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.