‘Only Bret Easton Ellis knew how to laugh at Donald Trump’
Pierre Guglielmina, Ellis’s Irish-based French translator, considers White’s place in his canon
Bret Easton Ellis: “Which other American writer, which other writer, dared to find all this [Ground Zero]… small?” Photograph: Ryan Pfluger/The New York Times
Morning seems strange – almost out of place
Searched hard for you and your special ways
These days – these days
We’ll tread through it all
It’s the modern age
Take care of it all
Now these debts are paid
Can you stay – for these days?
These Days, Joy Division
In “these days”, the last part of White, his new book, Bret Easton Ellis is wondering, “what freedom, with all its attendant limitations and illusions, means now.” These Days is also a song by Joy Division (1979), seeking to know if a god might even linger when we, afflicted and privileged nihilists, pride ourselves on having acquitted all the imaginary debts.
Ellis believes that freedom, the illustration of which he finds complete in Pose, a transgender television series, is from now on the desire for all “to be accepted, to know that their voices [are] heard, to be included in the status quo in spite of what they [represent] or of the disgust which they [inspire].” To be accepted, to be listened to, to be included, in spite of what we represent or of what we inspire, isn’t it the underpinning of any social network? The opposite of a lynchpin?
Ellis presents White as his first book of nonfiction. Which begins, as any of his novels, with the description of a dead end, an impossible situation he needs to escape. From the prologue, here is where his experience of freedom on social networks has led him to: “I just gave up and sat there exhausted, mute with stress. But ultimately silence and submission were what the machine wanted.”
Dictate of the machine, pressing him to find and set the tone: “I started feeling the need to work my way through this transition-to move from the analog world in which I used to write and publish novels into the digital world we live in now […]even though I never thought there was any correlation between the two.”
There is no relation between the analog and digital world, and not the slightest affinity between Ellis’s singular way and one or the other of these worlds. White is the “novel” of this transition and Ellis, his unique character, more fictitious than ever.
“On its surface, the house I grew up in was just another modest upper-middle-class home along the edges of the hills in Sherman Oaks, but below that surface was a hugely dysfunctional grey zone. I grasped that dysfunction at a very early age and checked out, realizing I was alone.” Alone in the Empire that was, according to Ellis, this hegemonic period of the United States which came to an end on September 11th, 2001. And with it, went the analog world. The disappearance of one caused the disappearance of the other, and vice versa under the name or number 9/11. It was a period during which he met only rarely his parents, had only brief conversations with them, was impatient to discover the world on his own. “The books I read … insisted that the world was a random and cruel place, that danger and death were everywhere, that adults could help you only so much, that there was another world – a secret one beneath the fantasy and fake safety of everyday life.”
This solitary crossing of the psychopathology of everyday life freed him, at the age of 14, from the delusions on the innocence of childhood and refined his sense of irony. At 18, after three months of university in Vermont, he could declare, during a brief return to Los Angeles: “I had already completed my education.” The world of knowledge opened wide.
“In February 1980, when I was fifteen, I saw Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo … Looking back, the impact American Gigolo had on me is impossible to tally, and it’s not as if this is a great film …, its influence is vast and undeniable.”
This is the beginning of “acting”, second part of White. Some lines further down, Ellis explains why the movie had such an impact on him: “American Gigolo’s narrative trajectory is that of a performer who needs to become real and get off the stage in order to save himself.” By superimposing Psycho on Gigolo, we read Ellis’s real trajectory after the publication of the novel, which earned him many insults and a few death threats.
Following his novelistic trajectory, we discover the adopted technique of composition: superimposing, shifting, unveiling, and withdrawing. That Less Than Zero had set in motion to create, with great refinement, “a torpor … exciting, the opposite of an understanding reflex as of an authentic feeling.”
Neither Pavlovian nor sentimental, this singular torpor, neither subjective nor passive, has always been Bret Easton Ellis’s thing and allowed him, in a way, to remain silent by writing books.
Let’s move on. Because we’re entering into the mystery of... iniquity. “My first day in the condo was April 1, the same day that the memorial service for Andy Warhol was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and that’s also when American Psycho opens.” This presence of Warhol, paradisiacal relay camouflaged as an April fool, is the opening of “second self” (third part of White). Just like there were, during the genesis of American Psycho, two Patrick Batemans, there were two Ellises, whose second was able to assert: “The book was reliable and I wasn’t.”
Whereas the first Ellis admitted that, in the world of American Psycho, the blood and the viscera, the rape and the murder were not more real than the imposture of society described. “That was,” as he says in White, “the book’s bleak thesis.” Namely: the full-blown imposture of society described in the novel would never be considered real, even though the rapes and murders would be imputed to Ellis.
Nevertheless, the reliable book allowed his author to conclude: “ I know that I finished American Psycho in December 1989, almost three years to the date after I began it; I know that it was finally released in March 1991 after the initial publisher cancelled it. And I now know that many people from that period assumed after it was published that my career as a writer was over. I now know that I was never happier than I was in the summer of 1991.” Happiness, as evidence of truth.
“As man not neutered by his sexuality.” Here is a man castration cannot force into feeling like Oedipus, a man capable of discerning his sex, his body and his voice, a textbook case for the psychoanalysts of this world.” A sentence uttered by Ellis in “Post-sex” (fourth part), “the gay man who comes out and doesn’t want to represent the status quo, and doesn’t feel like part of a homogenized gay culture or even rejects it and refuses to be a likable role model-in other words, the disappearing rebel-seems to have gone missing in society.”
Let us meditate in silence on Ellis’ strategic sense in placing “post-sex” between “second self” and “liking.” Between the double and the proliferation of the “customer”.
“Liking” is the turning point of the book. “Liking” as “the logical endgame of the democratization of culture.” Ellis, who grew up in Los Angeles, has by his own admission “learned that you become adept at dealing with the media by not caring about the media.” He has been constantly criticized, praised, insulted, evaluated since the age of 21 and has “grown entirely comfortable in being both liked and disliked, adored and despised. This environment feels natural to me”.
Culture is, par excellence, this spontaneously antagonistic environment. The world of social networks, entirely parasitical of corporations, contributes to its disruption under the pullulation of likes, this powerful vector of unanimity. Endgame of the democratization of the culture means that its stakes will be swiftly incomprehensible to a increasing number of people, be they “low” or “high”, and that the enlightenment will no longer benefit the “masses” or the “elites” in their shared ignorance.
According to a well-planned corporate logic, the prisoners, without yet knowing it, are building the camp within which they will be locked. Extermination as digital destiny. Only Ellis knew how to laugh at Trump (last of his class), long before he would begin to build walls to lock down the whole country.
“I’d made Donald Trump the hero of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho and researched more than a few of his odious business practices, his casually brazen lying […]he’s mentioned more than forty times in the novel […]. Maybe this was why I felt prepared when the country elected Trump as president.”
A profound thought of Baudelaire goes out to Ellis: “Nations have great men only in spite of themselves, like families. They make every effort not to. And so the great man needs, in order to exist, to possess a force of attack greater than the force of resistance developed by millions of individuals.”
Ellis’ last advice as a false goodbye to the ever-growing number of countless people: “Laugh at everything or you will end up laughing at nothing. As a young writer in Ireland, James Joyce realized, ‘I have come to the conclusion that I cannot write without offending people’.”
“It’s hardly rare that writers are both suspicious of literary acclaim and curious to see how that game’s played out.” This is the reason why Ellis is “tweeting” (part six). Allowing to know how the game works permits firing adjustments (“not to fire at random shots and flowers from the pure male camp many miles away,” as Fitzgerald said), to know who are the thorough allies (Joan Didion) and the passing enemies (David Foster Wallace), to gauge his celebrity (“an ephemeral game-and it makes you grow up fast, sometimes in hard ways”), to finalize a flexible response, at the same time “playful and provocative, real and fake, easy to read and hard to decipher, and most importantly, not to be taken too seriously.”
Post-empire. “That autumn, a group of us had dinner one night in Tribeca and then moved aimlessly down to Ground Zero, in our suits and dresses, buzzed and chattering, somehow slipping past each subsequent barricade until we were actually standing at the site itself; it had been cleaned up by then, there was nothing there, and it was brightly lit as if on display, the white sodium lights revealing what had once existed now swept away, and what moved us into silence was how small it looked.”
Which other American writer, which other writer, dared to find all this… small?
“It was a brief moment that never fully flowered; it existed fleetingly and then, like everything else, became watered down and clamped shut, as the post-Empire merged into corporate culture. Yet post-Empire hasn’t entirely disappeared. Traces remain everywhere, and certainly Donald Trump is a post-Empire president, while the legacy media’s reaction to him has never seemed more reactionary and belongs to full-blown Empire.”
In these conditions, American Psycho “seemed more prescient than it ever had. In the wake of the distant economic collapse and the growing ascent of Donald Trump, it seemed as if this might just become the musical of the moment.”
That’s just what the horror novel became thanks to a negotiation with three guys, quickly and efficiently conducted. “And after another margarita, I realized: these guys could have been anyone.”
Conclusion of Francis Scott Fitzgerald: “Blossom Time – the greatest musical romance ever written.”
Pierre Guglielmina is Bret Easton Ellis’s French translator. He lives in Ireland