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White Whales

This review appears in the Fall 2019 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


White
By Bret Easton Ellis
(Knopf, 2019)

When I finally met the shock rocker Marilyn Manson, a few years ago in the (men’s) restroom at the Chateau Marmont, our hug was interrupted by two German hippies pushing cocaine. Huge flakes fell from a piece of leaf they had ripped from the potted orchid near the door, Manson obliged with an air of dignified condescension, and the freaks giggled off. Rather than the hero to the pair that he first appeared to be, I recognized in Manson nothing more than another reference, a human answer to a trivia question posed randomly in the evanescent feed of their lives.

I, by contrast, had learned in the 1990s more about the world to come from Manson than from any other popular artist save Bret Easton Ellis.

But there in the men’s restroom of the Chateau Marmont, in that world that had now come to be, I felt definitively that no artists were heroes anymore. None now seemed to function the way Manson and Ellis had—like “early warning systems,” as Marshall McLuhan put it. Heroism itself had become a cheesy, cringey, phony phenomenon, typified by the “brave” representatives of official lifestyle culture that ethically correct corporations plucked from obscurity, pushed out in an eager-to-please ad campaign, and tossed back into the sea of interchangeability and irrelevance so many of us now experienced in everyday life, both online and off. The whole idea of a heroic artist had become preposterous. After chatting briefly about Bret and trading phone numbers, Manson and I removed ourselves from the restroom and slipped back into the cool, crepuscular world of L.A., the ghost of its all-consuming mystique, once so intimate and generative, dissipating into the rustle of the palms and the high dark slope of the hills.

Manson and I had both known Bret for around twenty years. And while Manson was just beginning to solidify his current modest renaissance—treadmill instead of absinthe, a new lease on pop cultural life as a cheeky icon flashed by pop stars Justin Bieber and Lil Uzi Vert—Bret was sort of wondering if he’d ever write a book again. I was on the fourth or fifth rewrite of a novel set mostly in Malibu about spies, sex traffickers, and their (literal) demons. I had begun this novel in 1999 and started rewriting under Bret’s guidance in 2000; but after 9/11, what had felt viscerally of-the-moment about the plot and the characters abruptly seemed fake and pointless. Again in 2017 I was hemmed in by the same sense of fatuousness and futility. I worried that Bret was experiencing the same things, because they now defined our world; that he would never publish another book; that the possibility of either of us engaging meaningfully with the future through art would shrink down to nothing.

Digital Disenchantment

“The idea of beginning a new novel started whispering to me,” Bret shares in the opening pages of White, his new and debut nonfiction book, “in the first weeks of 2013.” His lengthy reticence, he explains, had to do with the problem that, while the inner process of the novelist was once “mysterious to readers, with a kind of secret glamour that added to the excitement with which books were once received,” the reality is “novels don’t engage with the public on that level anymore.” What’s more, nowadays, Bret has “also realized that’s nothing to worry about.” Along with novels, songs, and celebrities, “everything has been degraded by what the sensory overload and the supposed freedom-of-choice technology has brought to us, and, in short, by the democratization of the arts.”

Nevertheless, he writes, his thoughts keep turning back from this epic digital disenchantment of the empire of make-believe to the kernel of a new novel. “But it has never turned into anything either.”

As it happens, the less I worked over the past few years on my unfinished novel, the more I turned my attention to the digital-age disillusionment that wiped out so much of Bret’s old world, his old fame, his old identity. As I plowed swiftly through White, a book suffused with the intimacy-at-a-distance Bret has always deployed to explore the arid creepiness of L.A., I discovered that he was writing about mental stability: why, everywhere he turns, people are losing their grip, their very ability to process and accept the fundamental reality of life unfolding in their midst. Keeping it together, the book suggests, requires maturity, and maturity requires accepting that neither you nor society can be safely categorized as either blamelessly pure or inexpungibly stained.

The pathos of moral absolutes, Bret insists, expresses a fantasy, and therefore offers no refuge from the banality and irrelevance of life terrifying to so many of us as America’s late-twentieth-century empire of make-believe falls away. In vain do we transfer this terror onto people disgustingly unlike ourselves, hoping to do to them what we cannot do to the world transforming around us—scapegoat, cancel, ultimately destroy. Nor can we efface the unchosen, messy, and problematic aspects of our own identities. Our obsession with doing so merely drains us of our humanity, breeding a vengeance that reduces us to unrecognizable, unlovable, infantile beings.

Revealingly, Bret frames these insights with an epigram lifted from Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, a book that once created a firestorm by taking a blowtorch to the fantasy of ethics in journalism. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” Malcolm begins her polemic. “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. . . .  Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and ‘the public’s right to know’; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”

Bret’s chosen passage is milder—

Society mediates between the extremes of, on the one hand, intolerably strict morality and, on the other, dangerously anarchic permissiveness through an unspoken agreement whereby we are given leave to bend the rules of the strictest morality, provided we do so quietly and discreetly. Hypocrisy is the grease that keeps society functioning in an agreeable way.

But by roughly the midpoint of White, one grasps that the assault Malcolm levels against journalists is almost exactly the same attack Bret unloads on actors.

Like Malcolm’s journalists, Bret’s actors “are, by their very nature, liars.” They are sociopaths whose idea of ethics, as Bret depicted in Imperial Bedrooms, is conning everyone around them into getting close enough to serially betray. He admits he has “always found” actors “endearing and likable,” despite the “passive-aggressive positivity” they use “to maintain their balance and to feed their hunger to seduce and control you.”

In a city like L.A., these traits are often found outside the entertainment industry. Yet actors, Bret explains, give us a special access to the pathology of our age. “This neurosis is ultimately forgivable since this is what actors are supposed to do—to make you like them,” he sympathizes. Actors live “a hard life, filled with a low-level fear and emotional peril due to what might happen if you don’t like them.” A nauseated kind of pity for these tortured charismatics is inevitable once you get close enough to see them as real people. “The reasons an actor is wanted and hired are so random—often luck based, having nothing to do with merit and capability—that watching this game from the sidelines, as a nonactor, can be upsetting enough to make your mind reel.”

But today Bret gradually reflects that actors aren’t just a strange subculture anymore. The psychosis beneath the smile, the attention, the sex has metastasized. Now the rest of us—less attractive, less gifted, less graced with artistry—are doing it too. “Actors dread criticism and are more wounded by it because, unlike most of us, they live in front of an audience, and criticism means the public might not like them anymore,” Bret whispers. For them, “criticism is tied far more intimately to survival than it is for any of the rest of us. Or at least it hasn’t been, until lately.” Today “most of us now lead lives on social media that are more performance based than we ever could have imagined even a decade ago, and thanks to this burgeoning cult of likability, in a sense, we’ve all become actors.”

More than a century ago, Nietzsche re‑ marked that the conviction of the individual that he “can manage any role” is “the faith of the Americans today”—one that augurs “the maddest and most interesting ages of history . . . when the ‘actors,’ all kinds of ‘actors,’ become the real masters.” Nietzsche described the “role faith” of the actor as “an artist’s faith.” That aesthetic creed is something Bret resists. The democratization of acting, he says, is destroying the preconditions of art—not only our ability to create it but even to perceive it. If the elite subculture of actors ruling the empire of make-believe drew their immense power from seducing us even at their most threatening, now that “actor” is a mass identity, coercive charisma has mutated into a cult of niceness. Signaling any threat, no matter how minimal, risks rejection, and rejection means a return to obscurity and insignificance. And with the scramble for attention and advantage so generalized, everyone knows that competitors alarmingly identical to themselves can use any perception of threats to mobilize hostility against them.

In such an environment, the only source of mental stability is found in institutions that have the power and resources to avoid competition. These are the corporations—or, as Ellis ominously calls them, “the corporation,” singular—an organizational nexus that ruthlessly imposes an official system of ethics that moves compulsory niceness into virtually posthuman territory. “We’ve had to rethink the means with which to express our feelings and thoughts and ideas and opinions in the void created by a corporate culture that is forever trying to silence us,” Bret says at one point, “by sucking up everything human and contradictory and real with its assigned rule book on how to behave. We seem to have entered precariously into a kind of totalitarianism that actually abhors free speech and punishes people for revealing their true selves. In other words: the actor’s dream.”

When everyone is an actor, the fantasy of escaping anxiety through art morphs into a longing to destroy humanity. “We continue to transform ourselves into virtuous robots—or at least what our side thinks a virtuous robot should be,” Bret warns. “Devoted to gaming the system, this new practice is a form of deception, an attempt to erase (strangely) both subjectivity and objectivity, to evaluate through mass intuition, for a very high price . . . it urges us to adopt the dull conformity of corporate culture and forces us to react defensively by varnishing our imperfect selves so we can sell and be sold things.” Yet the terrifying truth that our psychic and social activity is designed to conceal keeps bursting through. The compulsive lifestyle dictated by the corporation’s credo doesn’t work. The shock of our shifting reality is just too powerful.

The Dream Police

Those hungry for examples to illustrate these malevolent trends won’t be disappointed. Much of White gets its energy from the shift from Bret’s laconic analysis of iconic empire-age people, films, and moments to his grim accounts of friends at the end of their rope. The accumulating malfunctions of more and more privileged white people fanatically devoted to “correct” ethics begin to fragment Bret’s everyday life as much as they do the book’s narrative. The sort of people who once took addiction, abuse, and quite possibly murder in stride are now completely derailed by a skeptical attitude toward Hillary Clinton; nice dinners become panicky screech fests when social justice mantras or frowned-upon jokes are made light of. Bret’s increasingly rote reactions—you’re unwell, get therapy, spare me—apply to apoplectic millennials and imploding Boomers alike, inviting an avalanche of incensed reprisals. “Once you start choosing how people can and cannot express themselves,” he shrugs knowingly, “this opens the door to a very dark room in the corporation from which there’s really no escape. Can’t they in return police your thoughts, and then your feelings and then your impulses? And, finally, can they police, ultimately, your dreams?”

Of course they can. Bret’s novels veer, often self-consciously, from brutal minimalism to gratuitous detail to dramatize how weak we have allowed our control over our identities to become. Both approaches are responses to the problem of sensory overload that was the hallmark of America’s imperial culture of fantasy. Marshall McLuhan was fond of citing an IBM study that found “information overload leads to pattern recognition.” In Bret’s novel Glamorama, the horrific deluge of celebrity names and terror attacks arouse in its protagonist the realization that “the better you look the more you see.” In the notorious American Psycho, Patrick Bateman’s recursive babble about suits, pop hits, facial care regimens, and torture and dismemberment signal an onrushing disaster from the precincts of the elite to the wider cultural world. Today the deracinated cult of official ethics demands that all darkness and ugliness be subsumed in defanged, domesticated performances of pride and harmony. It is a dehumanization campaign, only nominally secular, that turns good manners into soulless mannerisms.

In one of several teasingly brief vignettes of his encounters with America’s superstars of yore, Bret recounts a moment in his building’s elevator with Tom Cruise—an encounter that made it into American Psycho. The appearance of Cruise at the cusp of his cultural supremacy gave the novel a jarring blast of surrealism, Bret notes. But today, imagining Patrick Bateman in a similar situation with today’s post-imperial, post-heroic Cruise, Bret wonders: “Would Bateman quietly back away, hoping to go unnoticed?” Increasingly, the empire-age sense of celebrity, of actors as heroes, of artists as aristocrats, faces the charge Nietzsche leveled against Christianity: “all this is now done away with, all this has the conscience against it.”

In his album Mechanical Animals, Marilyn Manson described the barren sterility of the “great big white world” that our empire of failed fantasies would become. Setting out to invoke both The White Album, Joan Didion’s autobiographical critique of California “dreampolitik,” and his own experience as a “white privileged male,” Ellis depicts in White a colorlessness, a bloodlessness, much less a matter of race than of spirit. It’s blank, a term that has recurred in his writing since the beginning but used to reveal a secret horror that demanded a choice, a moral decision, and now denotes a banal public command, a false innocence, an annulment of agency. To recolor the world that the “corporation” has bleached, to retrieve artistry as fantasy grows obsolete, art may first have to grow secret again—written first in the heart, and last, if ever, upon the page. ♦

James Poulos is author of  The Art of Being Free: How Alexis de Tocqueville Can Save Us from Ourselves and executive editor of the American Mind, a publication of the Claremont Institute.


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