I just finished Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho on audiobook. As I’ve been posting here for the past couple of weeks, I’ve been quite a resisting reader when it comes to this novel. Throughout my experiences with this book, I’ve seen it as vapid, self-indulgent, self-consciously hip…and this doesn’t even approach the problems with the book’s violence (which I feel mixed about). I had previously read (or listened to) Ellis’s earlier work, Less Than Zero, and that didn’t impress me all that much. I’m not sure if was Ellis’s style that put me off, his subject matter, or the fact that I (perhaps unfairly) equate him with the kind of people and settings he writes about…or maybe just a combination of all of these reasons. But first getting into American Psycho, I was becoming even less tolerant of Ellis’s talents. Yet, I do have to say that after finishing the novel, I appreciate it a little bit more. This might not be saying much, since overall, I do not find the book to be a completely successful narrative. Still, compared to what I had been thinking about the book, my concluding impression are at least not completely dismissive.
What grabbed me in the end was Ellis’s not-so-subtle linkage of Bateman’s situation to that of the Reagan years in America. In the very last scene, when Patrick Bateman and his Wall Street buddies are sitting in the restaurant/bar, watching Reagan and Bush Sr. on the TV, you can see clearly where Ellis had been wanting to go all along. And I’m with him on this. I agree that the 1980s, particularly America under Reagan, had been a vapid, self-indulgent, shortsighted, selfish, nauseatingly jingoistic, and highly deceptive decade. At bottom, it was a period in American history where our moral mettle was truly tested, and we came up short. I get all of this, and I understand how American Psycho fits into this picture. However, I can’t help but think of another narrative that points out all of this, and more: Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. That film, released in 1989–and I was living in New York City at the time, and saw it on its opening night, experiencing the kind of Woody Allen fan moment satirized on Saturday Night Live a few years later–is all about the Reagan years and its many crimes. The thing is, Allen’s film succeeds where American Psycho doesn’t. Much of Ellis’s 1991 novel is blunt and gratuitous…and I’m not necessarily talking about the violence and sex. Ellis is anything but subtle, and that is part of the problem of the novel: a lack of sophistication and equivocal complexity.
That being said, I could see teaching this novel. It would be interested to teach a course on 1980s America, and using many of its narratives of the time to illustrate and critique that decade. Even though it would turn off a lot of the students, I think American Psycho could be an effective text to use, along with Crimes and Misdemeanors and a number of other texts that narratize that period in our history.