Bret Easton Ellis is 55 years old now, a random number to describe an ocean of ageless emotional and intellectual unrest wrapped up in a youthful style. The author of ‘Glamorama’ still wears hoodies, lives in the “gayest” area of Los Angeles (West Hollywood) and dates a millennial who plays video games and rarely reads. Still one foot in the center of the modern world, and the other trying to escape it. Like he was on this day of October 1987 in Manhattan, having lunch somewhere around Wall Street, where he observed a myriad of traders in ties and suits rushing back to the office, as stocks were crashing.
On Black Monday, he contemplated the scene while finishing his meal, as he was beginning a book where an insane man (Patrick Bateman, not to get mixed up with Gotham City’s Batman), somewhat personifying the heartless world of finance flourishing during the Reagan’s era, an investment banker during the day and serial killer at night, considered Donald Trump as his hero. The book was published four years later under the name American Psycho ; 25 years ahead of its time, when the antihero’s hero brought his businessman suits into the White House.
But now, it’s not so much Trump that Bret Easton Ellis attacks. It’s a culture “where everyone is a victim, everyone needs to be shielded from the harshness of life, and everyone is the same”.
Last month, he was having diner in Paris. Not around traders this time, but with a friend of a friend, a musician who produced some stuff for Madonna and has crossed borders from punk to electronic music. Is it a random detail, just for the sake of name-dropping, this irritating LA flaw which Bret Easton Ellis elevated into an art ? Not if you consider that both men were born in the 1960’s and are what Ellis calls “Gen Xers” in his latest book, White, his first non fiction.
These two artists (the other one being not white) grew up in a different world than today’s, the main difference being the absence of internet and online virtual life. Some “Gen Xers” may have ended up winning from this shift, but not Bret Easton Ellis who, one day, got confused and ordered some cocaine on Twitter instead of using a text message (that’s what is reported, anyway). On another occasion, after the Nobel prize of literature was attributed to Alice Munro, he twitted that the Swedish Academy award was “a joke” and “has been for years”. Kind of true, but not a very likeable happy statement either.
Nowadays, he tweets only once in a while, mainly to promote his podcast or sell teeshirts. Again, one foot in the corporate space and one aside, trying to adjust while the internet, just like finance 30 years ago, has turned into a juggernaut driven by an army of secretive nerds looking to predict and use human behaviors.
In that context, how to still be “a writer, a critic, a lover, a hater, a tweeter, a free-speaker, a transgressive, white, privileged male ?”
On this list of things printed on the cover of White, Easton Ellis doesn’t mention being gay, and he keeps some critical words in the book towards a certain “gay corporation”. Overall, he is critical about everything that prevents the truth from being told, everything hypocritical and too nice to be true. Easton Ellis, to me, is a breach in a certain American culture, especially in Hollywood, one tireless outsider who tracks fakers and seems to believe darkness, violence, deviance, is part of the truth, of the life experience.
“As a Gen Xer”, he writes, “one of my generation’s loudest anthems was Joan Jett’s ‘Bad reputation’, whose chorus rang out ‘I don’t give a damn ’bout my reputation / I’ve never been afraid of any deviation”. It’s a bit different than a generation seeking ‘likes’ and ‘followers’ (even though that’s also what he’s doing).
At the beginning of his career, he recalls being the target of both strong positive and negative reviews, and be “cool” with it.
“The difference between then (1990) and now is that there were loud arguments and protests (…) on both sides of the divide : people had different opinions yet debated them rationally, driven by passion and logic. The embrace of corporate censorship wasn’t quite acceptable in those days. You couldn’t argue that a certain HBO show shouldn’t be written, on the grounds of its presumed (though unproven) racism. There was no such thing, yet, as thought crime – now an everyday accusation. People also listened to one another, and I recall that as a time when you could be fiercely opinionated and openly questioning without being considered a troll or a hater who should get banned from the “civilized” world if your conclusions turned out to be different”, he states in White.
This impression might be fueled by nostalgia, but it’s hard not to see a good point in it. The more you are a misfit, the more you must feel it’s true or know it. The more you struggle with the norm, whatever the reason, the goal, and even the benefits (for example, being an excellent writer such as BEE), the more you are going to suffer from the attacks and the attempts to get you back into the norm, where you can’t thrive, especially as an artist. Easton Ellis is complex : he’s not fit for the norm, abandoned for its immorality (the Wall Street/Beverly Hills type of norm), but he doesn’t judge those who are actually socially judged for their immorality either.
In White, he takes the reader where he grew up in the San Fernando Valley – yes, my ‘Porn Valley’ -, and having been a child of Sherman Oaks probably helps you be in a position where you understand what it’s like to be contempted. It’s no surprise that he invited on his podcast some pornstars as well as some people from the “good side” of the hills. But even from them, he writes, he couldn’t get the authenticity he wanted. Even pornstars want to be liked and cause no trouble in the corporate world (at least the one he thought would be good to interview, a young man who was in fact accused of rape several times and was sort of blacklisted from his own industry).
In terms of being liked, the L.A. writer told a French journalist, in an interview given the day after the diner in Paris, that he is more popular in France than in the US now. Could it be because despite the existence of thought timorousness on both sides of the Atlantic, there is also a bigger need or tendency for critical thinking in France (for better or for worse) ? And in that case, is it because of books, that French people buy in bigger numbers, a fact that another American writer, George Pelecanos, had told me ? In any case, Bret Easton Ellis worries about the tendency to shut up different opinions and its ability to spread across Europe too.
“This thing that has sucked up America into this vortex of bullshit has got to be spreading out in other places, and I don’t know where the pushback is”, says the one who was “cancelled before cancel culture even became a thing, in 1990” (the year when his first publisher refused to publish American Psycho judging it contained excessive violence).
On reading books, in a time when screens are omnipresent and perceived as more fun and entertaining, Bret Easton Ellis tells French journalist Jérôme Vermelin, in his podcast Les Gens qui Lisent sont plus Heureux (in English, People who Read are Happier), that it actually makes him feel good, although “happy is overrated”.
“I read books and I’m much happier than my partner who doesn’t read books, and sometimes I think that the fact that he doesn’t read books is part of is flaundering around, his flailing, his unhappiness”.
“Reading books settles you, forces you to concentrate, it’s an active experience, and they give you empathy. You’re in someone else’s shoes”, he says, putting himself into James Baldwin’s at the moment. James Baldwin, the gay African-American writer of Another Country, who chose France to escape the norm of his days.
Easton Ellis enjoys creating the images of Baldwin’s story and experience in his own head. “What does my boyfriend have when he gets up ? Final Fantasy 14 ? I don’t know… Would that make me happy ? I don’t think so.”
This conversation is a perfect example of the whole point he’s trying to make, that humans are complicated and paradoxical and can’t be reduced to sweet radio friendly opinions making outsiders sound like “thought criminals” : the proof is, here to discuss White, Easton Ellis talks about James Baldwin, while having no patience for news like the one about Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau going to a party when he was 29 with a dark skin make-up, dressed up as a character from Aladdin.
“If that is international news, we should all kill ourselves”, he bluntly complains.
Too bad we won’t get the chance to put ourselves into the late James Baldwin’s shoes on the subject…