Psycho Analysis

White BY Bret Easton Ellis. Knopf. Hardcover, 272 pages. $25.

The cover of White

“I never pretended to be an expert on millennials,” writes Bret Easton Ellis halfway through White, and the reader desperately wishes this were true. Ellis is best known for American Psycho, the controversial 1991 cult novel about an image-obsessed Wall Street serial killer; the film adaption would star Christian Bale as psychotic investment banker Patrick Bateman. Following several increasingly metafictional novels and a few bad screenplays, White is Ellis’s first foray into nonfiction, and the result is less a series of glorified, padded-out blog posts than a series of regular, normal-size blog posts. Mostly, Ellis hates social media and wishes millennials would stop whining and “pull on their big boy pants”—an actual quote from this deeply needless book, whose existence one assumes we could have all been spared if Ellis’s millennial boyfriend had simply shown the famous man how to use the mute feature on Twitter.

White makes a few gestures at the memoir genre: passages about Ellis’s childhood as a rich, unsupervised white kid growing up in 1970s Sherman Oaks, where he developed a taste for gruesome horror flicks; the surprise success of his debut novel, Less Than Zero, which Ellis started writing when he was a teenager and saw published while a junior at Bennington; the cocaine-hazed Manhattan where Ellis, a member of the literary Brat Pack, wrote American Psycho between benders in the late ’80s. These sections—I cannot call them essays or chapters—are serviceable and of mild interest, I suppose, to fans who might wish to know what went wrong with the film adaptation of Less Than Zero, or how it feels to do a lot of drugs.

Bret Easton Ellis, 2009.
Bret Easton Ellis, 2009.

But Ellis’s true purpose in the remaining two hundred pages of White, a rambling mess of cultural commentary and self-aggrandizement, is to offend young, progressive readers while giving everyone else the delight of watching. Bret Easton Ellis would like you to know that he thinks “boys will be boys.” He thinks #MeToo is pathetic. He thinks La La Land should have won Best Picture instead of Moonlight. He thinks HBO should make that Confederacy show. He thinks Tyler Clementi, the gay college student who jumped off a bridge after his roommate secretly taped him making out, got too worked up over a “harmless freshman dorm-room prank.” He misses Milo, and he calls Leslie Jones “a middle-aged comedienne who couldn’t handle a vicious yet typical Twitter trolling.” Even the title White is a provocation, designed to simultaneously anticipate, incur, and mock accusations of white privilege.

Ellis feigns ignorance of all of this. “I was never good at realizing what might offend someone,” he shrugs, unconvincingly. “I’ve been rated and reviewed since I became a published author at the age of twenty-one, and I’ve grown entirely comfortable in being both liked and disliked, adored and despised.” Like much of White, this is disingenuous. People who do not care what other people think do not waste their time telling other people this, and they certainly don’t write books about it.

This presents a problem for the reviewer in my position: namely, whether to take the bait. I could write an incensed review that fiercely rebuts White’s many inflammatory claims, thus giving the impression that they should be taken seriously; if my review were to go viral, it would likely trigger more bad coverage on pop-culture websites like Vulture and Vice; Bret Easton Ellis might trend for a bit on Twitter, where we would all take our best shots at dunking on this dude; and at the end of it all, the author would get to feel relevant again, and maybe finally write a movie that people actually liked. But why bother? For years now, Bret Easton Ellis has been accused of being a racist and a misogynist, and I think these things are true; but like most things that are true of Bret Easton Ellis, they are also very boring.

The thesis of White is that American culture has entered a period of steep, perhaps irreversible decline, and social media and millennials are to blame. This is ridiculous, not because social media hasn’t changed things tremendously, but because such claims are invariably rooted in a childish nostalgia for an uncomplicated mode of human communication that has never, in fact, existed. One supposes that the last freethinking men of ancient Sumer, lamenting that cuneiform had ruined their political discourse, must have longed for the good old days of throwing rocks at each other’s heads.

“Somewhere in the last few years—and I can’t pinpoint exactly when—a vague yet almost overwhelming and irrational annoyance started tearing through me maybe up to a dozen times a day,” Ellis writes on the first page of White. By this, he just means Twitter, which he believes to be governed by an authoritarian conformism out to suppress true free speech. He has gotten this impression, it seems, from some mean things that people said to him online in response to a few harmless tweets. “That a gay man can’t tell a joke equating AIDS with Grindr (something my boyfriend and I had used a number of times) without being scorned as self-loathing is indicative of a new fascism,” Ellis announces. Readers may wonder what kids in cages are indicative of.

It is perfectly acceptable to bitch and moan about how the mean people didn’t like your good tweets, but there is a time and a place for such behavior, and it is not the offices of Alfred A. Knopf, publisher. Surely someone will let Bret Easton Ellis into their group chat. “Twitter encouraged the bad boy in me,” he admits, the first man to whom this has ever happened. Yet if you feel you must spend pages clarifying what you meant when you tweeted, in 2012, that Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow was overrated because she was “a very hot woman,” then not only are you a bland sexist, but also, and much more importantly, you kind of suck at Twitter. In this regard, White is a simple case of illiteracy. Indeed, one begins to question if Ellis, who cannot stop bragging about his Gen-Xer negativity, has ever taken a good look at Twitter, the most inventively negative cultural institution of the twenty-first century, whose own users regularly call it “this hell site.”

Ellis refers to millennials as Generation Wuss, which sounds like something your dad made up. Lots of White is given to this kind of feeble bullying. The first mention of safe spaces is on page 9; helicopter parents, also page 9; participation trophies, page 17. Everyone is coddled, everyone is a whiny baby. Ellis sympathizes with millennials’ economic precariousness—his own college-educated millennial boyfriend spent a “hellish year” looking for a job—but the brutal truth is that life is disappointing, cruel, and frequently unfair. “Shit happens,” Ellis barks, a football coach who just wants the best for his boys. “Deal with it, stop whining, take your medicine, grow the fuck up.” He approvingly cites the Trump campaign’s theme song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” One longs to tell him what the Rolling Stones told Trump: Please stop.

This amounts to a lecture on kettles from one of our leading pots. It is, of course, Ellis who won’t stop whining; Ellis who can’t handle being trolled; Ellis who calls criticism “oppression”; Ellis who manically describes the tendency of people online to react disproportionately to things as a “vast epidemic of alarmist and catastrophic drama.” “When did people start identifying so relentlessly with victims, and when did the victim’s worldview become the lens through which we began to look at everything?” asks the true victim, a rich writer who lives in Los Angeles. It is a curious thing that makes one generation project onto the next everything it hates most about itself. It suggests that age, far from embittering the individual, awakens in him a fresh stage of naïveté. Having never grown up himself, he clings to the hope that someone else will grow up in his place. When the young fail as he did, he becomes petulant, contemptuous, and easily offended—in short, a child again.

The prose in White is shapeless, roving, and aggressively unedited. One waits in vain for an arresting image. Several passages recycle or embellish material from the past few years, including a baffling 2011 essay for Newsweek on the difference between “Empire” and “post-Empire” celebrity that reads like Marshall McLuhan without the rigor. For a man who prides himself on roguish individuality, Ellis uses a laughably derivative vocabulary, a mélange of Breitbart talking points and weirdly apolitical antiestablishment ideas, as if he has just discovered Nietzsche on his older brother’s bookshelf. He bemoans “the democratization of culture,” he calls social media “Orwellian,” and he regularly tosses off words like “groupthink,” “corporate,” and the dreaded “status quo.” The Man, man. “Social-justice warriors never think like artists,” Ellis declares, as if this is a sentence. Like his hero Joan Didion, Ellis believes that style is everything; what a shame he has written a book with so little of it.

Of course, it is impossible to write without style, just as it is impossible to cook without flavor, and yet this is exactly what Ellis insists has happened to American culture: Political correctness has muzzled all artistic freedom, and Hollywood has been sapped of all aesthetics and turned into a puppet for “ideology,” by which he means “black people.” For years, Ellis has been perseverating about “ideology versus aesthetics” on The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast, where he plays the thinking man’s shock jock, talking about movies with that lush transcendence that enters a man’s voice when he is no longer forced to endure the inconvenience of talking over someone else. Cinephilia, as we know from science, is a progressive disease for which there is no cure, but Bret Easton Ellis is taking it like a champ.

On the episode I listened to, posted in February just a few days before the Oscars, Ellis rants for almost half an hour about how Best Picture nominee Black Panther received its nod only because the Academy, succumbing to a “diversity push,” has been “shoveling” hundreds of unqualified young women and people of color into its ranks. After the break, Ellis asks his guest, the writer Dennis Cooper, a “stupid question [that] has been nagging me for the last few years”—that is, if growing up white, wealthy, and comfortable in Southern California has influenced Ellis’s work. “Though, of course, I guess, I mean, I don’t know, class doesn’t necessarily affect what you write,” he ventures, “but I wonder if it does.”

Cooper bypasses the question, but we all know the answer. Indeed, one cannot read White as anything but a book about being rich and bored. White becomes nearly unreadable when Ellis finally reaches the rise of Donald Trump, whose freewheeling amorality Ellis compares, favorably, to Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. Ellis didn’t bother voting; he claims to be neither a conservative nor a liberal. “Sometime during that year and a half I had come to understand that I was many different things,” he writes; if anything, he is a “romantic.” “I’d never been a true believer that politics can solve the dark heart of humanity’s problems and the lawlessness of our sexuality,” Ellis muses, going full eighth-grader. The romance crumbles in the wake of the election, when he must attend dinner after dinner with shell-shocked liberal friends whose “hysterical” refusal to accept the results drives him up a wall. “My first reaction was always, You need to be sedated, you need to see a shrink, you need to stop letting the ‘bad man’ help you in the process of victimizing your whole life,” Ellis writes.

Ellis has dinner at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills; he has dinner at a West Hollywood restaurant. In fact, in the span of seventeen pages, Ellis describes attending no fewer than eight dinners with friends of his, including a well-known writer, a commercial director, and a liberal Jewish woman in her fifties with a penthouse overlooking Central Park and a net worth of more than ten million dollars. At a restaurant on Beverly Boulevard, this woman explodes “into a spastic rage” and accuses Ellis of “white male privilege” when he casually suggests that Black Lives Matter has a PR problem. “We finally calmed her down,” he reports, “but our dinner had already been ruined.” Dinner, it seems, is the greatest casualty of liberal fascism. “Who you supported politically would determine if you were invited (or not) to a party or a dinner table,” Ellis complains. (He really feels for White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was asked to leave a restaurant in Virginia last summer.) Yet it seems never to occur to Ellis, a man who is surely 70 percent dinner, that his friends are annoying the shit out of him not because they hold left-wing political views, but because, like him, they are rich, and rich people are universally horrible.

At some point, one must ask if a man who sees 1984 all around him is really just stuck in the ’80s. The comparison between American Psycho’s serial-killer protagonist and its controversial author is easily made. Patrick Bateman and Bret Easton Ellis are both rich. They both attend a lot of dinners. They both admire Donald Trump. Ellis himself makes the comparison at the end of White, recalling how he poured all his frustration—“what seemed expected of me and other male members of Gen X, including millions of dollars, six-pack abs, and a cold amorality”—directly into Bateman, “a fictional figure who was my own worst version of myself, the nightmarish me, someone I loathed but also considered, in his helpless floundering, sympathetic as often as not.” To Ellis, who describes himself as an “outsider” and a “freak” since childhood, Bateman’s social criticism sounded “almost entirely correct.”

Like The Catcher in the Rye before it and Fight Club after it, American Psycho is a book designed to convince comfortable white men that they are, in fact, “outsiders and monsters and freaks.” Its critique was never just that the shallow consumerism of the Reagan years held, caged beneath it, the bloodthirsty, animal rage of the suppressed individual, but also that even when this rage was unleashed—in American Psycho, through murder, rape, cannibalism, necrophilia—everyone would be too self-absorbed to care. When Bateman tells a model he’s interested in “murders and executions,” she hears “mergers and acquisitions.” When he confesses to his lawyer that he’s murdered his work rival, the man laughs it off as a joke. This was Bateman’s “greatest fear,” Ellis writes in White. “What if no one was paying him any attention?” Ellis does not realize he is talking about himself, an angry, uninteresting man who has just written a very needy book.

Andrea Long Chu’s book Females will be published by Verso in the fall.