Aug 12, 2010

Notes on reading American Psycho

There's an old sentimentalist saying that the purpose of the novel is to show us that we are not alone. There are all sorts of problems with that idea and I don't want to suggest that I just buy it, though I am sympathetic to these humanistic ideas of art as ethics, but it's worth mentioning again because Bret Easton Ellis seems to use almost the opposite idea for his book, American Psycho.

The book is basically a bludgeon, beating the reader with the idea that there's nothing at all, no humanity we share. This is a book that aggressively wants to break you down. Ellis' novel could be understood as an exercise in art as isolation: it says, no, you really are all alone.

There are no people in the novel, for one thing. They are only surfaces. Automatons. Sites of consumption and locations of lifestyle and style choice. For a while I was hoping the excessive serial-killing violence of the protagonist would only be his fantasy, so that Patrick Bateman imagines saying to a girl that he'd like to dismember her but doesn't actually say it, or he imagines his suit is spattered with blood that no one really notices at the McDonald's, because that would have meant that Bateman had internal life, a private realm, a solipsistic inside of which he was the center of every experience and where he could actually feel something like loneliness to which we, the readers, could relate. It doesn't go that way, though, and so when Bateman says, towards the end of the novel, "I decide to make public what has been, until now, my private dementia," it comes off completely strange. What public? What private? There are no people but only surfaces here, unlike, say, Dostoyevsky's underground man, whose self is an abyss of loathing and wretchedness internally monologued and to which we can actually relate, recognizing ourselves in his misery.

Bateman isn't miserable or wretched, though. He has no abyss. He just buys stuff and consumes and makes reservations -- and even in that he doesn't have an identity. Ellis makes this point by point out the main character himself is constantly being confused or mistaken for other people, and he and his group are constantly mistaking people for other people, so that everyone's interchangeable, no one's identifiable and no one actually exists as human.

The only actual glimmer of humanity in the book is the bums who crowd the streets, 30 in the first few pages, whose own need for human connection makes them the stand-in for the reader with that old senitmental idea of what the novel is going to do. And Bateman's favorite response to the bums is, a) to tell them they're horrid and stink and to get a job or, b) to act like he's going to give them some money, only to snatch it away at the last second, and instead insult them. The latter seems like a pretty good picture of Ellis' tactic too.

In this context, the pornographic violence and brutal sex of the world of American Psycho are very logical responses to and outworkings of the reality that there are no people here. They aren't dehumanizing, though I'm sure that was a criticism, but responses to there being no humans at all. It's sadism, but kneejerk sadism, pain without point or feeling, without even the part of sadism that's an attempt at an ethics.

The whole thing, I think, works as a meditation on the failure or art. Or the ethical uselessness of art. The very first attack of violence in the novel is immediately followed by an extended commentary on the band Genesis. Art follows violence. Both are inconsequential. When Bateman stabs the bum, first in the eye, "flicking the handle up, instantly popping the retina," and then repeatedly stabs him in the hands and stomach and back, before stomping on the front legs of the bum's little dog, he tells the bum, "It's just that ... I don't know. I don't have anything in common with you." Then the next chapter is about Phil Collins' band, Genesis, which hasn't been able to do anything to Bateman that might make him think he has something in common with someone else.

There's actually a lot of art in American Psycho. A ridiculous amount or art. It's normally pretty rare for an author to fill up his novel with excessive references to other works of art, but Ellis' is full of names of real and fictional works of art and artists. An incomplete list includes:
  • Les Misérables
  • Elmore Leonard
  • Talking Heads
  • Genesis
  • David Onica
  • Huey Lewis and the News
  • Whitney Houston
  • Jon Bon Jovi
  • U2
  • George Stubbs
  • Eric Fisch
  • Frank Lloyd Wright
  • Frank Sinatra
  • Nat King Cole
  • Hemingway
  • Cindy Sherman
  • Springsteen
  • The Beatles
  • Elvis
  • Madonna
  • Sting
It's an incomplete list in part because of tricky (for me) taxonomical questions about "high" and "low" art -- like should the made-up TV talk show in the novel be counted alongside Sting?, what about Body Double?, what about biographies of serial killers? -- but also because so many things that might be considered art in some contexts, like fashion designers' clothing lines and food, for example, are here understood only as status objects. Consumption that's conspicuous, etc. But then once you draw that line, and say there's distinct difference between a status object and an object of art, between say a Rolex or an BMW, on the one side, and a Milton or a Picasso, on the other, and that the difference has something to do with how something is taken, or received, it becomes quickly clear that there's no art in the novel at all. These are all status objects. An Auden, in this world, is no different than an Audi. A Stein no different than Starbucks. These are all things meant to be consumed as part of a lifestyle, as part of a personal expression that is a creation of self identity that one has purchased, except of course even that implies that there are people with identities that they express, and Ellis' world all you have are humans with the same content as billboards. Art isn't art here, or anyway isn't taken that way.

Making the list immediately uncovers the question "what is art?" or "what is taken as art?" but, more disturbingly, strongly suggests the answer that there is no art all.

Ellis particularly bluntly beats on this point by having a character (about to be murdered) point out that a David Onicia painting Bateman has hung prominently and proudly on his wall turns out to be upside down. We're never told about what the painting looks like, though presumably it's abstract, but we are told multiple times how much it cost, or how much Bateman says it cost, or how much someone says he says it cost. Ellis here repeats a pretty common complaint/critique/snide and stupid comment conservatives make and always have made about the senselessness of modernist art (it's upside down -- ha ha!), and so we have this scene where Bateman doesn't understand this art, which he only has because it's supposed to be valuable, bestowing status and marking taste, and also, simultaneously, we're given the idea that the painting is meaningless and there's nothing to understand.

There is, actually, this really, really conservative strain, in the book, especially if you want to take it as a satire. There's this picture of the world that American Psycho has, which is the world conservatives think we'll live in if we give up foundationalism, realist theories of art, authorial intent, divine chains of being, divinely directed metahistory, etc., and succumb to "postmodernism." "Sex is mathematics," Bateman says, expounding on something, but sounding particularly like what, say, conservative culture commentators say "postmodernists" sound like:
"Individuality is no longer an issue. What intelligence signify? Define reason.
Desire -- meaningless. Intellect is not a cure. Justice is dead. Fear,
recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things,
emotions, that no one really felt anymore. Reflection is useless, the world is
senseless. Evil is its only permanence. God is not alive. Love cannot be
trusted. Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in ... this
was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged ..."
You see this, too, in how the novel takes the idea that identity is constructed, and that there is no "essential" self, and, switcho-chango!, makes it into a character of an idea where humans are hollow and all, basically, the ethical equivalent of serial killers: Bateman says, "I simply am not there ... Myself is fabricated, an aberration ... My personality is sketchy and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent. My conscience, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at Harvard) if they ever did exist."

At Harvard, natch.

Whether I read this as a position or a satirical critique of a position, it seems to me to be deeply disdainful of art. As if it's saying, look, idiots, art can't save us, we're animals and serial killers and none of it means anything and yes, you're alone in this, and no, you can't share that aloneness with anyone else: you're alone in being alone and then you die; or it's saying, look, once we give up these old, "classical" ideas of art, which is that art is about transcendence and universal truths, which is to say "high" art and to say it's about class, then we're left with only pop and trash and no one is "elevated" and then look, idiots, art can't save us, we're animals and serial killers and none of it means anything and yes, you're alone in this, and no, you can't share that aloneness with anyone else. Either way, though, it's art as opposed to the idea of art.

There is, oddly, one piece of art that actually gets taken, I think, as art, by Bateman in the book. There's one piece that has the function I think I want art, including this book, to have. What's odd, though, is that it's a Post story about the sighting of urban legendish creatures that are part bird, part rodent, and almost certainly and pretty obviously a hoax. It's this story, though, and only this story, that has an art-like effect on Bateman:

"... it fills me with a nameless dread that someone out there has wasted the
energy and time to think this up: to fake a photograph (and do a half-assed job
at that, the thing looks like a fucking Big Mac) and send the photograph in to
the Post, then for the Post to decide to run the story
(meetings, debates, last-minute temptations to cancel the whole thing?), to
print the photograph, to have someone write about the photo and interview the
experts, finally to run this story on page three in today's edition and have it
discussed over hundreds of thousands of lunches in the city this afternoon. I
close the paper and lie back, exhausted."

I don't know why that one piece is different for Ellis or for Bateman. It's the one story, though, that seems to awaken even a glimmer of the idea of an infinity of otherness, and maybe there there's the chink in Ellis' art-hating piece of art. Whether one takes this book as an endorsement of a certain idea of life, that is this is the way the world is -- as Ellis kind of seems to in the end, saying, "summarizing for the idiots," saying, "this is, uh, how life presents itself in a bar or in a club in New York, maybe anywhere, at the end of the century and how people, you know, me, behave," -- or if one reads that as a criticism in the form of a satire of how life presents itself at the end of the century to certain people, it's still dead and deadening, except for this one moment that probably deserves the attention of a whole paper, it's still "hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid," as David Foster Wallace said, and a work of art that doesn't believe in art, except perhaps as a way to stab us in the face until we give the hell up on our idea that it might be possible to not be alone.