In 1991, Bret Easton Ellis’s novel ‘American Psycho’ announced itself as one of the most repugnant, stark and brutal pieces of transgressive fiction ever written; and, having just read it for the first time, I might be tempted to argue it’s the best of the last thirty years. With remarkable courage in both style and content, it displays what Ellis describes as the outcomes of pursuing the American Dream: “Isolation, alienation, the consumerist void increasingly in thrall to technology, corporate corruption”.
The novel follows Patrick Bateman, a young and very handsome Manhattan businessman on the Wall Street of the late 1980s, as he conceals his being a serial killer beneath the veneer of his commercial success. There are lots of things that make the story so effective, but there’s one in particular I’d like to discuss here.
The best thing about the book is that it is absolutely horrible to read – which is quite genuinely a compliment. Ellis wants us to experience the inane circularity of Bateman’s life: almost every single scene is set in any of his apartment, his office, a restaurant or a nightclub. Almost every single scene features a set of superficially modelled, uninteresting characters. By the end, almost every single scene is a plain drag to read.
I wondered at first whether Ellis was actually just not a great composer of prose. The writing reads in a very terse, very mechanical way – the descriptions are like glazed lists rather than engaged artistry, and the characters are barely discernible. But as the story goes on it becomes obvious that this is not only intentional, but the whole point. Ellis is attempting to crush the reader into the same bored frustration as Bateman, and it works magnificently.
Here’s an example of Bateman’s thought patterns as he sits in a restaurant with his girlfriend:
“Evelyn’s wearing an Anne Klein rayon jacket, a wool-crepe skirt, a silk blouse from Bonwit’s, antique gold and agate earrings from James Robinson that cost, roughly, four thousand dollars; and I’m wearing a double-breasted suit, a silk shirt with woven stripes, a patterned silk tie and leather slip-ons, all by Gianni Versace… I spent most of the afternoon buying myself early Christmas presents – a large pair of scissors at a drugstore near City Hall, a letter opener from Hammacher Schlemmer, a cheese knife from Bloomingdale’s to go along with the cheeseboard that Jean, my secretary who’s in love with me, left on my desk before she went to lunch while I was in a meeting. The Patty Winters Show this morning was about the possibility of nuclear war, and according to the panel of experts the odds are pretty good it will happen sometime within the next month. Evelyn’s face seems chalky to me right now, her mouth lined with a purple lipstick that gives off an almost startling effect, and I realize she’s belatedly taken Tim Price’s advice to stop using her tanning lotion.”
On first reading this seems like an incredibly boring passage, but in actual fact there is much, much more here than immediately meets the eye. In fact, this single passage could more or less sum up most of what ‘American Psycho’ is about. This is what you could call ‘the consumerist stream of consciousness’.
Like many American writers trying to explain the frustrated listlessness of post-industrial society, two things Ellis uses are the list and the long sentence. These two things create a sense of a constant, superficial stream of information, which we see here in Bateman’s lists of what he and Evelyn are wearing (with perfect knowledge of their origins and materials), followed by the list of what he bought that day, then what he watched that morning, then back to how Evelyn looks. This in turn does two things: bore the reader outright and show how consumer capitalism affects thought.
Now, what do I mean by that?
Well, consumer capitalism particularly relies on image and short attention spans. Think about that point: a consumer culture is one in which individuals are encouraged to be constantly buying and consuming, so in order for that to happen the mind must be tuned to get bored of things very easily and quickly move onto the next. The consumerist mind is one that seeks satisfaction in short-term pleasures, forever restless and unsatisfied. It constantly seeks quick turnover of information.
And Ellis shows us this tendency in his narrative. Look at how his mind jumps from one senseless topic to the next. In order, it goes:
- What Evelyn is wearing;
- What he is wearing;
- What he bought that afternoon;
- A reference to his secretary ‘who’s in love with him’;
- What he watched that morning;
- How Evelyn’s face looks.
Not only are these topics all superficial and disconnected, but the narrative is circular; he comes back to the aesthetics of the woman sitting opposite him. There is no deeper emotional connection with anything, and he is trapped in these inescapable circles of thinking.
Virtually the entire book is written in this way. Bateman’s mind is mechanistic, easily distracted and essentially disconnected. It makes sense, therefore, given his obsessive eye for information, that the controversial parts of the novel – the scenes of sex and butchery – are told in the most excruciating detail, with a mind that shows no emotional engagement whatsoever.
Therein lies the essential suggestion of ‘American Psycho’: that to fully espouse consumerism, one must espouse psychopathic tendencies. This is because consumerism entails a lack of emotional engagement, which is exactly what psychopaths lack. Ellis is saying that capitalism is essentially psychopathic.
There is also a link to be made between Bateman’s short attention span and his suffering from anxiety (he spends a lot of the novel on valium), knowing as psychologists do now that these two things often go together.
E.M. Forster commented in ‘Howard’s End’ that a commercial culture is one in which there is a façade, behind which is nothing but “panic and emptiness”. This is what Ellis is showing us in ‘American Psycho’: the panic and emptiness behind consumerism, the fundamental disconnect it entails, and the horrible effects on the mind that causes. Well done him.