Among books, American Psycho is something of a dirty celebrity, a work whose dribbling trail of sleazy reputation precedes it. The one-sentence summary is just too easy: Patrick Bateman, Harvard graduate and Wall Street shark, is a fashion-obsessed psychopath who flatly narrates his life as he proceeds to assault and gruesomely murder girlfriends and business associates, all the while unable to make his friends understand that he is, in fact, a serial killer (despite nearly constant confessions). A few years ago, a movie version came out with Christian Bale as a goofy, retro version of Pat Bateman, and nobody blinked. But in 1991, when the book first came out, it was a major item of debate. Despite a reported six-figure advance to Bret Easton Ellis, the hot-shot wunderkind with two successful novels under his belt, the original publisher Simon & Schuster noted the brewing controversy and dropped American Psycho, citing ‘aesthetic differences.’ Vintage Contemporaries picked it up, and the negative attention proved too compelling to resist, making it both a bestseller and a necessary discussion topic. In an oddly representative case of moral outrage, the New York Times refused to print the title on its bestseller list, lest the publicity drive more people to read it and (thus) to become raving, Armani-clad murderers. (If you’re interested, here is a more complete critical history.)
Even decades later, the book remains shocking, though it’s still hard to imagine that a novel—a what?—could provoke any kind of a public outcry. While reading it, I doubted that anyone could seriously believe that Ellis himself condoned the actions portrayed in his book, but there’s still the problem of ends and means to consider: does the audience really need to sit through graphic depictions of child murders, rape, necrophilia, cannibalism, etc., etc., to get the point? The contrary position was eloquently put forth by David Foster Wallace, a writer I admire very much, in this interview. Consider his opinion:
I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s clichéd and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend "Psycho" as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.
If I didn’t think that this point was worth considering, I wouldn’t quote it at such length. But I also think that DFW’s commentary trivializes what American Psycho actually does. The heart of his criticism is that AP does little to “illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in [the world].” Certainly, Patrick Bateman gives us few hints about how people might positively live, but it seems to me that the character already understands how he should live and consciously decides to go against it. His secretary, Jean, exemplifies the un-ironic, earnest love that he understands is healthy. Early on, he says that he’ll “probably marry her.” In one of the few tender passages of the book, near the end, after all the perversions and aversions have already been performed, Jean directly expresses her love for him, and after this direct outpouring, Patrick experiences what he calls a “flood of reality”—an awareness that, would he allow it, yielding to an honest relationship might change everything. Listen:
I sense [Jean] wants to rearrange my life in a significant way—her eyes tell me this and though I see a truth in them, I also know that one day, sometime very soon, she too will be locked in the rhythm of my insanity. All I have to do is keep silent about this and not bring it up—yet she weakens me, it’s almost as if she’s making the decision about who I am, and in my own stubborn, willful way I can admit to feeling a pang, something tightening inside, and before I can stop it I find myself almost dazzled and moved that I might have the capacity to accept, though not return, her love (pg. 378-9 of the 1st edition).
Of course, this is easy to miss, coming as it does after a section describing the ripped-out vaginas kept in his gym locker.
This passage, however, suggests why American Psycho might not focus on what people ‘should’ be doing: it’s simply too damn obvious. People should, ya’ know, care about each other and treat each other with some common decency. This is not difficult to grasp. What’s less obvious is the extent to which the slickness of the 1980s yuppie culture refuted these basic tenets. Patrick Bateman’s relentless chasing of surfaces, of workouts and sex with ‘hardbodies,’ is a depiction of hell in Manhattan, as is suggested in the book’s borrowed opening line—the iconic “ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE” from Dante’s Inferno, translated into a hip graffito. The extremity of this vision is relentless, a succession of smash cuts and videotapes depicting a world without restraint. It is the work of a moral diagnostician, and in that capacity, it is comparable to the work of the very different writer, Walker Percy, whose most famous novel, The Moviegoer, examined the beginnings of the unrestrained pursuit of passive pleasure. In this tradition, American Psycho represents the apocalyptic end of the line, with valuable criticism offered in the most jarring possible way.
Hopefully, we won’t need a reminder like this again.
Endnote: Although I haven’t seen the movie, I don’t think American Psycho would translate very well to film. This movie review shares some of my worries.