Having recently finished listening to Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero and not being too impressed, I thought I’d give him another audio try with a novel for which he’s gained more critical acclaim, and critical infamy, American Psycho. I have heard a lot about this novel, especially the controversy surrounding its depiction of graphic violence against women. In fact, I heard about the book before it even began generating media attention (which actually started before the its publication). I used to work in the publicity department of Simon & Schuster, and I left there in the late summer of 1990. Very soon after I left, the galleys of American Psycho began making the rounds of S&S, and it created tsunami-sized waves. I had a very close friend in the publicity department, and she filled me in on how most of the women at S&S were appalled and were protesting the book’s upcoming publication. And indeed, after much bad publicity, S&S withdrew the book from publication.
I’m over one and a half hours into the audiobook, and so far I’m not impressed. I’m not even near the violent parts, but that’s not the problem. What is irking me about this book is its constant product namedropping. There was some of this in Less Than Zero, where Ellis apparently wanted us to look at–or hit us over the head with–the vapidness of contemporary privileged West Coast youth culture. A part of this emptiness was the emphasis on the surface, such as an obsession over how we look and our desires for the “right” brands and labels. This narrative propensity appears with a vengeance in American Psycho, to the point where several passages are composed of nothing more than catalogs of expensive brand names. In fact, the “Morning” chapter of the book is almost nothing more than Bateman’s survey of his fine possessions and the details of his engagements with them. My god….my eyes (or ears) were almost glazing over just listening to the near endless array of shi shi names, products, and habits. It was damned irritating. I’m guessing that Ellis is attempting to do here what he was trying to do in Less Than Zero: demonstrate the vapidness of contemporary consumer culture, and in this case, make us almost anesthetized with his sheer repetition of wealth markers. But my problem with this is the same as my problem with the strategy in the earlier novel. At what point does Ellis’s irony become an almost fawning admiration of the very attitudes he’s supposedly critiquing? As a friend of mine, Joe Kraus, pointed out to me in a conversation yesterday, the problem with literature such as this is that the superfluity of “hipness” looses its critical edge, in that what first begins as irony devolves into a nihilistic (and at the same time, exuberant) wallowing in the depravity it professes to condemn. And if you’re critical of this wallowing, then you’re seen as “not getting it.” You’re not “inside” enough to get what the author is doing. But this kind of wimpy escape hatch just doesn’t wash with me. If Ellis is being critical of the Patrick Batemans and Timothy Prices of the world, he’s not being successful. There’s not enough critical distance in the text. At least, I’m not seeing it yet. Maybe it will become apparent when the core of the novel, the violence, is unleashed. But up to now, Ellis’s love of the commercial surface is more infuriating than insightful. I’ll listen on and see what transpires.