Bret Easton Ellis, the scribbler as pedant

VOX’s Catherine Grady explains why Bret Easton Ellis is a pedant and the dullest of provocateurs:

Those who react with outrage to Trump and, for instance, the children who are being kept in cages as a result of the Trump administration’s family separation policy, need to take a deep breath and listen to Ellis. “You need to be sedated, you need to see a shrink, you need to stop letting the ‘bad man’ help you in the process of victimizing your whole life,” he advises, mere pages after patting himself on the back for his love of art and discourse that “challenge” him and make him “more empathetic.”

What is ostensibly animating Ellis’s rage here is his love for aesthetics over ideology, which he feels have become embattled in the current cultural discourse. But leaving aside the fact that there is no such thing as non-political art — that Ellis’s position as a white, gay, wealthy cis man has as much influence on his perspective as Barry Jenkins’s perspective as a black straight man has on Moonlight (“dour and downbeat,” Ellis opines) — Ellis’s ostensible love for style is not evident in the clogged and uninteresting White.

Again and again, Ellis earnestly relies on the wildly unspecific non-word “problematic” as his catchall criticism. (Suggesting that gay jokes are passé is “problematic,” as is writing off Ellis as a dick.) He glories in dad-like insults, like calling millennials “snowflakes” and “Generation Wuss.” He falls back time and again on the cliché rather than the original, the generality rather than the specific.

I’ve fought the Ellis type most of my adult life: the sort of person who chastises non-Ellises for sharing political points of view from which his wealth insulates him; a member of an ancien regime who assumes there’s bravery in conformity, going along, letting men like Ellis moderate discourse. This is a fellow whose novelized autobiographies suffer from a disinterest in natural phenomena and incuriosity about other people not Bret Easton Ellis so total that they’re as airless as a basement.

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ offers confused, necessary myth making

Written during a period of personal tumult, James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk dared to present a young American black couple in love — unusual in 1974 when colleagues Saul Bellow and John Updike avoided love stories, radical for a novelist watching the collapse of the bipartisan consensus over civil rights legislation and nothing with which to replace it. The black family in the Nixon era was on its own. Continue reading

‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ celebrates, refreshingly, literary charlatans

I’ll say this for Can You Ever Forgive Me?: it gets a crucial part about writing correct, a part missed by so many pious films about writers. The lengths to which writers will go to avoid idleness. In director Marielle Heller’s telling, Lee Israel, a biographer of famous women who has lived long enough to see her Estée Lauder book get remaindered, is the most admirable fraud: committed to the scrupulous forgeries of letters written by Fannie Brice, Dorothy Parker, and Noel Coward. There is an art to this larceny, and I suspect Coward and probably Parker would have bought her another whiskey and soda, or at best not called the cops. Continue reading

‘…Everything/remains to create my alibi’

Peruvian poet César Vallejo wrote a number of excellent sonnets. “Paris, October 1936” addresses my mood these days.

From all of this I am the only one who leaves.
From this bench I go away, from my pants,
from my great situation, from my actions,
from my number split side to side,
from all of this I am the only one who leaves.

From the Champs Elysées or as the strange
alley of the Moon makes a turn,
my death goes away, my cradle leaves,
and, surrounded by people, alone, cut loose,
my human resemblance turns around
and dispatches its shadows one by one.

And I move away from everything, since everything
remains to create my alibi:
my shoe, its eyelet, as well as its mud
and even the bend in the elbow
of my own buttoned shirt.

Happy second week of October!

‘But for us, she said, you wouldn’t exist…’

At times vaporous or prosaic, Louise Glück nevertheless remains among the best known of American poets. 1990’s Ararat is her strongest work, but the recently published Collected Poems is one of those bricks that anyone with an interest in poetry will display on a shelf. I selected “Visitors from Abroad” for this month’s poem.

Happy October.

Sometime after I had entered
that time of life
people prefer to allude to in others
but not in themselves, in the middle of the night
the phone rang. It rang and rang
as though the world needed me,
though really it was the reverse.

I lay in bed, trying to analyze
the ring. It had
my mother’s persistence and my father’s
pained embarrassment.

When I picked it up, the line was dead.
Or was the phone working and the caller dead?
Or was it not the phone, but the door perhaps?


My mother and father stood in the cold
on the front steps. My mother stared at me,
a daughter, a fellow female.
You never think of us, she said.

We read your books when they reach heaven.
Hardly a mention of us anymore, hardly a mention of  your sister.
And they pointed to my dead sister, a complete stranger,
tightly wrapped in my mother’s arms.

But for us, she said, you wouldn’t exist.
And your sister — you have your sister’s soul.
After which they vanished, like Mormon missionaries.


The street was white again,
all the bushes covered with heavy snow
and the trees glittering, encased with ice.

I lay in the dark, waiting for the night to end.
It seemed the longest night I had ever known,
longer than the night I was born.

I write about you all the time, I said aloud.
Every time I say “I,” it refers to you.


Outside the street was silent.
The receiver lay on its side among the tangled sheets,
its peevish throbbing had ceased some hours before.

I left it as it was;
its long cord drifting under the furniture.

I watched the snow falling,
not so much obscuring things
as making them seem larger than they were.

Who would call in the middle of the night?
Trouble calls, despair calls.
Joy is sleeping like a baby.

Deborah Eisenberg: she’s back

The occasion of a new volume of Deborah Eisenberg stories is cause for huzzahs. Few volumes get consulted in my laird with the frequency of 2011’s Collected Stories. Her talent for the startling, apt metaphor (“The woman’s features were like a pile of root vegetables screening her expression”) dovetails with the hairpin turns of her plots.

In advance of the publication of Your Duck Is My Duck, Giles Harvey interviewed Eisenberg for the NYT. He offers an anecdote from the writer’s college years:

In 1963, the year of the Birmingham campaign and George Wallace’s stand in the schoolhouse door, she heard from a school friend about a racially integrated social-justice summer camp near the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. It was a perfect opportunity to put some distance between herself and her mother, who seemed only too happy to let Eisenberg go. One night, the campsite was raided by local police officers. At first, Eisenberg recalled, the officers joked about shooting the camp leaders along with their young wards right there. Instead, they tried to make a legal example of them. Eisenberg was charged with “lewd behavior” — that is, interracial sex (“I can assure you I was having sex with no one,” she clarified) — and, after spending the night in jail, was sequestered for several days in the basement of a local church. Thanks to the efforts of a courageous local lawyer, Eisenberg and her fellow campers were released. The case eventually fell apart.

The greatest shock, however, came after she returned home. “No one said, ‘You’re lying!’ ” she explained. “It was just sort of: ‘Oh ha-ha, dear, of course! You’re a teenage hysteric!’ That was the subtext. And I was a teenage hysteric, but I knew what was happening.” The realization that, as she put it, “it’s very, very, very difficult for people, particularly people with a certain level of comfort or privilege, to take in the reality of a situation” was, in a sense, all she needed; artistically, she has been living off the interest of this insight ever since.

Included too are Eisenberg’s observations about what she saw in Central America during the grim 1980s, backdrops for and subjects of some of her most startling work. I was familiar with “Under the 82nd Airborne” but after reading this interview I returned to it; my chest seized up as Eisenberg in the last third cued the intimations of violence.

Bookchat 2018 #2

Barbara Pym – Excellent Women (1952) and A Glass of Blessings (1958).

Mid twentieth century British literature boasts many figures who specialized in miniatures. Call it a response to postwar scarcity or an acknowledgment that their American cousins had the aptitude and patience for the Ike-era equivalent of the nineteenth century’s loose, baggy monsters, in Henry James’ curt dismissal. Continue reading

‘Vain are the thousand creeds/That move men’s hearts…’

I was the nerd who read Wuthering Heights in the summer of eighth grade, developing a serious crush on the palsied Linton Heathcliff. Although only a handful of her poems ranks beside that novel, Emily Brontë would insist, I’m sure, on “No coward soul is mine” as a complement. Happy June.

No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven’s glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear

O God within my breast
Almighty ever-present Deity
Life, that in me hast rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears

Though earth and moon were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And Thou wert left alone
Every Existence would exist in thee

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.