White by Bret Easton Ellis

by Bret Easton Ellis
Knopf, April 2019

White by Bret Easton Ellis, published by Knopf 2019

At one point in Bret Easton Ellis’s new collection of essays, White, he recounts a second-hand anecdote of somebody who evacuated the World Trade Center on the morning of 9/11/01, stumbling out of the lobby into the street, and found herself, while feeling blindly through a cloud of soot and dust, suddenly sprayed in the face with water, again and again, an ostensibly helpful maneuver, probably from firefighters, that only made her more disoriented, panicked, until she realized it wasn’t water she was being hit with but blood. Arterial spray from a jumper who’d hit the lamppost above her.

In that same essay he talks about the stalker who’d been haunting him in earlier weeks and about his slight coke problem at the time, exacerbated by his slight drinking problem, which of course wasn’t helped by a slight pill problem nor the absent boyfriend, nor the rotation of casual partners, nor the seizure he suffered at the gym. It’s an unsettling milieu. A collage of bad things that pile up and exacerbate one another.

Same goes for his account of the 1991 publication of his third novel, American Psycho, and the ensuing controversy (the book’s first publisher cancelled its release, after a leak of some explicit scenes garnered blowback from readers, forfeiting the six-figure advance they’d already paid Ellis and freeing him to collect a second one with a different publisher), and even the story of his first journalistic assignment, by editor Tina Brown at Vanity Fair, where, after an intimidating lunch, he was tasked with profiling the actor Judd Nelson.

It isn’t confession, necessarily, and it isn’t reportage or evaluation. He’s just telling stories.

And the reason those stories are so engrossing is because he’s a natural novelist—and, given the frequency with which he talks about his boyhood precocity in reading and studying horror, Ellis seems to appreciate this about himself: he loves stories and he’s good at telling them. But on his podcast, The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast, he’s constantly proclaiming the death of the novel, and asks his guests about it all the time. He asked it of Joyce Carol Oates when Interview Magazine collected questions from her colleagues to assemble an interview. There’s an essay in here about a novel he started tinkering with a few years ago (after a rough weekend in Palm Springs, naturally) that hasn’t come to fruition.

That’s unfortunate.

The folly of White, though (which is also, strangely, part of its performative redemption), is that Ellis assumes here the hat of Cultural Commentator, of Critic. And his prose is swift and clean, some of his insights are solid when it comes to movies, his opinions are voiced with a compelling strength and good style and his humor is blessedly in check.

But he, Ellis, is the focus of the book. Ellis as a narrative construct.

His novelist’s inclination is to lean, always, on character, on voice (each of his novels is written in the first person, by narrators who sometimes think they understand what’s going on but clearly don’t), and while that can be frustrating and irksome if you’re trying to appreciate White for the book of criticism that it’s billed as, it’s much more enjoyable when read as, if not fiction, a kind of literary performance art. His account of things is always anecdotal. He talks about Hollywood drama and scandal, he names names, supplies motives—and never cites a thing.

Again, it’s annoying if you’re taking it seriously; funny, though, if you’re appreciating it for what it is: 200 pages of wine talk with a scathingly opinionated, fairly obnoxious, very smart friend whose observations are often clouded by ego and indignation and nostalgia for the wood-paneled anonymity of the 1970s, or the carefree affluence of the early ‘80s.

He actually espouses, in the prose, uncertainty about whether he’s remembering things correctly. He says, at the end of one chapter, that he doubts he’s ever deleted a tweet from his notoriously controversial Twitter account.

He has.

He knows that he has.

But this is an author who allegedly cut his favorite passage from his last novel, Imperial Bedrooms, because it manifested a description of something that his midlife-crisising narrator would have been too self-absorbed to notice.

If Ellis is obsessed with anything as a craftsman, it’s voice. And Ellis the author—here as in other books—is well aware of things that his narrator is not. Things that, in this case, his narrator cannot be bothered to look up.

Same goes for an opening chapter where, setting the stage for a book-length screed against Millennial hypersensitivity (he refers to Millennials as “Generation Wuss”), Ellis remembers, and celebrates, the freedom-allowing parenting style of his father:

I remember seeing National Lampoon’s Animal House with my father at a Saturday matinee in the summer of 1978 at the Avco Theater in Westwood, when I was fourteen and where he and I laughed pretty much nonstop. My father had no problems with the nudity, the sex with a minor, the racy humor (including the dildo Otter holds up), the hand jobs and the topless pillow fights, or the overall anti-establishment vibe of the picture, which he seemed to enjoy immensely even though he was clearly very much a member of the establishment.

Ellis’s love-hate relationship with his father has been the base engine of at least three of his six novels. He’s spoken in the past about how, after the release of American Psycho, his father mailed to his mother the cover of a 1992 issue of Newsweek that featured the picture of a newborn baby and asked, with a bold headline, “Is This Child Gay?” (A headline above the photo advertises a Joyce Carol Oates essay on Mike Tyson.) Ellis’s 2005 novel, Lunar Park, is about a novelist named Bret Easton Ellis who’s haunted by the ghost of his father.

But now he espouses something like pride about how his dad—like every other California dad of the ‘70s, Ellis argues—didn’t care about his kids seeing R-rated movies.

But so how do we reconcile this passage describing how his parents took him to see Shampoo:

…my parents…didn’t mind that we saw it but were mortified that we turned out to be the only children in the packed theater at the eight p.m. show. As boomers, they thought it made them look bad. Shampoo was risqué in a way that my parents weren’t expecting….My pleasure was intensified by how sure I was that my father would have a fit after the movie was over—again, not because of the content, but because bringing his child to this film in front of hundreds of other people had embarrassed him.

So his dad was fine showing his child R-rated movies, but he didn’t want other adults to know it. That’s normal enough—but if he thinks this will make him look bad in front of other adults, it’s probably because most adults wouldn’t take their kids to this movie. Because it’s rated R.

Does our narrator realize this inconsistency?

Apparently not.

Does our author?

I think so.

Or like when he tells us, on one page, that he tweeted about Katheryn Bigelow’s mediocrity as a director in order to get a rise out of people and then tells us, on the very next page, that people who think he was trolling us are totally mistaken.

So the question: why does he do it? Why make people so apoplectic? Why stake his legitimacy as a critic and essayist on this performance art?

The answer resides in one of the book’s chief fascinations: actors. Ellis devotes as many words to the study of actors and acting as to anything else:

But being an actor involves turning into a blank, hollowing yourself out so you can replace whatever was there with the character you’re playing next. What does it mean to be real as an actor? What does transparency mean if you’re essentially a vessel waiting to be filled again and again and again…If you get to know an actor intimately you might or might not have access to that true self in private, but rarely will you see it in public, where the actor always continues to play a part.

Same goes for Ellis: the novelist, the inhabitor of voices.

White is not a prank. I believe that all of these opinions are genuinely his own. But Ellis is a performer above all else. He creates a character and gives that character a voice—but with what agenda? On behalf of which cause?

No reason at all. The book itself is a commentary on our over-eagerness to ascribe political and social meaning to everything.

Ellis has none. He complains about the left on every episode of his podcast, but he clearly isn’t part of the right, and when a guest espouses any serious political leaning Ellis will usually shruggingly lean that same way, telling them they have a point, and then change the subject.

I’d say he’s an actor flexing a muscle here, but he’s not that. He’s a novelist. And if you approach this “nonfiction” accordingly, you’ll definitely enjoy it more than if you’re looking for a stream of well-reasoned insights. It’s a 200 page monologue. Smart and funny, often self-defeating, but well-realized, and rendered in effortlessly fluent prose:

If everything’s available without any effort or dramatic narrative, whatever, who cares if you like it or if you don’t? And the pulse-pounding excitement—the suspense—of the effort you once put into finding erotic imagery has now been lost with the lo-fi ease of accessibility, which in fact has changed our experience of expectation. There was a romance to that analog era, an ardency, an otherness that is missing in the post-Empire digital age where everything has ultimately come to feel disposable.

The book is brazen, and fun. It would’ve been better if he’d given us a novel, but this’ll do for now.

—Alex Sorondo is a writer and film critic living in Miami and the host of the Thousand Movie Project. His fiction has been published in First Inkling Magazine and Jai-Alai Magazine.