Over on Twitter, my pal Brian Koppelman wrote yesterday, "My friend @Glenn_Kenny gets fired up (and aggro) at a moment's; yet he's been quiet despite @BretEastonEllis attack on DFW." Well, relatively quiet. I will not reflect on the irony that it is partially due to the ministrations of Brian and a few other friends that I've made an effort to be Not Such An Asshole On Twitter, despite the intuition I have that one of the few things Twitter is kind of good and amusing for is just that sort of thing. But my reasons for not weighing in more fully on Mr. Ellis' fulsome expression of negative opinion on David Foster Wallace...as I am about to do now...have more to do with an attachment to some old-school journalistic ethics than with what Richard Hell once referred to a "share of excess nice."
First off, I don't really know all too much of Bret Easton Ellis' writing. Once I read Greil Marcus (in what was in fact a positive review) describe a scene in the novel Less Than Zero in which a poster for the Elvis Costello album Trust played a prominent symbological role, I thought "Later for this guy." This was around 1985, when I was writing rock music criticism for the Voice, and my editor Tom Carson and I would regularly compare notes concerning poetic form in Nabokov's The Gift, or as we would refer to it, Dar.* Just as we didn't need no fascist groove thing, so too did we not need facile pop-culture referential accounts of the anomie of the rich kids of our generation. After American Psycho made its splash, or whatever it was, I read precisely enough of it to determine to my own satisfaction its authorial voice, which was/is a ventriloquist dummy's inept parroting of Alain Robbe-Grillet dressed in a "Die Yuppie Scum" t-shirt. I wound up admiring Mary Harron's film version, because the array of cine-rhetorical devices the director broke out for it wound up putting a reasonably sharp point on the book's facile satire, and Christian Bale's embodiment of Patrick Bateman had a knowing gonzo wit that was nowhere evident in the prose I read. I understand that Ellis himself was less than thrilled with the movie. Go figure.
And then I was done with the writer. I was obliged to review the movie adaptation of The Rules Of Attraction, a stacked-deck college saga that makes the uncommon mistake of trying to concoct some kind of High Tragedy out of the capricious behavior of largely unformed post-adolescents. Aside from finding the whole thing overdetermined, albeit the sort of stuff that an unformed post-adolescent actor might read and think it's REALLY HEAVY, my response was pretty much along the lines of Albert Brooks' dismissal of William Hurt in Broadcast News: "You really blew the lid off of nookie."
And so, to now, and to Bret Easton Ellis' Twitter feed, which, the fawning of any number of literary wannabe starfuckers notwithstanding, has really been little besides sad, between the dithering about how HE would put together a movie version of Fifty Shades of Gray, and his little aperçus that come off like USA-Today-column era Larry King channelling Michael Musto (which, I know, is kind of unfair to Musto), as in, "The celebrity couple I'm most compelled by right now: Andy Samberg and Joanna Newsom." Oh, do tell. Is that because Andy Samberg's a COMEDIAN and Joanna Newsom plays the harp and writes and sings such odd, idiosyncratic songs? Oh, that's weird, right...? Okay, I'll stop now. And then there's the name-dropping, and the observations such as "The best American movie right now is Magic Mike and if you're thinking it's Moonrise Kingdom then you are a hipster douchebag," the personal hilariousness of which my newfound sense of discretion inhibits me from fully discoursing on, although I will say that, demographic-alienation wise, Ellis ragging on "hipster douchebags" seems even more ill-advised than Michael Chabon poking fun at organic-food fetishists. But never mind.
ANYWAY, the SECOND reason I haven't weighed in more is that I have yet to read the D.T. Max biography of David Foster Wallace that has set Ellis off so. I AM SUPPOSED TO HAVE GOTTEN A COMP COPY, and I have not, and I have this fucked-up rule in place right now that I am not to PURCHASE any more books until I finish War And Peace, on which I'm up to about page 800. So there's that. But it was in reading Max's book that Ellis apparently felt so many (presumably) old resentments against the late Wallace stirring up. And, so moved, he deemed the "Wallace myth" "borderline sickening" on a "purely literary level," went on to say "Anyone who finds David Foster Wallace a literary genius has got to be included in the Literary Doucebag-Fools Pantheon," to aver that Wallace's "pretentiousness" made Ellis "embarassed to have any kind of ties to the publishing scene" (n.b., that's "publishing scene," not "publishing," I presume there's some kind of distinction to be discerned there), threw around terms such as "tedious," "overrated," "tortured," "pretentious" (again!) and so on. As the hippie therapist said to the troubled kid on some early '70s Afterschool Special, "that's a lot of rage there, you wanna rap about it?"
In a blog post in which he gives Ellis more of the benefit of the doubt that I'm inclined to, the always-amused-by-literary-kerfuffles James Wolcott gets some insight from venerable New York editor Gerald Howard, who worked with both Wallace and Ellis and who's also the editor of Wolcott's own diverting memoir Lucking Out. Trying to be a good dad to both his sort-of kids, Howard notes, "At the moment the Wallace style is dominant and that is what drives Bret Ellis nuts." There's a lot of issue to be taken with this sentence, one of which would be that the Wallace style is, at its best irreproducible, but there's little doubt that SOMETHING is driving Ellis nuts. Howard goes on to wax skeptical about This Is Water, which is, I think, a little unfair to Wallace, who did not supervise its publication (what with being dead and all) and who I do not think really considered it as among his signature works. But anyway. While the Wallace "style" may be "dominant," the Wallace backlash has always been with us. Not just that awful Maud Newton piece in the Times Magazine (no fucking link). Back when he was alive, and he and I would work together (yeah, you KNEW I was gonna get around to this sooner or later, didn't you?) on occasion, I can't tell you the number of colleagues who would almost literally nudge me in the ribs and make reference to "Footnote Boy." You know how the eccentric movie blogger Jeffrey Wells likes to go on about how if director Terrence Malick had a REAL producer like Bert Schneider, than he'd be disciplined into making another Days of Heaven instead of all that airy-fairy not-narrative-enough wackadoodle nonsense? Well, I was the anti-Bert-Schneider to Wallace. "You commissioned the piece at 300 words and he gave you 3,000? That's SO undisciplined. I would never stand for that." And so on. And you know, it WAS kind of a pain in the ass to have to patiently talk it out with Wallace why we were gonna have to pass on 3,000 words on Terminator 2, and then have to go and find another writer, do another agent negotiation, and so on. But in the end, such as it was, it was all worth it, because, Douchebag-Fool that I am, I thought Wallace was a fucking genius. Still do.
I would think that Ellis would be delighted that, while an undergraduate, Wallace rhapsodized over the "smell of cunt in the air;" it makes him sound like a particularly loathesome character in, well, a Bret Easton Ellis book. The Wallace I knew and worked with was over that way of thinking about women, and was quite well-mannered, and chivalrous. I remember him being very sweet to my future wife, and saying very nice things about her in conversation thereafter. But wait...I think I'm banking near that "middlebrow sentimentality," the rejection is the most "furiously important thing an artist can achieve in this historical moment," according to...hey, wait, who's being "pretentious" now, Bret Easton Ellis?
Back to the tweets; the latter ones have gotten, not unpedictably, a bit, yes, sad. "No problem that David Foster Wallace was smarter than me and a better writer but he was so much colder than I ever was. He faked it. Almost." And then: "David Foster Wallace: when I say 'better' writer I don't know what the fuck that means except he knew big words, syntax, grammar. Big deal." Any time a self-styled creator of literature complains over "big" words it is once again time to bail, and yet there's something poignant about all this. After excoriating "Saint Dave," Ellis wants you to know that HE, Bret Easton Ellis, is really the good person. I am reminded of Ellis' high regard for Don DeLillo, and I remember the incredibly moving eulogy DeLillo delivered for Dave at NYU at a memorial for the writer there, and I recall the correspondence that DeLillo and Wallace shared to the end of Wallace's life. And I see Bret Easton Ellis sitting in the back of the classroom, alone, putting his hand up and biting his lower lip, and keeping it up so long he needs to put his other hand under his arm to prop it. And then starting to quietly piss himself.
*This is made up. Tom Carson and I never did that. But one of us may have thought of it.