On liking American Psycho.

In 1874, Samuel Clemens called Ambrose Bierce’s latest effort The Vilest Book in Print, writing that ‘…for every laugh that is in his book there are five blushes, ten shudders and a vomit. The laugh is too expensive.’ I mean, it’s anyone’s guess what Samuel Clemens might have made of Bret Easton Ellis.

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There really isn’t any point in talking about American Psycho, especially if you’re a chick. Why even try? It’s a book that people think they’ve made their minds up on. You can be as eloquent as you please in your veneration of it as a pinnacle of twentieth-century literature. You can point out how relevant it remains, seeing as how the structures and values it chastises have spent the past two decades entrenching themselves. You can argue for it as a deeply moral tract with even a germ of socialist-feminism at its heart, and if you can do all that with a straight face then I salute you. No, the minute you say you like American Psycho, no one will listen to what you go on to say about it. And if you’re female, not only will no one listen to what you say, but what they’ll hear you say instead is that you saw the film and you thought Christian Bale was hot. This appears to be the only possible legitimating factor in the uncommon spectacle of a woman looking upon American Psycho with anything other than startled revulsion, like a maiden aunt discovering a dead fly in her gin and tonic. While the fact that Christian Bale is hot isn’t something I’d deny – right, hang on, a brief digression:

That whole Bale thing.
Too many people assume that Bale’s bravura turn in the film’s title role is the only explanation for looking positively upon American Psycho, just as for too many people, it actually is their only or primary reason for doing so. I don’t have time or inclination to go into the psychosexual curiosities thrown up by the mind of the average Bateman admirer, or to discuss the tired and tiresome trope of whether some women just really love bastards, let alone whether some women and men just don’t watch films all that closely and sometimes mistake ‘avatar for the psychopathic nature of late consumer capitalism’ for ‘bastard’.

Christian Bale is hot, of course, in almost exactly the way that the book’s Patrick Bateman isn’t. I sometimes marvel that Christian Bale has never been so hot in any other role as when playing a psychologically-disturbed rich kid with a secretive double life. And even when he played another psychologically-disturbed rich kid with a secretive double life, he still wasn’t anywhere near as hot (say what you like about Patrick Bateman’s sartorial choices, I think he might have drawn the line at wearing a fetish bat costume).

Anyway, put the film out of your mind. I read the book first, and the book is what I like. It’s twenty years old this summer. I read it when I was about fourteen, intrigued by its referencing on a Manic Street Preachers b-side – a b-side which is tuneless, turgid and sludgy, in retrospect, to say nothing of its lyrics, but you know what it’s like when you’re a teenage Manicsfan. And then I read everything else of Bret Easton Ellis’ – my favourite remains Glamorama – and my subsequent years have been marked by what the less decorous among us might term a fundamental inability to get the hell off his dick.

(For the record, let’s do this: regardless of the many, many times he’s wilfully trolled the reading public, I have never gained the impression from anything Ellis has ever written that violence against women is in any way attractive or “””edgy”””. The impression I have gained is that violence against women is horrifying, viscerally disgusting, and the preserve of amoral, clinically fucked-up, nightmarish individuals who are increasingly prevalent during a stage of socio-economic development that encourages selfishness and greed over empathy, and whose actions are increasingly tolerated or delusionally denied within the same environment. His work is a mirror, not a manifesto or an instruction manual. With regard to how the book has been read by some readers, for prurient or puerile pleasure – well, it’s really not the writer’s fault so many people are so stupid about things.)

NB I could write at length, and even more wankily, on this, but as I say, there isn’t really any point my talking about it. What I did instead last month was, mostly on the strength of recently having reread too much Jeeves and Wooster, to write a parody of both the book and film in the style of P G Wodehouse, viz:

P G Wodehouse’s American Psycho. Happy 20th, Patrick, you terrible cunt.

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ETA: Oh, well, I wasn’t expecting that.

Lovely to see people liking what was a fairly off-the-cuff exercise in silliness. My sincerest apologies to those who didn’t, along with thanks for constructive criticism. And yes, I’m a she – Rhian is a Welsh name. (Interesting that both myself and Drew Grant, who did that Babysitters’ Club/Ellis mash-up, have had a fair amount of people assume we’re male. I’ll just leave that there.)

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6 comments

  1. Nicole

    hey, from one feminist to another, I just want to say that this is one of my favorite books. as you mentioned though, forget about telling most people that. And I pretty much agree with your assessment in the parenthesis. in short, thanks.

    • Rhian Jones

      Thank you! I was expecting to get slammed for this, but there’s been much more agreement than dissent. I might even try writing at greater length on why AP in particular isn’t a work of inexcusable misogyny, lost cause though that is…

      • john hutnyk

        You should write that –

        On the fiction bit, I am not so sure Wodehouse deserves the rehabilitation but its pretty funny as a merger in execution.

  2. Pingback: On liking American Psycho, slight return. « Velvet Coalmine
  3. Florence

    Thanks for writing this! It’s great to see another girl sick of all the funny looks you get ’cause you’re reading American Psycho – no matter how many times you say IT’S SATIRE! Ugh!! I love this book – and Bateman as a character – to pieces (not literally – ha!), and I totally get where you’re coming from. Nice one!

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