Literature, with the naughty bits

Saturday, May 31, 2008

American Psycho

Author: Bret Easton Ellis

First Published: 1991

Why It's Been Challenged: Ellis drops the F-bomb on page 2 and the N-bomb four pages after that. But that's mild compared with what follows: racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, anti-Semitism; rampant drug and alcohol abuse; obscenely conspicuous consumption (you can skim over the descriptions of tabbed collars the same way you do the nautical passages in Moby-Dick); masturbation; graphic casual sex, hired sex, premarital sex, group sex; porn; necrophilia and hinted pedophilia; cannibalism; misinformation about AIDS; cruelty to animals; cruelty to mimes (threatened); and of course the psychopathic violence--towards children, towards the homeless, towards taxi drivers, but mostly towards women--that gives the book its title.

Censorship History: The release of American Psycho caused a bit of a flap. Aghast advance reviewers condemned the book (it does tend to cause a rather visceral reaction in the reader), and in the face of such negative publicity Simon & Schuster canceled publication. Vintage swooped in (some say they smelled profit in the public furor) and gave Ellis a new contract. There has been much discussion over whether this sort of suppression actually counts as censorship; Roger Rosenblatt and Lorrie Moore claim it doesn't, whereas John Irving (also writing in the Times) claims it does.

In Australia the book is still restricted to buyers under 18, and it is sometimes sold in shrink wrap.

It pains me to say this, but in the U.S., some of the loudest protests have come from feminists, especially the National Organization for Women. One woman was arrested for staging a "read-in," in which she read objectionable portions of the book out loud at her local B. Dalton. I'm a feminist, and I didn't particularly like the book, but look: The humorless suppression of non-feminist texts is one of the most lamentable and counterproductive aspects of feminism. Does our own liberation have to rely on the suppression of others? God, I hope not.

Value as Satire: A review on the back cover (from Katherine Dunn) compares Ellis's writing with Jane Austen's. Though it presents several glorious comic possibilities--the 13-year-old girl who has exhausted the Austen canon turning hopefully to the romantic escapades of Patrick Bateman, or the first page of American Psycho II: Pride and Extreme Prejudice ("It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a victim")--the comparison is inaccurate. Most satire can be classed as either Horatian (generous, gentle, benevolent, à la Christopher Guest) or Juvenalian (darker, misanthropic, caustic, less likely to present a redeeming view of the world, à la Jonathan Swift). Austen can be scathing, but her sympathy for her characters puts her squarely in the Horation camp. American Psycho has no such sympathy, and nothing resembling redemption; it's Juvenalian. Austen is also, pace Ms. Dunn, a far better stylist than Ellis. Austen wields a chisel; Ellis wields a mallet, a hacksaw, and some battery acid.

Still, in its excessive depiction of excess, this has some claims to being over-the-top high satire. But is it really all that far from the truth? In the characters' amorality and self-absorption, no. (Newsweek quoted a yuppie after the 1987 stock market crash: "You don't understand. The wife expects a new Jaguar every year, and the two houses aren't paid for yet.") The 1980s, after all, were the decade that saw Dan Quayle elected vice president despite being outdebated by an 11-year-old.

And what of the central conceit, that everyone around Bateman is too awful and drugged up to notice that one of their friends is a psychopath? It's definitely funny, one of the book's most potent ideas, but again, no great departure from the truth. It turns out that pyschopaths tend to succeed fantastically in business, aided by their ruthlessness and manipulativeness. So, all in all, American Psycho is another case of a blow meant for satire landing squarely on the nail of fact.

Value as Erotica: Potentially useful, if you stop reading at the right place. But line between the sexual episodes and the violent episodes tends to blur, and if you treat this book as erotica you're probably going to feel a bit icky afterwards.

Value as Literature: Despite the initial foul press, a lot of people love this book. I think that, like Fight Club, this is a novel that (perhaps inadvertently) reveals how a generation wants to see itself and its demons. Still, for all the assurances that this is a big book, an important book, I feel cheated.

This story is indeed disturbing and alienating; it makes you look at familiar places and people and wonder what madness lurks just out of sight. And making the familiar strange, as Samuel Johnson put it, is certainly one of the big tasks of fiction. But this is still a fairly punishing read. It kept making me think of other books that cover the same territory. For satire of overconsumption, The Bonfire of the Vanities and White Noise; for creepiness, In Cold Blood; for splatter, From Hell; for real-life accounts of excess, The Clothes Have No Emperor and The Smartest Guys in the Room.

And the actual writing? Some of the narrative devices interfere with the narrative itself, and that's a problem. Form must nearly always follow function in narrative. It doesn't absolutely have to, but the novelist departs from that path at his own peril.

It's one of Ellis's satirical conceits that people in Bateman's world are constantly mistaken for other people, because these yuppies are so slavishly devoted to the same ideals of appearance and behavior that they are fundamentally interchangeable. But this means any chance for emotional growth or catharsis through continuity of character is pretty much shot.

Also, Patrick Bateman spends a lot of time under the influence of drugs; since it's a first-person narrative, that means the drugs interfere with the order and clarity of events. But that happens in a lot of books, and there are still ways to get that information to the reader. Ellis doesn't. Either he doesn't know, or he doesn't care, or he thinks it's somehow cool that we don't know. But this is not just a matter of minor confusion. It's the biggest question any novelist ever answers: But what happens? American Psycho is a story without a climax. Yes, it's sort of the point that Bateman never gets caught, but that doesn't explain how he gets out of a situation that seems certain to lead to his arrest, at a point when the reader is rooting for him to get caught. Ellis just breaks off and jumps to another episode, without explanation or reflection. That's lazy writing, and it breaks the contract between writer and reader. The climax may not be what the reader wants or expects, but by god it has to be there. Especially after you have made me endure the same endlessly repeated jokes, and scene after scene of gore, you had damn well better include a climax.

Ellis seems to have been going for shock. But one shock awakens; one hundred shocks numb. Eventually the reader succumbs to the same deadened resentment as Bateman's victims: you just want it to be over.

Trivia: The movie version of American Psycho was also censored before its release in the U.S.

In 1991, Australian Wade Frankum killed seven people in what seems to be universally described as a killing spree. The coroner made a much-publicized report that Frankum had a "well-thumbed" copy of American Psycho. It touched off much the same debate we saw in the U.S. when it was revealed that the Columbine gunmen were fans of Marilyn Manson. (John Irving hazards a wry guess that rape and murder existed before pornographic videocassettes.)

Ironically enough, Ellis received death threats because of American Psycho.

What Else: In the funniest example of how all that money can't buy taste, Bateman worships Genesis and Huey Lewis and the News (whom he compares favorably to the Clash, Elvis Costello, and the Beach Boys) but is unaware of Earth Wind & Fire or "some Irish band called U2." Again, this--coupled with my frustrated desire for catharsis--made me think of another book. I started imagining some sort of Literary Character Death Match that would pit Bateman against High Fidelity's Rob Fleming. Granted, Fleming is mild-mannered and likely unarmed. But with Dick and Barry at his side he might stand a chance, and they could at least get in a few choice zingers about "Sussudio" before the inevitable bloodbath.

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