16th July 2012 - Rhian Jones
In 1874, Mark Twain called Ambrose Bierce's latest effort, Nuggets and Dust Panned Out in California by Dod Grille, "the vilest book that exists 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". It's anyone's guess, notes Rhian Jones from our Charing Cross Road branch, what he might have made of Bret Easton Ellis.
Even before its publication in 1991, Ellis' third novel American Psycho proved controversial. Its unedited manuscript was pushed from publisher to unwilling publisher, leaked extracts from it incurred public outrage, and on its eventual release the book was 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. American Psycho is a book that people think they've made their minds up on. 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.
Detractors of the book on the grounds that it valorises violence, misogyny and gynophobia, rather than merely enlisting them in the service of satire, seem to miss how much effort it requires to read Ellis' presentation of his protagonist's attitude or actions as approving. Unlike, say, Thomas Harris depicting Hannibal Lecter, or the creators of Dexter, he gives his anti-hero notoriously 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 bravura turn in the title role renders Patrick 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. Ellis himself said in 2010:
"[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."
Apart from its amusingly obvious contempt for pinstriped playboys, what does the book have to recommend it? Well, there's the politics. 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. Patrick 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 that surrounds him. Throughout the novel, 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.
Ultimately, I read American Psycho in the same semi-masochistic spirit in which I watch, for instance, Chris Morris' and Charlie Brooker's hipster-eviscerating satire 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.)
Questions can be asked, of course, about the cachet Ellis manages to retain in the world of Guardian profiles and Soho House salons, when other works of equally politicised and equally slapstick splatterpunk - Dennis Cooper's Try, say, or Stewart Home's Blood Rites of the Bourgeoisie, or even the SCUM Manifesto - languish in the 'cult fiction' gutter. Helen Zahavi's splendid debut 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. 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 ridiculum 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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