SLAYGROUND : AMERICAN PSYCHO <i> By Bret Easton Ellis (Vintage: $11, paper; 399 pp.)</i>
Here it is at last, the unspeakable thing. Is there anyone in America who does not yet have an opinion about this book (whether they’ve read it or not)--the novel Simon & Schuster refused to publish, that inspired the National Organization of Women to boycott not merely this title but everything to be issued in 1991 by Alfred A. Knopf (parent of Vintage, its new publisher), that was excoriated in reviews and “think pieces” before it was even in the bookstores to defend itself?
Now’s your chance. Despite rumors of heavy editing, Vintage has brought out the Simon & Schuster text virtually unchanged; all the infamy remains.
It is the mid-1980s, the boom years for young traders and investment bankers. Our narrator is Patrick Bateman, 26, handsome, Harvard BA, MBA, a Wall Street scion who wears (a limitless wardrobe of designer fashions), eats (“pilot fish with tulips and cinnamon”), buys (quantities of top-end audio/visual equipment) and boffs (“blond, big . . . ,” every one of them). In short, he has, does and is everything the children of Reagan were promised they could have, do and be. True, he’s sort of alienated and also commits serial murders, some of which he describes in disturbing detail, but, hey, in deregulation you live with the bumps. Let the marketplace take care of it.
What’s rarely said in all the furor over this novel is that it’s a satire, a hilarious, repulsive, boring, seductive, deadpan satire of what we now call--as if it were something in the past--the Age of Reagan.
The miracle of Bret Easton Ellis is that without a plot, without much in the way of characters and with a throwaway nonstyle that renders the luxurious, the erotic and the grotesque in the same uninflected drone, a prose that is pure exchange value, he nevertheless makes it virtually impossible to stop reading.
He’s able to do this, in part, because he knows so well what we want. His endless lists of brand names, chic restaurants and thoroughly accessible hardbodies is the stuff of our fantasy life--the lower floors, perhaps, but we spend a lot of time there. The book satisfies those desires, in fantasy, at least, and keeps satisfying them until our cup runneth over and we’re sickened by what we want and we go on wanting it anyway.
Balanced against this seductiveness is the fact that Ellis is, first and last, a moralist. Under cover of his laconic voice, every word in his three novels to date springs from grieving outrage at our spiritual condition. That impulse is more measured here, more withheld than in “Less Than Zero” (1985) or “The Rules of Attraction” (1987), and the restraint turns the adolescent complaint of the earlier books into the maturer satire of this one. But in all of Ellis’ work, the force comes from this pairing of seduction and disgust, pandering and judgment.
Which makes it hard to understand how this book has become such a scandal. Compared to other literary renegades, from Sade on, who by now occupy an accepted place in the modernist canon, Ellis seems almost a choir boy.
Maybe that’s his problem. Ferocious monsters, gore dripping from their grinning jaws, amuse us. They tickle our own too-bridled lusts, and we’re flattered when they ask us, in William Burroughs’ famous line, “Wouldn’t you?” But a melancholy fiend like Bateman is a party pooper. He gets us all worked up, then sermonizes.
“American Psycho” has been called a sadistic book, and that’s true if we mean sadism toward the reader. Like the pre-"Scarface” Brian DePalma, Ellis shoves our faces into our own appetites, forcing us to see how much we’ll swallow (including gross implausibilities) just to get off. We forgive him because he always implicates himself; he isn’t looking down on the venality of mortals, he’s here in the glitzy gutter with us.
The loudest attacks have accused the novel of misogyny, exploitation of and unremitting violence toward women. Yet of the 18 people (not to mention assorted animals) tortured and murdered by the narrator, eight are women, nine are men, and one is a small boy; of the book’s 400 pages, fewer than 40 are devoted to these events. In the other 360, Ellis is unusually attentive to daily instances of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia. And he repeatedly mocks the perfunctory sexism of his upper-class males. Here is one of them summing up the irrelevance of personality in selecting a girlfriend:
“A good personality,” Reeves begins, “consists of a chick who has a little hardbody and who will satisfy all sexual demands without being too slutty about things and who will essentially keep her dumb . . . mouth shut .”
It is true that some of the torture and dismemberment, especially of the women, is performed with particular zeal. Much rage is expended therein. But hatred of women being so prevalent in our world, it must surely be an appropriate subject for fiction. (One can imagine NOW demanding such books instead of boycotting them.) And it is difficult to conceive of anybody reading these passages without being moved to disgust, grief and finally pity.
Yes, Bateman commits these acts with relish, but it is a mechanical obedience to a compulsion. They bring him no more joy than the rest of his miserable life. He is not a creature of Sade, Lautreamont or Genet, someone whose crimes are a revolt against a repressive order, a thrust toward freedom. Bateman’s freedom is his curse; he can do anything, therefore life is meaningless. Behind his crimes is the attempt to call down on himself the curse of a God whom he fears has ceased to exist. But of course the project is futile. He sins and no one cares. It almost seems that no one knows.
Toward the end of the novel, Bateman is surprised that a couple of bodies he’s left lying around haven’t turned up in the newspapers. Neither, we realize, have any of the others. A private detective comes looking for a missing person and, in a hilarious scene, Bateman does his best to give himself away, but the detective wanders off and isn’t heard from again. The police never show up. Strangest of all, a friend mentions that he’s just had dinner in London with a Wall Street colleague whom Bateman had supposedly dissolved in lime (while Bateman smoked a cigar and listened to his Walkman).
What are we to make of this? That the friend, who keeps confusing Bateman with someone named Davis, has likewise confused his London dinner date with Bateman’s victim, who himself addressed Bateman as Marcus Halberstam? (These guys are interchangeable; Bateman’s crime could be any of theirs.) That Bateman is similarly confused about whom he has killed? Or is it possible that the murders themselves never occurred?
In the midst of one dismemberment, his mouth crammed with the “bluish rope” of a young woman’s intestine, “Wheel of Fortune” blaring in the background on a giant television, Bateman remarks: “This is my reality. Everything outside this is like a movie I once saw.”
But to the reader, even this “reality” feels like a movie. The most gruesome scenes have the deliberate inauthenticity, the stock horror of slasher movies. It is those films (which he compulsively rents from video stores) that are Bateman’s real touchstones, not murder but the fantasy and representation of murder.
Once we begin to doubt the reality of the crimes, questions arise about other scenes: An interlude in East Hampton feels more dreamed than lived (though with bits of nightmare creeping in); a chase through the city practically has the shadow of a boom in it; one sex scene is thoroughly convincing, a comic horror show of spermicides and receptacle tips, while others are parodies of cheap pornography.
The novel subtly and relentlessly undercuts its own authority, and because Bateman, unlike, say, Nabokov’s unreliable narrators, does not hint at a “truth” beyond his own delusions, “American Psycho” becomes a wonderfully unstable account. The most persuasive details are combined with unlikely incidents until we’re not only unsure what’s real, we begin to doubt the existence of reality itself.
Ellis makes this uncertainty into a philosophical condition, and though that is a brilliant way to describe the social and historical moment, it undercuts everything else in the book. Worse, it invites the suspicion that the author is covering up a graver problem: his inability to imagine the mind of his murderer.
Observing a woman who loves him trying to fathom his peculiar behavior, Bateman remarks: "(S)he is searching for a rational analysis of who I am, which is, of course, an impossibility: There . . . is . . . no . . . key.” But that’s a facile out. Too often the book omits exactly those moments--particularly the transitions from sex to violence--which would give if not an explanation at least the sense of felt experience. It never touches the inner logic that would turn the rage that is inside all of us into murderous frenzy.
But few works are capable of that: “Crime and Punishment,” some of Patricia Highsmith, Immamura’s film “Vengeance Is Mine.”
What Ellis fully understands is the politics of social irresponsibility, that electoral strategy initiated by Richard Nixon but which has reached full flower in the Reagan-Bush years. “American Psycho” tells of the greed and soullessness to which we have all yielded in our way and that leads inexorably to gratuitous murder, to murder as our final expression of disgust and plea for judgment.
That the novel cannot fully explain this is only to say that it fails at a great thing. Ambition alone sets it apart from most contemporary fiction. Prudes, squares and feminist commissars aside, the rest of us should applaud Bret Easton Ellis for setting out in this noble and dangerous direction; his only fault is that he did not go far enough.