American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis: The freedom to be offended.

March 25, 2015 | No Comments

American Psycho: Tick!

Ah, the smug high at having removed another book from my ‘should’ve read by now’ list. I’m unashamed to confess that I skimmed over many of the scenes toward the end of Bret Easton Ells’s nasty little shocker from 1991, and I have nothing much to say beyond that…

a) I felt touched, nay, nostalgic, about its mentions of Laura Ashley, a brand which I’d have thought was beneath the regard of its uber-stylish protagonist, Patrick Bateman;
b) I identify with Bateman’s urge to throttle street mimes;
c) I agree that if you’re wanting a gentle, quality moisturizer, lads, you could do a lot worse than Clinique.

Of course, lots of other people have had lots to say about American Psycho. Irvine Welsh, in a recent Guardian article, explained why he believes the novel deserves its classic status, while Bret Easton Ellis, himself, has felt forced to defend his fiction ever since its controversial and messy publication, and he appears to have carried a love / hate relationship with it ever since, and in the last few weeks, via the twitter-sphere, has hinted at a sequel. Please Lord, no, but it’s a free world, so he can do what he likes, and I’ll defend his right to do so. Freedom of speech is inseparable from the freedom to be offended.

Because no-one forces us to pick up American Psycho – it is not an assigned text. It’s also not the kind of book where discussions of ‘liking’ or ‘disliking’ feel helpful. Though I understand why it was divisive – some scenes are extremely distressing – I didn’t find the book overall offensive, because to do so would require me to confuse the author with his protagonist, a common error behind many clamors for censorship down through the years, and why I still find those pesky, old-fashioned designations of fiction versus non-fiction so useful.

A more interesting and constructive conversation about American Psycho‘s literary merit might be had by examining Ellis’s use of violence in order to (if you’ll pardon the pun) hammer home his metaphor – a conversation that might include a comparison with Martin Amis’s Money, a novel which deals with a similar time period and similar milieu, though with a considerably less sinister protagonist, and to much greater effect. Samuel Carlyle, in an article in The Believer magazine, tackled precisely this point by asking, “Would American Psycho be better without the violence?” And he argues, persuasively in my opinion, that indeed it would have been better – sharper, funnier, and, yes, shorter. Even though Bateman was the kind of man who describes in mind-numbing detail his two-hour grooming routine – including all the product names, ye gads, and I guess we can blame Ellis for a tendency in some modern fiction to be over-sprinkled with brands (and it took me longer to read about Bateman getting showered and dressed than it took me to get showered and dressed) – and therefore Bateman would be, it’s true, the kind of man who would describe in mind-numbing detail his two-hour slaughter of a girlfriend, yet this doesn’t mean that a reader is going to appreciate Ellis’s ruthless commitment to consistent characterization. Such gratutious sex and violence undermined his satire, distracted from Ellis’s intent: he took his metaphor too far, (as did Amis in Money) and for no discernible reward. He alienated readers who might have been, like myself, on his side and enjoying the ride, over the first half of the book.

Nevertheless, American Psycho is an incisive indictment of materialism, narcissism, and misogyny, and very funny at times. So I find myself baffled that, apparently, it is still censored in some countries – because censorship is deeply unsettling – and while reading it I couldn’t help thinking about recent events regarding the abuse of women in India, or the nauseating details revealed by that farcical trial in France in which Dominique Strauss Kahn is reported to have referred to women as “meat,” and of all those other real – not fictional – instances of the oppression and abuse of women and children and minorities by patriarchal power or capitalism which engorge our news every day. Now that’s offensive.


(Image on main blog page from American Psycho: the Musical, which debuted in 2013.)