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Critical Essay by Elizabeth Young
SOURCE: "The Beast in the Jungle, the Figure in the Carpet," in Shopping in Space, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1992, pp. 85-129.
In the following essay, Young appraises American Psycho as a postmodern text.
The publication of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho in 1991 was replete with ironies. It seemed as if the world had decided to add to the book all the old-fashioned fictional qualities that it so conspicuously lacked: melodrama, plot, characterization, irony, hubris. The story of the book—its publication history, its author, its controversial aspects, its fashionability—had to stand in for the lack of story in the book which no one seemed to bother to read in any detail. Bret Easton Ellis started making notes for his third novel, which he intended to be the monologue of a serial killer, whilst still working on the proofs of The Rules of Attraction. The publishing house Simon and Schuster offer a $300,000 advance for the book only to withdraw from publication in the autumn of 1990 after some exceptionally violent, gory excerpts from what is now known as American Psycho appear in Spy and Time magazines. Sonny Mehta immediately acquires the manuscript for Vintage Books. It is published as a trade paperback in America in February 1991 and in Britain, under the Picador imprint, in April of the same year. Its publication was attended in America by furious psychodrama. Roger Rosenblatt in The New York Times, under the heading "Snuff This Book", described it as "the most loathsome offering of the season". Time spoke of "the most appalling acts of torture, murder and dismemberment ever described in a book targeted for the Best-Seller lists". Tammy Bruce of NOW said it was "a how-to manual on the torture and dismemberment of women" and called for a national boycott of the book. Gloria Steinem suggested that Ellis would have to take responsibility for any women tortured and killed in the same manner as described in the novel. Ellis made some attempt to respond to all this furore in interviews with The Mew York Times and Rolling Stone, pointing out that he didn't expect anything better of critics anyway. ("Do most critics' taste extend beyond the hopelessly middlebrow?") He said what might be expected, that the book was a work of fiction and should speak for itself. He was quite clear about his position: "The acts described in the book are truly, indisputably vile. The book itself is not. Patrick Bateman is a monster. I am not. The outrage that has been expressed is totally disconnected from what the book is about." America even wheeled on Norman Mailer, their iconic emblem of Literature, for one last go-round with art and censorship in Vanity Fair. Mailer, whose own book An American Dream is, as a straightforwardly "realist" novel, far more offensive towards women than Ellis's comic-strip hyperreality, sounded lost. He noted wearily that: "American Psycho is saying that the eighties were spiritually disgusting and the author's presentation is the crystallization of such horror." Mailer went on to strike a blow for that old ghost, the classic realist novel: "Since we are going to have a monstrous book with a monstrous thesis, the author must rise to the occasion by having a murderer with enough inner life for us to apprehend him?" Why? In all this media fall-out, these shrieks of "the literary equivalent of a snuff film" and "pure trash" there is a notable absence of any literary criticism; the most recent authors mentioned, apart from Tom Wolfe and his The Bonfire of the Vanities are Kafka and Beckett. In The Village Voice, Mim Udovitch manages after a great deal of work to decide that "this is a good old-fashioned Beckett-esque anti-novel, with all the attendant no-frills—flat characters, monotonously detailed surface description, no plot to speak of and endless repetitions." It is as if no one had written anything in between.
In Britain critics were able to distinguish themselves by exhibiting a near-total ignorance of Ellis's intentions and of contemporary American fiction in general. Along with their counterparts in America they were obsessed with context rather than text. John Walsh in The Sunday Times and Fay Weldon in The Guardian were almost the only commentators to even attempt a defence. Some critics reacted as though the novel were virtually autobiographical. It was said that Ellis "chose to sit in his apartment month after month imagining unoriginal ways of torturing women (not to mention dogs, gays and homeless people)"—as if he were some demented Son of Sam and not a novelist at all. Feminist groups again behaved as though this were not fiction but a manifesto, a statement of intent. Ellis was accused of making a killing in more ways than one. It was said that he had chosen repulsive sensationalism as a way of ensuring the commercial success that had eluded his novel The Rules of Attractions—a wholly unfounded suggestion in that, as mentioned, he started writing American Psycho before his second novel was even published. And what seemed to fuel critical rage more than anything was the $300,000 advance retained by Ellis when Simon and Schuster refused to publish the book. This was the familiar British primal scream of hatred at the artist who was not only doing something that they did not like and could not understand but was actually being paid a lot of money for it. The unashamed greed and envy that lay behind many of these accusations was typical of the decade and ironically, one of the principal themes in the novel itself. The mass media, in fact, behaved exactly as Ellis and countless other postmodern theorists had already noted they did, leeching away all the drama into their own arena, re-writing the script and re-presenting it to the consumer hordes. The story of American Psycho—as opposed to the book itself—uncannily paralleled the fictive themes it explored; it was treated as a fashion statement—controversial, emotive, urgent, very NOW! Early copies became the essential fashion accessory amongst the hip cognoscenti and then, as it was disseminated amongst the uncool masses, it was swiftly dropped. Within months it was media history, yawn time. Don DeLillo has commented on the way in which the media consumes and fictionalizes events so that the media itself becomes the source of our fictions. Where once people turned to fiction for plot and character, drama and action they now turn to the filmic or televisual. The ability to ghost-dance freely between the factual and the imaginary is an essential strategy for contemporary psychic survival, as Andy Warhol understood when he decided to treat his entire life "as a movie". DeLillo has also commented on the role of the novelist in such a psychically cannibalistic culture, saying that the writer was now merely "part of the background noise—part of the buzz of celebrity and consumerism" in a world where: "Everything seeks its own heightened version. Nothing happens till it is consumed."
It soon became impossible for anyone to focus on the novel at all, let alone pay any attention whatsoever to "the language, the structure, the details". Had they done so it would have forestalled many of their criticisms. Not since The Satanic Verses had a book been so poorly read. It was dismally revealing of the low quality of cultural commentary in England and America. Ellis himself was perfectly aware of the extravagant inanities of the media tirade. "Most of them haven't read it and those who have, I think, have missed it in a big way."
American Psycho is of course a classic of the 1980s. In a sense it is the 1980s. It embodies the decade and all the clichés of the decade in the West—the rampant self-serving greed, relentless aggression and one-upmanship; the manic consumer overdrive, exhaustion, wipe-out and terror. The book arrived in Britain at a time when much of this furious, doomed drive towards success and perfection was still dominant. The media had just started wildly signalling that it was over, that it was time to lower our moral hemlines and become gentle and caring for a bit. However, having been activated, the tread-mill kept spinning. People have lives, not life-styles and they cannot be dismantled at the whïm of the Sunday supplement. It was hardly surprising that a novel which unequivocally condemned a way of life to which many people had sacrificed their youth and energy was tepidly received; journalists were as much at the mercy of the status-driven conspicuous consumption of the eighties as anyone else and the froth over the book's alleged violence may have concealed a hideous disquiet that the leotards and Agnès B. leggings, the enormous mortgages and obscene restaurant bills were … just … not worth it.
Don DeLillo had unwittingly described something of the strange, hushed arena in which the book really functioned when he said: "I think everything we do in the West is so easily absorbed by the culture that it is very difficult for art to become dangerous. There is something in the culture that absorbs danger." The critics tried very hard to defuse American Psycho by focusing on one aspect of the book—the violence, which turns out, on close reading, to be something of a chimera—and ignoring the rest or dismissing it as boring. Naomi Wolf's assertion that "It was the single most boring book I have ever had to endure" was typical. It probably does seem boring to the careless reader. This is irrelevant because tedium has never prevented art from having an impact. The films of Andy Warhol, one of the single most important artistic influences of the century, are undoubtedly boring. It did not stop them from being dangerous in that they were incapable of being absorbed by the dominant culture. American Psycho was a dangerous book. It was not alone in this—it was not even the most dangerous book published that spring. Dennis Cooper's Frisk, discussed later, is infinitely more disturbing. What unites Warhol's work and Ellis's novel is that, despite receiving the concentrated attention of the mediatized culture, their art remained unassimilated precisely because it was comprised of subversive elements so cleverly interwoven with the cultural attitudes of the time that to have fully recognized them, at the time, would have proved destabilizing to the commentators.
For the record, Frisk attracted minimal attention upon publication in the USA. It was a homosexual-murder novel and thus unimportant, ghetto-ized. When asked if he could understand the feminist horror at his novel, Ellis commented: "But would it offend you if he [Patrick Bateman, the 'hero'] committed the same actions on young men? If they were mutilated, tortured in the same manner, would you be boycotting the publisher?" (Apparently not.) Women have the stage right now and rightly so but Ellis says that he feels no responsibility to write what they consider a "socially acceptable book": "Buy Alice Walker if it makes you feel better. Buy Amy Tan. I don't care what you read …"
The literary establishment retains its hegemony by marginalizing threatening material. There is almost nothing published in Britain that both receives attention and could remotely be considered dangerous. When something struggles through, like the novels of Kathy Acker, it is to widespread abuse and misunderstanding. There are various other strategies for rendering potentially inflammable material impotent. The most usual is just to ignore it. The novels of Dennis Cooper and Juan Goytisolo remain mired in the small press underground, admired by the few, ignored by the many, until time or age has tamed them. The works of, say, Jean Genet or Georges Bataille passed almost seamlessly from being small press rarities to modern classics, without ever spending time in the media spotlight or getting the attention they deserved. William Burroughs was received, albeit reluctantly, by the American Institute of Art and Letters, when his work was de-fanged by age. The most telling example of all is that of Hubert Selby, a serious and influential artist, whose ground-breaking work in confronting contemporary urban reality, media fantasy and even, in The Demon, ur-yuppiedom has not escaped any of the younger Manhattan writers. The British establishment was forced into a ludicrous trial over Last Exit to Brooklyn which nearly broke down when the jury found the book unreadable—and presumably very boring indeed.
The fuss and froth over American Psycho, when seen in the context of other unnerving literature seems ever more pitiful. In the two years previously translations of de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, Guillaume Apollinaire's Les Onze Milles Verges and Octave Mirbeau's The Torture Garden had appeared in Britain to a resounding chorus of apathy, although de Sade eventually ran into a bit of trouble. This was largely seen for the nonsense it was—but only because de Sade and the other French authors had been neutered by time. Their rantings were not relevant to the present—or not perceived to be. Even so, the Apollinaire text was trimmed by the publishers, Peter Owen. The most offensive bits were cut and rendered in po-faced précis at the bottom of the page. This quiet editorial abbreviation is another little British publishing strategy; the most improbable American texts arrive here strangely shorn, from Richard Price's The Wanderers sans its infamous "venereal sandwich" to Pamela Des Barres groupie memoirs. Literary censorship operates in other covert ways. The independent London bookshops—radical, gay, horror/fantasy—will all admit now to a careful buying policy when it comes to questionable books and comics, following years of persecution by the police and customs.
When exclusion, censorship or prosecution won't work, ghettoization probably will. Many of the most subversive writers working now operate entirely within genre; SF, horror, fantasy, crime, true crime and comics. That these fields receive so little attention is indicative of the contempt in which they are held—for no good reason—by the literary and cultural establishment. Such writers gain a great deal of freedom and, if they are in the Stephen King class, money, alongside a lifelong loss of reputation as serious artists. Occasionally writers of some quality like Thomas Harris—mega-successful after the film of The Silence of the Lambs—Ruth Rendell or Patricia Highsmith will achieve something approaching respect as well as popular success but more usually they are left to scrape along on the lean pickings of cult appeal. A writer of the calibre of Derek Raymond (a.k.a. Robin Cook), with his bestial, wrenching vision of modern London is likely to remain relatively ignored on the crime shelves until some media smart-ass films his "Factory" series novels.
In short, what distinguished American Psycho was not that it was unusual in depicting scenes of extreme sexual violence. Much, much worse can easily be found in small press publications, in genre or in the past. Not to mention, of course, the success and sycophancy surrounding psychotics and killers in films and television. The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme's film in which Anthony Hopkins played the psychotic psychiatrist Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter, was showered with Oscars. Criminal trials in America draw huge television audiences. "When Charles Manson is eventually paroled," wrote John Waters, "will he have to stand in line outside some crummy, trendy, New York nightclub?… Ha! Are you kidding? Right this way, Mr. Manson. Free drink tickets?… Yessir!" When Ellis talks of "How desensitized our culture has become towards violence" and how this necessitated the extremes of his novel, he is stating a fact. But it was the combination of overt sexual violence and Ellis's status as a "serious" novelist—young, relevant, living, mainstream—that determined all the hysteria. What was unusual was that such a provocative book should come from a writer who had already been accepted—indeed, groomed—by the most high-toned, respectable arm of the publishing industry. Some of the depressing reaction to the book may lie in the fact that Ellis had transgressed the unwritten contract, had bitten the hand that fed him, had gone too far. If he was going to write such filth why wasn't he dead, or underground, or in the ghetto? This isn't to say that there wasn't a frisson of plain commercial joy and excitement at a writer who was effortlessly garnering so much publicity and presumably was going to sell so very many books. Ellis was there; he had to be reviewed, he had to be taken seriously or at least appear to be taken seriously. However the media played their old trick of substituting the image for the actuality and it remains for the street-cleaners of literature, the academics, to come along now and try and soothe everyone with a spot of textual analysis. Bret Easton Ellis spent three years writing this novel, and it is a novel—not a "How-to-manual", nor true-crime, not a manifesto or a tract—and it seems reasonable to give it more than three minutes consideration.
In the context of Ellis's other two novels, American Psycho is a natural, even an inevitable development. The all-prevailing kenosis of his previous work—the evacuation of content, the numbing-out of feeling and sense—together with his interest in social trends, and his expressed belief that only the most extreme and disruptive images or experiences can penetrate the bland vacuity of his generation seem to make the combination of serial killer and the yuppie meritocracy of eighties New York an obvious choice of subject. However, right from the start there are curious tensions and oppositions within the text.
It is an extraordinarily fictional text, an over-fictionalized, overly structuralized book. And yet, simultaneously it actually comes closer to being a manifesto, a rhetorical device, than those who accused it of such qualities seemed to realize. From the first line, "Abandon all hope ye who enter here", to the last, "This is not an exit," we are signed, we are entered in to what is really a circle of hell. Once we have given ourselves up to the text, made the choice to "abandon hope", we have no way out. It is a closed system. These imprisoning, claustrophobic qualities are deftly manipulated in order, not only to force us to live as close to Patrick as is possible in a fictional sense, but to imprint the reader with such force that we cannot ever get out. This is an act of great aggression and confidence on the part of the author revealing a controlling ego which asserts its rights over both characters and readers. It is a gesture of defiance in the face of all post-Barthesian erosions of the authorial actuality. Furthermore it is successful; the reader does not ever get out in the sense that it is thereafter impossible to apprehend the eighties without some reference to their memories of the book.
Ellis's work seems to be on a search-and-destroy mission. In Less Than Zero the otherness of the text, the hope of the text, lay on the East Coast, in college education, all of which was systematically destroyed and revealed as depthless and banal in The Rules of Attraction. The rules of attraction themselves were at hopeless cross purposes and the characters were, emotionally, on the road to nowhere. The otherness in this book, the hope, was adult life, work and mature relationships. And so, in the first chapter of American Psycho, Ellis, very explicitly, very distinctively says goodbye to college life, to bohemian life and moves us deliberately into his previously signalled other, the adult, world.
The opening chapter of American Psycho is a tour-de-force during which all the ground rules of the rest of the book—the rules of repulsion—are laid out. Patrick Bateman and his friend Timothy Price, both Young, Urban Professionals, leave work and go to dinner at the house of Patrick's girlfriend, Evelyn. Patrick is the narrator, but the author who titles the chapter "April Fools" is immediately asserting himself as the controlling voice and creating a dissonance between Patrick's words and authorial meaning. The struggle between Patrick and the author continues, more subtly, throughout the book, underlining its fictionality and providing a counter-point in direct opposition to the stated text. The authorial voice—or rather, the authorial language—constantly foregrounds the fictionality and rhetoricity—the artificiality—of the book.
We all once knew the narrator, Patrick Bateman. Looking back we can see that he is wearing a two-button wool gabardine suit with notched lapels by Gian Marco Venturi, a cotton shirt by Ike Behar, a tie by Luciano Berbera and cap-toed leather lace-ups by Ferragamo. His hair is slicked back, he has redwood-framed non-prescription glasses by Oliver Peoples and a Tumi leather attaché case. He works at Pierce & Pierce on Wall Street. He is eating a meal of blackened lobster with strawberry sauce, quail sashimi with grilled brioche and cherimoya sorbet. He is a Yuppie, a Clone. He is also an extremely unreliable narrator.
In this first chapter "April Fools", little happens but we receive a great deal of information. In that it acts as a microcosm of the rest of the book "April Fools" is worth examining in some detail. Even the title can be read in two directly oppositional ways and has this in common with all the major events of the novel.
The first line: "ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank …" neatly conjoins the primary themes of blood, despair and banking as well as sub-textually noting our entrance to the novel, as previously discussed. At this stage in the novel some of Ellis's literary devices are a bit brash, a bit crude. He is painting in broad strokes.
We are in New York, in the 1980s. The city is littered with posters for the hit show of those years, Les Misérables, forcing us to contrast Hugo's spirited starvelings with the bloated, spiritually impoverished characters of the text. Simultaneously this signals the contemporary "miserables" strewn like rag-dolls over the city-scape; the bums, the homeless, the mental patients, the dispossessed and the disinherited.
In the cab with Bateman, Tim Price—whose very name denotes value—mentions that he has counted already twenty-six beggars that day. Reading from newspapers they discuss the ways in which the city is falling apart: "the trash, the garbage, the disease", Tim, whipping himself into a savage heartless parody of media overkill chants: "Nazis, gridlock, gridlock, baby-sellers … AIDS babies, baby junkies … maniac baby, gridlock, bridge collapses", cutting quickly to: "Why aren't you wearing the worsted navy blue blazer with the grey pants?"
On the third page is the first mention of violence and murder. Critics have generally asserted that Bateman does not kill until page 131 but any careful reading will reveal that he claims to have disposed of three, or possibly four people before then. In this opening chapter a newspaper report mentions two people who disappear, leaving bloodstains, at a socialite party on a yacht. Bateman reveals shortly that he has recently been at a yacht party and by the end of the book, the bodies, three in fact, have been recovered and are claimed as victims by Patrick. The discrepancy between the original two who vanish and the three who re-appear is only the first example of the myriad discrepancies in Patrick's account. Or did the newspapers get it wrong, as they so often do? Ellis is right to talk of "details". The text is littered with detailed clues, every single one of which can be plausibly countered by an alternative explanation and all of which underline the trickery of the fictional process.
Returning to "April Fools", Price rants on about disease, claiming, in a particularly fine example of mindless vacuity, that you can get "dyslexia from pussy". Before they arrive at Evelyn's house (a brownstone, bought for her by her father) there are already two cases of mistaken identity—guys with slicked-back hair, suspenders and horn-rimmed glasses who look exactly like other people they know. Ellis has no intention of deserting his obsession with deindividualization. It is extended so that it functions as the primary plot device.
Evelyn and her girlfriend Courtney are also wearing absolutely identical clothes: Krizia cream blouse, Krizia rust-tweed skirt and silk-satin d'Orsay pumps from Manolo Blahnik. Evelyn, in an hysterical state of tension—eating in is a sort of penance for her restaurant-crazed peers—is arranging a stunning display of sushi; tuna, yellowtail, mackerel, shrimp, eel and bonito with piles of wasabi and ginger.
Evelyn, much to the disapproval of Patrick and Tim Price, has guests from downtown; an artist, Stash and Vanden, his girlfriend. Vanden attends Camden, the fictional equivalent of Ellis's own college, Bennington, and the setting for The Rules of Attraction. Vanden has green streaks in her hair, is wearing leather, is watching a heavy-metal video on MTV and—horror of horrors—smoking a cigarette. Stash is pale and lumpy, with a poorly cropped haircut and dressed all in black, ill-fitting clothes. They are unmistakably refugees from the adolescent world of the previous two novels. Patrick notes glumly that Stash looks nothing at all like the other men in the room; he has no muscle tone, he has no suspenders, no horn-rimmed glasses and his hair isn't slicked back. In short he is worthless.
Patrick is further repulsed by Stash's behaviour at dinner. Rather than eating a piece of yellowtail he impales it with a chopstick, which he leaves standing straight up in the fish. He soon points accusingly at it and asserts that, "It moved!" On leaving the house Stash pockets his animated sushi and Patrick is sufficiently distressed by this bizarre, arty behaviour to raise the matter later. "Am I the only one who grasped the fact that Stash assumed his piece of sushi was"—I cough, then resume—"a pet?" The implications of Stash's behaviour (so reminiscent of the moment in The Rules of Attraction when "Resin wakes up and starts talking to the ashtray") as far as Patrick et al are concerned are clear—it is totally unacceptable. Such artistic weirdness is demode, old-fashioned, tasteless and worthless. Ellis further semaphores his intentions by having Vanden read an article in "some East Village rag" entitled THE DEATH OF DOWNTOWN.
Patrick launches into an extraordinary, lengthy speech about American domestic and foreign policy indicating the ludicrous contradictions and oppositions therein. We have, he says, to slow down the nuclear arms race and ensure a strong national defense, prevent the spread of communism and prevent US military involvement overseas. We have to improve health care, social security and education, clean up environmental damage and at the same time promote economic growth and business expansion. He continues, saying that it is necessary to provide food and shelter for the homeless, to combat racial discrimination and promote civil rights whilst taking care to support women's rights and at the same time changing the abortion laws to protect the right to life whilst somehow maintaining women's freedom of choice. He concludes: "Most importantly we have to promote general social concern and less materialism in young people."
Patrick doesn't seem to notice that his speech is nonsensical. Normally it would be read as being terminally cynical. He and Price have already demonstrated all too vividly their attitude to social problems in their taunting and abuse of the street bums. They are materialists to the bone. However what is deeply chilling about the speech is the implication that it is dead-pan. Patrick is incapable of thinking about these issues and noting their contradictions. It is delivered in a media monotone and denotes an abyss between Patrick's daily life and any apprehension of the political realities behind it. This dissociation between life as it is lived on the city streets, between this and the media avalanche that snows us, soothes us, providing a seamless, self-contained, meaningless background commentary, this dissociation is the reality—for Patrick and for everyone else.
Stash and Vanden leave to "score" in SoHo. This leaves Tim Price, Evelyn and Patrick. The designer litany continues: "I'm lying on Evelyn's bed holding a tapestry pillow from Jenny B. Goode, nursing a cranberry and Absolut."
Tim moans about Evelyn's "artiste" friends, saying he's sick of being the only one at dinner who hasn't talked to an extra-terrestrial. They sneer at Vanden's stupidity; she thinks that Sri Lanka is "a cool club in the Village" and High Noon a film about marijuana farmers. They are so much wiser, so much more adult. Evelyn accuses Tim of gaining weight and losing hair. He retaliates by raising the status stakes and saying that she uses Q.T. Instantan—a very low-rent product. Tim flirts. Patrick tells the reader that Tim is the only interesting person he knows. Evelyn keeps repeating vacuously that Patrick is "the boy next door" and that he, unlike Tim, is no cynic. Patrick whispers to himself, "I'm a fucking evil psychopath," the first of numberless similar statements throughout the book all of which are ignored, misheard, or laughed at.
Finally, Tim leaves and Patrick asks Evelyn why she doesn't have an affair with him, pointing out that he is rich, good-looking and has a great body. She retorts that everybody is rich, and good-looking and has a great body.
The central premises have been established: small world exclusivity, status frenzy, high-toned snobbery, conspicuous consumption.
Evelyn states that Stash has tested positive for the HIV virus and she believes he is going to sleep with Vanden that night.
"'Good', I say."
Evelyn finds this exciting. In this way Stash and Vanden are killed off. They are dead, gone from the text. They never reappear. It's goodbye to Camden College and the East Village, goodbye to bohemianism, art, poetry, whimsy, creativity and—ostensibly—to drugs.
This is up-town, this is the modern world, the adult world—money, status, pragmatism, skills, market-value.
Thus, in one short chapter, all the major thematic constituents of the book are carefully delineated and intertwined. It's an adult world, an amoral world, a status-driven, food-obsessed world, a world of interchangeable people, a misogynistic world despite its apparent equal opportunities for women and finally a brutal, violent and terrified world.
Ultimately it is Stash, the embodiment of Ellis's earlier fictional Zeitgeist who signifies the opposition between Patrick's narrative and authorial intention. His crazy remarks, his affectedly artistic behaviour might just be dumb or they might, all together, provide a sneering, provocative commentary on his up-town night out. Just who, exactly, are the April Fools here?
The text of American Psycho also functions as a maze or puzzle. In order for the critical intelligence to breathe within this particular prison-house of language it is essential for the reader to crack the codes of a narrative that is richly littered with clues. In this respect the book works at times as a parodic deconstruction of the thriller, or serial-killer mystery novel. However, in American Psycho, the "clues" are all entirely linguistic rather than the unselfconscious plot-based devices of the popular mystery thriller wherein the reader is never required to consider the "artificial" linguistic formations of the text.
While the performative aspects of American Psycho directly reflect its content, there is, sub-textually, the counterpoint of authorial condemnation—or so we are forced to assume lest we find ourselves blandly approving of Bateman's actions. In his earlier books, Ellis's critique of character and values was constantly signalled. In Less Than Zero such criticisms are very evident and they still exist, to a lesser extent in The Rules of Attraction. However in American Psycho there is absolutely nothing stated that implies a critique of Bateman's world and his actions, beyond his own jejune philosophical agonizings which, paradoxically serve to render the character less, rather than more, plausible. Critics, noting the lack of overt condemnation in the text, excoriated Ellis for what they assumed was violent misogyny. Of course they could not allow themselves to conclude that the author was condoning acts of mutilation and murder. Here we have again an act of authorial aggression in that the onus is on the reader to interject the moral values so conspicuously lacking in the text. The critic has to decide when to jump ship. For example, many readers would have internalized the aggressive, money-making values of the decade—who is to say that an honest job as a Wall Street broker is such an evil thing? However these same readers might swiftly be revolted by Bateman's attitudes to women, or to the homeless, and at this point would have to dissociate themselves from the narrative and register dissent, assuming that the author shared their disgust or else—and this a trap for the unwary—roundly scold the author for his unsound attitudes, as many critics did. However that still leaves the problem of trying to define when the author himself had decided to distance himself from events. He might, for example, mistrust women but presumably he wasn't in favour of popping out people's eyeballs? This put the critic in the ludicrous position of, firstly, supplying the moral framework to the book and arguing, in effect, for dualism and old-fashioned fictive ambiguity and secondly, of having to tangle with the autobiographical element in fiction—of defining the author's own feelings, intentions and standards. This has the effect of turning the tables on the reader; rather than being presented with a well-ordered fictive universe, secure in its moral delineation, the reader is, forced to engage personally with the text, to fill in the blanks, as it were, if he is not to produce a completely coarse and slip-shod reading. The reader is forced to scrutinize his own values and beliefs, rather than those being provided for him within a Good-Evil fictive universe. The alternative is to reject these misleading binary oppositions that Jacques Derrida has defined as intrinsic to Western thinking and to immerse oneself in the free play of signifiers within the text. Ellis himself does not achieve judgement and closure in the text but an endless circularity and deferral of meaning.
This leads us to another of the deepest ironies in the novel, the difference between apparent and actual writing. The book is written as if to be skimmed. It is written largely in brochure-speak, ad-speak, in the mindless, soporific commentary of the catwalk or the soapy soft-sell of the marketplace; the sort of writing that comes up with phrases like "an attractive two-piece with matching accessories", or "As for dining out, the Caribbean island cuisine has mixed well with the European culture." Ellis has said that Bateman is: "A mixture of GQ and Stereo Review and Fangoria … and Vanity Fair." Yet, ironically, all this demands the very closest of readings. By situating this mall-speak within a serious novel Ellis destabilizes genres and suggests that, in general, a close study of our cultural debris might reveal clues. However, more seriously for the reader of American Psycho, the only way out of the all-imprisoning text is a minutely close reading of the book which will definitely establish Patrick Bateman's fallibility. Only by decisively admitting Patrick's unreliability—and the scales are very evenly weighted—can the critical imagination be freed and an approximation of interpretation allowed to begin.
American Psycho continues with its scatter-gun itemization of Patrick's way of life. The chapters are generally short and have blandly factual headings: "Office", "Christmas Party", "Lunch". They function again, as did the chapters in Less Than Zero as Polaroids or sound-bites, providing a brief glimpse of what the author wishes to convey. The artificiality of this structure is intrusive. The reader is given no chance to sink back mindlessly into a warm bath of narrative. This is underlined by the fact that the chapters are not, even when they seem to be, sequential. A "Morning" may be followed by an "Afternoon" but close reading—usually of Patrick's wardrobe—will always indicate that we are on a completely different day. Thus the seamless monotone of Patrick's life, which is indeed positively robotic in its round of office, restaurant, gym and bed, is subtly undermined and fragmented by continual narrative jump-cuts.
Ellis continues to describe, in detail, the clothes and accessories of each character as they appear. Again this is a device more complex than it might seem. It irritated many critics because they found it boring, whereas it is of course no more boring than the constant consumer hum emanating from magazines, media and advertising. It is only when this media mantra is foregrounded and heavily concentrated, as it is in the novel, when it is in fact, decontextualized, that it has the ability to annoy, as Ellis was no doubt aware. The novelist is usually expected to rummage among the cornucopia of contemporary information and to extract the telling detail, the revealing style, the right tie, hair-do or sunglasses and to conscientiously apply them to a character in order to accentuate type and motivation, in short, to assemble the outerwear of the character in accordance with the personality and spiritual framework that is simultaneously being assembled in exactly the same way. Ellis absolutely refuses to participate in this process of "constructing" character and in rejecting it makes us overly aware of the "normal" fictional process as encouraged in Creative Writing class. By adorning his characters, as if they were Barbie dolls, in more or less interchangeable haute couture, and, moreover, by duplicating the self-important intonations of the fashion magazine as he does so, he ably deconstructs much of what we mean by "character" in fiction and forces on us an awareness of the surreal qualities of consumer-speak. Douglas Crimp, writing about the use of reproduction and parody in Pop Art says: "The fiction of the creating subject gives way to the frank confiscation, quotation, excerptation, accumulation and repetition of already existing images. Notions of originality, authenticity and presence … are undermined." Towards the end of the book, when Patrick's narrative increasingly tends to shiver and shake around the edges, the litany of designer names begins to falter: shoes by "Susan Warren Bennis Edwards" becomes shoes by "Warren Susan Allen Edmonds" and then shoes by "Edward Susan Bennis Allen". For such a tiny detail this is conspicuous in its effects. What ego-madness possesses a designer (and she's certainly not the only one) that she will inflict an insanely complex name on an entire retinue of stockists, advertisers, fashion-journalists and consumers? Why do we meekly accept and repeatedly intone such a vast array of fancy, complex, weirdly spelt (Manolo Blahnik) and obviously self-assumed names? What drives Patrick crazy is driving us all crazy—why don't we all just crack up and start screaming about brand-names and up-town pizza recipes, like he does? Thus, detail by detail, as if bricking up a tomb, Ellis defines Patrick's insanity and our own place within it.
In addition, by his rigid adherence to an adspeak dress-code for his characters, Ellis continues his emphasis upon deindividualization in contemporary society. Finally, and very ironically, Ellis's use of detailed dress-code to obliterate rather than to define character in the traditional sense ends up contributing to the mechanics of the plot in an entirely traditional sense—the "plot" such as it is, eventually turns upon the impossibility of anyone distinguishing one character from another.
All the other accoutrements of Patrick's daily life are delineated in the same stun-gun detail as the clothes in the book. Patrick's apartment is a temple to status frenzy and state-of-the-art living. Let us pass briefly over his Toshiba VCR, his Sansui stereo, his Wurlitzer and his Steuben glass animals. From the start Patrick is a cipher, rather than a "character". He is Everyyuppie, indifferent to art, originality or even pleasure except in so far as his possessions are the newest, brightest, best, most expensive and most fashionable. By implication, Patrick's absorption in the minutiae of the moment colludes with the author's intention of negating him as a character. At every step he is being rubbed out because, as the author must be aware, every mention of "real" brand-names and designer clothes dates as quickly as the ink can dry.
Patrick also details for us his levée during which he utilises a mind-boggling array of products including: anti-plaque, floss, ice-pack mask, deep-pore cleanser, herb-mint facial mask, spearmint face-scrub, water-activated gel-cleanser, honey-almond body scrub, exfoliating scruffing lotion, shampoo, conditioner, nutrient complex, mousse, moisturiser, alcohol-free anti-bacterial toner, emollient lotion, clarifying lotion, anti-ageing eye-balm, "protective" lotion. All this in a book that Blake Morrison managed to describe as a work "of Zola-esque naturalism"! Beyond the obvious point that no one—not even a girl—could go through this beauty routine every morning and still get to work and the concomitant implication that men have now been herded into the highly lucrative cosmetic market, Ellis's relentless hyperbole here is leading inexorably towards one of the central lines in the novel. A little later in the book, Patrick, in the video store screams: "There are too many fucking movies to choose from." This is a notably unsubtle evocation of the unsubtle sensory overload that effects us all. Daily the cry goes up, the anguished scream from the never-ending moment: "There are too many fucking … to choose from." Yams or paw-paws, Clinique or Clarins, am I up-town girl or down-town slob tonight? In this embarrassing plethora of image and reality, we cringe as we gobble and consume, we try to give with one hand and grab with the other (queues in Russia, kwashiorkor in Ethiopia), what shall we buy, take, eat, consume, shit, who are we? This is the boring, mundane heart of postwar consumer capitalism, the hamburger that ate the world, this is it—too much, too soon.
Within consumer capitalism we are offered a surfeit of commodities, an abundance of commodity choices, but this image of plenty is illusory. Our desires are mediated by ideas about roles and lifestyles which are themselves constructed as commodities and our "choices" are propelled by these constructs. In a world in which the only relations are economic we remain alienated from any "authenticity" of choice or desire. Patrick has been so fragmented and divided by his insane consumerism that he cannot "exist" as a person. Literature has been surprisingly coy about tackling the subject of "I shop therefore I am", as one of the girls in the film Heathers says. Bateman's full-throated cry is a fact, a deadend, a full-stop. The beyond—be it apocalyptic, climatic, atomic, political—remains fantastical and although Bateman's world might now, in the nineties, be fraying at the edges, the consumer spectacle continues to accelerate. The same critic, Blake Morrison, went on to complain that a book need not mirror all the faults it portrays in order to represent them accurately; boredom need not be boring, nor crudity crude. This is the old debate: William Carlos Williams, Charles Olsen and "form and content". Text and context. We have come to accept that the intervention of authorial language must always renegotiate the experience portrayed. In Paul de Man's words: "A fundamental discrepancy always prevents the observer from coinciding fully with the consciousness he is observing." This is particularly evident in American Psycho where language is actually used against itself, to distort the narrative. However, in his lists of consumer products Ellis does no more than utilize simple rhetorical devices to ludicrously exaggerate, cartoon-fashion, the experience of consumerism and bring it more fully to our consciousness. At its most basic level, this reduces Bateman's reliability as a narrator and any "realist" reading of the novel.
The best example of this process is seen in Patrick's description of a TV show to which he is addicted and which airs every morning. The Patty Winters Show is presented as a talk show not unlike that of Oprah Winfrey and throughout the novel Patrick laconically records the subject of the latest Winters show, frequently interposing his observation against the most incongruous scenes, be they murder or mergers, just as the show itself with its melodramatic content is inappropriately dumped in a million homes. During the novel Patrick tells us that the show covers such subjects as multiple personalities, autism, nuclear war, Nazis, mastectomy, dwarf-tossing, Teenage Girls who Trade Sex for Crack, how to make your Pet a Movie-Star, Princess Di's beauty tips, and many more. As a simple example of the daily fragmentation of our consciousnesses by tabloid mentality, Ellis's use of the show is competent, if uninspired. However, Patrick also tells us that the show featured an interview with a boy who fell in love with a box of soap and an interview with Bigfoot—"to my surprise I found him surprisingly articulate and charming." Also, Patrick tells us, one day on the show a Cheerio sat in a very small chair and was interviewed for an hour. Now these assertions raise much more interesting issues. First, the reader is again called upon to intervene, to supply, in this case, not the moral framework of the book but the sanity. At which point does Patrick's sanity diverge from the general insanity of the show? Out there in tabloid heaven it is certainly possible that someone might believe themselves in love with a box of Ariel and want to tell the world about it. But surely they couldn't have talked to Bigfoot—this is television, not print. And even the most flexible reader must discount the possibility that a small cereal was interviewed for an hour. So, Patrick is not watching what's on television? At what point did he diverge and start misleading us about the show? Some of the earlier episodes are "authenticated" by Patrick's workmates. But after that—Psycho City. Of such small puzzles is American Psycho composed and therein lies much of the humour and pleasure of the book.
Once the tenor of Bateman's days has been established we get some closer glimpses of his social life—drinking sessions with the boys, much jolly racist, sexist bantering coupled with nervous status frenzy as they try to outdo each other in the matter of acquisitions—be they women or engraved business cards. Money remains the bottom line at all times and everyone has difficulty distinguishing their friends. They all look interchangeable and as Ellis has largely refrained from providing any detail of character the "human" element is consistently devalued adding to the impression of an author manipulating robotic puppets. Much energy is expended in securing reservations to fashionable, ludicrously expensive restaurants where food is tortured into iconic artefacts. Food functions as art in the book, paintings themselves being no more than an investment. One of Patrick's first hysterical outbursts occurs in a restaurant where he starts screaming, in a frenzy, about the perfect pizza: "a pizza should be yeasty and slightly bready and have a cheesy crust!"—with all the passion that one might usually reserve for art or politics. This hysteria, besides being funny, defines the miserable limitations of Pa trick's world and confirms the fragility of his mental state—anyone who has that much invested in a pizza recipe has to be seriously disturbed.
The first event of importance occurs during a visit the boys make to a nightclub called Tunnel. The gimmick in this club is a set of train tracks which vanish—into a tunnel. After the usual business of scoring poor quality cocaine and trying to pick up girls, with Patrick announcing, as always, unheard: "You are a fucking ugly bitch I want to stab to death and play around with your cunt," Tim Price shouts to Patrick that he is leaving. He stresses it, "I'm getting out … leaving." He starts screaming, "I … am … leaving". Where to, Patrick wants to know, "Morgan Stanley? Rehab?" but Tim "just keeps staring past the railings, trying to find the point where the tracks come to an end, find what lies behind the blackness." And Tim does leave, leaping onto the tracks, running through the flashes of the strobe lights and receding into the tunnel. Tim, who is the "only interesting person" Patrick knows vanishes right into the book, into the text. Tim cannot "leave" the book as his only "existence" is within its pages but he can vanish deeper into the black tunnel of the authorial imagination. In cancelling the only character with some pretension to personality, Ellis again emphasizes his artistic control and his decision to people a book with characters whom he resolutely refuses to (con)form into "interesting" representations of human beings. In addition, of course, Tim's vanishing determinedly re-locates Patrick in a joyless, tedious world where panic boredom is never far away.
More than ever now, "everyone looks the same". Patrick's sick sadism is increasingly mentioned. He has rented the Body Double video thirty-seven times so that he can masturbate over the scene where a woman is drilled to death by a power drill. He reads endless true crime biographies, Ted Bundy, Son of Sam, Charles Manson. A crack appears in his apartment ceiling. His narrative has its weird slippages—can an "Italian-Thai" restaurant exist? Patrick's narrative is deadpan and such observations destabilize it further. Mim Udovitch pointed out in The Village Voice many of the innumerable mis-attributions of pop songs in the book; "Be my Baby" attributed to the Crystals rather than the Ronettes and so on until the Voice critic here is finally able to gasp out: "SLOW. UNRELIABLE NARRATOR WORKING." This was actually an achievement considering how few other critics had even managed to reach this simple decision.
When Patrick next returns to Tunnel he finds it empty; the avalanche of fashion-crazed revellers has swept on to new sensations. Tunnel has swallowed Tim only to be emptied itself. Patrick's progress is marked by the continual "death" or wiping-out of whatever has gone immediately before. There is no continuity either in his "self" or his surroundings. There is just the endless circularity of text and an incessant re-creation within text. His narrative continues, at times, to collapse into near-meaningless fragments, a blur of obsessions and possessions: "Glass of J&B in my right hand I am thinking. Hand I am thinking … Porsche 911. A sharpei I am thinking." Patrick takes what he claims to be blood-stained clothes to the dry-cleaners. Meeting a friend there he claims that the stains are cranapple juice or Hershey's Syrup and indeed, they could be, This is the first of numerous occasions where one can either accept Patrick's version of events or choose an alternative, and quite ordinary explanation.
One of Patrick's acquaintances mistakes him for a man called Marcus Halberstam; he is constantly mis-recognized. The question begins to arise: Who is Patrick? We know of his fictional existence. He is the big brother of Sean Bateman in The Rules of Attraction and has already made an appearance in that book. He works at Pierce and Pierce which was Sherman McCoy's investment firm in The Bonfire of he Vanities. He knows people from other "brat-pack" novels; Stash could be the person of the same name in Slaves of New York. Patrick tells of a chilling encounter with Alison Poole, heroine of Jay McInerney's Story of My Life. It seems as though Ellis is re-inforcing the fact that Patrick's only "existence" is within fiction. And we know from Roland Barthes just how bizarre is the fictional construct, how illogical, incongruous and contradictory is the contract between writer and reader. We know too how much time postmodern fiction has spent in deconstructing and disentangling the implicit agreements that lie behind fictive "realism". Ellis, in one of his interviews, has challenged the expectation "That novels must have traditional narrative structure … You would think that most writers in their twenties would want to fool around a little bit—would want to be a little experimental—would want to write something a little bit subversive." Any reading of American Psycho must take these intentions into account.
By the time Patrick describes a murder in detail he has already claimed to have murdered a number of people: guests on the yacht, Evelyn's neighbour whose head, he says, he kept in his refrigerator, and two black kids. He now kills a poor black bum, slowly and sadistically, in a scene whose terrible pathos is inescapable. Ellis may have intended this in order to highlight Patrick's increasing zombiefication as the murders progress and the most repulsive of acts are described in an affectless monotone. The existence of increasing numbers of homeless people throughout the eighties aroused strong, conflicting responses in the more fortunate, responses compounded of hate, dread and pity. Throughout American Psycho the spectre of the homeless is constant; they hover, les misérables, like ghosts on the edge of consciousness, a reproach, a reproof, a warning.
Ellis has sound reasons for his sensationalism and, moreover, it is inextricably intertwined with the technical sophistication of the book. Unfortunately the violence overpowered critical response to a point where few were able to see the humour of the novel. This is understandable perhaps, but the book is, in parts, extremely funny. Ellis has said: "I used comedy to get at the absolute banality of the violence of a perverse decade." Two of the characters, Luis Carruthers and his girlfriend Courtney Lawrence, seem to evolve, almost against the author's will, into fairly animated personalities and as it is Luis whom Patrick next attempts to murder, it is worth examining the couple in slightly more detail.
Courtney is a ditzy, romantic beauty, strung-out on lithium who shows traces of sensibility and loyalty from within her tranked-out haze. Patrick goes to bed with her while Luis is out of town, a highly comic coupling. While Patrick builds furiously towards his orgasm he realizes there is … some sort of problem and, pulling out, goes stumbling around the apartment. He is looking for the medicine cabinet. He needs the … water-soluble spermicidal lubricant! He needs it badly—he absolutely cannot have sex unless his obsessive-compulsive need for the correct consumer product is satisfied. He dabs on the lubricant, reapplies his latex sheath and bounces back onto Courtney who gasps, "Luis is a despicable twit." No. Someone has misheard again. Similarly product-dazed, what she moaned was: "Is it a receptacle tip?" It isn't. They have to sit up and discuss the force of the ejaculate. They manage to half-heartedly complete a sex act that is completely bedeviled by consumer products, with Courtney wittering on to the end about Norma Kamali bikinis, "antique cutting boards and the sterling silver cheese grater and muffin tin she left at Harry's.
Similarly, any encounter with Luis tends towards the farcical. When he returns from his business trip to Phoenix he describes the dinner he had with his client, a routine-sounding affair of roasted chicken and cheesecake. Patrick gets anxious, confused "by this alien, plain-sounding list". He asks feverishly, "What sauce or fruits were on the roasted chicken? What shapes was it cut into?" Luis is confused. "It was … roasted," he says. Patrick demands to know what the client's bimbo had. Scallops, apparently. "The scallops were grilled? Were they sashimi scallops? In a ceviche of sorts?… Or were they gratinized?" "No, Patrick", Luis says. "They were … broiled." Patrick then thinks for a while. "What's broiled, Luis?" "I'm not sure," he says. "I think it involves … a pan." There lies the gulf between the yuppies and the rest of the known world.
Even Patrick's attempt to murder Luis is farcical. When Patrick decides to kill Luis it is in the vague, unrealistic hope that Courtney who might be a "shallow bitch" but is a "physically superior, near-perfect shallow bitch" might spend more time with him if Luis were dead. Mindlessly he asks himself: "Would I ruin things by strangling Luis?" Deciding that he wouldn't he follows Luis to the men's room and puts his hands round Luis's neck, hoping to crunch his trachea. However Luis, who is known to be bisexual, totally misreads Patrick's intentions. He kisses Patrick's left wrist and looks up at him shyly and awkwardly. "'God, Patrick', he whispers … 'I've noticed your'—he gulps—'hot body.'" He speaks in "a low, faggoty whisper" and begs Patrick not to be shy.
Despite the comic aspects of Patrick's discomfiture, this and later scenes with Luis where Luis expresses his hopeless love have an oddly tender and touching quality.
From when Patrick tries to murder Luis, the book becomes darker and more relentless as the body-count mounts inexorably. Patrick has already announced once, in a restaurant, "My life is a living hell," but no one responds. He has had a sort of breakdown where he staggers around town, "sweating and moaning and pushing people out of the way, foam pouring out of my mouth …" He shoplifts a ham, eats it, throws it up and meets some friend from Wall Street who greets him as "Kinsley". "I belch into his face, my eyes rolling back into my head, greenish bile dripping in strings from my bared fangs." The man is unfazed which suggests that either, once again, Patrick's narrative is seriously askew, or that the legendary tolerance of New Yorkers for terminal weirdness is well deserved.
Patrick kills a sharpei, he kills an old gay man, he hires whores and tortures them. He endures a nightmare Christmas, describing shops crammed with "bookends and lightweight luggage, electric shoepolishers and heated towel-stands and silver-plated carafes" and so on and on in passages reminiscent of Nicole Diver's celebrated consumer binge in Tender Is the Night. Evelyn's Christmas party involves guests wearing antlers on their heads and bar-tender elves singing "O Tannenbaum". The pressure mounts.
The following summer he kills a broker he envies, Paul Owen, dining with him first under the name Marcus Halberstam, which is who Owen thinks he is anyway. Imitating the victim's voice he leaves a message on the answering machine saying that Owen has gone to London. After a revoltingly explicit ax murder he puts Paul's body in a sleeping-bag, drags it past the night doorman and down the block. He runs into two friends, one of whom asks him what the general rules for wearing a white dinner jacket are. Is any reader still taking him seriously? He next kills an ex-girlfriend from college, Bethany, in a fit of furious jealousy. He nails her to the floor with a nail-gun. We learn a little of Patrick's background from Bethany: the fact that he is independently wealthy and doesn't have to work, only doing so because "I want to fit in". Patrick's psychological profile is in general, so slight and muddled as to deliberately reject the pleas of all the Norman Mailers of fiction for an "inner life".
After each of the major killings—those of the black bum Al, Bethany and the several in the chapter "Chase, Manhattan"—there follows, either immediately or very shortly afterwards, an extremely strange, bland analysis of pop music. Al's murder is followed by a chapter on Genesis, Bethany's by a chapter on Whitney Houston and the mass murders in "Chase, Manhattan" by one on Huey Lewis and the News. The change in tone is so marked, so extreme that at first it seems impossible that "Patrick", not known for organized thinking has "written" them. Written in the style of middlebrow AOR rock journalism they use the first person so any straightforward reading of the text would assume that they were indeed intended to have been "written" by Patrick. However their entire presence is so at odds with Patrick's narrative performance that one is tempted to read them as further evidence for the non-reality, the not-thereness of Patrick, as they seem to indicate, through the narrative voice, an entirely different personality. The language is sophisticated and emotional—"It's an epic meditation on intangibility, at the same time it depends and enriches the meaning of the preceeding three albums …"—and much concerned with feeling and maturity. Each of the chapters, but particularly the one on Huey Lewis, concerns the maturation of a creative artist and in this there might be a clue as to what comprises the "absence" in American Psycho. As previously noted, Less Than Zero was postulated against an absent "other", in its case education and the East. The Rules of Attraction moved on to deal with and destroy that particular illusion and in this second novel the "absent presence" was adult life. American Psycho moves us into that life, into the grown-up world but what is now absent is maturity, growth, successful relationships, marriage and parenthood. Ellis, in these rock-critic chapters, suggests firstly that there is another "personality" in the book, not Patrick, not, except by default, the author, and secondly that this personality defines, particularly in his analysis of the career of Huey Lewis, the absence of personal growth and maturity in the novel as a whole. Towards the climax of American Psycho a sort of salvation is offered to Patrick in the form of the love of his devoted secretary, Jean, and although this is an utterly mawkish, clichéd device and intended to be seen as such, nevertheless, it is to Jean that Patrick makes remarks such as, "I just want to have a meaningful relationship with someone special." Some part of his personality is striving towards maturity.
Eventually Paul Owen's fiancée hires a private detective, Donald Kimball, to investigate Owen's disappearance. Patrick is able to offer useful insights along the lines of: "He … ate a balanced diet." Paul's diary of course states that he was having dinner with Marcus Halberstam but Marcus has been interviewed and found to be telling the truth when he said he spent the evening at a club with a group of friends, all named and … including Patrick Bateman.
Patrick spends the summer with Evelyn in Tim Price's house in East Hampton. It is the classic romantic idyll which swiftly degenerates—all too soon Patrick is microwaving jellyfish—and as such closely reminiscent of Clay's doomed holiday with Blair in Less Than Zero. The hopeless and rather sad black comedy of Patrick's relationship with Evelyn is epitomized by his presenting her with a gift-wrapped, chocolate frosted urinal-cake in a restaurant which she gamely, innocently tries to eat, gasping at intervals, "It's just … so minty." Patrick then claims to have terminated the relationship (without killing her).
Patrick continues to kill girls and to desecrate their bodies. It is these torture murders and the killing of a child at a zoo that, naturally, attracted most critical attention, but in fact Patrick is a thoroughly democratic killer and by the end of the book the body-count, by my reckoning stands at thirty-three and covers the entire cross-section of race, class, age and gender in New York society. At one point he takes two prostitutes to Paul Owen's "ridiculous-looking condo", tortures and kills them there. In blood he scrawls the words "I AM BACK" on the wall above the faux-cowhide panelling and follows them with a "scary drawing" which he says "looks that this". A blank space follows.
The novel now rapidly approaches its climax. The sex murders become more extreme and Patrick claims to torture a girl to death with a starving rat. These killings are robotically described: "I'm wearing a Joseph Abboud suit, a tie by Paul Stuart, shoes by J. Crew, a vest by someone Italian and I'm kneeling on the floor beside a corpse, eating the girl's brain, gobbling it down, spreading Grey Poupon over hunks of the pink, fleshy meat." Real murderers have been known to behave in such ways towards their victims but the way this is presented is such an extreme manifestation of blanket blank that it can only be read as a parodically hyperbolic comment on affectlessness and a further destabilizing of Patrick's competence as a narrator. Boundaries are being eroded. Even if we believe it to be remotely possible that someone might try to grind a woman into meat patties and cook her, sobbing all the while, "I just want to be loved," we can only respond, in this context, with sick hilarity. "I guess you walk a very thin line when you try and write about a serial killer in a very satirical way," says Ellis. "There's this new sensitivity. You cannot risk offending anyone."
In the seminal "Chase, Manhattan" chapter Patrick goes completely berserk. He rages through Manhattan killing first a busker, then an Iranian cab-driver and then, just after the narrative goes into the third person, he kills some cops. At this point the novel seems to enter into a parodic version of a cop-killer thriller: "he returns their gunfire from his belly, getting a glimpse of both cops behind the open door of the squad car" and so on. Patrick flees towards Wall Street, shooting a night watchman and then, as the narrative reverts to the first person, he is "safe in the anonymity of my office". A helicopter appears, a SWAT team leaps out, a half-dozen armed men make towards the entrance on the roof, flares are lined up everywhere and Patrick has phoned a friend, Harold Carnes, who predictably, isn't in. Patrick leaves a message confessing to "thirty, forty, a hundred murders". The cops are all approaching, police cars and ambulances surround the base of the building and "night turns into day so fast it's like some kind of optical illusion …" It is some kind of optical illusion. The next chapter opens with the sane, sensible account of Huey Lewis and the News and the one after that finds Patrick back in bed with Courtney.
This chapter must be the final nail in the coffin of Patrick's credibility. Ellis has already created a most unusual creature, a serial sex-killer who is also, at the same time, prepared to kill absolutely anyone. (In his Rolling Stone interview Ellis claims, weirdly: "I thought maybe serial killers would protest the book.") Killers have their modus operandi and in "Chase, Manhattan", Ellis compounds the absurdity by making Patrick both a serial-killer and a mass murderer, two quite distinct types who have never been known to co-exist in one person. Mass murderers (Charles Whiteman, James Huberty) blow up suddenly, kill as many people as possible in a single incidence and are invariably shot by police. Serial killers (Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, the Yorkshire Ripper) are usually sexually motivated, careful and cunning and can remain in action for many years. However, lest anyone actually believes that Patrick Bateman could have continued with his everyday life after this rampage, we are given several more quite distinct opportunities to make up our minds.
One hundred and sixty-one days after he left the two escort girls dead in Paul Owen's apartment, Patrick returns to find the apartment, which is extremely valuable, up for sale. A real-estate agent, "distressingly real-looking" and a yuppie couple are present. There is no trace of "the torrents of blood and gore that washed over the apartment". The place stinks of roses. There are dozens of bouquets. After Patrick has asked about Paul Owen, the estate agent warns him to leave, saying, "Don't make any trouble." Can it be possible that a dreadful double murder was concealed for the sake of a grasping real-estate sale?
Patrick runs into Harold Carnes, the person to whom he made his confession on an answering machine. During the conversation Carnes manages to address Patrick as "Davies" and as "Donaldson" and apparently believes that the message about "Bateman" was a joke. "But come on, man, you had one fatal flaw: Bateman's such a bloody ass-kisser, such a brown-nosing goody-goody, that I couldn't fully appreciate it." Carnes also mentions that Evelyn dumped Bateman. Patrick starts to shout, insisting, "I killed Paul Owen. I did it, Carnes. I chopped Owen's fucking head off. I tortured dozens of girls," although, interestingly, he doesn't mention what might have seemed necessary which is that he is Bateman. Carnes brushes him off saying that his assertions are simply not possible he—had dinner with Paul Owen—twice—in London just ten days ago.
This might finally seem conclusive but we must still remember the constant confusion of identity throughout the novel.
Lastly a cab-driver attacks Patrick saying that he killed his friend Solly, another cab-driver and that Patrick's picture is on a WANTED poster downtown. Patrick recalls killing a foreign cab-driver, an Armenian he thinks now, not an Iranian, during the chase sequence, but certainly not a Solly. The driver steals Patrick's Rolex and Wayfarers, which is probably all he wanted to do anyway.
Thus we are given three distinct opportunities to weigh up Patrick's narrative, with evidence assembled both for and against its authenticity, as in a court of law. That so many critics accepted Patrick as a "real" killer in the face of all this is a massive testimony to careless reading. However, and this is the most important question raised by Patrick's narrative, what difference does it make whether we believe Patrick committed some, any or all of the murders, or not? We have still had to read all the detailed descriptions of the killings and the effect on us is exactly the same. Whether Patrick's murders are fantasies or not, within fiction, they are all fictional. Thus we are forced by the author to confront the definition and function of fictionality itself.
This leads on to an even more basic question about Patrick's role. At around the time that all this comes to a head, Patrick is being offered pure, untainted love by his secretary, Jean. In a chapter entitled "End of the 1980s" he indulges in some heavy-duty musing about the tragic nature of contemporary reality: "Individuality no longer an issue … Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things, emotions that no one really felt anymore. 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 sophomoric philosophizing appears to be delivered seriously, although it is nonsensical placed against the enormity of the crimes Patrick has claimed to have committed. As he talks to Jean about her feelings for him he continues to think, this time about himself: "My personality is sketchy and unformed, my pain is constant and sharp … This confession has meant nothing." He also states to himself: "I simply am not there", and it is tempting to take him at his word. Perhaps the Patrick we know simply does not exist and the person talking to Jean, tentatively accepting her love and experiencing an "epiphany" is another Patrick, the real Patrick, the one who Carnes sees as a "goody-goody", whom Evelyn rejects, who is given to thoughtful, if somewhat cloying considerations of popular music and who kills no one? He and Jean see a baby. "I feel I'm moving towards as well as away from something and anything is possible."
Anything is possible. Around this time Patrick, although he seems to have stopped saying he kills people after his conversation with Jean, appears to be going madder and madder. He has started drinking his own urine, laughing at nothing, sleeping under his futon and flossing his teeth constantly. His automated bank teller has started speaking to him and "I was freaked out by the park bench that followed me for six blocks last Monday evening."
Ellis also writes: "And, for the sake of form, Tim Price resurfaces, or at least I'm pretty sure he does." For the sake of form? I'm pretty sure he does? With the authenticity of Patrick's narrative in shreds, with Patrick operating as at least two and possibly three personalities and with statements like this one we are forced to ask who is Patrick, really? The "Bateman" known to the guys and to Carnes is seemingly not the person who tells the story of the book. Who is Patrick? I simply am not there. Is he perhaps Tim Price who vanishes so deeply into the book, whose East Hampton house Patrick stays in and who now re-appears, strangely elusive on the subject of his absence. ("It was … surprising" "It was … depressing". Where has he been? Inside the book, in Patrick's brain?) Is Patrick one of the other guys in the book, fleetingly mentioned, always around? Might Patrick be Paul Owen whose apartment he appropriates? Could he possibly even be … Marcus Halberstam?! Who knows? The person who tells the story, who fantasizes about impossible murders does not "exist" in any traditional fictional sense. We might as well consider him a spirit; the Zeitgeist, all-yuppie, all-corrupt. Or we could regard him as the sense of humour so notably lacking in his circles, created in Patrick's voice to render black comedy from the intolerable. Patrick is device. He is never the author and at the same time, like all fictional devices, he is always the author.
Much of the frustration felt by critics as they tried to grapple with the book's apparent context stemmed from a vague sense of Patrick's insubstantiality as a "character". It was impossible to get to grips with him—because he wasn't really there. Ellis talks of "becoming" Patrick for hours at a time while he was writing and it seems as if while in this state of possession Bateman started to "write" Ellis. Patrick is annihilated in language and it is impossible to tell when the rigid authorial control may have ceded "meaning" to the involuntary forces of language itself. Patrick is "wiped-out" between the two spheres of life, the public and the private. His agony consists of the way his interior life keeps leaking into the public arena only to be inauthenticated, so that he has to reinforce his "self", his "identity", in ever more extreme and violent ways. It is a basic tenet of postmodernism that the public and private spaces of life are being eroded, are blending—blanding—into one hyperreal theatre. It could be that Patrick is annihilated at precisely this juncture, is unable to realize his "self" without a collision of the public and private which then destroys any autonomous "ego". Of course the interplay between the public and private spheres mimics the fictional process itself; an author always extrudes the interior into the public arena. However, in Bateman's case, within the text the juxtaposition and erosion of the public and private worlds seems exceptionally central to his story and accounts for much of Bateman's confusion and incomprehension in relation to the world. He does not understand the boundaries of the appropriate and inappropriate, the acceptable and the unacceptable; his "personality" debouches haphazardly along a spectrum from the most secret and interior desires to the mannered conventions of a highly-sophisticated society. This is postmodernity in process, knowing no limits, uniting desire and entertainment within spectacle. An individual "personality" cannot sustain these contradictions; an individual "personality" in which Id, Ego and Super-Ego go into melt-down is doomed. It is doomed to psychosis, schizophrenia, gibberish non-language—and we see this happening to Patrick before he implodes completely within the text. Patrick is a cipher; a sign in language and it is in language that he disintegrates, slips out of our grasp. Patrick is Void. He is the Abyss. He is a textual impossibility, written out, elided until there is no "Patrick" other than the sign or signifier that sets in motion the process that must destroy him and thus at the end the book must go back to its beginnings and start again. This process reveals his invisibility and re-signs him to a circle of hell where he can never find resolution or autonomy in that he "exists" only to disintegrate. Patrick becomes in effect, feminized, excluded from "existing" in language; he is the void, the mystery, the threat of dreadful desires, the uncontrolled libido, the unconscious, the dark side of the moon. As "nothing" Patrick is dangerous. As a person, as a consumer, he cannot exist; he is an impossibility.
American Psycho is what Roland Barthes called a "writerly" text. It invites the reader in to play amongst its games and inconsistencies. Unusually however, unlike most "writerly" texts it is not deeply subversive or dislocating. It has nothing in it of what Barthes termed rapture, "bliss" or jouissance. For all the fuss it lacks the "shock, disturbance, even loss, which are proper to ecstasy, to bliss". Texts of bliss are extreme, threatening, they bring us towards death or annihilation; Barthes mentions Georges Bataille. American Psycho might seem, superficially, to be such a text but in fact it is not at all. It is far closer to what Barthes termed a "text of pleasure": "the text that comes from culture and does not break with it." Ellis might be very critical of his culture, his text may be an experimentation in many ways but he comes from deep within that culture and cannot be said to pose anything of an anarchic threat towards it. The faults Ellis perceives in contemporary culture come from an old-fashioned, straightforwardly moralistic reading of it. His books present terrible amoral deviations, which, if rectified, would restore to society all the moral values it has lost and would revive a more wholesome dominant culture. Ellis's vision is conformist and conventional. He is skilled at presenting disintegration within postmodernity and his energies are straightforwardly judgemental and condemnatory. He is denunciatory, a supporter of the status quo and in relation to this it is ironic to what a large extent he has been depicted as some sort of literary tearaway. Insofar as Patrick Bateman is allowed to operate as a unified entity, before his persona is totally shredded, he functions as a rhetorical device, the Devil's Advocate whose consumer manifesto merely highlights what Ellis has referred to as the "spiritual" malaise and ugliness of the eighties. Like David Lynch, Ellis is merely "weird on top" not "wild at heart". Just as in Twin Peaks the "identity" or "meaning" of the murderer behaved like language, slipping from signifier to signifier, so Ellis too is inventive, deconstructing within language the existence or "meaning" of his fictive murderer. Both Patrick Bateman and "Bob" from Twin Peaks through their actions "murder" the order of a moral universe and slide us into postmodern chaos. Behind them lies the conventional nostalgic vision of a lost world where actions were not random, where emotion was authentic and where everything once made sense.
American Psycho should be taken seriously; if it is as blunt and simplistic as its critics claim how have they managed to miss everything of significance within the book? It is an important text. Ellis manages to take his obsession with deindividualization in consumer society to its extreme and demonstrate that Patrick's in his role of ultimate consumer, someone who is composed entirely of inauthentic commodity-related desires cannot exist as a person. He is doomed to fragmentation and disintegration.
American Psycho represents all that we mean by Post-Punk or Blank Generation writing in that it is written from deep within consumer culture by an author who has never known anything else and who consequently lacks much of the critical ambivalence and the political disquiet about popular culture evinced by older novelists and theoreticians. At the same time it has its own agenda which is anything but blank. Despite his unease with moral absolutes the author is determined not to flinch from representing that which he undoubtedly condemns. Although Ellis is skilled at representing contemporary society it would seem that, unlike many postmodern theorists, he maintains a belief in a "reality" or morality somewhere beyond the spectacular blandishments of the hyperreal consumer circus. As it seems unlikely that he inclines towards revolutionary politics, it is natural to assume that like David Lynch he might have a vision of some more edenic moral universe, pre-postmodern fragmentation and commodity fetishism. At the same time American Psycho is a sophisticated high postmodern text. All the theoretical constituents of postmodern culture are there—the commodity fixation, the focus on image, codes and style, the proliferation of surfaces and the deindividualization of neofogey characters who "play" with the past—"I'm pro-family and anti-drug"—and in doing so embody irony and paradox. The text itself participates fully in the "conventions" of postmodern literature: the unreliable narrator, the lack of closure, Eco's "game of irony", double-distancing, a refusal to mirror "reality" and a constant examination of the ways in which fiction is ordered, ever aware of its own status as discourse and construct. Thus American Psycho can be seen as a classic text at the end of the high postmodern period and simultaneously as playing its part in the slow emergence of an American renaissance that attempts to transcend these fictional games, and re-establish, from deep within consumer culture, other ways of writing fiction and apprehending American society as it approaches the millennium.
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