of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 2/10/06
By now it should not startle me that readers and critics in America, if not worldwide, are bad. I mean, really, really bad- to the point of wretchedness. Just yesternight I saw a major network newscast decrying the fact that over 20% of college graduates in this country are functionally illiterate. Add in those people who are deliterate- i.e.- can read and understand grammar, but are clueless as to the deeper things inside a narrative, or even a sentence- and it’s no wonder that Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel American Psycho is so abysmally misunderstood. No, it’s not a great book, nor a bad one. It’s a book that has moments and good points, and could have been a classic had someone with editing skills done their job. Those who condemn it for being violent miss the point- it’s a fantasy. Those who praise it for being a satire miss the point- it’s a fantasy. Its best predecessor is not Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From The Underground, but Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, another symbolic work that explores what a protagonist who feels the world shuns him will act like. I should be angrier about this book’s missing the boat editorially, but I guess the fact that so many people simply do not or cannot read is more fascinating to me than why the book ultimately fails. Ellis is not like his POMo brethren- David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, T.C. Boyle, nor Rick Moody, to name the most infamous of that band- because he actually has a bit of an idea about what goes into plot structure, as well some talent in humor and the structure of scenes. Again, were you to read most critics you would hear the idea that the book is plotless being bandied about almost as often as the claim that it’s a satire, or existential. No, again, it’s a fantasy in the most obvious, non-Tolkienesque sense possible, but a fantasy it is.
You wouldn’t know it from the mainstream reviews of the day, which obsessed over the supposed misogyny of the book (because women’s deaths are more brutal and described longer), even though only about a dozen ‘murders’ occur within the fantasy- far less than the typical Stallone or Schwarzenegger film that was coeval with it, and the first hundred or so pages are attacks on 1980s American culture, sans any violence. Interestingly, it was the violence against women that drew howls, not the violence the fantasies of Bateman hurled in other venues- cannibalism, racism, animal torture, necrophilia, to a point far beyond even worst known serial killers’ deeds (another clue to the fantastical nature of the book).
This New York Times review, from 3/11/91, is typical of the stupidity and misreading that is unfortunately typical:
It is significant that Thomas Harris's novel ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ depicts far more degrading treatment of women than ‘American Psycho’ does, and yet no one is complaining, despite the current success of ‘Lambs’ as a film. That is because the killer’s psychopathology is given a moral framework.
‘American Psycho’ lacks such a moral framework. Mr. Ellis teases us near the end into believing that Patrick Bateman may finally be brought to justice. But he isn’t; at the book’s close he is still at large. The author is saying that today such monstrous criminality is indistinguishable from the general behavior of society. But Mr. Ellis’s true offense is to imply that the human mind has grown so corrupt that it can no longer distinguish between form and content. He has proved himself mistaken in that assumption by writing a book whose very confusion of form and content has caused it to fail, and for that offense and no other does one have cause to excoriate ‘American Psycho’.
First, there is no acknowledgement that the two works dealt with real violence (in the fictive universe of its characters) and fantasy violence, so are not equivalents in any way, so any ‘moral’ comparison is not only spurious, but downright silly, and the reviewer also goes on to state he believes this was real, questioning why Bateman remains at large. Furthermore, even were we to grant that the book’s events were ‘real’ within their fictive realm, he claims Ellis ‘teases’ the reader into believing the killer may be caught. This simply does not occur. The final failure of this reviewer, and the general criticisms of the day, comes from this claim: ‘by writing a book whose very confusion of form and content has caused it to fail’. While I do not claim American Psycho succeeds, its failures have little to do with confusion of form and content. In fact, the very fact that so many dimwitted readers and reviewers believe that the fictive internal events of the book are ‘real’ testifies that this is the book’s greatest strength- form over content, for he lacks the latter, while there is a surfeit of the former.
The book is not the diary of a serial killer, for nothing really occurs, violence-wise, except what is in the head of its lead character Patrick Bateman. Having seen the film version of the novel a few years ago, and being quite impressed, it was obvious that all of the violence was in the head of the lead character. It’s just as obvious in the book. Another favorite technique of most critics is to state that Bateman is twenty-six and handsome, as he describes himself. But, since much of the novel is told in the first person, and so much obviously never occurs, there is no objective literary reality to that claim. The plot is very straightforward. Bateman is a Manhattan yuppie in the 1980s, obsessed with material things. In this sense, the constant dropping of names and brands works very well, for there is a reason for it, unlike most other PoMo premises, where it’s employed merely as a device to boost the hipness of the writer, not the quality of the story. He likes to work out, get laid, and go to fancy restaurants. He believes all women want him, and has explicity sexual fantasies of the Penthouse Letters variety- you know, where big-titted bimbos are willing to get stiffed at the drop of a hat. This is clue one that the book is a fantasy, for the very descriptions of the acts are written on that level, which is not much below the general level of sentence construction. Look at this ill-constructed and ill-punctuated sentence from page 168:
Then I lay Christie over her, placing the two in a sixty-nine position, with Christie’s ass raised up in the air, and with a surprisingly small amount of Vaseline, after slipping on a condom, finger her tight ass until it relaxes and loosens enough so I can ease my dick into it while Sabrina eats Christie’s cunt out, fingering it, sucking on her swollen clit, sometimes holding on to my balls and squeezing them lightly, teasing my asshole with a moistened finger, and then Christie is leaning into Sabrina’s cunt and she’s roughly spread her legs open as wide as possible and starts digging her tongue into Sabrina’s cunt, but not for long because she interrupted by yet another orgasm and she lifts her head up and looks back at me, her face slick with cunt juice, and she cries out, ‘Fuck me I’m coming oh god eat me I’m coming’ and this spurs me on to start fucking her ass very hard while Sabrina keeps eating the cunt that hangs over her face, which is covered with Christie’s pussy juice.
This is pure male adolescent fantasy involving two gorgeous hookers (again, fantasy), and even putting that aside, there simply is no way that Bateman could no what was going on beneath him, from his stated point of view. Then, the characters he’s involved with never seem to be exactly what they were at earlier mentions. By the book’s second half the fantasy sexual encounters have gotten to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre level, and even the physical descriptions of the acts are unbelievable- in that they literally could not occur. Bateman goes on fantasizing of killing all sorts of people in all sorts of ways- for sexual and non-sexual reasons, and in this way his fantasies are a sort of comment on the Wall Street environment he lives in. But it is a symbolic comment, not a satiric one. There is a big difference between satire, which takes something past its reality to make fun of it, and symbolism, which substitutes a thing for another. That so many critics have missed the symbolism and called it satire again shows how poor most readers are.
The book ends with a chase scene straight from a Hollywood film, and the revelation that one of the people Bateman claims to have killed is still alive. Bateman is jarred, as he realizes now it was all a fantasy, and the book ends with the unraveling of his ‘inner world’, and his slowly starting to realize that he must rebuild another:
….and that is followed by a sigh, then a slight shrug and another sigh, and above one of the doors covered by red velvet drapes in Harry’s is a sign and on the sign in letters that match the drapes’ colors are the words THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.
There are other clues that astute readers should get, to let them in on the reality that this is not a real narration of a life. There is, for example, an extended period near the end of the book where Bateman is not the primary narrator. This omniscient, though, is not Bateman, and opens up the book to the possibility that Bateman isn’t real, and the titular protagonist is not him, but the unnamed omniscient narrator, who’s fantasy is about a poor schlub who deludes himself into thinking he’s a killer, not the poor schlub, himself, with those delusions. Perhaps pluralizing the title would have aided confused readers, but it also would have made what is obvious to me, and other astute readers and critics, even more so. But, it should be noted that the title is American Psycho, not the full American Psychopath, which would most definitely pin the title down to meaning the violence was central, not the fantasy. No, instead, the use of psycho instead of psychopath is intentional, and a good choice, for ‘psycho’, in colloquial parlance more often means ‘psychotic’, which means a break from reality, and implies more heavily the fantasy aspect of the novel.
Yet, despite the symbolism- a tool almost never used in contemporary published fiction any longer, the book ultimately fails, for it’s too long, too repetitive, and hammers its points on Bateman’s fantasy life, vacuity, and that of his world, to the point of boredom. My Picador edition runs to 384 pages, and a book of a third the length- say 128 pages, would have sufficed. Such dullness as exists in the published work would have been avoided. His good, vapid, Wall Street yuppie conversational ear is lost in the sea of unneeded digressions. Also, the humor, which exists, but is smothered in overwriting, would shine more brightly- such as his faux deep analyses of 1980s schlock musicians like Whitney Houston, Genesis, and Huey Lewis And The News, or the running bit on a 1980s sort of talk show, in the Geraldo mode. Ellis has to score points for his projecting into the future and seeing the Jerry Spring/Maury Povich models that lay just a few years’ distant. Another scene that is funny, if not sterling prose, occurs when Bateman takes a urinal cake from a restaurant bathroom, coats it in chocolate, wraps it in a Godiva box, and has it delivered to his girlfriend as they eat at a fancy restaurant. She eats it, but won’t admit how bad it tastes because it came in the fancy brand name box. Yet, while this is ‘black comedy’, in the moment, it does not make the whole a ‘black comedy’, another term batted about till it has lost all meaning.
Yet, the book is, at best, passable. It lacks any breathtaking prose, it lacks an identifiable protagonist, and even as a fantasy it wears thin long before it’s over. But, unlike many of his POMo brethren there are glimmers of talent and ability- this book just needed an editor that was unafraid to edit, and not worry over ‘indecency’ or the like. On a philosophic level the book is not a particularly good comment on the 1980s because all it says is it was a shallow time. There is no deeper coring into that idea, so it’s as vapid a statement as the time, and like the boring poem that is supposed to indicate how boring poetry is, it fails for its very vapidity. Even the shiniest surface needs something below it to give it support.
As to why the book is a fantasy- no ifs nor maybes to it; let me review some facts that many big name reviewers for big time journals and newspapers missed (yet oddly a few Amazon noodniks had some hints of): a) no other characters acknowledge the violence, nor show any fear, b) no one misses the dead, especially prostitutes, c) the three characters that care for him, and whom he cares for- his secretary, fiancée, and gay friend- suffer no ‘violence’, which points to his reality of being loved and caring for others, so that he will not indulge his sick fantasies with them, d) the lead character is not only never caught and convicted, he is never even suspected of murders (because of point b- the bodies do not exist), despite the manifest noise, gore, and stink his activities would raise in any New York apartment building, e) the aforementioned physical impossibility of some of his sexual and murderous adventures- such as victims still living after the most horrible things with power tools have been done to them, f) there are numerous references to dream and fantasy within the book, and g) even the first epigraph to the novel- this quote from Dostoevsky’s Notes From The Underground:
‘Both the author of these Notes and the Notes themselves are, of course, fictional. Nevertheless, such persons as the composer of these Notes not only exist in our society, but indeed must exist, considering the circumstances under which our society has generally been formed. I have wished to bring before the public, somewhat more distinctly than usual, one of the characters of our recent past. He represents a generation that is still living out its days among us. In the fragment entitled ‘Underground’ this personage describes himself and his views and attempts, as it were, to clarify the reasons why he appeared and was bound to appear in our midst. The subsequent fragment will consist of the actual ‘notes,’ concerning certain events in his life.’
Given this massive amount of evidence screaming at the reader from before page one, it amazes that any serious hand wringing occurred, much less no editing. After all, it was reported that the novel took three years to write, and Ellis got a $300,000 advance- and no one edited it, save to tone down the violence? Hello!? I mean, one might be able to forgive the fact that the so-called titular ghost of Toni Morrison’s Beloved was not seen as a figment of the main character’s mind, although it clearly was, but not to get that this was a fantasy?
It’s far too obvious as to what’s going on in American Psycho to forgive the lack of acumen by readers and critics, especially when there are so many obvious faults to the book. That all said, Ellis is clearly a cut above his published contemporaries. Yet, given the low state of modern literature, that leaves Ellis as, at best a mediocrity. Unfortunately for him and his readers, that’s no fantasy.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Yet Another Book Review website.]
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