes close. If Bret Easton Ellis contributed no other useful conceits, no deep insights, for the rest of his life – only parsed out cinematic icons and Millennial Wusses – he would still always be remembered for this Empire vs. post-Empire dichotomy.
Like Dwight Macdonald’s 1940s idea of Midcult vs. Masscult, Empire vs. post-Empire is more easily illustrated than defined. So far as I can tell, Ellis first introduced the concept in a Daily Beast diversion about – again, surprise! – Charlie Sheen.
Sheen has embraced the post-Empire, making his bid to explain to all of us what celebrity means in that world. Whether you like it or not is beside the point. It’s where we are, babe. We’re learning something. Rock’n roll. Deal with it.
At the time of writing – early 2011 – Charlie was well into his messed-up #winning phase (you remember that). Ellis wrote that Charlie was poster-boy for post-Empire. Charlie wasn’t always that way, however; in his youthful cameo in the Ferris Bueller movie, he had stolidity, mystery, integrity.
Empire is the traditional A-list tent, for Entertainment & Celebrity players who believe in stardom, and play by the rules; nod politely and suck up, if need be. Post-Empire, conversely, “is Mark Zuckerberg staring with blank impatience at Empire Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes . . .” An Empire Mark Zuckerberg would have kept up standards, and never have been disrespectful like that, however contemptible the interviewer.
Lady Gaga and James Franco are post-Empire. Anderson Cooper and Anne Hathaway and (again) Tom Cruise are Empire, or at least pay homage to it. Frank Sinatra might be called ur-Empire.
Ellis often seems to be talking about something like Old vs. New Hollywood, and he hasn’t fully hammered down the details of this elusive notion. But “Empire” seems to be about integrity, having standards and boundaries, not being easily cowed. And “post-Empire” is, like, whatever.
If Empire was about the heroic American figure – solid, rooted in tradition, tactile and analogue – then post-Empire was about people understood to be ephemeral right away . . . If Empire was the Eagles, Veuve Clicquot, Reagan, The Godfather and Robert Redford, then post-Empire was American Idol, coconut water, the Tea Party, The Human Centipede and Shia LaBeouf.
Empire includes the virtuous, exalted state of mind and character that Ellis is appealing to when he derides “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.” He recalls watching a long Alex Gibney documentary on Frank Sinatra, and reflecting on:
. . . what might’ve happened to Sinatra in a day and age when, for example, he sang “the lady is a tramp” in a song? Misogyny! A chief of the white male patriarchy! Toxic masculinity! Don’t buy his records, comrade! Boycott the label! Sinatra would have been disgusted by the Orwellian tenor of our current moment, but I can’t imagine he would ever have bowed to it.
The press’ anti-Ellis campaign might never have achieved critical mass if our civic and metapolitical environment had stayed where it was in 2014. Ellis gets flayed now because of the perception that he landed in the slipstream of a mid-decade trend known as the “Alt Right.” But if Ellis is really a part of anything, it’s the Push-Back Movement, which has been around since forever, with writers and artists as the likeliest members, often displaying oddball traits that strangers read as willful eccentricity: never learning to drive; writing with a fountain pen (or even dip pen); and taking issue with such preposterous fads as the victim culture.
As mentioned, the ball got rolling with a 2014 ViceUK interview, which Ellis soon revisited in a 2015 Vanity Fair follow-up. In the latter piece, Ellis tells of a fight he had with someone over cyber-“bullying” [sic], which Ellis argued is hardly the same as “hands-on bullying.” They were specifically arguing about the 2010 Tyler Clementi case. Clementi – an 18-year-old blond, bespectacled classical musician and Rutgers freshman – committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge one night. In the popular, social-media account, Clementi killed himself because he was cyber-bullied by a roommate, who set up a secret webcam video of Clementi having sex with a homosexual pickup from the street.
Ellis argued that Clementi was a “weakling,” another Generation Wuss snowflake. This would be a fair judgment if there were no more to the story, but of course there was. As Ellis wonders, “[w]as this a deeply troubled young person who simply snapped because he was brought down by his own shame and then was turned into a victim/hero . . . by a press eager to present the case out of context . . . ?” Indubitably. Suicides aren’t sudden one-offs. Clementi was likely borderline-suicidal in the past. And there could also have been something about his trick he didn’t want people to see. I assume it wasn’t Paul Preppy, last spring’s Lawrenceville lacrosse captain. No, the kid wasn’t “cyber-bullied” to death. Stories like this are often incomplete, and slanted, to elicit a certain response. But if you suggest the facts aren’t all there, you can get called out for lack of compassion.
More recently, Ellis been laced out for not acting horrified every time clickbait merchants shout racism! at a public personality. In White, Ellis recalls the 2018 fuss over famous television star Roseanne Barr, who sent a late-night tweet about Valerie Jarrett looking like a character from Planet of the Apes. After book publication in April, an interviewer from The New Yorker focused on this Barr tweet as an item of strategic interest, and pretended to be seriously appalled when Ellis didn’t see what the big deal was: “Yeah, that’s a tweet. I don’t know. It’s whatever . . .”
The interviewer kept trying to buttonhole the apolitical, never-voted Ellis with “gotcha” political questions about Trump, Charlottesville, and “racism.” And Ellis kept up his ineffably-blasé routine. And then other publications piled on, posting snippets of this irresistible interview as fair-use clickbait.
But here’s where Ellis gets really triggering. With bubbly glee, he relives the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential Election, with his nutty acquaintances in L.A. shaking and bawling helplessly. (It’s just the same stuff that was happening everywhere. But how bullying to treat it as comedy.)
[T]his was fear and horror and outrage that it seemed would never subside and not just for members of Generation Wuss, like my partner, but also for real grown ups in their forties and fifties and sixties, so unhinged that their team hadn’t won they began using words like “apocalypse” and “Hitlerian.”
Later, some “branded themselves, somewhat touchingly, as the Resistance” and averred on good authority that “Trump would be impeached by September.” And then the “friends” who just dumped Ellis in 2017, “because I simply didn’t think that Trump was the worst thing to ever happen to democracy and because it seemed to them I thought it was okay ‘orange Hitler’ was in the White House.”
A funny, straightforward recollection, but we all must remember that such humor unhinges people who heretofore were not easily unhinged, thus preventing them from reading Ellis’ social criticism as anything other than attention-seeking provocation or partisan spleen.
This is what befell the ever-readable and historically amusing critic James Wolcott. He completely loses it in his recent review of White in the London Review of Books. Puzzlingly, Wolcott dismisses Ellis’ complaints “about political correctness and cancel culture,” because his “examples have gone stale.” Whatever does he mean? Ellis’ examples are mainly from 2015-2018, with the “Millennial Wuss” reaction going all the way back to 2014.
But not to fret; on hooves of Jabberwock, here cometh Wolcott’s real agenda:
[And Ellis] is blithely oblivious of the pathologies being exploited by slime merchants and alt-right hustlers such as Candace Owens and Milo Yiannopoulos (he claims that the race-baiting, violence-exhorting Milo Y. was the victim of “an oversensitive corporate culture,” missing the boat by a mile).
Wolcott did it. He got Milo in there. And Alt Right hustlers! Such topicality.
Well, twenty-three-skidoo to you, too.
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