BOOKS AND ARTS DECEMBER 20, 2012
There is always something vaguely disorienting when a cultural icon of a previous era—the living, breathing equivalent of a pet rock or a Rubik's cube or Spam—continues to live and breathe even after that era is over. If he fails to update his schtick, we mentally file him away under “nostalgia act,” which manages to sand down whatever remaining sharp edges of cool that age has failed to erode. It can be even more disorienting when that icon does evolve for a new medium and time. Witness, for instance, the way bat-biting Ozzy Osbourne has so throughly defanged himself for reality television. Not everyone chooses to go the gentle route, though.
Bret Easton Ellis was the late 1980s and early 1990s, at least if you were shopping in the young-druggy-rich-empty-person aisle, and so when he tweets in the wee hours of the morning, as he did not too long ago, “come over at do bring coke now,” we are comforted to see that he's working through his greatest hits back-catalogue. The recent revelation that he maybe almost had a threesome with Rielle Hunter and Molly Ringwald is like the unearthing of some awesome B-side live recording. When he dips a toe in the outré misogyny pool, suggesting that Kathryn Bigelow only gets the accolades she does because she’s a beautiful woman or that “men are no picnic but women are fucking crazy,” it’s a lighter version of the tune Ellis has been humming since before American Psycho made him notorious for it. Even his recent fiction, Imperial Bedrooms (a where are they now? update to his first novel) and Lunar Park (whose “fictional” narrator is a Brat-Pack author named Bret Easton Ellis), has focused on grappling with or building off of his early legacy. It looks an awful lot like nostalgia, but Ellis is not just turning his old obsessions into a caricature; rather, he's keeping them alive in a new way.
Ellis’ subject, whether he is writing about over-privileged Los Angeles teens or insane investment bankers in thrall to labels or supermodels-turned-terrorists or Oscar voters, has always been emptiness: the emptiness of drugs, of shopping, of sex, of just about everything. “Not being able to find meaning can be just as powerful as finding meaning,” he told New York a few years ago. “Numbness is a feeling. Being numbed by something is a feeling. … If there’s a power to it, it’s … I don’t know. Well, it’s a cumulative sense of horror.”
Of course, emptiness is the main charge Ellis’ non-fans, unimpressed by the “cumulative sense of horror,” hurl at his writing. “His characters are so sketchily defined, so uniformly jaded and drugged out as to be indistinguishable from one another, and we're left to echo their own refrain: ‘It's all so boring,’” read the very first New York Times review of his work. More interesting to many cultural observers than Ellis’s actual writing has been his own personal relationship with all the things his characters use to fill the void. Cocaine and expensive clothing haven’t gone out of style, but the new addiction of our time, the latest way to both get a quick dopamine rush and to publicly flaunt status is, of course, the social-media account. And so the decades-long fan dance Ellis has been performing— just how closely are his characters based on his reality? What does he believe and what is he skewering? —continues now on his Twitter account.
Ellis’ Twitter, followed by hundreds of thousands, is a sort of can’t-look-away, horror-show version of the narcissistic, ill-considered tweeting many of us occasionally do. In other words, like his bombastic fiction, it can function as morality tale, but the extent to which he has learned the moral is not immediately clear. “Note to self: do NOT take Ambien because of current insomnia situation and start tweeting about favorite records from the 1970s. Delete,” he writes, adding a layer of self-consciousness and drawing more attention to his mistake. “Slow day: drove around to The Decemberists The King Is Dead, watched Annie Hall, texted James Deen, grateful for Fifty Shades of Grey fans,” goes another tweet. (Taste being to the hipsters of 2012 roughly what price was to the yuppies of 1987.) “The fake-earnest Midwestern 'sincerity' of David Foster Wallace that a generation of babies relates to is the thing I hate most as a writer,” he argues in another. It is a serious and interesting charge. His account is full of them, in fact (“The fallacy of the theory that TV is better than the best movies is that people believe that WRITING is EVERYTHING when in fact it isn't”), only they are scattered amidst discussions of his love life and repetitive rantings about the relative merits of Fifty Shades of Grey and Silver Lining Playbook and those much-discussed angry provocations and banality for the sake of banality.
Ellis took the opportunity this week to turn a Daily Beast apologia for the Kathryn Bigelow tweets into a meditation on the way he uses Twitter. Sometimes drunk, sometimes sober: a mashup of “randomness and juvenilia and alcohol,” he informs us. “I certainly never thought I’d feel the need to consider having to write a sentence about how the ‘marginalization of anyone for something they can’t help (gender, sexuality, race) is actually unacceptable to me and always has been…but in REAL LIFE NOT ON TWITTER!’ Twitter seems like a writer’s funhouse to me, not something I’d use ‘seriously’ to ‘hurt’ someone. I don't want to hurt anybody.”
It’s an echo of Ellis’ defense after the publication of his violent novels. Those, too, came with a public distancing—the equivalent of ironic scare quotes at the time of publication, and a public recantation later. “When I got to the violence sequences I was incredibly upset and shocked," he said to the Times years and years after the publication of American Psycho. "I can't believe that I wrote that. Looking back, I realize, God, you really sort of stepped over a line there."
He is not what he writes … except the parts of him that are, both in his novels and on the Internet. “It was labeled fiction but only a few details had been altered and our names weren't changed and there was nothing in it that hadn't happened,” he writes at the beginning of Imperial Bedrooms, that work of fiction about his previous work of fiction. Or this, in 2010: “I think I was disgusted by what the values were of this particular world that I was moving into. Which was just basically the world of adults, you know. It wasn't that it was such a contemptible society, it's just that you have that movement from when you're very young to having to accept the morals and the values of the adult world. And so I was really writing a lot about myself in the process of writing American Psycho. Patrick Bateman was in a lot of ways, me. And I only feel comfortable saying that now."
Are the old texts or the new tweets more autobiographical or satirical? Does it matter? Ellis is an unreliable narrator, as he’s always been, but we happen to be living in an era in which anyone with a social media account is an unreliable narrator. Perhaps Ellis’ Twitter account is indeed conceptual art or a public version of the writer’s notebook, considered musings on the nature of art and criticism and the particular hold that their own prolonged youth seems to have over the middle-aged these days. (On this last count, at least it is far more interesting than This Is Forty.) Perhaps it is a meditation on loneliness in a world where connection of one kind has never been easier, and connection of another kind has never seemed harder for some. Perhaps it is what it seems on the surface level: a bored guy who likes attention. Either way, he’s getting those appalled eyeballs again.
“Was there anyway to get my real thoughts and feelings through in 140 characters and in a coherent and intelligent manner?” Ellis writes in the Daily Beast. “Or do 140 characters (or less) determine that what you’re trying to say is sometimes going to come off as shallow, or mean-spirited or wrong?” It used to take him hundreds of pages to get that puzzled and angry reaction. Maybe Ellis' next novel of emptiness will be set entirely in the @reply section of his Twitter account.