American Psycho – 30 Years On

I was born in 1969, which makes me part of the elder third of Generation X, which demographers assert as starting in 1965. That makes Bret Easton Ellis and his most famous character, the anti-heroic Patrick Bateman, Baby Boomers. Somehow I am glad about that.

I have been listening to Huey Lewis and the News a lot lately, partly because they have released a new studio album for the first time in a decade, and partly because I am in the sort of mood where I want to connect a bit more with the foolish youngster on the south side of twenty I used to be, compared to the grey bearded fellow on the north side of fifty I am now.

One of my friends, who is a musician and has much more developed tastes in music, has ridiculed my insistence on the merits of Huey Lewis, and sent me a you-tube clip of Christian Bale, as the protagonist (anti-hero) Patrick Bateman, in the film American Psycho, where he extolls the merits of Huey Lewis to a coworker whilst Hip to be Square plays in the background. Then he butchers him with an axe. It is very blackly funny, the way that film can sometimes make brutal murder to be, rather than the tragic and sad reality.

This has not changed my opinion of Huey Lewis and the News, but it did cause me to have another look at American Psycho. I don’t mean the movie, which I saw whenever it was out (2000? 2010?) and promptly mostly forgot. I mean the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, which came out in 1990, and which was the subject of great outrage.

A highly conservative (and rather personally hypocritical) academic I knew, the thesis supervisor for a close friend, smugly suggested in his influence peddling way (a lot of people were listening to him around then, although to my credit, I quickly decided that outside of his lectures, he had nothing of value to say) that conservatives and radical feminists should form an alliance to have the book banned.

I am pretty conservative, but banning books is something I find pretty abhorrent, and I promptly bought and read a copy of the offending novel. It was sold in shrink wrap (a bit the way Battlefield Earth was in the mid 1980s, although for a different reason) and had a warning label on the front indicating that the book was rated R.

Absurdly, if you are going to buy a copy in Australia today (it is still in print), you still can only buy it in shrink wrap with the R rating sticker, the only mainstream book sold like that. Such was the level of outrage levelled at that book.

I have not read any of his other books, although I have seen the movie versions of his debut novel Less Than Zero and the later Laws of Attraction. There is a savage nihilism running throughout both movies, although the plot summary I recently read about Less Than Zero makes the movie adaption sound a bit like Mary Poppins in comparison, which really gave me something to think about.

I have no plans to reread American Psycho, but the reminder about Huey Lewis in the film caused me to dig out my copy and to flip through it, looking for the bits that are particularly relevant. There, on pages 352 to 360 is the chapter which reads like a very favourable music review. Earlier on in the book, there are similar chapters about Genesis and Whitney Houston.

On page 71, in case you are interested, Tom Cruise (ironic that I mentioned Battlefield Earth a few paragraphs back), the supposed occupant of the penthouse in Bateman’s apartment building, makes an appearance, sharing a lift with Bateman. There is a very awkward (but to the reader hilarious) exchange between the two, which I still find memorable, but which is even more revealing about the mindset of Patrick Bateman:

“I thought you were very fine in Bartender. I thought it was quite a good movie, and Top Gun too. I really thought that was good.”

He looks away from the numbers and then straight at me. “It was called Cocktail,” he says softly.

This does go to show what Bateman, 26 year old yuppie stockbroker, obsessed with his hedonistic lifestyle and luxury material possessions, is all about. In his insulated cocoon of wealth and privilege, he can only see the world as objects, and strangers only in their context of possible service to him. Such as nameless bartenders.

There are many great passages of prose, and of wit, in American Psycho. Unlike the movie, which presents Bateman as being on an uncontrollable serial killer rampage through New York, the novel gives us sufficient clues as the first person present tense narrative progresses, that the rampage is all simply going on in Bateman’s head, a grim fantasy world, or rather, a psychotic delusion being revealed to us as if it is reality. He is falling apart at the seams, increasingly unable to relate to the world around him.

Which leads us to wonder what sort of commentary Ellis is offering us in this, his greatest, and still unsurpassed, work?

The crisp opening paragraph gives us a clue:

ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Miserables on its side blocking its view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn’t seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio, ‘Be My Baby’ on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.

I have long thought, even before I read Dante, that this novel was an attempt at a journey into an American Hell, with the grotesque torments and the hubris and the obsession with worldly plenty.

But perhaps there is another take. Plato gave us the metaphor of the cave, an epistemology based on reason rather than on one’s senses, rationalism rather than empiricism. Reality is not what you see, that is just an illusion. Reality is really what you are able to establish through the use of your powers of reason.

What does that tell us when the narrator is someone who has clearly lost his powers of reason?

I am not sure, and I am not a postgrad student undertaking a thesis on American literature, so I will not be too rigorous in my speculations. What I do wonder is what was the purpose of Ellis’ literary project in this novel. Is his commentary a celebration (unlikely but not out of the question) of late 1980s material hedonistic excess? Is he merely describing and documenting it? Or is he deploring it? Or, perhaps, it could be that he is ridiculing it, and his social contemporaries who lived those lives and dreamed those nightmares.

And by extension perhaps, he is ridiculing those people, like that smug hypocritical academic and all the others, who feigned or felt such great outrage at his words. I do like to think so, but then, I am inherently an optimist.

Published by Ernest Zanatta

Narrow minded Italian Catholic Conservative Peasant from Footscray.

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