NEW YORK — Bret Easton Ellis wants you to know that he cares squat about politics.
“I just cannot get that worked up over the absurdity of the president,” he sighs, “the absurdity of politics in general.”
He is long done with Trump, the hero of his blood-spattered “American Psycho” protagonist, Patrick Bateman. The president, Ellis says, “is just a comic figure who tripped into something.”
The novelist didn’t just skip the 2016 election. “I’ve never voted for president,” says Ellis, 55, sitting in his publisher’s Midtown Manhattan offices, promoting his new memoirish amalgam of essays, “White,” his first book in almost a decade. Senator? “No.” He can’t be bothered.
In “White,” he claims his artistic mission “is to present an aesthetic, things that are true without having to be factual or immutable.” The central tension in Ellis’s art — or his life, for that matter — is that while that aesthetic is the cool reserve of his native California, detachment over ideology, he can’t stop generating heat.
Ellis, whose early literary work and shenanigans generated acres of tabloid ink, has been reinvented as a Twitter-era podcaster and provocateur. He’s hard-wired to break furniture. If Ellis claims not to have an opinion about Trump, he offers one on almost everything else. He brands millennials “Generation Wuss,” while living with one, 32-year-old musician Todd Schultz, in West Hollywood.
A polemic against political correctness, “White” delivers such conservative catnip as “the Left had become a rage machine, burning itself up” and that Hillary Clinton supporters are acting like “spoiled children at a birthday party when they didn’t win the relay race.” Within days of its April 16 publication, the book was an Amazon bestseller.
Small wonder that the New York Post published an excerpt and Breitbart is profiling him. Five Fox News shows requested interviews, squabbling for first dibs. Next week, he’s scheduled to appear on the shows of Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson.
What other literary novelist can claim this?
Despite the writer’s efforts to eschew politics, Trump sticks to him like gum on shoe. Ellis, who has the uncanny ability of being simultaneously genial and annoyed, can’t believe we’re talking about the president. “Trump is mentioned a lot more in ‘American Psycho’ than he is in this” new book, he says. The president surfaces in virtually every recent interview, including a multivehicle pileup of a Q & A with the New Yorker.
“Q: So he says lots of racist things. . . . Why does people being upset about it, or people being upset about the fact that we have a President who regularly says bigoted things, bother you?
“Ellis: No, no, no, no, no. That just twisted up what I meant.”
The author mentioned it to a crowd of 400 adoring readers a few days later. “I got punk’d,” he says. “Yes, I was flailing.” Also, “I own it.”
Ellis, like Trump, has been a symbol of ’80s excess, since publishing “Less Than Zero” — about bored, self-destructive pretty people doing too many drugs — while still at Bennington College. Another similarity to Trump: Everyone familiar with his work has a strong opinion. Like the president, he’s a virtuoso of the unfiltered blurt and tweet, the latter often launched late at night when he’s less than sober.
To wit: “Kathryn Bigelow would be considered a mildly interesting filmmaker if she was a man but since she’s a very hot woman she’s really overrated.”
Or, quite famously at 5:13 a.m. in December 2012: “come over at do bring coke now.”
In “White,” Ellis slams Black Lives Matter (“a millennial mess with no sense at all of forming a coherent visual idea or style”), the Oscar winner “Moonlight,” David Foster Wallace, the gay advocacy group GLAAD and — why not? — Meryl Streep. He also includes his lust for certain male stars (“American Gigolo” vintage Richard Gere, Nick Jonas), and more pages devoted to Charlie Sheen’s meltdown than readers ever wanted.
“This book will be a lightning rod, as Brett himself is a lightning rod,” says Ellis’s longtime editor, Gary Fisketjon. “They say lightning never strikes the same tree twice. Brett’s a tree that’s been struck by lightning from the get-go.”
Consider this book’s title. Ellis claims it’s an homage to his literary heroine Joan Didion’s “The White Album,” an allusion that will be lost on almost everyone. It’s even less credible when you learn that his original title was “White Privileged Male.”
Fisketjon nixed it: “Makes it sound like a complete joke.” The compromise is still an invitation to outrage. Ellis concedes, “Yes, it’s pushing buttons. What can I do? Change the title to appeal to the comrades?”
This is the space that Ellis owns. He told Vogue, “My temperament is cranky old man,” even in his youth. Though he also describes his boyfriend — a constant in conversation and the book — as a “socialist Democratic millennial who finds nothing funny.” He realizes that he’s “triggering millennials,” he says at his book event. “I don’t want to do it or anything, but it’s kind of delicious. It’s like eating frosting.”
“You can never take anything he says straight,” his friend Jay McInerney once told the Guardian. “He’s always gone for effect.”
In March 2012, Ellis discharged several tweets about writing a sequel to “American Psycho.” His agent Amanda Urban’s phone started “ringing off the hook. Publishers from all the over the world are calling saying ‘We got to get hold of it,’ ” his editor recalls. There was no sequel. “Bret’s answer was ‘I was just trying to interest them in this movie I’m doing.’ ”
Early in his career, Ellis generated the sort of publicity unequaled by almost any writer of his generation. His third novel, 1991’s “American Psycho,” was ditched by the original publisher Simon & Schuster for its depiction of violence and brutality, and roundly condemned by critics who had not read a word. And yet, the author says, it wasn’t intended to shock. The novel went on to sell more than 1 million copies for Vintage and become the subject of a cult movie starring Christian Bale and, improbably, a Broadway musical.
“Patrick Bateman will be on my tombstone,” Ellis says.
The louche, cocaine-inhaling escapades of his characters were often reflected in the author’s own life, which he’s rarely been shy about sharing. After a seizure in 2001, Ellis writes, he resolved to “cut back on the cocaine, cut back mildly on the drinking, started backing away from the random guys.”
Celebrated for his youth, Ellis endured a full-blown midlife crisis in 2008 that lasted four years. “I realized, at a certain point, that the younger generation was supplanting me. And that I was no longer young,” he says. “Something began to crack, and the crack began to spread, and I began to get depressed over this notion of disappearing in a way, from the world of sex, that happens when you realize you’ve become invisible to the world.” Ellis would hear certain songs on the car radio and end up “hysterically crying.” He found help in a great shrink who dealt “with my pathetic ego.”
Now, he’s enjoying his “nifty 50s,” busy with several projects. The novel is “a form that didn’t interest me anymore,” Ellis professes. He’s progressed from the “analog to the digital.” He hosts a podcast, the genesis of many of the book’s essays. Ellis juggles movie and Web projects, many of which sound like petri dishes for catastrophe. The 2013 erotic thriller “The Canyons,” which Ellis wrote and produced, starred porn star James Deen and Lindsay Lohan. It earned execrable reviews and $56,825 at the box office.
“I was thrilled by it,” he says. “I was really happy doing that project.”
He is accustomed to negative reactions. “I read them all,” he says. “American Psycho,” The Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley wrote, “is a loathsome book. It is also, and in the end this matters most, a bad book.”
Ellis is probably correct when he claims, “I am the worst reviewed writer of my generation.” Which oddly pleases him, particularly as it applies to this latest volume, which The Post calls “slapdash,” “sloppy” and “a self-defeating exercise.”
“I cannot imagine a more perfect example of fulfilling my thesis than these reviews,” he says. “Because they’re so hysterical. They’re so overreactive. They precisely prove my point.” Buck up, snowflakes.
To be clear, “I don’t care what people think, I don’t care,” he says, and suggests that many well-reviewed authors of his generation aren’t published anymore. “I’ve never written anything for any kind of expectation. I’ve never written a book to make people like me.”
Ellis rejects “this notion that the artist shouldn’t offend.” The advocate of aesthetic reserve says, “I want to offend more people. I want more taboo.” Go ahead, he suggests, bring on the noise.