Trey Ellis Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Washington, D.C., 1962. Education: Attended Stanford University. Agent: c/o Publicity Department, Simon & Schuster, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10020, U.S.A.
Platitudes. St. Paul, Minnesota, Vintage Books, 1988.
Home Repairs. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Right Here, Right Now. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1999.
The Inkwell (as Tom Ricostranza). Buena Vista Pictures, 1994.
Cosmic Slop/Space Traders. Home Box Office, 1994.
A Moveable Feast (television documentary). South Carolina Educational Television/WETA-TV, 1991.
* * *
Among the vanguard of emerging African-American novelists, Trey Ellis is chiefly known for his highly celebrated first novel Platitudes and the multicultural, slightly apolitical "New Black Aesthetic" it cleverly demonstrates. Claiming to speak for other predominantly middle-to upper-class African-American males from filmmaker Spike Lee to hip-hop's Chuck D, Ellis describes the "New Black Aesthetic," or NBA, as a "post-liberated" compilation of "cultural mulattos" whose members are shamelessly assimilative (if not assimilationist) of both white and black forms of cultural production. To the NBA tragic rock icon Jim Morrison is just as significant as novelist Toni Morrison. Thus, the NBA is much less skeptical of commodity culture, embracing the multicultural utopianism of commercialization, MTV, and brand name identification. However, this bold espousal of what Karl Marx might have referred to as "false consciousness," comes at the expense of what W.E.B. Du Bois might call "race consciousness."
Ostensibly motivated by an urge to free the novelist from the limitations of "race" literature in which the African-American novelist must always address issues of race, Ellis refreshingly flouts the reader's expectation of "authentic" blackness. Instead of presenting familiar themes of racial misery and uplift, Ellis offers other kinds of African-American people, experiences, and lifestyles less visible in popular representations such as those of the black middle class, whose yuppies, preppies, and nerds have been routinely suppressed or villainized in traditional African American literary discourses. Set up as a panacea to internal fissures, Ellis's NBA attempts to mediate the aesthetic, social, racial, and even gender divisions of the black community that, in the universe of the novel Platitudes, polarizes into two recognizable factions: the masculine 1960s Black Arts Movement associated with Ishmael Reed and Amira Baraka, and the 1970-80s Womanist Movement as represented by Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. And although Ellis claims to satirize both traditions equally, his work has been charged with perpetuating sexism by returning obsessively to themes that glorify the adolescent male libido and mark the triumph of heterosexual attraction and patriarchal desire over political, racial, and class distinctions.
Like all works of metafiction, Platitudes is aware of its own writing. How to write the novel is precisely where the story begins. Troubled by the vexed politics of race representation, Ellis's fictionalized experimentalist author Dewayne Wellington attempts to write a coming-of-age love story centering around the character of Earle, a chubby, adolescent geek more interested in computers, doing well on his PSATs, watching TV game shows, and getting laid than in the usual perilous activities found in typical narratives of black youth. After admitting failure, Dewayne pleads for assistance in plotting his quirky tale and invites readers to respond to an address under the title of "Which Ones Do I Kill?" He is answered by Isshee Ayam, Ellis's caricature of a Womanist or Black Feminist novelist who promptly inserts her own version of how the tale should begin. Her Earle inhabits a poor rural community sometime in the early 1900s and somewhere in Lowndes County, Georgia. He is suddenly the only male in a family of strong women held together by a frying pan wielding exaggeration of the self-sacrificing black matriarch. Thus, Isshee Ayam models the authentic mode of racially conscious storytelling, which not unhumorously parodies Alice Walker's The Color Purple. But Ellis makes it clear that neither is Isshee Ayam's illiterate Earle any more authentic than Wellington's portly genius. As an antidote to Ayam's inserted chapter re-writes, Wellington follows each of her revisions with a profusion of expansive stream-of-consciousness exposition full of movie dialogue, snatches of TV commercials, and other extraneous texts such as photos of Earle's apartment, portions of a ludicrous PSAT exam, and a similarly marked answer sheet to Earle's high school sex survey.
Out of the dialectic clash of gendered narrative techniques, Wellington's Earle emerges much changed from what he is at the beginning of the story, not least because his Jewish girlfriend is replaced, his mother quits her job working for a South African airline, and he finds himself promoting African American voting. And although this increase in Earle's politics seems directly the result of Wellington's association with Ayam, the parody of the Womanist position never quite disappears, especially at the end of the novel when the two authors meet only to consummate their relationship. By having Wellington write himself into a sexual mood that he cannot attain naturally, Ellis seems to be reasserting a connection between masculine sexuality and creativity once again at the expense of objectifying women as well as satirizing feminism. According to this patriarchal logic, hypermasculine and heteronormative sexuality trumps all differences. And if this sexuality is slightly sentimentalized as puppy love in Platitudes, it is brazen to the point of controversy in Ellis's next two novels.
Indeed, Home Repairs may be seen as a continuation of Earle's story, only now the plot focuses exclusively on its hero's sexual conquests. Intelligent, libidinous, and neurotic Austin McMillan sets out to keep a diary (ironically based on Puritan spiritual diary writing) of his sexual exploits but indirectly records his rites of passage through manhood. Spanning Austin's life from the early 1970s and his experiences as an exceedingly well-to-do African American at Andover school and Stanford to the late 1980s when he becomes the host of a TV fix-it show, the diary is comprised of sexual "firsts" often containing lengthy descriptions of women's body parts peppered with occasional moments of reflection. A similar angst infuses Austin as it does Earle. Both obsess over TV, pornography, and how they appear to women, yet both worry over exactly the type of racial issues that their narratives seem to downplay. Indeed, those moments in Home Repairs in which Austin considers such issues are few, as when he insists upon going to a black prostitute for his first time instead of a white one. Nevertheless, the novel has been read by many critics as less literary than Platitudes.
Although as an epistolary pastiche Home Repairs provides further evidence of Ellis's postmodern play with narrative form, many critics find its obsessive descriptions of sexual scenes more tedious than scintillating. Behind this sexual monotony Ellis may be intentionally drawing attention to our cultural thresholds for tolerating such characters, perhaps offering an insipid but relentless eroticism precisely in order to reveal the commercial constructedness of desire. But in the process, his revered aesthetic of "cultural mulattoism" is reduced to an offensive version of "thirty-one flavors." Difference is redefined in the novel as a sexual smorgasbord of beautiful ethnic women for the Epicurean Austin to try.
In Right Here, Right Now Ellis offers yet another version of what we may call the typical Ellis protagonist in Ashton Robinson, an upper-class, globe-trotting genius. In the same way that Austin McMillan's story seems to be an extension of Earle's, so too does Ashton's tale seem to pick up exactly where Austin's television popularity leaves off. Completing the third installment of the Ellis hero's life, Ashton Robinson grows weary of the very same television fame that the hero of Home Repairs desired. Robinson turns his back on his infomercial celebrity to embark on a spiritual journey initiated by dream visions—the result of an evening's debauch of drugs and long expired cough syrup. He becomes the guru of his own religion called "axe" (aaa-shay). That axe is a Voo-dun spirit traceable to Africa mingles the novel's satiric jibes at America's ludicrous obsession with lucrative TV religions, New Age, Scientologists, psychics, and quack healers with a subtle endorsement of the genuine spirituality of traditional African-American folk traditions. Nevertheless, the hero's main objective is nothing so holy; he declares that the true path toward enlightenment involves orgiastic sex with his disciple's wives. And yet, Ashton undergoes a type of spiritual overhaul. His final insights diagnose the West in general as suffering from a "chronic cold of the soul" and, during a climactic interview for 60 Minutes, he reveals his own complicity in perpetuating America's moral malaise.
There are also interesting metafictional scenes in the novel. Just as Austin McMillan reflects upon the function of diaries in Home Repairs, Ashton is able to comment on the process of orally telling one's story—the book itself is meant to be the transcribed recordings of Ashton speaking into a microphone. Although Ellis's stylistic refashionings and profound witticism have often been the object of critical praise, his objectification of women has also been the target of critical censure. That Ellis has been charged with participating in a black masculinist tradition is not surprising given his aesthetic affinities with Ishmael Reed. Ellis's experimental approach matches Reed's zealous incorporation of techniques widely thought of as postmodern—even though the novels of both Reed and Ellis tend to support arguments made by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Phillip Brian Harper that techniques such as pastiche and metafiction are not new to Afrocentric aesthetics, but have always been central to the parodic, tricksterish practices of African-American storytelling.
—Michael A. Chaney