Bret Easton Ellis: ‘My ability to trigger millennials is insane’ | Books
Poor Bret Easton Ellis. For someone I imagine to be rather fastidious – years ago, a friend of mine visited his New York apartment, where he was a little surprised to be told not to touch any of its owner’s CDs – this can hardly be the easiest of Monday mornings. For one thing, Virgin Atlantic has lost his luggage. Ahead of my arrival at his pristine London hotel, he had to dash out to buy deodorant; his black tracksuit bottoms are faintly marked with a stain that may (or may not) be airline toothpaste. For another, I have an absolutely stinking cold. In the bar where we’re to talk – it’s called the Punch Room, which is appropriate, given the territory covered by his new book – he sits down, not at my table, but at the one next to it, which makes us both laugh. Is he really going to stay all the way over there? “Well,” he says, faux sheepish. “I’m so susceptible to these things, and I am on a book tour.” Reluctantly, he inches towards me.
Still, he is such a good sport. His manner is warm, and his face – pinker and heavier now than at the height of his literary fame, and topped with hair that is silver – bears a near-permanent smile. He talks and talks; he doesn’t watch his words; he is frequently very funny and sometimes a touch scabrous. All of which makes me wonder about the way he is treated both by some journalists and on social media. In the days before our meeting, I read a review of his new book that was so gratuitously spiteful, it fairly took the breath away. I also read an interview on the New Yorker website, one that had done brisk business on Twitter, causing indignation, outrage and glee wherever it appeared. People were saying that it dispatched the supposedly beyond-the-pale Ellis satisfyingly, and with utmost appropriateness. But it seemed to me to be mostly an exercise in baiting, interruption, disingenuousness and grandstanding on the part of its writer.
Ellis’s new book is his first for almost a decade, and his first work of nonfiction. It is called White, and is best described as a provocation, though it’s much more than that if you take the trouble to read it. Yes, there’s lots of goading about why he hates snowflakey millennials (“Generation Wuss”, as he has dubbed them). It attacks what he regards as the narcissism of the young, roundly dismisses the rush to offence and the cult of victimisation, and chases down the self-dramatising of those liberal Americans who must be passed the smelling salts at the mere mention of Donald Trump. Although he thinks the #MeToo movement had real meaning when it began, Ellis dislikes the way it has since extended to include, most recently, such supposed crimes as what some might call the overfriendliness of the former US vice-president Joe Biden. He is largely dismissive of identity politics, and despises the way that people can now be “cancelled” (erased from public life) over some relatively small but dumb thing they may have said in the past. Like I said, the book is a provocation – and it’s up to you, the reader, to choose to what degree you are prepared to allow yourself to be riled.
But the essays in White also contain some pretty nifty film criticism; reading it, I felt for the first time in ages interested in Richard Gere again (and even, momentarily, in Charlie Sheen). There are interesting sections on Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace, and on what our cultural lives were like – more precious? More intensely felt? – before the internet. Ellis is good on his 1991 novel, American Psycho, and its strange prescience (we’ll come back to this). Above all, there are some neat flashes of memoir: in particular, an account of his 70s childhood in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles, where he grew up the son of a wealthy property developer, and the friend of kids whose parents were directors and movie stars. As he notes, the world then was built for adults rather than children – something he experienced as freedom, and on which he looks back with gratitude. And here, perhaps, he places his finger firmly on one of the primary causes at the heart of the war of words that rages between his generation and that of his boyfriend of 10 years, the musician Todd Michael Schultz, who is 22 years his junior (yes, he lives with a millennial). What it comes down to is a question of timing, and of upbringing.
“I thought it was rather exciting,” he says, of a childhood that enabled him to see the films he wanted to see, and to read the books he wanted to read, unbridled by anxiety on the part of his carers (thanks to this, he developed as a teenager a passion for the films of Brian de Palma, the director of Carrie, Scarface and The Untouchables).
“This is not a blanket statement, but…” He guffaws, knowing full well that it absolutely is a blanket statement. “What I’ve noticed is a kind of helplessness in millennials. I didn’t realise this until lately, but I was on my own. My parents were narcissistic baby boomers, more interested in themselves than us [they would later divorce]. Not that they didn’t love us, but they were very wrapped up in their own lives.
“I do remember floating on my own. I had to grow up on my own. I had to figure things out for myself. I had some help. I’m not saying that I didn’t. But certainly, there wasn’t the overprotective bubble that so many of my friends raised their children in. Growing up, I didn’t know a single person on medication. None. On my boyfriend’s side of the aisle, though, there wasn’t anyone who wasn’t on something, including him. Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who wanted to victimised either; we wanted to be affected by stuff.” He emits a hammy sigh. “I don’t care if I sound old any more. I haven’t changed at all. I was the old man at 15.” He then launches into a brief and somewhat practised riff about the emotional support animals that people are now allowed to take on planes, should a medical professional have decreed such a creature beneficial to their mental health: “I can’t go anywhere without my chihuahua! Are you kidding me?”
It is this mollycoddling, he believes, that accounts, in part, for what he regards as the total inability of his boyfriend’s generation to understand not only that others may have a different viewpoint to their own, but that it is entirely acceptable for them to do so. “It has disabled him in a lot of ways,” he says, of Schultz. White contains more than one account of his boyfriend’s liberal meltdowns in the face of Trump and his supporters. So how are things currently at their West Hollywood homestead? How did Schultz respond to the recent publication of the Mueller report? “He was very quiet for 24 hours,” says Ellis, not without satisfaction. “For two and a half years he had been praying for it: Mueller is going to save us. Then it came out, and it was: Mueller is a stooge. People have gotten so obsessed and so angry with Trump – you could say that they have been Trumped – and I have warned him about this. I have told him: you need cunning, you need a plan, you need to get someone good [as a candidate] and then you can get him out of there. But just screaming about the resistance and shouting that Russia is to blame for everything isn’t going to work.”
This makes me wonder: what’s the nature of their bond? (The two of them met at a dinner party.) “Mysterious!” whispers Ellis, loudly. Well, does Todd look to him for guidance? “Yes, he does. But I don’t know why it has lasted for 10 years. It is an intense friendship.” Does Todd make him laugh? “All the time, and I make him laugh, too. Also, what I’m talking about in the book takes up only about 10% of our time, though…” He can’t help himself. “Actually, he has become really anti-media, and against the Democratic party, too. He is a socialist, and he does believe in ‘tear it all the fuck down’, and I don’t believe that can ever happen in America. I think it’s a centrist country.” To be clear, however, Ellis also regards Trump as an “idiot” and “grotesque”. He did not vote for him, and thus is bewildered – or, at any rate, irritated – to be repeatedly described as an apologist for him. “Molly Jong-Fast, the daughter of Erica Jong, wrote this piece in the Daily Beast where she asked: How did he [Ellis] turn into this Maga cap-wearing ultra-conservative? These people have been raised to think their reactions to things are completely correct and that the other side is not only totally wrong but also therefore immoral, sexist, racist. All my book argues is: let’s have a conversation. But of course it has already been totalled in America. My ability to trigger millennials is insane.”
I have the impression that, unlike most writers, Ellis genuinely doesn’t care what people say in their reviews. On the page, he might sound pugnacious, even thin-skinned. But in person, he is cheerily blithe. Then again, for him it was ever thus. As he writes in White, to have a long-term career as a writer, it’s possible that you need to be hated as well as loved. When his first novel, Less Than Zero, made him famous at the age of just 21 – he was still a student at Bennington College when he completed this famously affectless account of the lives of a group of rich LA teenagers – it received as many bad reviews as good ones. “Simon & Schuster were taken to task for publishing the journals of a 21-year-old drug addict,” he says. “I remember newspaper op-eds about it, and it has been like that ever since. It’s just part of what my brand is.”
His third novel, American Psycho, starring the serial killer, investment banker and (yes!) Donald Trump worshipper, Patrick Bateman (later made into a faithful film starring Christian Bale and, more recently, a musical), was rejected by his publisher shortly before it was about to appear – when the decision was taken in November, 1990, its cover was already designed – after some at Simon & Schuster found themselves discomfited by what they saw as its misogynistic violence. In the end, Random House published it. Ellis sees the book now as something of a canary in the coal mine – and it’s hard not to disagree with him in a world where censorship, seen and unseen, is undoubtedly on the rise.
“That book wouldn’t be published now,” he says. “I mean, no one wanted to publish it then. Very few people came forward. I was just lucky. But what’s interesting is that I didn’t know until I was putting White together just how haunted I’d been by American Psycho. I can’t get away from Patrick Bateman. I mean, it was prescient, and not only because of Trump.” (Trump is mentioned 40 times in the novel, thanks to Bateman’s obsession with him; as Ellis writes in White, in the late 80s, Trump was, to some, an inspirational figure – and maybe this was why he felt more prepared than some on the left when he was elected president: “I once had known so many people who liked him.”)
At the time of American Psycho’s publication, he says, people conflated the crimes of Bateman with the attitudes of his creator – if Bateman was a woman-hater, then surely Ellis was, too – just as they’re now convinced that he supports Trump simply because he has had the temerity to criticise those who are opposed to the president. Thanks to this, he received death threats. Perhaps this is why it took him a while to admit that there were indeed things he and his most famous character had in common. The novel was born of the dislocation Ellis felt as he was writing it: if Bateman was living a double life, then so was he. In 1987, having moved to New York, he was still coming to terms with his sudden, glossy fame. It seemed to him that there were then two Brets: the party boy whose image appeared in newspapers and magazines alongside actors such as Robert Downey Jr and fellow members of the newly minted literary Brat Pack such as Jay McInerney (sometimes, Ellis barely knew he’d attended whichever opening was being reported), and the one whose anxiety and self-doubt were spiralling out of control, and who treated these conditions with a liberal use of cocaine and benzodiazepines.
Did fame screw him up? “A little bit, but it wasn’t something I was chasing, and it didn’t mean anything to me. The first year – ’85 to ’86 – it was fun. The first year of fame is always fun, then you spend the rest of your life trying not to be humiliated. People are suspicious of you for ever.” The Brat Pack was, he says, entirely a media construct. “I was never friends with Tama Janowitz [another of its members]. I barely knew her. There are these pictures of me and Jay with her that are reprinted all the time – and yet, those are the only three, and they were all taken at the same party. I wasn’t even hanging out with Jay that much. I got to know him much better after the Brat Pack thing went away.”
There is, he agrees, something almost inevitably disappointing about the career of a writer, particularly one who enjoys early success (at Bennington, he also knew Donna Tartt and Jonathan Lethem). “People would be shocked by how few books most writers sell. The writing career is not at all long.” Does this make him feel mournful? “No. I’ve never won a prize, there are advances I still haven’t made up: two of my books that were bestsellers still haven’t made their advances yet. My audience is… niche. But I’ve written the books I wanted to write, and I’m happy with them.”
These days, he spends his time writing film scripts and working on his podcast, which has a small but devoted audience of subscribers. Will he ever write another novel? “I can never say never. But the notion right now of using the novel as a form of artistic communication… I really don’t have that kind of story, or if I do, I want to tell them in movies or TV.” Does he believe it’s over for the novel generally? Though he agrees that novels are not such a big deal as they were when he was young, he still loves reading them. “I liked The Girls [Emma Cline’s 2016 novel about the Manson cult]. It had a consciousness, and I’m looking for that. But… The Woman at the Window [a bestselling thriller by AJ Finn]. Something like that is a style-free zone, and I can’t read it. The Girl on the Train [Paula Hawkins’s thriller]. That was a terrible book.” He slaps his thighs, delightedly. The internet, and the choice and speed it lends us, has led, he believes, to a reduction in what he calls “ardency” when it comes to books, films and TV. People don’t get passionate – we tend not to make a fetish of art – the way he did as a young man.
Is he happy? “I’m… mellow. Are you ever really happy? No. But I’m not miserable. There’s no point. I’m getting older. You realise: why am I so uptight about things? Why do I care? Everything matters a lot less. I was here in London in 2010, and then I was still in my absurd midlife crisis. I think there’s this notion that you’re being supplanted by younger men; you’re being aged out of the biological imperative that is the world. It happens to everyone, but it happens to women and gay men much earlier. You realise: oh, I’m not being looked at, and this person’s not interested in me, and I’m going to try and hold on to my youth, and colour my hair, and get a sports car. And then you realise: this is misery, and you think, fuck it, and you relax, and that’s freedom. The burdens of sex and having to be attractive and stay in shape are gone. It’s the pose. The pose is gone.”
He laughs loudly. “It gets to the point where even the notion of possible friskiness is oppressive.” What he says next is too filthy to print, but it makes me laugh, too – the mind that brought us what David Foster Wallace called Nieman Marcus nihilism (Patrick Bateman and his ultra-designer life, all labels and muscles) thinking only of elasticated waistbands, and sleep.
• White by Bret Easton Ellis is published by Picador (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
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