We Have to Be Liked

Bret Easton Ellis, writing in his essay collection White, on the social-corporate demand of inclusivity:

Most people of a certain age probably noticed this when they joined their very first corporation. Facebook encouraged its users to “like” things, and because this platform is where they branded themselves on the social Web for the first time, their umpulse was to follow the Facebook dictum and present an idealized portrait of themselves — or or a nicer, friendlier, duller self. And this is where the twin ideas of likability and “relatability” were born, which together began to reduce all of us, ultimately, to a neutered clockwork orange, enslafed to yet another corporate version of the status quo. To be accepted, we had to follow an upbeat morality code under which everything had to be liked and everybody’s voice had to be respected, and anyone who held negative or unpopular opinions that weren’t inclusive — in other words, a simple dislike — would be shut out of the conversation and ruthlessly shamed. Absurd doses of invective were often hurled at the supposed troll, to the poitn where the original “offense” or “transgression” or “insensitive dickish joke” or “idea” seemed negligible by comparison. In the new post-Empire age we’re accustomed to rating TV shows, Restaurants, video games, books, even doctors, and we mostly give positive reviews because nobody wants to look like a hater. And even if you aren’t one, that’s what you’re labeled as if you steer away from the herd.

I like this because it’s a take obverse from the usual complaint about the internet and social media: a festering boil of rage and uncouthery. I myself have described Twitter as “both the tape recorder and the riot”. But this suggests that really everything is pushing the other way, as social media purges those lacking social credit, as the Chinese put it. Skynet turned out to be far more seductive than we thought.

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The Disassociated Protagonist

There’s doubtless a more-approved critical term for this phenomenon, but I only took one lit-crit class in college, and also I don’t care. This is my term, and I’m finding it all over Play It As It Lays, which I’ve mentioned before I’m reading.

Observe:

In the care she counted the stiff bills. They stuck together and she missed one and she counted them four more times before she was certain she had them all. Since early morning she had been trying to remember something Les Goodwin had said to her, anything Les Goodwin had said to her. When she was not actually talking to him now she found it hard to keep him distinct from everyone else, everyone with whom she had ever slept or almost slept or refused to sleep or wanted to sleep. It had seems this past month as if they were all one, that her life had been a single sexual encounter, one dreamed fuck, no beginnings or ending, no point beyond itself. She tried to remember how it had been to drag Fremont Street in Vegas with Earl Lee Atkins when she was sixteen years old, how it had been to go out on the desert between Vegas and Boulder and drink beer from half-quart cans and feel her sunburn when he touched her and smell the chlorine from her own hair and the Lava soap from his and the sweet sharp smell of the starched cotton soaked with sweat. How High the Moon, the radio would play, Les Paul and Mary Ford. She tried to remember Ivan Costello, tried to fix in her mind the exact way the light came thought the shutters in his bedroom in New York, the exact colors of the striped sheets she had put on his bed and the way those sheets looked in the morning and the look of a motel room in which they had once spend a week in Maryland. She tried to remember Carter. She tried to remember Les Goodwin. She could remember it all but non of it seemed to come to anything. She had a sense the dream had ended and she had slept on.

This is from page 68-69 of my library copy, and most of the book is like this, the narrative of a woman who is almost out of her mind. She is utterly dissociated from the people in her life and acts out of inchoate impulses. And it strikes me that this reads much the way that anything by Bret Easton Ellis does. Less Than Zero is entirely in this vein, as is American Psycho. I’m not saying that Ellis is necessarily directly influenced by Didion, but I would not be surprised.

The primary difference is in what causes the dissociation. Less Than Zero is an exile observing the primal bestiality of Los Angeles, and American Psycho is capitalism atomising human beings into objects and body parts. Play It As It Lays‘ Maria seems to be dissociated by sex and the Men in her life. Something something Patriarchy something something.

There’s probably a lot of stories like this. I reckon I could crank one out if I wanted to.

The Detail You Missed

Or, How A Novel from 1985 and a Movie from Last Year are Related in My Head

Had an opportunity to rewatch The Last Jedi yesterday and noticed something that made the plot make better sense.

One of the things that annoyed me about the B-Plot was how Vice Admiral Pink-Hair’s escape plan ends up being incredibly non-functional. Like, your entire idea was to let the big ships get blown up and hope they don’t notice the escape pods? Isn’t noticing escape pods something the Empire/First Order generally does?

But on the rewatch, I noticed that the First Order only notices this because Benicio del Twitchy tells them that. And he does that because they got caught. So if Poe had never sent Finn and Rose on that wild goose chase, the plan would have had a better chance of working.

Okay. That makes better sense now. I don’t quite know how I missed that in the theater, but it does make things fit better.

Had a similar experience reading the end of Less Than Zero on Saturday. My existing Goodreads review of the novel is as follows:

Less Than ZeroLess Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really don’t know if I like this book or not. It weaves a compelling, melancholy vision, that much is certain. But it does so within the first few pages, and then it doesn’t really do anything else. There doesn’t seem to be anything like an arc or even much of a plot. Because to have these things you need a conflict, and this novel’s protagonist seems to lack any semblance of emotional ties to anything. Which, of course, us the point. But it does repeat after the first hundred pages.

Supposedly Ellis hated the movie version, and one can see why: the film barely resembles the book at all. But how else this story becomes a movie is beyond me.

View all my reviews

And the Encounter with Nihilism is not the less present on the re-read. But I caught a scene on the end, perhaps glossed over before, in which the protagonist Clay is forced by sorta-girlfriend Blair to confront his emotional coldness. And he sort of does. Now, as typical with Ellis, this confrontation brings no catharsis. Indeed, in the next scene, the same two characters are right back in the thicket of her neediness and his dysfunction as though the previous scene had not happened. Because Confronting your Reality doesn’t always pay off in real life like it does in literature. Still, the protagonist approaching Awareness of his situation, rather than simply inhabiting it like a ghost in a mausoleum, does put a kind of capstone on the book.

All of which speaks to the need to read/watch things more than once. Because the detail you missed can be the detail that changes your perception.

When You Just Can’t Get into Authors You Want to Get Into

Last night, instead of going to sleep like a sensible person, I read Bret Easton Ellis’ “Thoughts on David Foster Wallace and ‘The End of the Tour‘”. In it, the American Psycho author holds forth on how the film “The End of the Tour” is a treacly one-note pile of horse flops that, with almost obligatory irony, does precisely what the character of David Foster Wallace worries about in the film: makes a false D.F.W. and substitutes it for the real one.

In The End of the Tour something happens that the Wallace in the movie keeps arguing he would never want: to become a character, and the movie willfully or mindlessly ignores this complaint. This is what the Wallace in the film is bothered by in scene after scene after scene — and what does the movie do? It keeps filming him. What does Segel do? He keeps playing a particular ideaof David Foster Wallace — and this is why the movie would have driven Wallace insane. The Wallace estate as well as his editor have disavowed the film not because it gets anything factually wrong but because it does something that Wallace would never have wanted: it turns him into a character.

All of which is a fine point scored on a film I probably won’t see anyway, for reasons I’ll discuss later. But while reading it I find myself asking why Ellis bothered to write it. Because for all the complaints against the film destroying Wallace’s authenticity in the act of worshipping said authenticity, I didn’t get the impression that Ellis actually thought there was much in the authentic Wallace worth preserving.

Do I think he is the most overrated writer of my generation as well as the most pretentious and tortured? Yeah, I do. And I tweeted this along with other things that bothered me, not so much about David himself but more about how he had been reinterpreted by the culture. The sincerity and earnestness he began trafficking in seemed to some of us a ploy, a contradiction — not totally fake, but not totally real either, a kind of performance art, sensing the shift toward earnestness in the culture and accommodating himself to it.

Of course he goes on to tell us that he did like Wallace and thought he was a genius (Yeah, he did). And a good thought about being okay with complexity follows. But I can’t avoid the idea that if Wallace started selling himself before his death as a great big earnest dork, then he’s complicit in the film’s “false” version of himself, so who cares?

Granted, that may just be me sharing Ellis’ opinion of Wallace’s work. Every time I get on Amazon and try to cajole myself into checking out his books, I get to the part about how Vlad the Impaler is a parakeet and my enthusiasm swiftly dies. I know I’m supposed to find that bold and clever, but I don’t. And reading a multi-layer, meta-narrative Rube Goldberg watchama-thing, as Infinite Jest is supposed to be, sounds exhausting. Making a novel not-a-novel doesn’t make a novel better.

But if I’m being honest, I have the same problem with trying to read more Bret Easton Ellis. I read Less Than Zero last year, and have re-read it since, and I still don’t know where Ellis put the plot. Then I read American Psycho and I had to stop about halfway through because I could not read another brand-specific catalog of what every person in the room was wearing. Getting the joke didn’t make it easier to process; I eventually started skimming both them and the step-by-step descriptions of murdering people (I get it, Patrick reduces people to atomized parts…) just so I could get to the end, which has the same problem as LTZ: it doesn’t close so much as stop. I guess that’s a point, too.

I like the guy’s prose style, and he’s got an inventive eye for decadence, but the thought of downloading Imperial Bedrooms to my Kindle and slogging though another 200 pages of Clay observing things – himself included – with all the emotional involvement of an alien scout reporting to the mothership, makes a nap and a cup of tea sound like a much better use of my time.

Yet here I am writing about him, and thinking about what I’ve read of his. Cavils about plot and structure aside, Ellis makes for a good tour guide to the darkness at the heart of the City of Man.