One cannot, perhaps, be an average hypersensitive member of what Bret Easton Ellis calls Generation Wuss in order to read his latest book (which he deems intended “for the Bret Easton Ellis completist”–an admittedly waning faction), called, provokingly, White. In case one isn’t familiar, Generation Wuss is a reference to the emotionally reactive millennial, a breed that is, at this juncture, no stranger to having scathing damnations written about them. Though White might be the most lengthy in terms of going in-depth about why BEE feels (emphasis on that millennial word, by the way) millennials are part of what has created an insidious new world, which he refers to as “post-Empire,” where it’s not how hard you think, but how well you are liked–hence, an online presence that reflects as much. To achieve this sort of “roundedness” that formulates into the algorithm of likability, millennials have, in many regards, silenced their true selves in order to appease any perceived offense to others. Whether it’s classifying someone by their actual gender or merely disagreeing with the fact that Bernie Sanders is not a panacea, nor would he have been a strong contender against Trump either.
Deliberately calling it White to throw the black and white classifications that millennials so love to toss at everyone else when discussing race, “the gender binary” and right/left politics, as well as goad the current climate of white male hatred, Easton Ellis has no qualms about easing his reader into the stark contrasts between his analog Generation X and the digital millennial one that has turned everyone into “a duller,” ergo more “likable” version of themselves. And this all, ultimately, in the name of placating the corporations that presently make the world go round more than ever. The very ones that made yuppies (and then psychopaths) out of affluent yet profoundly empty men like Patrick Bateman. Except now, instead of bothering to rebel against the all-powerful juggernaut that fulfills each and every one of George Orwell’s worst prophecies, millennials have played comfortably into the “Surrender Dorothy” mantra–for it’s so much easier than “resisting” in any way that would involve more than a hashtag or a click for a simple donation of money to a Kickstarter. As for the few tangible protests that still do happen, Easton Ellis lays pretty hard into those as well, particularly the Women’s March, reducing it to women walking around in vagina hats having a tantrum about a legal outcome. And yes, he believes the election was fair and legal, the result of the majority of the U.S.’ wish (which can’t be denied when considering how many God- and gun-loving folk there are in America).
Tying the millennial inability to accept failure and move on to the most overt backlash against a president’s election in recent history (even the ’00 one didn’t come across as half as controversial in retrospect), Easton Ellis uses his own childhood as a benchmark for why he simply doesn’t give a shit if he’s liked or not. The progeny of baby boomer parents, Easton Ellis was left to his own devices for the majority of his youth–and the same went for his friends. They seemed to prefer it that way. Easton Ellis was also fond of going to movies by himself, recalling a particular experience at age ten when he walked to the nearby La Reina theater on Ventura Boulevard and took in a showing of Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise. Thinking about that experience in White, Easton Ellis is amazed at how anathema it would be in today’s world, noting, “I was confronting the adult world on my own, by myself, and wrestling with it. There were no adults to answer to, no cell phone they could track me with, I was just alone for three hours on a December afternoon, watching a sophisticated rock-horror musical with some bloody and outrageously satiric scenes and a great set of songs by Paul Williams, and yes, I was ten when this happened.”
To say that contextualizing movies within the frame of the book is integral to how Easton Ellis provides his analogies would be a vast understatement. Described in a recent article as a “successful writer and failed filmmaker,” Easton Ellis’ passion for cinema has taken on something of a new turn as he critiques the offerings of recent years, particularly the 2016 Oscar win of Moonlight. A peak of the nation’s obsession with identity politics and the canonization of The Victim. Easton Ellis’ own disgust with the notion that his sexuality infers he ought to be characterized as a victim is particularly notable here, as he expresses greater admiration for the phallicly titled King Cobra, another movie that came out in 2016 that was panned, yet, “a more progressive step in post-gay cinema than yet another anguished victim scenario,” as was the case with Moonlight, which got the leg up additionally for the double whammy in identity politics: black and gay.
But to point out such things as The Hurt Locker only winning Best Picture because it was directed by a woman, therefore ticking off a certain box of placating the liberal moral majority, is not something millennials can abide. It is not in keeping with their conditioning to believe that everything is fair and everyone is equal.
Fortunately (or unfortunately in terms of speaking to Easton Ellis’ statement, “…on social media you don’t come into contact with different voices and different opinions if you don’t want to. Something’s been lost.”), most millennials will never read what Easton Ellis has to say about them. Not just because they’re “not his audience,” but because as Easton Ellis insists, “They don’t care about literature. None of them read books. Where is the great millennial novel? There isn’t one.” On a side note, there are, however, a host of well-reviewed “indie” novels put out by “small presses” over the years that have attracted ephemeral favor on year-end book lists (The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P by Adelle Waldman comes to mind, heralded by The New York Times, Slate and The New Republic as one of the best books of 2013 by virtue of being written by a woman from the perspective of a man). The type of “novels” that can capitalize on a zeitgeist of the moment, to be sure. The problem is, zeitgeists happen within such rapid cycles throughout the vortex of the internet almost every hour now. Hence, the impossibility of being able to churn out anything quickly enough to match the ever-dwindling attention span of the collective.
On this and several other fronts, Easton Ellis brings up some viable “talking points,” and the book is clearly intended to spark discussion and debate, though it will likely wash away into the amalgam of other fading-into-the-ether white male gibberish that turns many of the millennial sects off immediately (yours truly included).
The very thing Easton Ellis rails against in White is, somewhat ironically, precisely what he’s doing in the Empire format of a novel. As he bemoans how the democratization of “art” has given everyone a platform on which to “speak their mind,” he states, “Unlike any previous generation, they had so many outlets to display whatever they wanted (thoughts, feelings, art) that it often went–unfettered, unedited–instantly and globally everywhere, and because of this freedom (or lack of any restraints at all) a lot of the time it tended to seem rushed and kind of shitty, but that was okay. It’s just the nature of things now, for everybody.” As though to one-up them at their own game, Easton Ellis turned his Twitter feed into a 24/7 festival of headline baiting. Though he notes he enjoyed the outlet during its more germinal period, when people were firing whatever they wanted into the internet’s abyss without any concern for it coming back to haunt them later in terms of meeting the standards of the liberal PC police. And yes, liberals of the New Left come under as much fire as millennials in White. Of course, many millennials fall under this umbrella as well–the ones who sported “Not My President” tees and “I’m With Her” totes.
Easton Ellis attributes the groupthink phenomenon millennials have fallen prey to, as well as the diminished quality of artistic output in favor of quantity, to the taboo of having anything “negative” to say about a person that would have once been deemable as “the other.” Ergo, “Your only hope of elevating yourself is through your brand, your profile, your status on social media. A friend of mine–in his early twenties–remarked recently that millennials are more curators than artists, a tribe of ‘aestheticists.’ Any young artist who goes on Tumblr, he told me, doesn’t actually want to create art–only to steal the art or be the art.” It’s both a harsh and, usually synonymously (at least to Gen Xers), true statement. Though not necessarily one all millennials would cop to a.k.a “agree with”–and that’s fine. BEE encourages disagreement, for it fosters, theoretically, intelligent discourse, presenting two (or five hundred) sides of an argument. Of course, now, it isn’t about arguing for the sake of playing devil’s advocate or trying to see another side of things. It’s about the comfortable cushion of myopia that allows people to say “this is completely right” or “this is completely wrong.” In American Psycho, the grayness of right and wrong in a world torn asunder by merciless materialism speaks to the age in which Easton Ellis grew up, covered in a pall of darkness still pretending to be a Golden Age. Little did we know, it would appear that way in comparison to what’s happened since.
While AP is discussed candidly and often throughout the thread of White, the one novel Easton Ellis seems to avoid talking about altogether, both generally and in terms of his process/motivation, is Glamorama. One supposes it must have to do with that Zoolander lawsuit assuring silence among all parties thanks to that out-of-court settlement (maybe the funds of which he’s still using to have founded the Bret Easton Ellis Corporation, listed as the holder of the book’s copyright). Which is a shame, because there seems to be something endlessly apropos about a vapid model who unwittingly becomes a terrorist being far more applicable to millennial culture than any of his other books, least of all Less Than Zero, which is more hyper-caricature of millennial aloofness than Easton Ellis gives it credit for in White. Asking if American Psycho would have been published at all within the lens of today’s PC policing framework, one has to wonder if Less Than Zero would have gotten the attention it did as well. For it smacks, in many regards, of the same standard-issue quality of a well-thought out blog post (on Tumblr not WordPress) that Easton Ellis condemns. But because so much of what writers put out in the present is very much dependent on that format, it is looked down upon as “lesser than” (zero) by authors of Easton Ellis’ generation, who themselves wrote in a style tailor-made for this medium.
When taking into account Easton Ellis’ milieu during his rather happenstance rise to fame (it is just a bit lucky to have a college professor pass your manuscript along to his agent), it’s no wonder he was inspired to deliver the released in close succession The Rules of Attraction (which, sure, he already kind of had on hand and in the works like Ferrante’s Elena Greco with her book about Naples). For what could be more galvanizing to create than the fraught New York of the 1980s? Talking about the city that formed his youth as a twentysomething enfant terrible, one of the main things most people can probably agree with Easton Ellis on is that Manhattan has become a “moated island” for the rich (but come on, don’t forget about Washington Heights, still rife for more gentrification). Watching the city crumble literally as the 9/11 attacks happened, Easton Ellis rehashes the sense of doom he felt all that summer leading up to September–the unexplained seizure, the uptake in drug usage, the increase in random sex while his boyfriend was away in Berlin. It all culminated in 9/11 (though, way to make it relate to you Bret–so millennial). The moment Easton Ellis categorically defines as the end of “Empire”-era rules. It represented the shift into “a world where there was, and is, no center; our enemies are insurgent and decentralized, our media also decentralized and insurgent. The culture seemed like it no longer belonged to the titans but instead to whoever could seize its attention with whatever immediacy and force. If Empire was about the heroic American figure–solid, rooted in tradition, tactile and analog–then post-Empire was about people who were understood to be ephemeral right away; digital disposability doesn’t concern them–they’re rooted in traditions created by social media, which is solely about exhibition and surface, and they don’t follow a now dated path of artistic and cultural development.”
On the note of “development,” BEE doesn’t think millennials have done too much of that on an emotional level either. The easy offense caused to the millennial breed, Easton Ellis reckons, is a “new kind of mania, a psychosis that the culture has been coddling [also, please take a shot every time Easton Ellis says ‘coddling’]. This delusion encourages people to think that life should be a smooth utopia designed and built for their fragile and exacting sensibilities and in essence encourages them to remain a child forever.” To be sure, this is all coming from a very white perspective, as not every millennial grew up in the same affluent conditions that Easton Ellis did with MTV as their cable-provided babysitter. Some millennials went through worse hardships than Easton Ellis could ever know, and some less so. Thus, it is important to take oversimplification for the purpose of an argument into consideration when engaging in a form of suspension of disbelief while reading the book. The same suspension of disbelief Easton Ellis committed to while watching the movies of the 70s, not thinking too deeply about why Carrie White had telekinetic powers in Carrie or why Regan MacNeil was possessed in The Exorcist. He just took it for what it was: life being essentially terrible, fucked up and weird. Millennials keep wanting to contort it into something else, the crux of what causes their tantrums and inability to cope.
How this all comes colliding with his statements about Trump, and finally, jumping the shark with his mention of a meeting with Kanye West post-declaration of being a Trump lover by the end of the book is sure to invoke criticisms. Maybe that’s the entire meta point of the novel. To remind people that, to paraphrase a mainstay of BEE’s heyday, “Hate, for lack of a better word, is good. Hate is right, hate works. Hate clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.” But hate is not an option on social media–there is no “dislike” button. And if one posts the wrong sentiment or photo, they risk getting banned (one wonders what BEE’s take would be on the recent Facebook banning of certain far-right leaders). Or, “canceled” as he has recently pointed out millennials calling it. And mocking them for that, too: “I mean, what is millennial culture? There’s no writing. They don’t care about literature. None of them reads books… Someone said it about me today, ‘Let’s cancel Bret Easton Ellis.’ The word gets used all the time, ‘We’re going to cancel this person, she shouldn’t have tweeted that, she’s canceled.'”
Himself having “canceled” the idea of ever writing another work of fiction again gives way to wondering what his next essay collection might be about–dare one predict a compendium on the worsening of subsequent generations? For the question now is: What will Easton Ellis have to say about Generation Z? For fuck’s sake, it better be at least as damning and unimpressed as whatever actor he keeps referring to in the book that didn’t actually really like Easton Ellis so much as wanted a part in whatever movie project he was working on that any millennial could have made were they, too, coasting on the luck of a manuscript miraculously published before the oversaturation of middleground competition. Don’t feel too bad for BEE being rejected by this actor though, for there’s a certain “dark David Sedaris” quality to the way in which he’s constantly referencing his millennial boyfriend, who may or may not stay with him after this lashing.
At the beginning of the book, Easton Ellis wields a quote from Janet Malcolm that asserts, “Hypocrisy is the grease that keeps society functioning in an agreeable way.” Reading what follows is almost like Easton Ellis trolling millennials by himself engaging in some of that hypocrisy, for, despite all his attempts at appearing “hardened” and “well-adjusted,” he’s clearly just a teddy bear still suffering. Yet he is convinced that millennials are the ones who have taken more poetic Gen X suffering to new heights as he ruminates, “It seems people no longer want to learn from past traumas by navigating through them and examining them in their context, by striving to understand them, break them down, put them to rest and move on. To do this can be complicated and takes a lot of effort, but you would think someone in that much pain would try to figure out how to lessen it, however great the cost, instead of flinging it at others expecting them to automatically sympathize with you and not recoil with irritation and disgust.” Of course, BEE is obviously flinging his own pain and proverbial “beef” with the world at us, harkening back to that intro quote about hypocrisy. But like Sean Bateman said, “Rock n’ roll. Deal with it.”