Christopher Owens adds another review to his rapidly growing collection.
We all know that we put on performances each and every day of our life. How you interact with your boss is very different to how you talk to your friends, and that is very different to how you behave around relatives.
If we were to take all these performances and combine them, would that come close to revealing the 'true' inner self? Undoubtedly not. Our meshing of emotions, thoughts, contradictions and beliefs barely get a threshold on the subject. The other night, I had a dream I was talking to a crab (wearing a tracksuit) about buildings. What does this reveal about my 'true' inner self?
Fuck all, I would take it.
However, the modern way of living has subtly upgraded the machinations of our acting in ways that would drive you insane if you allowed it sufficient headspace. Social media, of course. But think of the likes of Uber, where you not only rate the driver, but the driver rates you as well. And what is particularly chilling is that, it makes sense for drivers. You get rated for being rude or vomiting in the cab, and others decide not to take a chance on you.
This nightmare of identity and self underpins White.
Former 'literary Brat Pack' enfant terrible Bret Easton Ellis gives us his first book since 2010's enjoyable but underwhelming Imperial Bedrooms. This time, it's a collections of essays that have been adapted from past articles and monologues on his podcast, ruminating on film, gay culture, Twitter, writing and "Generation Wuss" (his well known term for millennials). His original name for the book was 'White Privileged Male', but he backed down after an argument with the publishers (who felt that it was too jokey), and so the title as it stands can be seen as an act of provocation, or a simple serene colour in which the reader can project their hopes, fears and aspirations.
Beginning with his early memories growing up in the San Fernando Valley of reading horror books and comics, devouring horror movies and generally being allowed to wander about unattended, he talks about how the general culture of the 70's was one of cynicism and violence. The world was a fucked up, nihilistic place and there was nothing that could be done, and Ellis notes how this line of thinking (when combined with the affluent lifestyle of his parents) fed directly into his own work (especially Less Than Zero).
His love of film shines through in many a chapter, discussing the aesthetic impact and qualities of American Gigolo, why Moonlight wallows in it's portrayal of victimhood and that superhero movies like the popular Avengers are bloodless, lifeless spectacles. For someone who has often resisted critical writings on his own work, he demonstrates that he has the nous and overview to be able to deconstruct elements of a film that maybe don't work in the traditional sense, but nonetheless add a certain characteristic that would be otherwise lacking.
Taking this love of cinema into the Hollywood lifestyle and work practices allows for some bleak observations of the system, where everyone pretends to be a fan of what you do until it doesn't do as expected, and tying it in with his own experiences of working on films and podcasts, he concludes that he feels sorry for actors. Everything depends on how likeable and good looking they are, hence why they live in a perpetual state of adolescence and arguably without an underlying self.
The National Post recently wrote "...a generation is something that has its own tastes and moods and fashions and jargon, its own sense of what is in and what is out, what is cool and what’s square, and who belongs and who does not. In short, more than anything else a generation is a scene... A big part of what defines a generation are the battles it chooses to fight. For the Boomers, it was one long-running countercultural campaign against The System, aka The Man or The Patriarchy, while the Millennials have decided to mine the deepest and darkest recesses of identity politics. Generation X was uniquely preoccupied with the problem of authenticity and the fear of being caught between the frying pan of co-optation and the fire of selling out."
Often regarded as the spokesperson for Gen X'ers, Ellis never had that problem per se, as he was a best selling author with a film adaptation under his wing by the age of 23. However, his depiction of American Psycho as being "...really infused with my own pain and what I was going through as a guy in his 20s, trying to fit into a society that he doesn’t necessarily want to fit into but doesn’t really know what the other options are..." can certainly be seen as a more extreme (and in more ways insidious) version of co-option and selling out.
Closing with his denunciation of public discourse since the election of Donald Trump, these thoughts have drawn media attention, mainly of the negative variety. Ellis recounts his bewilderment and increasing frustration at a society content to blame seemingly everything on Trump without ever considering that they might be the reason for his success (he notes that posters in West Hollywood were urging people to "join the Resistance" and little else). There's nothing in these thoughts that is really unique or particularly insightful, but it is a heartening sight to see someone with the profile of Ellis stand about the pulpit and denounce what he sees as McCarthyism.
Overall, it's maybe not the most essential Ellis release, but as someone who's surveyed mass culture since the 1980's, it's always good to hear from him. It's funny to read comments from so called "long time readers" denounce his so called 'lurch to the alt-right' and proclaim they will never read anything by him again.
To these people, I ask: 'have any of you even read Less Than Zero?'
Bret Easton Ellis, 2019, White. 2019 Picador ISBN-13: 978-1529012392
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.