On liking American Psycho, slight return.

Written for Bad Reputation.

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, 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 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 80s 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. I think those who criticise the book on the grounds of its scenes of rape, torture and murder, 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 – I mean, his Twitter account alone is a masterclass in mass 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, undirected 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, and to assume that an author must approve of their protagonist, 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. I would argue that these scenes – often ludicrous, often grotesque to the point of comedy – represent an extension of the lack of empathy, spiritual emptiness, 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 and impermeable sex scenes, or the interminable deconstructions of clothes, cosmetics and Huey Lewis’ back catalogue, which bore rather than appealing. One of Ellis’ triumphs is that the book reaches a point where all three are indistinguishable in their horrific, unrelenting tedium.

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 an endurance test, but tend to skip them on subsequent reads as they aren’t really the reasons I revisit the book. I read American Psycho in the same semi-masochistic spirit in which I watch, say, Chris Morris’ and Charlie Brooker’s hipster-eviscerating Nathan Barley, a work also bleakly amusing, also received with disbelief at the gratuitousness of its satire, and also concerned with the consequences of elevating surface over meaning, although its slack-jawed fashionista 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 makes Bateman far more attractive than his written counterpart, who comes across as overtly racist, misogynist, 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 having 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.

The plot sickens

To focus on misogyny is to obscure American Psycho’s scope, to ignore that the book is an uncompromising, unapologetic vortex of misanthropy and nihilism. Its narrator expresses disgust, contempt, anxiety and fear towards anyone who differs even by a small degree (a marginally more impressive business card, a better restaurant table) from the ideal which Bateman forces himself to emulate and sustain. Men in the novel are portrayed as unsympathetically as women, and dispatched as dispassionately – so why is it the torture and death of women that seems to abide with the reader?

Like all satire, the book exaggerates and burlesques that which already exists. The book’s scenes of torture and murder were, apparently, all based on Ellis’ reading of real life cases and criminology textbooks, not whimsically called into being by him. So American Psycho on one level is an uncensored, unsanitised expose of what has already been done to women without no incitement or instruction from its author. Neither does Ellis’ writing give the impression that violence against women is in any way attractive. The impression it does give, to me at least, is that violence against women is horrifying, viscerally disgusting, and the preserve of clinically fucked-up, nightmarish individuals who are increasingly prevalent during a stage of socio-economic development which encourages selfishness and greed over empathy, and whose actions are increasingly ignored or disbelieved within the same environment. His work is a mirror, not a manifesto or an instruction manual. To posit it as something qualitatively worse either than crimes actually committed against women throughout history, or to the presentation of sexualised violence or serial killing in almost any other area of the entertainment world, seems dubious.

It’s worth noting too how the deaths of Bateman’s victims are affected by their socio-economic background. Having decided against the murder of his date Patricia – a minor character so boringly materialistic that I’m fully on board with the theory that takes her to be Patrick’s imaginary female persona – Bateman reflects on whether it’s ‘her family’s wealth [that] protects her tonight’. In contrast, the vagrants and call-girls he kills are already economic casualties, considered disposable even before they become casualties of violence. No character from society’s lower strata appears to be missed; it is only Paul Owen, Patrick’s peer and rival, whose disappearance is considered deserving enough to warrant a police investigation. The crude and blatant contrast between Bateman’s lifestyle and that of his victims – their differentials of wealth, and therefore of power, are explicitly fetishized in more than one encounter – calls attention to the issue of why the victims of such killers are so often sex workers, both male and female:

“Within police culture… we know that if a prostitute goes missing and is reported as missing, that they won’t be given the same priority as other people would get… [sex workers are not] valued enough in our culture for the police to take it seriously.” – David Wilson, Howard League for Penal Reform

– again intertwining a socio-economic indictment with a proto-feminist impulse.

The plot thickens

One could argue incessantly about whether the book itself is misogynistic, or edifying, or indeed readable, but a more productive debate might centre on whether one can like art that one also acknowledges as problematic. When reading Anwyn Crawford’s critique of the treatment of women in the lyrics and prose of that other ageing enfant terrible, Nick Cave, I wasn’t convinced by all of her analysis – Cave’s work at least in its earlier phases seems, like Ellis, preoccupied with examining a pathologised masculinity rather than valorising it – but the most substantial point I drew from the ensuing debate was that the issue may be less such works themselves and more their involvement in the mainstreaming, acceptance and excusing of problematic attitudes. In this case, the gynophobic aspects of these works are made respectable by being cloaked as edgy or transgressive, when they merely dramatise the violence and inequality that already exists. Although I still contend that the violence in Ellis’ writing is not there as intentional titillation, as long as there are those for whom such things are lived experience, rather than escapist fantasy or performance material, then there will be a correspondingly visceral response to their artistic portrayal.

Although readers who read for prurient or puerile pleasure are hardly something for which writers can bargain or legislate, questions can be asked about the cachet Ellis manages to hold in the literary world of Guardian profiles and Soho salons, when lesser-known works of equally politicised and equally slapstick splatterpunk – Dennis Cooper, say, or Stewart Home, or even The SCUM Manifesto – languish in the ‘cult fiction’ gutter. Helen Zahavi’s Dirty Weekend, a novel published the same year as American Psycho, explores similar themes but blurs the lines between victim and perpetrator. There are marked stylistic differences, sure – Zahavi uses lyrical prose to distance or distract the reader from the trauma and gore she describes, whereas Ellis more or less rubs the reader’s face in it – and the violence of Zahavi’s protagonist is entirely reactive: she wishes only to be left alone and when she is not, she strikes out and strikes upwards. Dirty Weekend, despite receiving polarised reviews on publication, has had nothing like the long-term vilification heaped upon American Psycho, but by the same token has received far less enduring acclaim or even attention.

Maybe it’s just Ellis’ pre-existing status as wunderkind author of Less Than Zero that elevates his subsequent work. Or might it be the very obviousness of his traditionalist politics (American Psycho has more than a bit in common with something like Last Exit to Brooklyn, a cult novel of 1964 which also enlists depictions of depravity, death and sexual violence in the service of proscriptive neo-puritanism)? Is there more mainstream space for works which reproduce existing social structures and power relations, which, even if they challenge their existence, do so through the evidently ambiguous strategies of grotesque exaggeration or reductio ad absurdum rather than direct disruption? For all its horrified laughter at the state we’re in, American Psycho isn’t in the business of imagining alternatives to it.

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