When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong

Why ‘White,’ Bret Easton Ellis’s First Non-Fiction Collection, Ultimately Derails

Less Than Zero was in a pile of novels my father brought home from the Pikesville Library for me when I was an early teenager. He’d do this from time to time, cherry-picking displays, even though I was already a voracious reader. Neither of us had any idea what Less Than Zero was, but it blew my mind. It was glacial, unsparing, and utterly removed from anything I knew or understood as a bookish African-American teenager growing up in Owings Mills, Maryland. A window into an alien world.

Almost immediately The Rules of Attraction was in my hands, and later, American Psycho, then The Informers. For that last one, it turned out I bought a signed copy at Bibelot Books (R.I.P.). What was it about all these empty, beautiful characters, so intimately linked yet hopelessly isolated from one another, strangers even to themselves, bi-sexual, casually tyrannical, stoned on levels I didn’t even know existed, that spoke to me, that held me in their thrall? Who was this writer? What had he come up on? What was he saying? These questions have never ceased to interest me. In a 1998 Rolling Stone interview, Ellis teased a memoir, titled Where I Was I Would Not Go Back. He later insisted that he’d never write it; I was nonplussed.

But now that book, or some sort of warped modern version of it, has arrived.

Public Bret and Private Bret

For its crystalline first 130 pages, White is almost everything it should be: not quite a memoir, exactly, but a beguiling outline of one sensationalist’s origin story. Ellis’ book-length argument is really one in favor of individuality, a rich, considered stew of podcast monologues, published essays, think pieces, remembrances, and asides–a dram of Didion, a dash of Greil Marcus, a measure of Pauline Kael.

Born in 1964, and coming of age in the 1970s and early 1980s, Ellis found formative obsessions in horror cinema, adult literature, and Richard Gere. Strictures of pre-2000 American life are triple-underlined because, like any writer singing the song of himself, Ellis is writing beyond the culture-warring present and towards an imagined, enlightened future when the modern world will seem quaint.

Entertainment choices were limited, entertainment itself was finite, and to double down on what was on hand could offer an escape from domestic tension or boredom. Ellis writes wistfully of these years.  “This was a time when parents decided what movies to see and the kids just went.” But swiftly, his permissive Generation X childhood yields to literary stardom, its varieties of fallout, its dubious spoils.

Lessons abound, couched in anecdote and analysis. The End of the Tour, a movie about the late author David Foster Wallace, irks Ellis because boils away his complications and presents him as a saintly figure. Less Than Zero the movie winds up as a toothless, bewildering shadow of its source novel because its creators, yielding to executive skittishness and focus-group irritability, demanded so much accessibility that it became a critical and commercial failure.

VIDEO: Movie Trailer – 1987 – Less Than Zero

The emerging, sanitized Gay Magical Elf–a media and GLAAD darling, “hopefully a victim, with great pecs”–sends chills down Ellis’ spine. Through the media prism, he refracts into a “public Bret” and a “private Bret,” and he finds himself wondering which one is more real, an identity dilemma that would inspire key facets of American Psycho and Glamorama.

In a long chapter called “Acting,” my favorite stretch of this book, Ellis sets his sights on the thespian class and finds his stride. More than any other creative people, actors, he notes (while singling out several who’ve appeared on his podcast) depend so entirely upon their likability to survive that they essential become salable personas. Social media denizens run a similar risk, as we police ourselves and each other in countless ways, large and small, in the name of an idealized equality we want. I’ve done this, you’ve done it; everyone has.

Up until page 130, and in some sections after that, Ellis is on point. He focuses on culture and multimedia, spiced with curmudgeonly commentary. Meditating on Tom Cruise, Moonlight vs. King Cobra, teaming up with Judd Nelson to play a prank on Vanity Fair, snorting blow with Basquiat: all these comprise his own personal or hyper-aesthetic turf.

But when he wades into the 2016 election and its aftermath, Ellis fucks up, because unless politics has had or continues to have a direct effect on your life, politics is not a hyper-aesthetic sideshow to be observed, critiqued, and handicapped like a season of Game of Thrones. Politics is real life, real shit–and White can’t or won’t grasp this. Ellis preaches a desire for audiences to reach across partisan lines in empathy, but can’t quite understand why endless rants about the overpraise of Black Panther draw rage or why some women might take “ironic” tweets about Kathryn Bigelow personally.

So what happened to him?

American Podcaster

After Charlie Sheen crashed and burned, Bret Easton Ellis spun that flameout into an expansive Daily Beast essay titled “Notes on Charlie Sheen and the End of Empire.” He’d begun to shrug away what he called, disdainfully, the “pose”–that Empire veneer of neutral, respectable impartiality once so favored by celebrities. He’d opened and abused a Twitter account, diversified his career, and decided to speak his mind fully. Ellis was surfing the Post-Empire wave.

But during the height of empire, from 1985 through 2010, the world best knew Ellis as a literary ironist. He published novels and short stories about rich, morally ambivalent people, writing under the influence of Joan Didion and Ernest Hemingway, among others. His fiction might be thought of as sensationalist minimalism; the books often courted extremity in service of subtextual themes. In the war over American Psycho’s publication, featuring denunciations and death threats, he became a defender of the First Amendment.

Upon its 2013 PodcastOne debut, The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast was resolutely Post-Empire. Reimagining the novel as a series of forthright monologues and conversations, Ellis demanded authenticity from himself, from his guests, and from art. Most episodes kicked off with a 10-15 minute monologue before he introduced the interviewee. Frequent themes included the decline of cinema and the rise of television; ideology vs. aesthetics; bafflement over Millennial sensitivity; the vanishing monoculture; the democratization of the arts; and creative processes, inspirations, and irritations.

Longtime fans got an inside peek at the anguish and introspection that fueled American Psycho, Glamorama, and Imperial Bedrooms. They listened, rapt, as the author dissected the movie adaptations of his books. He’d compare notes with or tease fellow fiction writers, or ply famed directors for insights or advice, some of which would pay off when it came time for him to direct commercials or The Deleted, his gorgeously macabre 2016 web series.

VIDEO: The Deleted – Trailer

This iteration of Ellis’s podcast–which ran until mid-2017–was best when guests grabbed and held the microphone (Rose McGowan, Kevin Smith), exhibited a humbling vulnerability (Michael Angelakos), engaged the host in spirited debate (David Shields), made deep, intricate dives into craft and culture (Peaches, Sean Baker, Rob Zombie, Nicholas Jarecki, Andrew Haigh), or just turned out to be great, salty fun (Shirley Manson, Stephen Malkmus, Jonathan Ames).

Each episode felt like a specialized salon, its host aware when one theme or another was in danger of becoming played out. Over time, though, before and after the show migrated over to Patreon, a shift occurred. The opening monologues became longer, Ellis’ mood more coarse, whinier. He liked to insist that he was immune to criticism, an armor built up over years of withering media body slams, but as his podcasted opinions became a “the fuck did you say?” clickbait cottage industry, Ellis wasn’t stolid; Ellis was shook.

Less Than Edgelord

This vitriol was funny, then it was sad until it was unnerving. Somewhere along the line, Post-Empire petered out and gave way to a kind of “Nu-Empire-by-necessity”–a reticence born of a burgeoning social media panopticon, a new “woke” consciousness, and a resulting general corporate skittishness. Suddenly, the guy who bemoaned at every turn “the rise of victim culture” found himself the frequent victim of an international, interconnect culture eager to call out, cancel, click, and reshare.

To follow him in interviews, on Twitter, or  the podcast was to watch him become uglier, a reactionary, increasingly diluting genuinely insightful and incisive commentary with trolling. “Comrade Snowflake” became a refrain, even as Ellis disdained and struggled to understand with the mindset of Todd, his millennial live-in boyfriend.

Technology, he insisted, ran the risk of transforming society for the worst, turning all of us into Clockworks Orange; certainly, it was changing him–into a something of a troll.

In some ways, this change is what White is about. Like many literary stylists, Ellis is too fond of the italicized passage as concentrated framing device or memorist’s shorthand. White, his first volume of non-fiction, leads with his most effective and revealing italicized thicket yet. Exactingly teeing up this book, it lays bare a confusion, a cluelessness, a rejection of a world that he can no longer fully comprehend:

“The culture at large seemed to encourage discourse but social media had become a trap, and what it really wanted was to shut down the individual. …My pushback against all this forced me to confront a degraded fantasy of myself–an actor, someone I never thought existed–and this, in turn, became a constant reminder of my failings. And what was worse: this anger could become addictive to the point where I just gave up and sat there exhausted, mute with stress. But ultimately silence and submission were what the machine wanted.”

Too Much Himself

He’s smart and thoughtful about a lot of things, but you wonder if perhaps he’s too old and too himself to allow anyone in his circle or stable of guests to challenge him, or help him to understand how lost, bitter, and petulant he  sounds when recounting scabrous dinners with left-leaning friends after Donald Trump became president or revealing his complete and total lack of interest in the actual nuts and bolts of politics in interviews promoting this book.

More interesting in White is its perspective on Kanye West, a multi-hyphenate embodiment of Post-Empire whose turbulent career is emblematic, to Ellis of an uninhibited, creative freedom. I don’t necessarily agree, but would be willing to roll with a long, detailed chapter about Ellis’ various interactions with West and whatever meaning he might wring from them if it meant that national electoral politics were less of a presence here.

How else could White have been improved? Ellis might have gone in depth about his adoration of Atlanta, a cable show he loves enough to mention every few podcasts. He might have shared so much more about Didion and Kael, his most formative influences. About visionary movie directors, about LPs, about Stephen King, about so much, a half century of the creative brilliance that sparked his imagination and made him who he is.

He didn’t, though. This is why White is–and it pains me to say this–the least of his books. One important takeaway, though: he, and we, would all probably do well to spend a lot less time online.

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Raymond Cummings

Raymond Cummings lives in Owings Mills, Maryland. A 1999 graduate of Washington College, he is the author of books including Assembling the Lord, Crucial Sprawl, Open for Business, Notes on Idol, and Vigilante Fluxus. His writing has appeared in SPIN, The Wire magazine, The Village Voice, Splice Today, and the Baltimore City Paper. Whorl Without End, his latest collection of poetry, was independently published in January 2020.

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