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On Liking American Psycho – slight return (Part 1/2)

2012 May 14

The last time I wrote that yes, I did like American Psycho, and no, that wasn’t because I’d only seen the film, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that other women felt similarly, but I’m aware that we’re still a minority. American Psycho proved controversial even before its release in 1991, its unedited manuscript pushed from publisher to publisher, leaked extracts from it incurring public outrage, and its eventual appearance leapt upon by critics with the single-minded speed of a rat up a Habitrail tube. In terms of people judging the book without having read it, not a great deal seems to have changed. I don’t really expect to alter anyone’s opinion with this post, and it isn’t really even a recommendation – it’s just an exploration of why I don’t regard American Psycho as the worst book ever written.

Cover for the UK first edition of American Psycho. A man in a suit against a red background. His face, from the bridge of the nose up, is a red, helmet-like muscular mask, with black eyes.

Marshall Arisman’s cover for Vintage Books’ UK edition

I read the book as a deeply moral – disappointingly puritan, if you like – anti-capitalist and even vaguely feminist tract. American Psycho is a house built with the tools of the master: it is, just like 1980s capitalism, crass, lurid, vulgar, heavy-handed and unapologetic. It bludgeons home its basic homily, that consumerism fails to make us happy or to lend meaning to our lives, with all the subtle and delicate artistry of a Reagan speech. But beyond this, in 2012 it’s undeniable that the values and trends the book castigated two decades back have only become more deeply entrenched. Does the book’s earnest, and still depressingly relevant, indictment of capitalism and consumerism excuse its scenes of rape, torture and murder? Maybe not, but I think those who criticise the book on these grounds, like those who called for its suppression and boycott twenty years ago, end up alienating a potential if problematic ally.

Nightmares on Wall Street

It’s hard to take seriously much that Ellis says, about either this book in particular or his work in general. A lot of his public pronouncements deal in Dylanesque obfuscation, or deliberate outrage-baiting – his Twitter account alone is a masterclass in trolling – which makes it both absurd and unfortunate that his work is so often perceived as deadly serious and condemned on the same grounds. His explanations of the origins of American Psycho, though, have the ring of sincerity, and place the book in opposition to the impact of 1980s society and culture on the individual male:

‘the book is, need I even say this, a criticism of a certain kind of masculinity and a certain kind of white male, heterosexual, capitalist, yuppie scumbag behavior.’

Bret Easton Ellis, 2011

‘Whenever I am asked to talk American Psycho, I have to remember why I was writing it at the time and what it meant to me. A lot of it had to do with my frustration with having to become an adult and what it meant to be an adult male in American society. I didn’t want to be one, because all it was about was status. Consumerist success was really the embodiment of what it meant to be a cool guy.’
Bret Easton Ellis, 2011

‘[Bateman] was crazy the same way [I was]. He did not come out of me sitting down and wanting to write a grand sweeping indictment of yuppie culture. It initiated because of my own isolation and alienation at a point in my life. I was living like Patrick Bateman. I was slipping into a consumerist kind of void that was supposed to give me confidence and make me feel good about myself but just made me feel worse and worse and worse about myself.’
Bret Easton Ellis, 2010

Fay Weldon, one of very few women to positively review the novel, did so while emphasising its anti-capitalist aspects. Elizabeth Young, too, identified Patrick Bateman as not a character but a cipher indicating the nihilism and emptiness of yuppie culture and identity.

Bateman is of course capitalism’s dirty little secret – the madman in the attic. His sociopathy is mirrored in the socio-economic inequality and political insincerity around him. In his world, the atomised and alienated dealings of colleagues, friends and lovers are highlighted through contrast with the visceral intimacy of murder, and Ellis’ stylistic trick of detailing frenzied sex and violence in flat and clinically dispassionate prose does not disguise that as a form of human encounter it carries more weight than Bateman’s ritualised interactions with colleagues or his sexless and loveless interactions with girlfriends. His narration frequently betrays a yearning for consummation, contact and engagement in the midst of the desperate aching loneliness, the longing for meaning (even Bateman’s violence is purposeless and arbitrary) which permeates the book. In a society so unsustainably alienating and unequal that the centre plainly cannot hold, we see how badly things can fall apart.

Psycho Drama

Accused of having written ‘a how-to novel on the torture and dismemberment of women’, Ellis found himself subject to boycotts, hate mail, death threats and violent revenge fantasies, on the basis that he had clearly written this book as either wish-fulfillment or glamorised incitement. Detractors of the book and author on these grounds display a puzzling inability to distinguish between creator and creation, which as a first principle is utterly bizarre – where is it written that characters must necessarily be extensions of an approving creator?

The novel contains a few dozen pages in amongst four hundred or so on the torture and dismemberment of women – and of men – though their impact is disproportionate. These scenes – often ludicrous, often grotesque to the point of comedy – are presented as a logical extension of the lack of empathy and mindless, numb urge to consume that characterise the world in which they take place. They don’t seem written in order to arouse any more than the determinedly un-erotic, sterile sex scenes do, or the interminable deconstructions of clothes, cosmetics and Huey Lewis’ back catalogue. The book gradually reaches a point where reading about all three feels indistinguishable in its horrific, unrelenting tedium.

Poster for American Psycho's film adaptation showing Christian Bale in an immaculate suit brandishing a knife. The strapline reads 'Killer looks.' Copyright Lionsgate, shared under Fair Use guidelines. The chapters in which sexual violence occurs are also, helpfully, almost all headed ‘Girls’, so you are able to avoid reading them – or I guess, according to how your tastes run, to read them in isolation and dispense with the rest of the book. I got through these scenes gingerly on my first read, treating it as a kind of endurance test, but tend to skip them on subsequent reads as they aren’t the reasons I revisit the book. I read American Psycho in the same semi-masochistic spirit in which I watch, for instance, Chris Morris’ and Charlie Brooker’s hipster-eviscerating Nathan Barley, a work also bleakly amusing, also received with disbelief and criticism of its gratuitousness, and also concerned with the consequences of elevating surface over meaning, although its slack-jawed, skinny-jeaned targets were more symptom than cause – and arguably Ellis had already been there, done that, too, with 1998’s Glamorama. I read American Psycho like I’d read any work which explored capitalism, consumerism and their messy, distasteful effects, from Voyage au bout de la nuit to The Hunger Games. (But not de Sade. Sometimes life’s just too short.)

Finally, if perhaps most obviously, it takes some effort to read Ellis’ presentation of Bateman’s attitude or actions as approving. Unlike, say, Thomas Harris depicting Hannibal Lecter, or the creators of Dexter, he gives his anti-hero little in the way of charisma or appeal. Mary Harron’s film of the novel, produced a decade after it when the stardust of the 1980s had settled somewhat, arguably does more than the book to establish Ellis’ unreliable narrator as a slick and stylish seducer rather than a pathetic interchangeable fantasist. Despite the subversive nature of Harron’s direction, Christian Bale’s tour-de-force performance renders Bateman far more compelling than his written incarnation, who is overtly racist, misogynistic and homophobic as well as dim, snobbish, superficial, chronically insecure, socially awkward, a hopeless conversationalist, and tediously obsessed with material goods. If it weren’t for the fact that almost every other character displays exactly the same character traits, it’s conceivable that the novel’s Bateman could make his dates expire of boredom without any need to break out the pneumatic nail-gun.

It’s interesting too that the film’s elevation of Bateman is bound up with its objectification of him, particularly via its concentration on his character’s protometrosexual aspects, but that’s a whole other essay.

  • Catch the second part of this post here
4 Responses leave one →
  1. May 17, 2012

    Great analysis. This one of my favourite books and certainly one of the funniest.

    • May 17, 2012

      Glad you enjoyed it. The humour in AP (‘decapitated coffee’ and what have you, as well as its overall satirical pitch) is one of its least appreciated aspects, I think – Ellis has touches of fantastic comic timing.

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