Mr Trendy Sicko

James Wolcott

The 1980s was the last sexy decade in American fiction. It was a decade on the make, all moussed up and ready to slay. Freshly hatched novelists and short-story writers popped up on the scene like teen-mag pin-ups, their sentences as photogenic as their faces. It was tough keeping track of all the debutantes promenading into print and creating a stir: Donna Tartt, David Leavitt, Mary Gaitskill, Lorrie Moore, Amy Hempel, Nancy Lemann, Susan Minot, Mary Robison, Anderson Ferrell – a cast of dozens. Many of those rookies trained at the literary dojo of the author, editor, creative writing teacher and guru-mentor-mindgamer Gordon Lish, who bore the dashing nickname ‘Captain Fiction’. The former fiction editor of Esquire, Lish was the chief tactician, technician and propagator of minimalism as a page-sized theatre of operation; his editorial pencil slashed like Zorro’s sword through fatty tissue and descriptive frou-frou, the severity of his cuts to Raymond Carver’s prose precipitating a controversy that still roils. Lish’s pedagogical manner, however, was the opposite of his surgical style. A born showman and provocateur, he presided over workshops and private master-classes that lasted for hours, often with limited bathroom breaks. It wasn’t the practical advice and forked-lightning insights that made the tuition fees and bladder discomfort worth it. Lish could make careers happen. As a book editor at Knopf and the editor of the Quarterly, he had the power to publish his protégés, the clout to be the casting director of a new generation. Working without a pulpit were other top-notch talent scouts and star-makers, such as Gary Fisketjon, the Random House editor who created the trade paperback series Vintage Contemporaries, the springboard for Jay McInerney’s breakthrough novel, Bright Lights, Big City, and Morgan Entrekin, the editor at Simon and Schuster who acquired Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero. Lish had the cult cred, but their properties shone the brightest. Gary and Morgan, Morgan and Gary, Jay and Bret, Bret and Jay – how often we heard their names tick-tock together then, the cricket chatter of the zeitgeist.

Along with Tama Janowitz (Slaves of New York), Jay and Bret were touted as the founding members of New York’s Literary Brat Pack, Manhattan’s bohemian answer to Hollywood’s Brat Pack (Emilio Estevez, Andrew McCarthy, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald – almost any actor who appeared in a John Hughes teen film qualified). The Literary Brat Pack was a journalistic readymade, roping together a number of writers who may have scarcely known each other and treating them as a floating soirée. It was cartoonish and unfair to most of the individuals involved, but the thing about catchphrases is that once they click, they stick. And for a brief spell, Jay and Bret obliged the cameras and gossip columnists, reflecting the flashbulb daze and glaze of downtown party animals as they moved from table to table, sofa to sofa, cameras capturing their full range of blank expression, the Parsnip and Pimpernel of the post-punk demi-monde. They were compadres but very different writers. McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, a tale of coke squalor and eventual redemption, had a big schmaltzy heart beating in its pigeon breast. Less than Zero, a shockeroo begun when Ellis was a teenager and published while he was still a student at Bennington, fixed a clinical lens on its tribe of callow degenerates, a Warholian gaze devoid of Warhol’s Catholic depth. As Jay and Bret evolved as writers, their divergences became more evident. McInerney achingly, almost poignantly, longed for the F. Scott Fitzgerald doomed glamour of extravagance and careless waste, raptures of the deep followed by hangovers of the damned. McInerney, you felt, craved critical and collegial approval, the respect of his peers and elders (he and Norman Mailer became friends), a place in the pantheon, a penthouse view. Not Bret. He didn’t seem to care about any of that traditional jazz. Whether it was a frosty pose or reflected a genuine disposition, Ellis didn’t court establishment acceptance and audience affection, showers of rose petals. His persona, his literary approach, his interviews, carried a built-in take-it-or-leave-it shrug. This attitude outfitted him with a protective padding that would come in handy later during the mud-stomping rugby scrums he’d find himself at the bottom of.

The spare narrative of Less than Zero – as if the story was being dealt out in crime-scene snapshots, a succession of dirty Polaroids – seemed to denote Ellis as a Lishian minimalist. He soon dispelled that notion. Where the minimalist faithful, such as Hempel and Robison, persisted in their ivory inscriptions and tracings of psychological hairline fractures, Ellis took on larger canvases with a thicker application, deploying recurring characters à la Balzac and covering swathes of social action. For him, the primary unit of fiction wasn’t the sentence, as it was for the minimomaniacs, but the scene, which Ellis indulged a tendency to turkey-stuff. The novels were crammed with incident and woozy excess, kaleidoscopic turns that didn’t know when or how to stop. Such kineticism undercut the satirical intent of novels such as American Psycho and Glamorama, since satire benefits from formal rigour to pin it to the frame. American Psycho, which took the torture porn of Sade, suited it in Armani, gave it a facial peel and took it out for a prowl, installed its protagonist, Patrick Bateman, as an archetype of the metrosexual serial killer and elevated its author to public enemy number one in much of the literary world. The fury in the novel and the fury towards Ellis formed a feedback loop that has tramp-stamped his subsequent career. At the time American Psycho was defended as a satire of the designer brand narcissism and capitalist predation of the 1980s, the dankest of dark comedies, but there was so much hate and heat in its sadistic overdrive that any message got lost in all the viscera. Once a starving rat has been introduced into a victim’s vagina, artistic licence seems a flimsy pretence. Yet for all its flaws, American Psycho was prophetic in its invocation of Donald Trump as aspirational monster-mogul and endures as an exhibit of slasher-film iconography owing to Mary Harron’s screen adaptation from 2000. The film’s spotless scene design (everything showroom shiny, the downtown loft as laboratory, anticipating the Soderbergh aesthetic), its Polanski-ish pacing and macabre devilry, and the hallowed hauteur of Christian Bale’s cheekbones aestheticised the carnage and drained away most of the gory dreck. Glamorama, an extended caper involving terrorism, international intrigue and idiot models, its paragraphs bloated with celebrity names, designer brands and song titles, like photo-captions run amuck, might have enjoyed the same fate on screen if it had been given a similar crash diet.

Ellis’s most successful satire was self-satire: Lunar Park, a postmodern haunted house novel filled with post 9/11 dreads, in-jokes and autobiographical notes, with Jay and Bret themselves futzing around as doofus sidekicks. An uncharacteristically companionable novel from Mr Trendy Sicko, it also indicated a narrowing avenue ahead. After you’ve made yourself the hapless protagonist, poked fun at your own celebrity, vanity and substance intake, how much more meta can you go? His next novel, Imperial Bedrooms, a belated follow-up to Less than Zero, confirmed a sense of dehydration. Fiction, you felt, was becoming harder for Ellis to sustain, the risk-reward ratio more difficult to justify (‘Three years of my life compressed into a 160-page novel that was a complete pain to write, absolutely hellish,’ he told the TLS), the literary world no longer a sexy place enlivened by feuds, parties and pirate adventures, but a rope ladder of identity politics, personal trauma and image maintenance. And it’s harder to keep the faith when each new back-strainer of a novel makes less of a splatter. There are other areas for writers to try out, such as the immortal hustle of turning out screenplays, of which Ellis has done a slew, most of them languishing for ever in the cargo holds of development hell. Unfortunately, his best-known script is notorious for all the wrong reasons: The Canyons, directed by Paul Schrader, a Hollywood thriller pairing the improbable team of Lindsay Lohan and porn stud James Deen. Deen acquitted himself quite well, giving a more convincing, noirish performance than Lohan, whose tardiness and wayward lurches were chronicled in an on-set report by Stephen Rodrick for the New York Times magazine titled ‘Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie.’ The article was such a crunchy read, so stuffed with only-in-Hollywood anecdotes and luxury shopping specifics, that it upstaged the movie before its release. Sometimes with a Troubled Production, miracles happen in the editing suite, but this wasn’t one of those times. (‘The Canyons is inept and de-energising, and Lindsay Lohan is enough to make you cry,’ David Thomson lamented). Schrader would regain an auteur crown with First Reformed, but Ellis’s next screenplay credit was on a teen movie called The Curse of Downers Grove, which has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 15 per cent – not good.

Talking is easier than writing, no matter how fluently the hackwork flows, and in 2013, Ellis began hosting a podcast. In 2019, nearly everyone with a smidge of name recognition and a working set of vocal cords is fronting a podcast, but Ellis got into the game relatively early for a literary dude, and proved himself solid at it. His opening monologues – ruminations on the latest movies and/or controversies rattling the detention halls of social media and the ecclesiastical offices of the New York Times – unroll in the pensive, slightly irked manner of Gore Vidal expounding on the verandah, taking inventory of civilisation’s rapid cookie crumble. For all his purported solipsism, Ellis has proved to be a skilful interviewer as well, with a varied roster of guests including the directors Walter Hill and Larry Clark, the actresses Anne Heche and Illeana Douglas, and the uncontainable Kanye West. His conversations with fellow novelists and screenwriters are among the best I’ve heard, insider sessions of literary shoptalk that discuss the mechanics of the trade instead of treating it as an exalted calling, and his reunion episode with Jay McInerney was nostalgic and sweet, like Ross and Chandler of Friends getting together after so many years. Ellis has found his midlife métier. Even when he can’t resist turning the interview back to himself, the self-conscious self-involvement doesn’t grate. Narcissism comes in many flavours, and Ellis’s has a nice soothing vocal quality, perfect for earbud listening on long rides.

No matter how mellow Ellis manages to sound, however, he retains a knack for maddening people, for saying just the right wrong thing to make his legions of detractors swirl like hornets. Some of these interventions begin on his Twitter feed, then are expanded on or tamped down on the podcast, or are made on his podcast and become a Twitter to-do, e.g. his claim that the action director of The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, was overrated in Hollywood because she’s a ‘very hot woman’, his revulsion over the martyred sanctification of David Foster Wallace (‘the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation’), and his slating of the Best Picture winner Moonlight as a ‘victim narrative’ capturing Hollywood’s sympathy vote. Ellis’s oft-expressed irritation with the clammy grip of liberal groupthink, especially entertainment-biz liberals who are so carried away by anti-Trump fear and loathing that it’s driven them to pills and apoplexy, has led some to associate him with the Intellectual Dark Web, that supposedly sinister warlock cabal of professors (Jordan Peterson), pundits (Ben Shapiro) and big-league podcasters (Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin). He’s too much of a party of one for that. What he does share with the dark webbers is the conviction that everybody in the educated elite is too sensitive, especially those squishy-soft SpongeBob millennials. Ellis has turned his live-in millennial boyfriend into a character in his podcasts and interviews, a cartoon proxy for Generation Wuss, that tender wad of neurotic idealists curled up into foetal balls and sucking their vape pens like pacifiers, unable to cope with the slightest scrape of adversity or opinion that hurts their foo-foos. As a member of Generation X, Ellis is offended by this bunch of baby bunnies, just as many Baby Boomers were exasperated by the grungy sofa slugs of Gen X. Such generational stereotypes are of course gross caricatures of dubious utility, but they generate a useful friction and fodder for gripe sessions about kids today. And there does seem to be a consensus, at least in the States, that millennials truly represent a distinct mutant species of crybaby.

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Ellis’s first non-fiction work, White, is an expansion of his podcast concerns and complaints but not a deepening – more of a distention. Although the book has been promoted as an ‘incendiary polemic’, it’s more of a lazy Susan of memoir, cultural reflections, pharmacological reports, name-dropping, reputation fluctuations and intermittent sighs. The memoirish sections are the best: the description of growing up in a simulacrum of suburban normality in California’s San Fernando Valley, complete with piano lessons (‘Yes, this was a white, upper-middle-class childhood at the height of Empire’); his precocious enthralment to horror movies, which tattooed the message that violence and evil were causeless and random, punching black holes into the humdrum everyday; his assertion that the absence of helicopter parenting and 1970s pop culture’s ‘diet of grit’ helped toughen up sensibilities, preparing one for the adult world of hard knocks and cheating disappointments; and his description of early fame bifurcating him into ‘two Brets’, ‘private and the public’, the private Bret attended by severe doubts and anxiety attacks. He’s also good on the psychosexual semiotics of American Gigolo, its designer brand and body worship dream state, the cipher-ish splendour of studly young Richard Gere, and its ‘acid vision of Los Angeles as a brightly coloured wasteland’. I would also recommend the brief chapter entitled ‘Post-Empire’, with its neat division of Empire and post-Empire (from an American perspective, natch). ‘If Empire was about the heroic American figure – solid, rooted in tradition, tactile and analogue – then post-Empire was about people understood to be ephemeral right away … If Empire was the Eagles, Veuve Clicquot, Reagan, The Godfather and Robert Redford, then post-Empire was American Idol, coconut water, the Tea Party, The Human Centipede and Shia LaBeouf.’ Not to mention the Kardashians.

Ellis’s preoccupation with Empire and post-Empire isn’t new but it continues to pay dividends, unlike the complaints in White about political correctness and cancel culture, carryovers from his podcast that haven’t been fortified for print. Too many of his examples have gone stale, and he is blithely oblivious of the pathologies being exploited by slime merchants and alt-right hustlers such as Candace Owens and Milo Yiannopoulos (he claims that the race-baiting, violence-exhorting Milo Y. was the victim of ‘an oversensitive corporate culture’, missing the boat by a mile). So much of his counter-argument consists of shrugging ‘Hey, what’s the big deal?’ until shrugging becomes his default mode, the lazy way out. Bemused, bothered and bewildered, Ellis doesn’t gear up for culture war in White because that would violate his personal code of floating outside the fray. Hence the book doesn’t muster the sustained argumentative drive of Robert Hughes’s The Culture of Complaint (the big daddy of this genre, a prophetic, pre-social media diagnosis of the pathologies of resentment); its discussion of the phenomenon of instant backlash and internet mobbing is a toe-dipping dabble compared to Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed; the diaper rash of ‘safe spaces’, tone policing and trigger alerts on campus and in the classroom has been addressed more systematically by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind; and his references to ICE and DACA are callously offhand and politically jejune. There’s a hazy line between iconoclast and curmudgeon, and he lands on the scrubby side of it. He doesn’t have the theatrical attack and crusading passion of a true iconoclast, a Christopher Hitchens or Camille Paglia; like so many middle-aged curmudgeons, he is primarily preoccupied with what inconveniences him personally, for example that it has become all but impossible for him to enjoy dinner without the liberals sitting nearby having Marat/Sade hysterics over Trump. Exasperating, no doubt, but easily remedied by ordering in. That wouldn’t solve the problem of Ellis’s Democratic Socialist millennial boyfriend sulking around the house, but that lies outside the scope of this inquiry, so let us leave them to their bickering.

As a novelist, Ellis has a cadaver dog’s nose for where the putrefaction is buried in polite and impolite society, but that doesn’t come into play here. Too much of White feels half-hearted, half-minded and phoned-in. (I almost typed ‘droned-in’ and that’s apt too.) Ellis gave the game away in an outstandingly maladroit interview conducted by the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner, where he seemed to be exploring new frontiers of lethargy. Typical exchanges:

IC: You came to the defence of Roseanne Barr, saying that she denied, after tweeting racist stuff about Valerie Jarrett, knowing Valerie Jarrett was black.
BEE: Did she say that? That she didn’t know she was black?
IC: You say it in the book.
BEE: Yeah, right, I quoted her.
IC: So when she tweets about Valerie Jarrett being the child of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Planet of the Apes?
BEE: Yeah, that’s a tweet. I don’t know. It’s whatever …

BEE: And let’s say Latinos are now 50 per cent approval for Trump.
IC: That’s not true, but OK.
BEE: Well, whatever.
IC: I am looking at the FiveThirtyEight average. He is at 42 per cent.
BEE: OK, but whatever …

‘Well, whatever’; ‘OK, but whatever’; ‘It’s whatever’; ‘I don’t care really about Trump that much, and I don’t care about politics’; ‘I don’t really care.’ Indifference is as contagious as yawning, and if Ellis doesn’t care, why should anyone else? This is not the ideal way to foster reader engagement. Ellis’s numb-mode acquiescence with Trumpitude slides awfully close to the spirit of the status quo anthem in Robert Altman’s Nashville, ‘It Don’t Worry Me’: ‘You may say that I ain’t free/But it don’t worry me.’ Affecting a lack of affect is extremely annoying, especially when foam-fitted with privilege. (The original title of White was White Privileged Male, which was a bit too on-the-button.) A publicity launch disaster for Ellis, the interview left scorch marks of Schadenfreude across social media, upstaging the book much like the New York Times on-set article jinxed the reception of The Canyons. Ellis’s attempt at damage control was to claim he had been ‘punked’, which is unworthy of a veteran blowfish on the promotional circuit. Chotiner, formerly of Slate, isn’t a Sacha Baron Cohen prankster with a fake moustache making fools of simple trusting souls like the author of American Psycho.

Bad reviews, media bashing, mockery, disdain, brutal accusations of old-fartdom – will Bret Easton Ellis learn anything from this debacle? Of course not. It would be out of character and borderline disappointing if he did. A sudden onset of empathy would neutralise the snot factor so integral to his persona and voice. Upsetting the maximum number of people with the minimal amount of effort is a gift and a curse, akin to Jonathan Franzen’s earnest genius for getting on everyone’s nerves. The ability to bring out the energised best and worst from reviewers and fellow writers with even so middling, muddling a book as White – to provoke them into haughty erasure – testifies to an arch-nemesis quality that might be put to better purposes than the paltry sport of weenie-roasting millennials. Yet I don’t see Ellis gunning for bigger game in the future, raising his sights, expanding his field of fire. That would require exertion, actual research and stuff. No, I think he has found his groove and that groove is mellifluously crooning into the podcast mic about the latest online spaz-out or personal pet peeves, like some well-worn balladeer, the Leonard Cohen of kvetching. If he paces himself, he’ll be able to go on indefinitely, methodically chewing the same old cud. Fine with me, you know, whatever.