Is American Psycho Profound, Artistic Nihilism or Stupid, Shallow Nihilism? — Bret Easton Ellis vs David Foster Wallace

by Edwin Turner

Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial novel American Psycho turns 20 this year. The folks at Vintage were kind enough to send me a copy of the book to promote the anniversary, and despite a mounding stack of review copies, I took a few hours to re-read parts of Ellis’s third novel.

I’ve only read two Ellis books and I remember the reading of them distinctly, precisely; I remember how I picked them up and where I was and what I was doing and all that jazz. The first was Ellis’s début Less Than Zero, a slim, ugly little novel that I read in one night. I was fifteen, spending a summer with my aunt and uncle, living in my cousin’s old bedroom. Less Than Zero was part of a cache of books that included Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Anthony Scaduto’s Bob Dylan biography, some Hemingway and Fitzgerald novels, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and a Kurt Vonnegut starter kit. In short, a life changing library, and most of it went home with me in my Jansport (somewhat surreptitiously, although I’m sure if I had asked I would have received). Only I didn’t take Less Than Zero, despite reading it all in one sick night, and then reading it again in pieces over the summer. The book hurt my stomach. The drugs were not the Looney Tunes business in HST’s book—they were the symptom of a blank nihilism I simply couldn’t identify with. The scene where the kids casually watch a snuff film horrified me. And the rape scene. Well. It was the first time I read something that genuinely disturbed me in a non-child, non-Grimm’s way — in a way where I felt moral outrage from an adult-psyche-type-position (whatever that means). The book genuinely concerned me; I was afraid such people existed.

I read American Psycho in 2002. I was traveling through Thailand for a month, trading books at guest houses and shops as I went, and the only book I remember being more ubiquitous than American Psycho was Alex Garland’s The Beach (which, yes, I also read there). I had seen and quite enjoyed Mary Harron’s 2000 film adaptation of American Psycho, which had the good sense to treat the whole matter as a piece of cartoonish black comedy. In Harron’s hands, the hyperbolic exploits of Patrick Bateman are considerably less ambiguous than the book’s depiction; Harron  clearly marks the narrative violence as Bateman’s internal fantasies. Of course, one of literature’s greatest tools is ambiguity, and Ellis’s American Psycho revels in it. In a sense, this is the book’s defining nihilism: its total unwillingness to make a definitive judgment about its protagonist’s violence. Instead, American Psycho’s claims to satire rely on the implicit force of the reader’s sense of humanity and morality; like Less Than Zero before it, we have a flat narrative, an utter lack of self-reflection or internal psychology. Ellis gives us only concrete contours, cocaine, hydrochloric acid, chainsaws, and a laundry list of brand names. These are novels without interiors.

American Psycho, utterly concrete, deeply ironic, and occasionally funny, is a strange beach read, but a beach read nonetheless (although all that gristle and blood (and oh the rat!) won’t go down easy for many folks). When I read it in 2002 I found it neither shocking or enlightening, just precise and ugly and grotesque, a numbing progression of concrete descriptions of clothes and restaurants punctuated by ridiculous violence. Its one-note satire would find a better home in a short story. A short short story. I’ve spent the past few days reading through its sections again, trying to reassess it against the backdrop of my current literary estimations of Bret Easton Ellis, which I hate to admit are largely informed not only by his own acerbic personality, but also by (or perhaps more accurately against) his agon with David Foster Wallace.

BEE vs. DFW is not exactly news. Ellis (b. 1964) and Wallace (b. 1962) both published their first novels in the mid-eighties. Less Than Zero made 21-year-old Ellis a star, a likely “voice of his generation.” The Broom of the System didn’t exactly go gangbusters for Wallace, but its voluminous scope, Pynchonian silliness, and its willingness to pick up the postmodern games that Ellis and the other new minimalists seemed to reject announced a major new talent who was willing to both think and feel—to go beyond the surfaces. Indeed, Wallace’s entire project might be defined as setting himself apart from the cool, detached irony that characterizes Ellis’s ethos. In a 1993 interview with Larry McCaffery,Wallace decries fiction that devotes
“a lot of energy to creating expectations and then taking pleasure in disappointing them. You can see this clearly in something like Ellis’s American Psycho: it panders shamelessly to the audience’s sadism for a while, but by the end it’s clear that the sadism’s real object is the reader herself.” I think this is an apt criticism. American Psycho is torture porn encased in a thin veneer of social satire with no interior substance. Here’s Wallace at length—

 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 cliched 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.

Four years before the interview—and two years before the publication of American Psycho—Wallace mocked Ellis’s void, vacuous characters in “Girl with Curious Hair,” a story about a yuppie on LSD at a Keith Jarrett concert.  With no affective life, Sick Puppy (as his low life punk rock friends call him) feels nothing. He cannot enjoy his wealth, his position—not even his acid trip. He can’t even enjoy sex unless he can burn his partner as he’s being fellated. As Marshall Boswell points out in his study Understanding David Foster Wallace, “the story eerily forecasts . . . American Psycho . . . in a grisly and hilarious pastiche of Ellis’ preposterously benumbed prose.”

Perhaps Wallace’s greatest critique of nihilism — greatest in that it escapes the confines of Ellis and his ilk’s literary purview — is Don Gately, erstwhile hero of Infinite Jest, a recovering Demerol addict and small time thief whose painful day-to-day existence figures as the existential struggle against bleak, overwhelming nothingness. Gately is the heart and spirit of IJ, a big sad throbbing heart that, to quote Wallace out of context (from above), is the writer’s way “to depict this [dark] world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.”

Ellis perhaps perceives a character like Gately and his illuminating possibilities as simply too affected. Last summer, at a reading in Hackney, England, Easton offered the following—

Question: David Foster Wallace – as an American writer, what is your opinion now that he has died?

Answer: Is it too soon? It’s too soon right? Well I don’t rate him. The journalism is pedestrian, the stories scattered and full of that Midwestern faux-sentimentality, and Infinite Jest is unreadable. His life story and his battle with depression however is really quite touching . . .

Then there was this cryptic tweet a few months ago—

I’m not sure what Ellis’s tweet meant, and attendees of the Hackney reading claim that he was more considered and measured in his tone than the actual words of his response seem to entail. His end of the agon with Wallace is also rife with its own set of problems—his contemporary is dead, horribly dead, a suicide, (the kind of death that makes an essay like this one, an essay that claims to find affirmation of life in DFW and empty nihilism BEE, particularly hard to swallow, I suppose)—making it all the harder to respond. I read his “too soon” remark from the Hackney reading to be in earnest.

But Ellis’s tweets are not part of his literary corpus (even though they can be entertaining), and Wallace’s suicide is not part of his text. So, I return to those texts—

Wallace’s last effort, The Pale King, contrasts strongly with American Psycho. Wallace’s novel is fractured, heteroglossic, crammed with ideas, and at times purposefully taxing on its reader’s attention. American Psycho is concise (even if its plot is messy and episodic), imagistic, lacks even the pretense of allowing a controlling voice other than Bateman’s into the narrative, and, in its fetishistic, sexualized violence, is a work designed to lock its reader’s attention in a sensationalized vice grip. It’s id-bait par excellence, seductive and stylish. Its greatest achievement may be to fool some readers into believing that its violence is simply part and parcel of its intention of being a scathing satire. The book then relies heavily — too heavily — on an exterior morality system to weigh its flat, static characters, characters who face incredible trauma and yet never process it (or even attempt to process it). And I am not just speaking of Bateman. Consider the dry cleaner who repeatedly removes bloodstains, or the maid  who mops up brain bits without a single question. Then there are the faceless, indistinguishable alpha males who populate Bateman’s yuppie corporate world, and their requisite fiancées and mistresses, weak watery women the narrative repeatedly condemns. These characters lack meaning or depth; they are essentially probable replicants of Bateman, the implication being that psychopathic tendencies lurk everywhere, that the modern condition preempts empathy or human understanding or plain old common decency. The savvy reader is supposed to admire Ellis’s satire of capitalist vacuity, and admittedly, there are some very funny riffs (Bateman’s bits on popular music like Huey Lewis and the News and Whitney Houston, replicated in the film version, still hold up well). But I think Wallace is correct when he asserts that the real violence is ultimately inflicted on the reader. Ellis’s violence is not the same as Flannery O’Connor’s, who used the shock of murder in her stories to explore the possibility of awe, transcendence, and revelation in a desacralized world. Wallace’s The Pale King tries to sanctify the costs of life (death and taxes and the deep existential crisis these costs entail) in a world that has largely abandoned the sacred, in a society where many people are incapable or unwilling to think empathetically about their relation to (via taxes and social institutions) other humans whom they do not personally know. Ellis’s American Psycho is a cartoonish, lopsided distortion of a descralized world. Its affective power is purely externalized, generated from the reader’s moral core. It replaces feeling with violence; it replaces ideas with the illusion of ideas. Its closest claim to art is its satirical power, which is ultimately puddle-shallow (did we really need Ellis to tell us that yuppies are uncaring, shallow and materialistic?) Writers need not be morally instructive, but good books are guided by a vision. Ellis’s vision is pure, bleak nihilism, abyssal and unreflecting, asking little from its reader other than to play voyeur to murder and giving back nothing in return.

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25 Responses to “Is American Psycho Profound, Artistic Nihilism or Stupid, Shallow Nihilism? — Bret Easton Ellis vs David Foster Wallace”

  1. That book American Psycho was crap, and any positive comments about it are just attempts at creating the Emperor and his New Clothes…trying to make something special out of nothing. This book did not portray “black humor”, or irony. It was a flat recount of the worst traits and acts of humanity. Did and does the world REALLY need that. We are so stupid we can’t look around and see the darkness? This is nothing more than a voyeuristic, titillating glimpse into the worst humanity has to offer. Pointless. There was a copy cat crime that used this novel as inspiration, is that the author’s fault? Not technically, but with all the evil and sickness out there is it morally right to feed this, give sick people something to whet their appetite? I don’t think so. There is so much more to write about, and I think it’s stupid and pointless to capitalize on society’s ills.

  2. In these days of stupid, shallow nihilism, American Psycho is profound, artistic nihilism.

  3. Be that as it may – and I write this as a fan of both “Psycho” and “Lunar Park” – for Ellis to call DFW’s journalism “pedestrian” is inane. He’s either never read it, or is being intentionally perverse, or just can’t get over having been dissed by Wallace in the past (or some combination thereof), but every journalist I know WISHES they could write something as uniquely insightful and entertaining as DFW’s NY Times piece “Federer as Religious Experience,” to name one of many. Ellis, a writer of considerable (however specific) talents, ought not to dismiss what he will never be capable of achieving himself, as he’s only making himself look small.

    • B, I think your fourth proposition (“some combination thereof”) is likely accurate — Ellis dissing Wallace’s journalism is perverse, but it also comes from a real, deep-seated rivalry.

  4. Sounds right to me. And as an addendum to your post, which I much enjoyed, I’ll note that my journalist wife has been raptly binging on DFW lately, after being put off by an essay of his many years ago; it seems to me that the spirit of genuine compassion and generosity that’s at the heart of Wallace’s appeal ultimately expands a readership, over time, whereas arguably the brilliant nihilism of Ellis at his best is (appropriately) a kind of spiritual dead-ender,

  5. To the author, you are probably some pedestrian from somewhere rural or suburban and can find absolutely nothing to relate to in Ellis’ work. Yes, one could argue that a good book can relate to anyone regardless of where they come from or what socio-economic situation they are in; however, BEE’s work strikes home to those of us who can relate to the characters and situations presented in his novels. While his writing is of course satirical and not very often straightforward, his novels do appeal to a certain group of people. As someone who has grown up with way too much wealth and freedom, I can relate to the helplessness and boredome expressed by many of the characters in BEE’s novels. I understand what it feels like to grow up way too fast and experience way too much at too young an age. The type of upbringing that many of BEE’s characters go through leaves one jaded and dissilusioned and often questioning whether there really is a point to anything.

    • Hi, NYuntitled,

      I’m occasionally “a pedestrian” when I walk to places. No, I’m not from somewhere rural, although I imagine that people in rural and suburban places can grow up “too fast” and spoiled just the same as city folk; indeed, I’d argue that as part of the modern condition most young people today feel in some way that they grow up too fast, at least when they have time to go back and reflect. Heck, even those of us who were lucky enough to grow up without “way too much wealth and freedom” can feel “helplessness and boredome [sic]“. (Condolences on your privileged childhood).

      But thanks for the hypothetical ad hominem attacks anyway.

      My imaginative capacity is not so damaged or weak or untested that I can only relate to characters who are superficially like me. It’s not only the wealthy who become “jaded and dissilusioned [sic]” and often question “whether there really is a point to anything”. This existential crisis is part and parcel of mainstream literature since at least the years after WWI. My post was not meant to attack Ellis’s fans at all (as I tried to point out above, I liked parts of American Psycho). I was simply arguing that I don’t he offers a “point to anything.” Which I happen to like both aesthetically and philosophically in my literature, even if the “point” is one I don’t agree with.

      Best,
      Biblioklept

  6. Hey, all—
    At The Awful Possibilities, Christian TeBordo has a nice essay that argues BEE’s novel Less Than Zero does have a moral position, and that the book echoes The Great Gatsby. It’s a trackback for this post (which is how I read it) but I thought I’d point it out as it offers a nice contrasting view with the one I’ve expressed in this post. TeBordo’s “Keep It in the Closet”–

    http://awfulpossibilities.com/archives/983

    (TeBordo’s piece actually makes me want to reread LTZ, which I read before Gatsby).

  7. I guess the feud between DFW and Ellis goes to show how two very different approaches to fiction can start from two very different mindsets. DFW had strong catholic tastes in his own reading and the “moral compassionate” writing that he ascribed himself to brought forth material that’s supposed to help the reader find some kind of spiritual redemption (DFW attended churches for most of his life, though he didn’t make a big show of it) by highlighting for her those everyday situations in which humans are supposed to show some concern for other human beings, their awful behaviour notwithstanding (the kenyon college speech seem to revolve mostly around this very subject). Ellis, on the other hand, is overtly anti-intellectual; he makes delicious fun of those people who come up to him at public readings asking question about whether or not there’s a philosophical point to his work. He’s a better writer than most people think, and the way in which his own life’s story paves the ground for the eerie horror elements in “Lunar park” makes the reading experience seriously scary, in a way that most genre fiction don’t. DFW looked almost tender in most of his interviews; his prose-style thinking made him look like one of those rare people who have problems keeping up with their own intellect, to the extent that he seems utterly unable to think, feel or say anything that is even remotely banal.
    They are two very different people with two so different personal backgrounds. I think Dave’s statements about the Ellis generation were a bit ungenerous and probably coming from a 25 year-old whom still had problems getting out of those superiority issues that tainted his relationship with writing professors at Ahmerst (if you go read the essays that a very young DFW wrote about the “Conspicuosly Young” writers during those years you’ll find a very interesing recount of the whole feud, with a touch of bratty snottiness that might sound either adorable or shallow depending on your level of appreciation of Wallace’s work).
    On the other hand it’s clear that Ellis likes to be at the center of attention and he didn’t want to let something like “girl with curious hair” go unpunished. His snobby remarks on david’s midwesterness just add up to his known stage persona, and since he’s about 50 years old I’d love to hear some in-depth opinion about why DFw is “never going to happen”.

    p.s.: I think Ellis’ tweet is a sardonic comment on The Pale King. The guy seems to care about Dave’s writing after all.

    • Hi, Andrea,
      Thanks for the considered response, and I think you’re right about how their backgrounds would play into their respective mindsets. You’re also right about Wallace’s ungenerous statements, which are probably attributable, at least in part, to his youth. I do find BEE’s tweets fascinating (and often hilarious—his recent one about Kristen Dunst being upset when he ran out of coke was gold), but his persona is often revolting.
      I think you bring up a good point about DFW’s church attendance, which I’ve read he supplemented later with attendance to AA meetings (although I don’t think he was an alcoholic).

  8. Well Ellis’ public personae has been a fictional version of himself, portrayed in Lunar Park. Also it is ludicrous that you would compare the two without having read more of Ellis’ work. Rules of Attraction is by far the piece that sums up his entire literary philosophy, and is hauntingly relevant moreso today than ever.

  9. This is an awesome exploration of the rivalry between DFW and BEE and I think it does justice to both authors discussed. Honestly, I think that anyone who thinks Ellis is better than Wallace needs to rethink this. Even if one loves Ellis to the ends of the earth and despises Wallace, one can not deny the fact that Wallace argues his point about Ellis far better than Ellis argues his point about Wallace. And yes, Ellis may have been pulling punches because “it’s too soon,” but I think that’s simply untrue. Ellis knows all about going too far, so I think he just had nothing to really shoot back with.

    And the most important point Wallace makes, I think, is that even if Ellis does a good job describing the gross acts committed by his characters, do we really need to read that? It seems like the literary equivalent of modern-day horror films–gratuitous violence directed at the people who are viewing the story through actions of characters who are loved by no one and given no compassion by the creator.

  10. Bret Easton Ellis has no subtlety. He’s a brat who is fascinated by the druggy celebrity culture he claims to condemn. Meanwhile, DFW is much more intelligent, articulate and capable of producing meaningful texts. But this debate is pretty pointless: it’s like comparing candy (BEE) to steak (DFW). Candy tastes really good when you’re eating it, but minutes after you’re hungry again. I’d rather have steak, but I admit it’s an acquired taste: certainly the 9 year old in me would prefer a pack of Skittles to filet mignon.

  11. I always associate Ellis with Lars von Trier: you can’t tell whether they are offering a brave, powerful, disturbing vision of the way life really is … or just yanking our chains and laughing behind our backs. The fact that we — or I anyhow — can’t tell, and that it seems to be impossible to not talk about Ellis and von Trier, and not have that talk become a fracas when you do, is an argument for their importance. But it’s a very strange importance. Can art be art if it’s significance is only the discussion it provokes? Rather than something intrinsic in the work itself?

    • My take on BEE has perhaps softened a bit since I wrote this piece, in part, I think, just from following him on Twitter . . . he’s really great at Twitter — in fact I think it’s his perfect medium: he’s an ironist at heart, and his best stuff is epithetical (not sure if that’s a word). Ben Collins wrote a piece on this site about BEE, focusing on Lunar Park, which I haven’t read but will (someday).

  12. David Foster Wallace was able to turn his mental illness into a literary aesthetic. How many authors can proudly say they did that?

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