On Liking American Psycho – slight return (Part 2/2)
The Plot Sickens
To focus on misogyny is to obscure American Psycho’s scope, to ignore that the book is an uncompromising, unapologetic vortex of misanthropy and nihilism. Its narrator expresses disgust, contempt, anxiety and fear towards women, gay people, art students, Jewish people, the non-WASP, the homeless, the poor – anyone, in fact, who differs even by a small degree (a marginally more impressive business card, a better restaurant table) from the ideal which Bateman forces himself to emulate and sustain. Men in the novel are portrayed as unsympathetically as women, and dispatched as dispassionately – so why is it the torture and death of women that seems to abide with the reader?
Like all satire, the book exaggerates and burlesques that which already exists. The book’s scenes of torture and murder were, apparently, all based on Ellis’ reading of real life cases and criminology textbooks, not whimsically called into being by him. So American Psycho on one level is an uncensored, unsanitised exposé of what has already been done to women without any incitement or instruction from its author. Neither does Ellis’ writing give the impression that violence against women is in any way attractive. The impression it does give, to me at least, is that violence against women is horrifying, viscerally disgusting, and the preserve of fucked-up, nightmarish individuals who are increasingly prevalent during a stage of socio-economic development which encourages selfishness and greed over empathy, and whose actions are increasingly ignored or disbelieved within the same environment. His work is a mirror, not a manifesto or an instruction manual. To posit it as something qualitatively worse either than crimes actually committed against women throughout history, or to the presentation of sexualised violence or serial killing in almost any other area of the entertainment world, seems dubious.
It’s worth noting too how the deaths of Bateman’s victims are affected by their socio-economic background. Having decided against the murder of his date Patricia – a minor character so boringly materialistic that I’m fully on board with the theory that takes her to be Patrick’s imaginary female persona – Bateman reflects on whether it’s ‘her family’s wealth [that] protects her tonight’. In contrast, the vagrants and call girls he kills are already economic casualties, considered disposable even before they become casualties of violence. No character from society’s lower strata appears to be missed; it is only Paul Owen, Patrick’s peer and rival, whose disappearance is considered deserving enough to warrant a police investigation. The crude and blatant contrast between Bateman’s lifestyle and that of his victims – their disparity in wealth, and therefore in power, is explicitly fetishized in more than one encounter – which calls attention to the issue of why the victims of such killers are so often sex workers, or homeless, or transient, both male and female:
“Within police culture… we know that if a prostitute goes missing and is reported as missing, that they won’t be given the same priority as other people would get… [sex workers are not] valued enough in our culture for the police to take it seriously.”
- again intertwining a socio-economic indictment with a proto-feminist impulse.
The Plot Thickens
One could argue incessantly about whether the book itself is misogynistic, or edifying, or indeed readable, but a
more productive debate centres on whether one can like art that one also acknowledges as problematic. When reading Anwyn Crawford’s excellent critique of the treatment of women in the lyrics and prose of that other aging enfant terrible, Nick Cave, I wasn’t convinced by all of her analysis – Cave’s work at least in its earlier phases seems, like Ellis, preoccupied with morbidly examining a pathologised masculinity rather than valorising it – but the most substantial point I drew from the ensuing debate was that the issue may be less such works themselves and more their involvement in the mainstreaming, acceptance and excusing of problematic attitudes. The gynophobic aspects of these works are made respectable by being cloaked as edgy or transgressive, when they merely dramatise the violence and inequality that already exists. Although I still contend that the violence in Ellis’ writing is not there as intentional titillation, as long as there are those for whom such things are lived experience, rather than escapist fantasy or performance material, then there will be a correspondingly visceral response to their artistic portrayal.
Although readers who read for prurient or puerile pleasure are hardly something for which writers can bargain or legislate, questions can be asked about the cachet Ellis manages to retain in the world of Guardian profiles and Soho salons, when other works of equally politicised and equally slapstick splatterpunk – Dennis Cooper, say, or Stewart Home, or even The SCUM Manifesto – languish in the ‘cult fiction’ gutter. Helen Zahavi’s brilliant Dirty Weekend, a novel published the same year as American Psycho, explores similar themes but blurs the lines between victim and perpetrator. There are marked stylistic differences, sure – Zahavi uses lyrical prose to distance or distract the reader from the trauma and gore she describes, whereas Ellis more or less rubs the reader’s face in it – and the violence of Zahavi’s protagonist is entirely reactive: she wishes only to be left alone and when she is not, she strikes out and strikes upwards. Dirty Weekend, despite receiving polarised reviews on publication, has had nothing like the long-term vilification heaped upon American Psycho, but by the same token has received far less enduring acclaim or even attention.
Maybe it’s just Ellis’ pre-existing status as wunderkind author of Less Than Zero that elevates his subsequent work. Or it might be the very obviousness of his traditionalist politics – American Psycho has more than a bit in common with something like Last Exit to Brooklyn, a cult novel of 1964 which also enlists depictions of depravity and sexual violence in the service of what can look an awful lot like proscriptive neo-puritanism. Is there more mainstream space for works which reproduce existing social structures and power relations, which, even if they challenge their existence, do so through the evidently ambiguous strategies of grotesque exaggeration or reductio ad ridiculum rather than direct disruption? For all its horrified laughter at the state we’re in, American Psycho isn’t in the business of imagining alternatives to it.