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Critical Review by James Gardner
SOURCE: A review of American Psycho, in National Review, Vol. 48, No. 11, June 17, 1996, pp. 54-7.
In the following review, Gardner considers American Psycho among a group of other "transgressive novels."
Thirty years ago the art of fiction began to undergo a change similar to one that had already befallen the theatrical arts. Though theater had once been the best loved form of mass entertainment, it yielded that title to film and then turned inward, catering to an elite taste that saw theater as art rather than diversion. As a result, these two factors, which had formerly been united, increasingly went their separate ways. Fiction also used to fulfill the Horatian injunction to delight as well as to edify. But in recent years it too has split, not into different media, as theater and film have done, but into different forms of fiction. On the one hand Stephen King and Jackie Collins are widely read for their entertainment value. On the other, novelists like Thomas Pynchon and William Gass intentionally and provocatively suppress the element of pleasure, as if it were incompatible with serious fiction.
The logical consequence of this latter trend, and easily the most hyped novel of the decade, is David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, a thousand densely printed pages of plotless abstrusity punctuated by a series of brainless pratfalls. These are followed by a hundred more pages of notes which manage to be semi-literate in four languages and whose purpose, to this critic at least, is entirely inscrutable. There have been rumors that Little, Brown, the publisher, actually pressed Mr. Wallace to make the book even longer than he had intended, in order to increase its "stunt" value. As it is, everyone is talking about the book and no one so far has actually read it.
Fortunately, most contemporary fiction of the artistic kind is somewhat more rewarding. Often its vanguardism consists less in the sorts of formal difficulty that were characteristic of Gass and Pynchon than in the freshness of the authors' identities. Amy Tan, for example, writes about being a Chinese-American woman, Bharati Mukherjee about being an Indian woman in Iowa, Dale Peck about being homosexual, and Ernest J. Gaines about being black. Such literature falls within the modern liberal tradition of embracing difference and being open to other experiences. But both of these undertakings imply a core of shared values, so that, even as this literature asserts the difference between author and reader, it usually has the reassuring subtext of a common humanity that unites us all.
Despite the primacy of this kind of "nice" literature, there is another kind of literature that increasingly exhibits, and sometimes even advocates, very different values. Such fiction is often termed "transgressive," and there are correlative developments in film and the visual arts. Like the humanistic literature of Amy Tan, it is seen as being somehow liberal or leftist because it seeks the distinction of radical "otherness" and because it aspires to threaten the status quo that writers like Amy Tan and Bharati Mukherjee seek only to correct. The two strains converge from different angles of assault on a center allegedly dominated by a white, Anglo-Saxon, heterosexual, right-handed patriarchy.
The roots of transgressive literature, of literature that violently attacks the center of a culture, are ancient, reaching all the way from Euripides's Bacchae, through Marlowe and Webster and the Marquis de Sade, to Huysmans and Celine. This literature of self-defined immorality, anguish, and degradation is constantly waxing and waning in our culture, as, for its part, is the humanistic strain. Thus the ages of Fielding, George Eliot, Sinclair Lewis, and Saul Bellow were in a general way humanistic, whereas those of Byron and Wilde and the Surrealists tended in the other direction. At the present time—and this is perhaps a unique occurrence—the two strains exist side by side, as different faces of the same coin. Four recent and critically celebrated novels—Susanna Moore's In the Cut, A. M. Holmes's The End of Alice, Dennis Cooper's Try, and Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho—exemplify this development, each from a different angle.
What unites all these novels, aside from their almost unimaginable gruesomeness, is the peculiar relation in which they stand to the straitlaced center of society. Reading In the Cut, a polished performance with a gripping plot and some humor, we immediately recognize the protagonist as "one of us," that is, a liberally inclined citizen of the center. This slightly dowdy but attractive English teacher is well-intentioned in a schoolmarmish sort of way, eager to bring literature to the inner city. Though she is, to all appearances, the sort of person who would read the novels of Amy Tan and Bharati Mukherjee, each of the subordinate characters she encounters is at variance with her. They do not read quality fiction. They do not sip white wine and herbal teas. They are either working class or underclass. Cornelius, whom she is struggling to teach English, is a black high-school student whose hidden literary talents derive precisely from his authenticity as a member of a minority. Detective Molloy and Detective Rodriguez are as casually racist and as foul-mouthed as the narrator is enlightened and reserved. Yes, they are men, and Molloy is even a white man. But because they are working-class they are outside the narrator's intuitively perceived center, and this provides them too with authenticity.
The novel begins with the narrator witnessing a murder, one in a series. The central question of the novel concerns the identity of the killer. Each of the three men mentioned is suspected by the narrator. But in the end what is surprising is not the killer's identity so much as the transformation that the prim and reserved narrator undergoes. In the name of her awakened desire for sexual fulfillment, she seems implicitly to endorse the murder's misogyny, inhumanity, and vulgarity. In the final scene, we realize that everything we have been reading until now has been the voice of the narrator just as she is about to be slain by the serial killer. The preliminary act of mutilation—since the murderer always takes a "token" from his victims—is described in sensuous terms: "He grabbed me by the back of the neck, pressing the razor against my breast … cutting smoothly, easily through the taut cloth, through the skin, the delicate blue skein of netted veins in flood, the nipple cut round, then the breast, opening, the dark blood running like the dark river."
Here we meet one of the main conflicts in contemporary feminism, as represented by Catharine MacKinnon and Suzie Bright—that is, between those women who see sexuality as essentially a masculine invasion of women, and those who believe that women are and should be as sexually predaceous as men. The development of Susanna Moore's protagonist consists in her increasing awareness of the primacy of sexuality, which she has repressed in herself and for which, almost as a point of morality, she will have to be punished. For sexuality is an anarchic catalyst, cutting through all the hypocrisy and manners of the center.
In contrast to the sexual awakening of the narrator which is the main theme of In the Cut, we see in The End of Alice by A. M. Holmes, another woman writer, and in Dennis Cooper's Try, sexual license presented not as a dilemma but as an accepted fact. The protagonist of the former novel is a 56-year-old man who has spent the past 23 years in prison and whose affected utterances recall Hannibal Lector minus the cannibalism. The plot is fairly simple: this murderous pedophile recounts his past adventures in a correspondence with a young woman who sees him as a role model, except that she is interested in young boys whereas he is interested in young girls. Many graphic scenes of child molestation, sodomy, and murder, follow. "All three boys," the female correspondent recalls, in a fairly typical passage, "were at that age of supreme softness where muscles waiting to grow are coated in a medium-thick layer of flesh, highly squeezable. They were at the point where if someone were to take such a child, to roast or bake him, he would be most flavorful."
If anything, Dennis Cooper's Try manifests an even greater level of sexualized violence, but this time from the perspective of male homosexuality. The protagonist, Ziggy, is a victim of child abuse at the hands of the gay couple who adopted him. Though child abuse is very much in the news these days and is always reprehended in the strongest terms, Cooper's take on the problem is one of ambivalence, when not verging on enthusiastic endorsement. Try is an extended fantasy of unbridled sexual license in which those whom society sees as the victims are willingly acquiescent if not entirely complicit in their own sexual exploitation. In this voided world, there is no family structure to speak of. Parents are absent, or else they are ersatz, like Ziggy's. Likewise, school is only a place for trysting and for the purchase of drugs. Crimes go shockingly unpunished. When, in a subplot, Uncle Ken sodomizes the corpse of a 13-year-old who overdoses on the drugs Ken supplied, he simply disposes of the body and that's that. There would be little point in attempting to cite a passage, as it would not get past the judicious editors of this publication.
These two novels are intended for two groups of readers, pedophiles on the one hand, and "normal" people on the other. This loaded term "normal" is used advisedly for the simple reason that the authors themselves implicitly draw the same distinction. One senses that their gaze is always steadily fixed on the reader, as though asking, "Are you revolted yet? Are you shocked?" If this work were marketed as pornography, the term being used not in reproach but simply for purposes of description, we should be forced to acknowledge its usefulness to those whose fantasy life comprises the sodomizing of children, necrophilia, and coprophilia. What is entirely unpalatable is the squeamishness of Try's reviewers, squeamish not in the sense of opposing so off-color a work, but in the sense of being too timid to call it by its name. The reviewer for the New York Times states that "Dennis Cooper has written a love story, all the more poignant because it is so brutally crushed." The reviewer for Spin calls it "Painfully poignant … beneath the queasy surface, no novelist empathizes more with the pathos of put-upon youth." Of course opinions may differ. But suffice it to say that I found no trace of poignancy at any level.
What is it then about the three books I have discussed that has granted them absolution from the censure that ordinarily would accompany such unbridled lubricity? The answer is clear. Sexual aggressiveness is traditionally defined in our society as the province of the straight white male. To the extent that each of these books attacks this center, it appears to acquire a contemporary relevance which exempts it from the moral scrutiny that a straight white male would receive. Furthermore, in its implicit threat to the patriarchy, and all that this threat implies of traditional liberal egalitarianism, it seems to take the moral high-ground. Susanna Moore and A. M. Holmes display women who are as sexually predaceous as any man. Dennis Cooper displays homosexuals and even child molesters as spirited crusaders against a hypocritical middle class. It is in this light that they gain their relevance for those who read "quality literature," and it is this that makes them morphologically identical to Amy Tan and Bharati Mukherjee, however different their content.
The fact that, in the eyes of their many admiring critics, it is this perceived quality that alone redeems them will be made more apparent by studying the fate of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho. This book is not nearly as bad as many had supposed or hoped without having really read it. To be sure, there are problems with the book. More often than not its violence is gratuitous; its characters are too realistic for satire and too unbelievable for realism; long passages are meant to be monotonous—and they are; the book proceeds by repetition rather than by development and is never satisfactorily resolved, even if we accept that it is supposed to end on a note of irresolution. With these reservations it should be said that the book's virtues—its swift narrative, its dead-pan humor, and its eye for detail—have generally been ignored. For example, the Vintage paperback, from a series that is traditionally bedecked on front, back, and end papers with blurbs and raves, is devoid of any comment whatever. As readers may recall, the book was originally scheduled for publication by Simon & Schuster, which withdrew at the last moment under pressure from feminist groups, so that it was finally brought out in hardcover by Knopf.
The protagonist, Patrick Bateman, is an arrogant, spoiled super-yuppie who has everything. He is young, handsome, Harvard-educated, and incalculably wealthy. From the first page, the yuppie creed is articulated by one of the subordinate characters. "I'm resourceful, I'm creative, I'm young, unscrupulous, highly motivated, highly skilled. In essence what I'm saying is that society cannot afford to lose me. I'm an asset." Bateman is also a serial killer, and it is a main conceit of the novel to suggest that yuppie-dom, with its arrogant egomania, is one step on the way to serial murder. In one scene Bateman is having problems with an unresponsive salesgirl in a video store. "The things I could do to this girl's body with a hammer," he muses, "the words I could carve into her with an ice pick." Another woman he describes as "too ugly to rape." Then he reveals the most brutal insensitivity to centrist attitudes. He sees a "bum lounging below the Les Miserables poster and holding a sign that reads: I'VE LOST MY JOB I AM HUNGRY I HAVE NO MONEY PLEASE HELP, whose eyes tear after I pull the tease-the-burn-with-a-dollar trick and tell him,'… will you get a f—ing shave, please …" He is similarly insensitive to homosexuals and to animals. He is, in short, politically incorrect to the point of psychosis.
The three previous novels implicitly attacked the center, but in a manner acceptable to liberals. American Psycho, by contrast, has been emphatically rejected by the same liberals, and it is easy to see why. This book makes fun precisely of the center's attempt to assimilate those who are outside of the center, whether homosexuals, the homeless, Koreans, or animals. Ellis seems to perceive a gust of bad faith in liberal discourse, and it is the relentless vigor with which he goes after liberals' hypocrisy, with which he tramples all over their self-serving sensiblerie, that is the most valuable thing in this novel. What cannot be explained away or mitigated by this reading, however, is the extremeness of the violence, to which no nobler purpose can be ascribed than simple sadism.
Aside from that, there is an element of bad faith, if not of downright hypocrisy, in these novels, one from which even American Psycho is not exempt. It comes in the form of the seemingly irresistible need of the authors to attribute to their private preoccupations a larger social message, which is really only window dressing. Thus in the chapter titled, "The End of the Eighties," near the end of American Psycho, Bateman sums up what is intended as the heavy message of the book. "Justice is dead. Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, [were] things, emotions, that no one really felt any more. Reflection is useless, the world is senseless. Evil is its only permanence, God is not alive. Love cannot be trusted. Surface, surface, surface, was all that anyone found meaning in … this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged."
In a similar mood, the child-molesting narrator in The End of Alice turns at one point to the reader and says, "I am no better or worse than you. A conspiracy, a social construct supported by judge, jury, and tattle-tales, has put me away because I threaten them. I implore you not to be such a scaredy-cat." This attitude—disabused, amoral, and implacably opposed to the civics of the center—is the recurring theme of all the current transgressive novels, not to mention contemporary rock bands like Nine Inch Nails and contemporary art like that of Joel Peter Witkin and contemporary films like Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs.
One crucial difference between these authors and the authors of ordinary novels, such as Stephen King and Jackie Collins, is that, whereas the latter are content to preserve the traditional protocols of fiction, these newcomers would have us believe, as they themselves believe, that they have penetrated to an all-important and long-hidden truth about human society. And in a general way we, their readers, do believe them. We believe them because in our relativistic age, we have lost the spiritual resources to confront that potent error which they lack either the intellectual honesty or the intellectual power to oppose: the error of supposing that, because everything indeed is not right with the world, everything must accordingly be wrong with the world; the error of supposing that, because we are plainly not a race of angels, we must perforce be a race of beasts. But in the end, they are still fiction writers after all, and this morbid fascination of theirs, this confidence that the center cannot hold, that all of morality is a sham, is the supreme fiction.
This section contains 2,916 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)