Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Book review: White, Bret Easton Ellis (2019)

This tour de force is not without its flaws but it is timely. Trust a novelist to deliver the axe blow that serves to destroy the credibility of a whole generation of progressives. I almost wrote “a stunning tour de force” but remembered that I found the parts about what Ellis calls “Empire” a bit hard to follow.

This part of the book could have done with a bit more editing and there are other oddities (“Gen Xer” is capitalised but “boomer” is not, and “Tweet” is even, strangely, capitalised at one point; I couldn’t work out how the publisher’s style guide worked). The bits about “Empire” (or, the 20th century from the 1950s until the Twin Towers were struck by the jets) are confusing and while the narrative might make perfect sense for Ellis I couldn’t work out if Charlie Sheen was “Empire” or “post-Empire”.

With the exception of this section, the book is clear and stylish. The prose flows effortlessly and you take in Ellis’ interpolations along with his recounts of events, often involving what was said by different people on Twitter. The book contains a lot of this kind of well-crafted narrative and also a good deal of it relies on pure recall. The author’s recall of his childhood watching movies in Los Angeles is very detailed and made me wish I had a memory like his. And while his childhood adventures are not central to the book’s message they make sense in the context of the larger story, which ends, delightfully, with a gripping meditation on Kanye West.

What is more important is what Ellis has to say about the Left (he capitalises the word) and how it has become overly-censorious, immune to such things as irony (having exchanged it for sarcasm, a much lower-value commodity in letters or in any artform), subservient to a form of kitsch in such media as the cinema, and devoid of any sense of humour.

I’ve written about all these things in a series of posts on this blog since the middle of 2017 that focused on the media and on social media and how news stories are used by people to create community. I’ve also written about art and how it is used, and about the rise of the populist right in Australia. This happened in this country earlier than it did in the US; in Australia however because of the way the Senate is elected, minor parties are given more chance to win seats in the legislature than they are in the US. Many of Ellis’ observations are evident in what I have written, and it was such a darn relief to find my own best ideas reflected back to me in such a lucid and well-thought-out book.

Going by the way my own observations have been dealt with by people online, this book is going to upset people. But if you are an artist and you care about upsetting people then you are probably in the wrong profession. The bland pabulum that Hollywood produces in such profusion to satisfy the demands of Millennials is richly at odds with the strange and often difficult products that people like Ellis and I grew up watching and reading (he’s two years younger than me). With a lot of popular culture that comes out of Hollywood these days (I saw ‘Aquaman’ and ‘Avengers: Endgame’ this year) it’s as though the producers are saying, “Folks, here’s another superhero movie that pushes all the right identity-politics buttons. Now give us your money.”

If his book upsets people I suspect that Ellis will not be overly concerned. Art demands complexity and difficulty if it is going to adequately reflect reality. Captioned, glossed, and banal work that, for meaning-creation, relies on commentary that goes up on a label next to the painting, is going to fail to deliver the impact that art needs to succeed now, or in any generation. Bad art might please the social-justice warriors on Twitter, but it won’t stand the test of time.

So far I have seen one review and it was negative. It was written by a young woman. And Ellis is aware of the accusations that will be thrown at him because he is white and rich and male and therefore (by definition) out of touch, which is why he titled his book how he did. It’s all part of the author’s self-conscious package. If you fail to see the point of Ellis’ book, then I have nothing further to say that might give it the kind of meaning you need; it is all contained herein. And it is marvellous.

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