White, the latest book from the American novelist Bret Easton Ellis, marks the writer’s shift from countercultural provocateur to an ageing Generation X voice. This collection of essays, the first foray into non-fiction for Ellis, comes nearly a decade after his most recent novel, Imperial Bedrooms. In White, he discusses his novels, his upbringing, the state of American politics and his responses to contemporary culture.
Most importantly, it gives him a platform to expand upon the ideas that have attracted a great deal of negative attention on social media. Particularly his controversial Twitter presence, where his flippant comments have created a stir.
Much of White reads like an out-of-touch author using controversy in an attempt to remain relevant. But Ellis still poses an interesting question for a Trump-era America: Are political correctness and artistic freedom at odds with each other?
As a successful American literary figure who is often defined by controversy, Ellis unsurprisingly cites freedom as a paramount value. In White, he discusses this as part of his provocative belief that identity politics challenges freedom of expression. What Ellis calls the “widespread epidemic of self-victimisation” silences unfavourable viewpoints, redefining censorship in contemporary society as something that masquerades as tolerance.
If engaging in debates with problematic views gives them credibility, Ellis presents the flip-side – that silencing such debate establishes what he calls a “threatening groupthink”. Here, Ellis presents the interpretations of freedom of speech by Generation Xers and millennials as fundamentally different.
Ellis’ discussion of his controversial 1990s novel American Psycho in White – and the nods to Trump both books contain – give his arguments a strangely nostalgic but contemporary feel. American Psycho dramatically amplifies 1980s excess, presenting what Ellis calls the logical outcome of the decade’s mindset. White takes a similar approach, this time using non-fiction to describe 21st-century concerns.
Both present dystopian American societies – the violent and excessive freedom pursued by protagonist Patrick Bateman in American Psycho and the dramatisation of politically correct censorship in White. Essentially, both texts use extreme representations of freedom to consider the limits of the societies they describe.
Trump connects the discontent of American Psycho and White through his barbs at political correctness, providing a clear example of capitalist excess and the American ideals of freedom and success. In American Psycho, Bateman’s idealisation of Trump supposedly gives him newfound confidence, implicitly validating Trump’s extreme expressions of freedom.
Milo Yiannopoulos, the polemic former editor of Breitbart News and baiter of identity politics advocates, makes this idealisation more contemporary. Bateman might not call Trump daddy as Yiannopoulos does. But, in White, Ellis describes Trump as “the daddy [Bateman] never had”, making this connection overt. For Yiannopoulos and Bateman, Trump represents extreme idealised freedom, connecting him to Ellis’ concerns in White.
In this way, Ellis accidentally makes Trump a cyclical figure, connecting American Psycho and White through the repeated success of Trump – in both commerce and politics – that offers a counterpoint to the apparent failures of left-wing politics.
For Ellis, the fall of Soviet communism marks the failure of left-wing ideologies – an idea which he extends in White. What Ellis sees as the triumph of Reagan-era capitalism is depicted by Bateman’s violent excess in American Psycho. Comparably, the recent failures of the Democratic Party – and the backlash against identity politics they represent for Ellis – are both central to the author’s discontent as expressed in White. Even if his railing against identity politics is the more overt.
Trump has shifted from an inspirational figure in American Psycho to a presidential one in White. But Ellis’ primary interest in White is what he calls the “outrage, indignation, panic and horror of the Trump Apocalypse”, as imagined by the Democrat-voting left.
Provocatively, Ellis equates the wider hysteria of Democrats after Trump’s success with the hypersensitivity of millennials he decries in White. Even so, he makes an interesting observation of American society’s understanding of freedom through this backlash against Trump. In White, he presents thought crimes – bizarrely, even the paranoid and impossible policing of one’s dreams – as the logical conclusion of what he sees as the censorious nature of identity politics. Here, Ellis evokes an Orwellian, 1984-esque dystopia in a contemporary liberal society. He connects the 1980s American fear of communism to contemporary rejections of micro-aggressions by millennials. In doing so, he presents political correctness as an awkward fit within American notions of freedom.
At its most captivating, White uses contradiction to disorientate the reader. Blurred boundaries define Ellis’s personality, the political landscape he describes in White, and how they overlap. He defies the stereotypes of the two-party democratic system and presents Trump as an ill-fitting semi-countercultural figure for this model. But Ellis also has no interest in politics and claims to have warned about Trump in American Psycho. You find yourself asking whether Ellis really believes everything in White – or if it’s little more than a hostile reactionary commentary. It is difficult to say, but perhaps that is the point.
In White, he claims that identity politics are fundamentally tribal, making diversity and inclusion impossible. Provocatively, this implies connections between identity politics and the nationalistic views of the New Right, as localised groups that prioritise their own interests. Ellis describes a delicious feeling of self-victimisation when aligned with identity politics. But he overlooks his own self-victimisation in White and its presence in cries of white oppression more broadly.
These contradictions extend beyond the contemporary left. The way Ellis describes his anxiety at the way his tweets are policed implies a similar self-victimisation.
Ellis’ claim that 21st-century America has exaggerated and embraced 1980s culture connects American Psycho and White – but White misses some of the complexities that made novels such as American Psycho compelling and dynamic. While just as brash in 2019, Ellis seems more conservative than ever before.
Matt Graham is a postgraduate researcher at the Manchester Metropolitan University, UK.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.