No Exit: Bret Easton Ellis’s ‘American Psycho’ Turns 20
If you ever write a book with the goal of inducing an emotional state in your readers, don’t make that state numbness, emptiness, or greed. Also, don’t induce that state by listing hip things that will most certainly go out of fashion. Make a movie instead. Then, like Mary Harron does for American Psycho the movie, you can give your audience an hour and forty minutes of horror, black comedy, and nostalgia for sequins before releasing them back into their lives of decent portions, iPods, and tightly regulated prescription drugs.
As American Psycho’s last line suggests, there is no way out of the 80s for Bret Easton Ellis’s novel. Focused on details like Perry Ellis ties, rayon, and walkmans, which might have provoked ideas of perfection or fashion then, the novel is now more likely to evoke the bargain basement or the school bus. On its 2oth anniversary, that leaves us with the question of whether or not we can take this novel in 2011 as a relevant and meaningful cultural critique.
Cultural critiques often present narrators who are able to expose society’s problems because they slip through a loophole in the demands around them. It’s true that in this case Patrick Bateman is perfect—a handsome, polished man who, because he lives in a superficial society, has been allowed to get away with being a demonic serial killer. And no one pays him any attention.
But American Psycho is equally the portrait of a monster that society did not make, and the more extreme his behavior, the more the novel verges on a macabre recitation of 80s couture, Huey Lewis tracks, and workout routines. Is the Wall Street of today superficial enough for someone to get away with Bateman’s crimes? Well, since the recession began, he’d have to at least put in more hours at the office.
Certainly, the misogyny that made Simon & Schuster originally drop American Psycho is still in evidence. But I’m pretty sure there wouldn’t be a NOW petition to stop the book these days. We’re no longer at the point where we need literature to point out that meaningless sex, drugs, and violence are making us less human. Instead we want books that tell us how to feel, how to be alive, how to – as Jean, the only character with any depth says – “make someone happy.”
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