August 1st, 2011 / 4:57 pm
Author Spotlight

The Humanity in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho

1. I avoided American Psycho for as long as possible before picking it up. I hadn’t even realized it’s about to celebrate its 20th birthday (jesus christ) until I was about halfway through my first and only read at last last week, which went down from cover to cover in two evenings. It’s the first time in I don’t know how long that I’ve been compelled to carry a book around with me and read it wherever I am, instead of doing other things, such as on a Friday night on my sofa in my underwear, wanting to stay inside it, even as in many ways the book keeps repeating itself, its elements; there felt something there.

2. I think I hadn’t read the book, and in fact talked shit about it not having read it, all this time because of a series of false expectations placed upon it. I’m certainly one of the last you’d call a squeamish reader, in fact often the more brutal the better, but something about the mythology of Ellis, and the weird taste I’d gotten in Less Than Zero, the only book of his I’d picked up until this year, which reflected to me at the time a kind of retarded field of vision I wasn’t really interested in: drugs, and fucking (which, I know, that’s supposed to be what you want, but that’s part of what made it not at all what I want: it seemed obvious). I chalked American Psycho, too, even among all its hype, to the same kind of thinking: that this couldn’t really be that big of a deal, that it was just some guy getting his balls off writing out some not even that hardcore (in language) action, and etc. etc.

3. Then on a whim, at the end of last year, I picked up Lunar Park. I think maybe I’d peeked in the front pages a few times to see what was up with it, as it was murmured to be meta, and how would that work on him; the first few pages seemed intriguing but I still wasn’t sold, and still anyway I ended up with a copy of it from a used store randomly, and it still sat on my shelf for a long while. At some point I asked Dennis Cooper what he thought of that one in particular and he said he’d loved it, and trusting Dennis’s taste for such, why not give it a try? On finally actually reading I found the book really fantastic on several levels, particularly the opening sections about his career and the way it had come to move around inside his life in ways he could not even really control; particularly, too, in being haunted by the Patrick Bateman character, who shows up in Lunar Park to fuck with Ellis directly, which causes some really interesting repercussion as to what it is to create, and so on. More so, through Ellis’s franker discussion of how the character had been based at least in part on his father, and his relationship with his father, and the bottling up of a kind of anger and terror in the midst of that and his life, it seemed like there was something much deeper, personal to the construct, something I’d maybe overlooked about him, and so on that note, a couple days ago I went and got a copy of AP to see what was up at last for myself.

4. The most immediate thing that struck me is that American Psycho is frequently hilarious. I think being funny on paper is a really tough feat, and even when something is funny it might not necessarily be laugh out loud funny, but the nature of the humor here isn’t really based on jokes or even posturing: it is inherent in the logic of the book. For the entire first third almost nothing of the murderous reputation of the book occurs; instead we’re fueled entirely by the presentation of self of Bateman as he deals with his high end acquaintances and coworkers, running through a similar gamut of illustrious degradation one might have expected given Ellis’s career and prior work. What comes out of this, though, and this is something I had sort of expected from the movie, but not quite with such flawless tone, is a building pathos in Bateman’s brain. This isn’t necessarily a murderous man, or even a nihilist of sorts, completely blank, but instead he is somebody who wants. His wants might be based on front end with the flanking references to superficial crap, as shown in the incessant descriptions of what everyone is wearing by their brands, and the wish for impressing others with such and impressing himself with gaining more; but really it is in the way he is continually shunted off from conversation, saying things that no one hears, no matter how plainly stated, the continually being referred to by the wrong name, the back and forth trading of lovers like items, etc. Though Bateman may play ball, and clearly is central to this lifestyle, there is something in the current of him that tells you this isn’t where he wished to be, not really; that even as he spouts the same junk as any other, and with even more fervent dedication pursues those items that others idolize, there is something in here that is, almost against his will, becoming derailed. As the book continues this pressure cooker of want versus appearance will continue to build and fold over on itself in such a way that even as the blank speech repeats and repeats, it continues to take on new levels of pathos in each iteration, causing in the wake of itself, a field where between the lines almost anything can, and will, happen.

5. The way that Bateman copes with the building distortion between his inner want, however buried, and the continuing nothing his life has filled with is to break with himself underneath himself and do violence. The book goes on building further and further levels of intricately imagined scenes of rape and torture, which late into the book begin to take on a kind of ingenuity otherwise absent from his life. All throughout this, Bateman famously maintains for the most part the same copy-voice he uses in making dinner reservations or trying to impress women he wants to fuck. The narration’s sheen is perhaps what most upset readers of American Psycho early on, in that such acts were being put on with such apparent detachment that the book was “violence for violence’s sake,” which while I personally don’t have trouble with, I don’t think is the case at all here. This is not a book, as has been claimed, that sees the dark of the world and wallows in it. This is a book that in some way wanted more. This is true for Bateman, I think, as a character, if one that never definitely admits it, or changes, though there are certainly moments where the sheen begins to crack, if not in the face of it itself, but in the face behind the face: Bateman visiting his mother in a home and his odd silence there, while still not emotional; his weeping at sitcoms on TV; and even in the exuberant tone he takes describing pop music, which is of course written in a brilliant flat and media-inherited way, but also, in its reiteration, to me reflects not nihilism, but an even deeper burning for there to be something good in the world; something perhaps misplaced but to Bateman joyful, even in the multi-cloaked levels of how blank to some something like Huey Lewis, for instance, is. His wanting, where it lands, seems stilted, misplaced, but that doesn’t make it any less sincere, even when deployed as a passage turned from murdering women violently; in fact, it’s more poignant that way, if you ask me. There seems to be a big idea in literature and even all of entertainment that for something to show heart, be heartfelt, it must have light; that the moments must exhibit some kind of “human element” in order to make it relatable, and therefore somehow validated. This was Wallace’s big problem with this book, and it’s something you hear a lot. I’ll argue, though, that by leaving that sheen up, by complicating the borderline redemptive qualities of Bateman, and feeding his only out into a pathos that is terrifying in its operation in hurting other humans, is actually even more human, more honest; it does not have to bare itself in order to realize where it is. If one’s belief in humanity is founded on the idea of love, then why is that the element we continue to question? Do we really need to reach a moment in every work to remember light and love to know it exists? That the job requires you coming back to this by default seems to me a weaker pose than knowing already it is in there, or can be, and what of it. Depending on that requirement seems cheaper in spite of itself, actually less human, and less sure of the human than one who assumes it, or, holy shit, on paper, lets it go.

6. One could argue, as well, that there is also value in a book not having any redemptive qualities whatsoever, that that is human too (and I’d agree), but that’s not really true in American Psycho; this book is bleeding, begging. Its shit-eating grin has been soldered to its face. Even as the want seems insane, sad, all over, to insist or claim one’s wants pertain only to the true and good seem triply fucked. I don’t particularly care about fashion or expensive stuff, but I laughed and kind of totally nodded in agreement when in the middle of listening to other people go on about dinner reservations, Bateman’s monologue blinks out somewhere else: “J&B I am thinking. Glass of J&B in my right hand I am thinking. Hand I am thinking. Charivari. Shirt from Charivari. Fusilli I am thinking. Jami Gertz I am thinking. I would like to fuck Jamie Gertz I am thinking. Porsche 911. A sharpei I am thinking. I would like to own a sharpei. I am twenty-six years old I am thinking. I will be twenty-seven next year. A Valium. I would like a Valium. No, two Valium I am thinking. Cellular phone I am thinking.” I’m sorry, that is real to me, in a realer way; that is the way more frequently than not it feels to be inside, to me, a head, if about other things that what my head is, and sometimes not even. That American Psycho is so heavily criticized for its supposed lack of feeling to me seems even more of a fuckhole than the decapitations or the rape. What has been raped is our ability to see things without demands laid on them, our own demands. In some ways those bearing these kinds of criticisms aren’t really listening in the same way no one is listening to Bateman when he tries to confess to what he plans to do, though in this case in semantic reverse, for the opposite reasons: to bury the thing alive. When a book is read as if we, the reader, are its receiver, instead of the book receiving us, that’s how the function of art is slowly, over time, destroyed.

7. More than Bateman’s path, though, this book seems to me about the creator. The parts where I felt most electrified by American Psycho weren’t the murders, but the opening of the blank between. It seems really clear to me that this book was made by someone who was dealing with a heavy existential fucking. And that doesn’t mean that the violence and pathos here is a direct result. This, in some way, is a weapon of fantasy; an expurgation of that terror of being in the world; of how being a human doesn’t necessarily underline itself. This weapon is not meant, I think, either to be aimed at us; it is aimed at something inside the creator, Ellis, to go head on into it, to milk it, to let it eat. That someone’s personal destruction comes out in the form of Bateman isn’t ill, and isn’t anti-human; it is actually, in how it bends back on itself, somehow more honest; not a parody or caricature, but becoming. This was made because someone needed to survive. Says Ellis: “[Bateman] was crazy the same way [I was]. He did not come out of me sitting down and wanting to write a grand sweeping indictment of yuppie culture. It initiated because my own isolation and alienation at a point in my life. I was living like Patrick Bateman. I was slipping into a consumerist kind of void that was supposed to give me confidence and make me feel good about myself but just made me feel worse and worse and worse about myself. That is where the tension of American Psycho came from. It wasn’t that I was going to make up this serial killer on Wall Street. High concept. Fantastic. It came from a much more personal place, and that’s something that I’ve only been admitting in the last year or so. I was so on the defensive because of the reaction to that book that I wasn’t able to talk about it on that level.”

8. To be honest, too, despite him being one of my biggest lights, I’ve always hated most of Wallace’s thinking and speaking about what he thought he was doing: his fiction for the great breadth of it is about as far from “being human” or the “applying CPR to the good parts” crap as I could imagine. A lot of Wallace’s fiction actually seems way more alien and fucked and actually darker than Ellis, in its own way, and that Wallace couldn’t see that about his work is part of what makes it interesting, his desire to try to rationalize it outside itself to these logical extensions is part of what makes the whole thing in itself that much more beautiful. Wallace’s grandstanding in this manner was always infuriating to me, and not to mention, in the case of Psycho, totally fucking wrong. I think I glossed over Ellis before on the same premise though w/o even having read more than Zero, and having read that when I was like a little self-righteous; I don’t think Ellis is just reflecting his surroundings; he’s letting something black inside him (and that he saw inside his father, as Lunar Park shows, if from another sort of angle) come out and take full bore and run amok in that bleak world, which to me is something most anyone is gripped by, regardless of how much they realize it or want to admit it; it’s super fucking freeing in a way, and if that’s not a “kind of CPR” then jesus what is. All those layers of Bateman’s thinking and various internalizations and then reactions to that bottlenecking, and ways of dealing with it without exploding (until he explodes); some of those passages, as they build, just reach these places that are way more demonstrative to me of an inner life, though he is so guarded and good at caking on those layers (which also, in being hilarious, does him no good for people who don’t accept humor as art, though to me it’s one of the hardest and most right on ways to eek some of these things out) that it’s really easy to say, “oh, he’s just being coy, or wallowing in it, or etc etc.” It’s a lazy reaction, and a really easy one to let happen to you; I definitely did, without even having read. I’m actually maybe glad now I’m finding it at this time in my life rather than years ago.

9. Beyond all this, or perhaps in light of it, American Psycho in some ways takes a lot of risks as literary art that became overshadowed by the sensationalism of the gore. People want gore; some want to have a reason not to want gore, so they saw this gore and some pretended to be shocked by it, and some flipped just to those sections of gore and read those and but the book down. In this way, the book got overlooked for what to me seems a lot of its best features. The voice here, and the weaving of its many repeated threads, such as the clothing descriptions, the subjects of The Patty Winters Show, Bateman’s internally spooling sense of humor in spite of himself, the weird meandering conversations about manners and reservations and hardbodies, etc., is kind of a wonder of narrative in itself, and certainly not something you’d see in a more “academic” kind of work. A big part of Ellis’s gift, and subsequently, his handicap in appearance, is that he is coming fully from himself, and where risks are taken they might be easily misperceived. Further structural formats expand our perspective even further, by what they do not do, such as the “clipping” of Bateman’s consciousness, where scenes suddenly shift from one paragraph to the next with things having happened in a period we can’t access because Bateman can’t access it, or won’t; or maybe it didn’t happen. Enough framework is suggested that all of this, somewhat like Ellis’s, could be a coping mechanism of an otherwise ineffectual person, taking power only in his mind. A passage near the very end, titled “End of the 1980s,” brings this same clipping into more spiritual direct kind of magnetizing of the polar ends of the want for love and want for destruction. Here we see Bateman faced with someone who could actually love him, his secretary Jean, perhaps the only character in the book not plagued with bullshit (and so of course in love with the deepest skew of them all), and as they talk about what life could be, confronting the idea of that love, Bateman’s brain continues to flex out, into “…where there was nature and earth, life and water, I saw a desert landscape that was unending, resembling some sort of crater, so devoid of reason and light and spirit that the mind could not grasp it on any sort of conscious level and if you came close the mind would reel backward, unable to take it in. It was a vision so clear and real and vital to me that in its purity it was almost abstract. This was what I could understand, this was how I lived my life, what I constructed my movement around, how I dealt with the tangible.”

10. In the end, this book refreshed me; I saw in here something I feel like as a supposed human I struggle with everyday, and not in a way that was made to be a cake for me or even a mirror for me, but a product like new skin, forced out because there it is. If more books had this type of aura, this willingness to shit straight out of the mind and blood for oneself, and with a craft that exists by force in an individual, I believe as readers and as humans we’d all be better off.

Tags: ,

74 Comments

  1. Ken Baumann

      Wow. David: you’re a force. Yes.

  2. brittany wallace

      THE BETTER U LOOK, THE MORE U SEE

  3. John Domini

      Blake, thanks, good effort, but on a revisit to AP I remain unconvinced.  The novel’s problem isn’t lack of “humanity,” a lot of fine books could be accused of that (start w/ MALONE DIES), but lack of imagination.  The targets Ellis aims at are obvious, the broad side of the American capitalist barn.  Now granted, that in itself needn’t be a killer.  A number of folks have done good work going after the same *bete noir,* even old Tom Wolfe.  But Ellis goes after it with the tools of hack Hollywood, a real paucity of invention, & on this reading too (partial reading) it all felt obvious quick — weary, stale, flat & unprofitable, by about p. 25. 

  4. 011001110

      I thought American Psycho was one big Metafiction piece – leading the reader into their inner obsession and with and for violence.

  5. 011001110

      *leading the reader into their inner obsession with and for violence*

      I thought it was some big pomo commentary on 80’s culture.

  6. Ditto

      bored.

  7. nick

      i hope this statement is meant to be ironic.

  8. deadgod

      [might-just righteous alert]

      Yes:  a bad and badly boring novel – indefatigably tiresome pulp – sentences and structure not worth any labor of Edgy Rescue.

      The character is ferocious and . . . sad.  The writer is . . . human.  Especially enjoyable for the . . . humor.

      –and, in the same breath, McCarthy?

      blech

  9. Richard Thomas

      Loved AP. Thanks for this, Blake.

  10. Bee

      how can a gay/bi person be considered homophobic?

  11. postitbreakup

      all his AIDSy remarks about glee and stuff are what made him get touted as homophobic, but my comment was supposed to be a joke. cuz his twitter feed is controversial for lots of other shit (the glee remarks, the jd salinger remark, etc) but the only one that irritates me is all his “empire/post-empire” tweets

      but just on principle i mean, as a general answer to your question, i don’t really buy into the whole “if you are one you can’t hurt others” argument.  if a jew kills jews he’s still anti-semitic, even if that hatred is extended upon himself.

  12. Bee

      well thanks for the comprehensive reply. as for all these remarks of ellis, i can’t really say anything. my ignorance considering all his comments and tweets is why i didn’t get the irony in your post. as you see, i’m not really up to date as regards everything ellis says & so on, and until now i only knew the basic facts. so thanks for enlightening me ;)

  13. Bee

      one more thing: what about this empire/post-empire thing? it seems that you need to folow his tweets far far back in order to get it. so if it’s not too much trouble i would really appreciate if you explained that to me as well.

  14. Bee
  15. Anonymous

      Ken, thanks so much (you, too Josh!). I know what you mean about author intervention. I mean, I can think of plenty of examples of writers who are fine compliments to their books. Dennis has a really honest and fascinating way of talking about his work that only makes it more interesting, generally. Peter Sotos, too. Eileen Myles. Dodie Bellamy. But it’s also the case that they treat their own books as something which receives them, rather than they being the receivers of the insights into their books, you know? I think that’s one reason why they don’t tend to sully or flatten in the way you rightly point out. But it’s strange: I was thinking also of J.G. Ballard. Ballard’s situation of his writing in a wider context, his conversations and interviews on philosophy, celebrity, charisma, technology, history and so on, tends to make for provoking reading. Yet when he actually would talk about what he thinks his books do in that context, well, it doesn’t come over wrong, exactly, but it would flatten, feel too simple, and like, if so encapsculable, why bother reading? You just said it. I think there’s a certain (I’m not sure what the right word would be, so I’ll just go with the really wrong one) “idiocy” to writers in regards to thinking their own work that is part of what makes them writers and not academics, and also why academics mostly find it hard to be writers (“idiotic” in that same vein to writerly expressivity). It’s not a matter of intellection, though: it’s something about the methods by which idea-matter and -frame is produced. So, in Ballard’s case, for example, because he was both a writer and an academic in his mental capacities, you’d find this switchover where he’d talk about almost everything in fascinating detail except the inner workings and immediate vicinity of his own writing. On the other hand, William T. Vollmann, for all his encyclopaedic knowledge, tends to be kind of underwhelming when he does non-fiction – not bad by any means, just not as head-blowingly brilliant by far as he is in his fiction, especially when that fiction discourses. This is only anecdotal, of course, I’m not trying to stand behind this as a theory. But it’s like there’s a fascinating (and frustrating) wall or something between the two modes of intellectual production. Tends to make me wonder whether criticism really should be tiered to art in the way it is (due to the mutual orientation around aesthetics, I guess) or whether it might not have more affinity to architecture, which, as you’ll notice, stands with but slightly off from art (i.e. as a couplet: “art and architecture”).

  16. Ethan

      According to wikipedia, Ellis won some money due to the similarities between Glamorama and Zoolander:

      Zoolander controversy
      Fans have noted similarities to the Ben Stiller comedy Zoolander. Ellis stated that he is aware of the similarities, and went on to say that he considered and attempted to take legal action.[15] Ellis was asked about the similarities in a BBC interview.[16] In the response to the question, he said that he is unable to discuss the similarities due to an out-of-court settlement.

      from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glamorama

  17. Blake Butler

      i can’t imagine how anyone could read this book and not see the imagination

  18. Blake Butler

      i totally see that Lin/Ellis link, in its way; i think Tao even takes it to a different kind level, in the way of getting that monologue down; both are also definitely hilarious in how pointedly it can catch that i think, which is what pisses people off about it, to be that honest with what goes through a person’s head. will be interested to hear the results of your class.

  19. Ken Baumann

      Dennis was, of course, the big example that clicked in my head as I clicked Post. But I think you’re onto something, definitely, in identifying that wall, and criticism’s location on the map. I was just talking to a screenwriter friend, and we talked about Malick, and how the fundamental nature of whatever poetic affect his movies transmitted to us stops us from trying to articulate, hence the poetry/art of it, the inability to articulate, the sublime, (“if so encapsculable, why bother”; exactly!) but my friend also said he ‘didn’t want to and couldn’t reverse engineer it’… I feel like that’s often the weird position of most criticism, this sort of reverse engineering, not to try to recreate the thing or improve it on your own terms, but to just sort of stare at the parts. (Blake, here, does the good reverse engineering because it’s driving at something hidden inside the machine/the holy implicit). Sometimes that can be really satisfying, when the critic marvels at the mechanisms, and sometimes it can just be sort of a dead end. Engineering/architecture. I think too of Kubrick, and he was always pretty stringent with what he said about his work; he stuck to a pretty clear line of avoiding any sort of analysis beyond the most explicit or extensive/apparent information at work, and just relied on the audience and the necessary mystery to work for him/without him. I find that really admirable, and feel that Dennis does a similar thing… states what’s necessary/respectful to communicate some basic mechanical strategies he had, in the making, and what he drives at in a tangible/extensive way, and leaves all the intensive stuff out, or at least to further inquiry. I’m a bit sleep deprived, so I hope this makes sense. Fuck all these commas. 

  20. sinkone

      I think it is ridiculous that people say Ellis is an asshole. He is brilliant, so the fuck what if he is an asshole?

  21. Mark Stevenson

      I’m going to have to pick up American Psycho again, I think. A whole bunch of thoughts about this article that are kind of swirling around in my brainsack. I feel like I’m fifteen and I’ve been given homework to think about this. Good homework, I mean. Good stuff.

  22. Correlated Contents - Touching base.

      […] to read today, something of substance, you could do worse than Blake Butler’s piece on American Psycho over at HTMLgiant.  Note this: The way that Bateman copes with the building distortion between his inner want, […]

  23. Secrecy, speed, affect: The Marbled Swarm | HTMLGIANT

      […] Another precursor: I have to use numbers for this review. The accumulative force in The Marbled Swarm has made me […]

  24. Bret Easton Ellis Wants To Be 2012's Most Hated Guy

      […] HTML Giant) The Bret Easton Ellis/Lindsay Lohan Lovefest May Finally Be OverBret Easton Ellis Throws Twitter […]