A post about literature and Bret Easton Ellis

Today I came across this post by Matthew Yglesias. In it he discusses a (female) blogger/writer’s long belated book review of American Psycho (by Bret Easton Ellis). Yglesias mostly talks about how the female writer, Sady Doyle, doesn’t really get the book.

…I was glad to see her write something at length about Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, which I actually have read. Through paragraph after paragraph I kept wanting to say “you’re misunderstanding! you’re misunderstanding!”

I am a huge Bret Easton Ellis fan. I’ve read everything of his besides Rules of Attraction and the second half of The Informers. His first book, Less than Zero, is still my favorite, although the criminally underrated/under-appreciated Glamorama (his 5th book) is perhaps his most engrossing work.

I’m no literary scholar nor critic nor do I read all that much. But I have a basic understanding of Ellis’s style and subject matter/motivation as a whole, and that is sort of important for understanding American Psycho.

Yglesias goes on to quote the director of the American Psycho movie, as well as lead actor Christian Bale, to prove his point that the book is meant to be largely satirical and that Doyle misunderstands that. To call it “satirical” is true, though it ignores the nuance of Ellis’s larger direction of satirization, which can be seen more or less throughout all of his works.

Let’s look at part of Doyle’s appraisal of the book:

It’s rare that anyone plays the raping-and-beating-up-women thing hard enough or often enough to desensitize me. But Bret Easton Ellis, God bless his heart, managed to pull it off.

The whole book is like this: Thuddingly, numbingly repetitive, confined to making the same basic points approximately 1,000 times apiece. Patrick Bateman is very rich. Patrick Bateman owns lots of products. Patrick Bateman knows the names of all the products he owns, because consumerism is bad. Patrick Bateman goes to fancy restaurants where he eats ridiculous food. Patrick Bateman goes to fancy clubs where he does lots of cocaine. Patrick Bateman cares a lot about the fancy restaurants and clubs he goes to, because being status-conscious is bad. Patrick Bateman only knows other rich men; he hates them, because they are boring and shallow. Patrick Bateman is engaged to Evelyn, a rich lady; he hates her, because she is boring and shallow. Patrick Bateman cheats on Evelyn with lots of ladies; in a surprising twist, they are boring and shallow. Also, he hates them. Patrick Bateman hates women, generally. Patrick Bateman hates black people. Patrick Bateman hates gay people. Patrick Bateman hates the homeless. Patrick Bateman hates Asians. Patrick Bateman’s friends hate these people too, because bigotry is bad. Also, Patrick Bateman kills people. Patrick Bateman can get away with killing people. Patrick Bateman is only mildly more loathsome than his friends, because, as previously stated, the lifestyles of the rich and privileged are very bad. That is why we needed several hundred pages of excruciatingly detailed first-person description of them, because of how bad they are. You did not know they were bad before. Now you do. In summary, the ’80s were a spiritual wasteland. The End.

In most cases, you can excuse the banality and repetition as “necessary,” a technique that conveys how hollow and meaningless Patrick Bateman’s life has become.

It’s true. But it misses the point of what Ellis is trying to convey. Ellis’s major motif in all of his literary work is the idea of apathy. Less Than Zero is one giant pile of apathy. As Ellis grew as a writer he learned to wrap the problem of apathy in more complex stories and literary techniques. In fact, Doyle encounters it head on and doesn’t even realize it.

It’s rare that anyone plays the raping-and-beating-up-women thing hard enough or often enough to desensitize me. But Bret Easton Ellis, God bless his heart, managed to pull it off.

Ellis’s writing are partial performance art, and that is why his works have such lasting value. Whereas his first book was about apathetic people being apathetic about being apathetic, American Psycho, his follow up to the follow up of Less Than Zero, attempts to turn the reader into those same apathetic characters, perhaps in the hope that we would realize what we’ve become, or perhaps just because Ellis is amused by the subject matter and likes to write. I don’t know his deeper motivations.

But read what Dolye is saying and you see that Ellis has succeeded. Repetition of brutal rape and murder and torture scenes throughout the book end up desensitizing the reader. It’s purposeful, in my opinion, because the only other explanation is that Ellis is himself psychotic and just likes to write about these things and about restaurants and ties and face creams over and over and over again.

The “purpose” of Ellis’s satirism of apathy is up to the reader to surmise, but some obvious possibilities jump out. Doyle’s explanation that Ellis is just ranting that “the ’80s were a spiritual wasteland. The End.” falls flat. The most obvious explanation is that Ellis is complaining about consumer culture, both in his overt satirization in which Bateman, the protagonist, is obsessed about his clothing and going to the right restaurants and listening to the right music and giving a shit about mundane details that don’t really matter but are used to sell us things…long sentence here…and in his clandestine satirization in which he proves that repetition of things can desensitize us enough to not give a shit any more about how gruesome (or in the case of commercials- annoying or trite) they are.

Another way of looking at the story is perhaps thinking of Bateman as a “corporation” himself, who does whatever he wants because he has the money to do it then continues to do worse and worse things with less and less of a conscience because each transgression goes unpunished leaving little reason to heed any sense of self-control. Also part of that would be the fact that corporations are guided by a hivemind motivated by (financial and/or power/political) gain, and Bateman is meant to be a vessel to show us what happens when all morality is removed from such a powerful vessel (be it a corporation or a person in a high position of power). It’s a somewhat convoluted way of parsing the story, but it does match up with the fact that the book was published in 1991, after the very new rise of the Wall Street investment banking industry. If I recall correctly, the first investment bank to shift from being a partnership to being a corporation (therefore shifting risk to stockholders instead of the founders) did so around 1981. The movie Wall Street with Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good” came out in 1987. It is not that much of a stretch to think that these things influenced Ellis. According to Wikipedia, Ellis moved to New York City (from LA) in 1987, so the book (which is about a crazy mergers and acquisitions lawyer on Wall Street) published in ’91 is grounded in some amount of reality rather than abstract notions of “this is what the 80s was like and stuff” as Doyle seems to believe.

….

Part of me is curious about whether or not there is a gender gap that cannot be bridged with this type of satirization. Kind of like how a conservative might not appreciate The Daily Show’s liberal satirical perspective, no matter how brilliant the show’s satirizations are. I’d imagine that if a book was written in which male political science students at the University of Connecticut were tortured and murdered one by one by a deranged female professor, all under the guise of satirically lamenting consumer culture, I would probably not be able to look at the work from an illuminated satirical viewpoint. Probably not.

But a lot of Doyle’s problems with the book come from looking at it through a lens of feminism. The protagonist certainly mutilates and kills a lot of hookers and girlfriends and womankind. But he kills bums and dogs too. The book is neither anti-feminist nor feminist, so it makes little sense to look at it in that type of lens, in the same way that I would be wrong to look at my hypothetical book through the lens of being a former political science major from the University of Connecticut.

Perhaps it is impossible to fully remove that lens, or any lens that we look through to view the majority of our life. The problem is that certain art, or really art as a whole, requires looking at things through uncommon lenses or through no lenses at all.

American Psycho is art. It is meant to change the reader’s perspective by using several techniques of repetition and hyperbole. And lots of blood and dark thoughts. It is a book about a man with no conscience, whereby Ellis dares us to insert our own. In a way, Doyle’s critique is exactly what Ellis probably wanted. He wanted us to get pissed off and angry and upset. He wanted us to seek out our own conscience instead of indulging in abstract notions of literary worth.

So maybe the joke is really on people like me and Yglesias after all.

Maybe the joke is not so much that Ellis wanted to prove that we can be easily desensitized. It’s that anyone looking at American Psycho as a work of great literature is already desensitized beyond repair.

Which then brings up the ultimate question of whether satire in itself is dangerous, a subject I find enormously fascinating. But this is the end of today’s post.

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2 thoughts on “A post about literature and Bret Easton Ellis

  1. Thought provoking as usual. Another 1987 incident to consider; the October 19 Black Monday stock market crash. Many believed that this was the result of program trading, the first major injection of computer technology into the financial trading system. With the election of Reagan in 1980, this was the start of the rise of Wall Street and business in a more prominent role in daily life. Having lived through this era, I remember being more aware of an increase in business articles and columns, business shows on TV and radio, especially in comparison to the ’70s, which was still carrying through many of the Big Business is Bad attitudes of the ’60s. In the 80’s, getting an MBA was suddenly THE thing to do. So it makes sense that Ellis would be influenced by these changes in American society with his work. I personally barely got through Less Than Zero (I put it up there in my Top Most Disturbing Books with William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch), and have not read any of his other books so cannot offer an opinion on that.

    As far as satire is concerned, it’s always dangerous to those being satirized; nobody wants to be laughed at. But I think it’s a vital part of being human. It’s G-d’s way of making sure we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

    Thanks for making me use my brain on this very dreary Labor Day.

  2. Pingback: A response about Ellis and the dangers of satirization | SeeRoyWrite

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