In May 2015, some 200 members of PEN America, a respected literary organisation to which many writers belong, decided not to present the survivors of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris with a newly established Freedom of Expression Courage Award. While not everyone admired the satirical French magazine’s crude cartoons and mockery of aspects of Judaism, Catholicism and Islam, only Islamist terrorists and “progressive” liberals were apparently offended by it.
A group of super-“woke” writers (among them Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje and Teju Cole) went so far as to boycott PEN’s fundraising gala in New York on the grounds that Charlie Hebdo had exposed France’s “vulnerable Muslim community” to “racist and Islamophobic provocations”. The writers’ readiness to second-guess offence on behalf of a group to which none of them (as far as I know) belong might strike one as illiberal – as if to say: the Charlie Hebdo staff had it coming. Or to put it another way, when two offended Islamist gunmen burst into the newspaper offices that January and shot dead 12 staff members while shouting “God is great!” and “The Prophet is avenged!” we should not have been so surprised.
Bret Easton Ellis, 55, alludes angrily to the PEN controversy in his new essay collection, White. A freewheeling amalgam of memoir and polemic, the book lambasts the current era’s obsession with identity politics, victim culture and the inability of “Generation Wuss” (as Ellis calls it) to live outside its own little snow globe of niceness and inclusion.
Ellis was a bestseller at 21 with Less Than Zero and the author of the brilliant serial-killer satire American Psycho before he was 30. Obviously, then, he can no longer be the brattish scourge of consumerist Reagan-era America. With the passing of the years he has transformed into a castigator of the millennials he sees around him.
While Islamists and militant feminists appear to have little in common, they are united, Ellis suggests, in demanding retribution in the form of bans, penalties and censorship of those who are seen to hurt their feelings. In this way, “virtue-signalling” progressives have become as rigid and authoritarian as the institutions and people they seek to decry.
Competitive offence-claiming is now all the rage. The digital world pullulates with the warped authoritarian grievances of “identity-obsessed elitists” and “social-justice warriors”. Ellis’s disdain for what Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have done to us all is evident. He complains that everything has been degraded by the supposed “freedom-of-choice technology” and its attendant “democratisation of the arts”.
Why, then, does he bother to have a Twitter account? (Surely the cool thing would be to have no presence at all on social media.) Cyberspace certainly does not make an attractive free market, where anyone can be a critic as there are effectively no longer any gatekeepers. The wide availability of pornography has, moreover, corrupted and deadened human emotions grievously.
In a world where we can instantly hook up with someone and see naked pictures of a “soon-to-be sex partner” within seconds, inevitably “everything is rendered the same”.
In some ways Ellis, a privileged, entitled white man whining about privileged, entitled white men, is part of the problem. For all that he condemns the vacuity of a world where everything has come to feel disposable, he allows himself to be implicated in the “online howling” of the offended by replying to them constantly via Twitter. Why bother? Let others vent away idiotically in the dead-alive hole of the internet.
Stylishly written, White is saturated with nostalgia for the “faraway era of Empire” America, the lost yuppie years when American Psycho was high in the book charts. Having grown up in a wealthy white enclave of Los Angeles at the “height of Empire”, Ellis was well placed to describe Wall Street excess through the eyes of the murderous sociopath yuppie banker Patrick Bateman. Bateman is a man who, like Oscar Wilde’s cynic, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. He is the dark flipside of a decade of serious money, when high-end Manhattan lifestyles were coveted by many Americans, and Gordon Gekko in Wall Street gave us the phrase “greed is good”.
Ellis reminds us that Bateman was a huge fan of Donald Trump, whose name is mentioned more than 40 times in American Psycho. Not only does Bateman attend a U2 concert because he is told that Trump likes the band, he also recommends Trump’s how-to book The Art of the Deal to a detective investigating the disappearance of someone he has murdered. In grotesque fashion, Bateman is a champion of consumer choice and the individual’s right to make limitless money.
By turns snarky and provocative, White swims against the tide of political correctness, and is never anything less than entertaining.