Bret Easton Ellis knows how to push buttons.
Everything in “White,” from the cover on, knowingly baits readers into calling Ellis what many of his critics have long said he is: a sexist, a misogynist, a racist. His playfully provocative first nonfiction book is a feature-length yawp, equal parts memoir and State of the Union address, that will infuriate or delight, depending on your tolerance for irony. It’s unlikely to win him any converts.
“White” is essentially a discursive, long-form op-ed, punctuated by details from the “American Psycho” author’s life that make it sound like one of his novels (drinks with Kanye, cocaine with Basquiat). His subjects are freedom of speech, social media, film criticism, identity politics. He rails against the diktats of the politically correct, including “the French royal court of West Hollywood” and the “morally superior, intolerant and authoritarian” left. He rejects “the threatening groupthink of ‘progressive ideology’ ” and what he calls the cults of likability and victimization. He wants Democrats who are upset about Donald Trump’s election to get over their “hangover sis.”
He revisits several controversial takes he has offered in the past — how Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow is overrated because she’s “a very hot woman”; how GLAAD punishes anyone who doesn’t “fall in stride with their agenda” — but also issues a slew of Twitter-ready morsels specially tooled to outrage the angrytariat. Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity are “both, on one level, just smug partisan hacks.” Black Lives Matter is “a millennial mess with no sense at all of forming a coherent visual idea or style in presenting itself.”
If you find this triggering (or tiresome), “White” will be a rough ride. Ellis is in full stride here, playing a role familiar and delightful to his Twitter and podcast fans, that of self-appointed denigrator in chief of liberal-elitist attitudes.
But while Ellis can be funny, his gleeful iconoclasm often overpowers his rhetorical purpose.
One of his principal arguments rehashes the now-common idea that the decline of American political discourse came from not listening to one another and shutting down those with opposing views. Compared with the 1970s, when “pessimism was the national language” and movies depicted the world as “a random and cruel place” — a decade that Ellis claims gave his Generation X cohorts their cynicism and detachment — everyone today seems “vulnerable to micro-aggressions while living in their half of a black-and-white world.”
Ellis wants us to be more resilient and less performative. Less obsessed with being likable, more accepting of human contradiction. He desires an end to the zero-tolerance virtue-signaling of social-justice warriors that has alienated so many (including, he suggests, some Trump voters). In short, he wants us to take other people’s opinions on the chin. This is the book’s most appealing idea.
Unfortunately, if you’re not already there, Ellis is unlikely to persuade you. Although he offers a more balanced view than the quotes here demonstrate, he is certainly loudest at his most contrary. When you lead with “Black Lives Matter was a millennial mess,” you’ve lost the room by the time you add that you’d “have to be a moral idiot not to recognize the movement’s importance.”
There’s also something unconvincing and disingenuous in his incredulous response to “the overreaction epidemic.” How many times does it need to happen for him to learn? He spends much time justifying old controversial tweets but makes no effort to understand why people found them upsetting. And isn’t publishing a book in response to controversies on Twitter like bringing a cannon to a knife fight? In doing so, Ellis undermines his own cool authority.
Matters aren’t helped by a lack of structure and a sometimes slapdash style. There’s no arc. Like the aborted novel Ellis says he started making notes for in 2013, “White” reads like a series of false starts. As memoir, it’s coy. As social commentary, it’s trite (in the 1970s, he writes, “there were no helicopter parents. . . . We didn’t get ribbons for doing a good job”). And as criticism, although it’s enjoyably flashy — his thoughts on Kanye’s recent “bi-polar, Dada performance art,” for instance — it’s also sloppy. In a digression on Richard Gere and “American Gigolo,” his repetitions, including multiple admiring references to Gere’s “beauty” and “blankness,” feel less like conscious minimalism than bad editing.
Analysis of Ellis’s fiction, from “American Psycho” on, has often focused on the productive tension (or putative conflict) between his averred moralism and the immorality of his characters. In “White,” he aims for a similar irony, couching critique of liberal ideas in reactionary terms. But the irony collapses because the antagonism is too strong, the self-awareness too weak. He complains about “Generation Wuss,” then spends pages defending tweets he wrote in 2012. Shame, because he’s often witty and insightful; there’s palpable gaiety in the airing of some of his more subversive ideas; and the book contains much of what makes reading him pleasurable. But by taking such a bombastic approach, Ellis makes “White” a self-defeating exercise, setting himself up for exactly the critical response he thinks he’s satirizing. Namely: successful, middle-aged white dude loses his cool.
Charles Arrowsmith is based in New York and writes about books, films and music.
By Bret Easton Ellis
Knopf. 272 pp. $25.95