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On Liking American Psycho – slight return (Part 2/2)

2012 May 16

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?

Cover for the book by Chip Kidd, copyright Picador: a photograph of a man in silhouette with the book's title across his head in white typeface and the author's name in large blue block lettering. Shared under Fair Use guidelines.

Chip Kidd’s cover redesign for Picador, 2011

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.”

David Wilson, Howard League for Penal Reform

– again intertwining a socio-economic indictment with a proto-feminist impulse.

The Plot Thickens

Cover art for the book showing a graphic monochrome image of a circular saw. Copyright Picador. Shared under Fair Use guidelines.

Redesign for Picador’s 40th anniversary (Neil Lang)

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.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Russell permalink
    May 16, 2012

    Really liked these two articles, there’s a lot to think about in them. One question which immediately springs to mind is whether men also wish to criticise the patriarchal structures in which they find themselves – to which my answer would be a definite yes – but whether when they do so they are accused of the opposite, which appears to be part of the point you make about this particular work. As someone who has merely seen the film (although you have persuaded me to seek out the book whenever I escape from whatever fantasy land I am currently trapped in) my opinions on this work are obviously diminished somewhat, but certainly in that work it’s clear we’re not meant to sympathise with Bateman, but we cannot help but admire him because he actually does represent the sadistic ideal which we are meant to aspire to, and necessarily cannot achieve. This tension between admiration and abhorrence is only resolved when one realises that Bateman is a criticism of that ideal itself. I think that if one doesn’t acknowledge this, then it’s easy to see the violence, as some critics do, as being gratuitous. Somehow the idea that it’s all in his head doesn’t make it any better.

    I did take issue with one statement from your article, however: “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.” God help us if professional authors start making things up… :-P

    • May 17, 2012

      Ha, yes, it’s a slightly counter-intuitive line of argument, but I just wanted to argue against the idea of Ellis dredging the darkest recesses of his mind for inventive ways to outrage the female body – he didn’t, and doesn’t, need to when these kind of crimes take place in the real world, and can be exposed and opposed there rather than (or, if you like, as well as) in fictionalised depictions.

      Great comment, thank you, and I hope you get something out of the book if/when you read it. I hesitate to recommend it as a good read, but it’s certainly worth a shot.

  2. Becky Shepherd permalink
    May 20, 2012

    Great post. I just nodded along throughout.

    I never quite understand why you’d strip something of all its context to critique it? It happens a lot and not just with novels, but film too.

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