The Guardian Book Club has been spending the past month commemorating Bret Easton Ellis‘ 1991 novel, American Psycho—an unusual choice, maybe, but then perhaps some novels need about 20 years of distance before they can be read clearly. Nobody would agree with that notion more than Ellis himself, it seems. In an essay published last week, he notes that “I don’t think I got a single good review—every one across the board was terrible, apart from one in the Los Angeles Times.”
It’s interesting to look back and see the revulsion that characterized the response to the book at the time. Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post called it “pure trash, as scummy and mean as anything it depicts: a dirty book by a dirty writer.” The Jerusalem Post‘s David George said the book is “drowned in a style of writing in which irony is submerged by vulgarity.” Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times called it “a book whose very confusion of form and content has caused it to fail.” (In the same review, he also noted that books in general had become little more than something “to distract us on a flight between JFK and LAX.” Books: Irrelevant since the early 90s! At least!) The Independent discovered that “Bret Easton Ellis” is an anagram for “to sell, be nastier”—a zinger with some work behind it, since this was before the era when online anagram finders made that sort of thing easier. (“Beastliest loner” would also have been acceptable.)
True enough, Henry Bean‘s review of the novel is one of the few that delivered praise: “What’s rarely said in all the furor over this novel is that it’s a satire, a hilarious, repulsive, boring, seductive, deadpan satire of what we now call—as if it were something in the past—the Age of Reagan,” he writes. Even there, though, the praise is hyperactive, as if he’s so caught up in the book’s provocations that he feels compelled to provoke too. (“One can imagine [the National Organization for Women] demanding such books instead of boycotting them,” he writes. Really?)
Guardian book club blogger Sam Jordinson mentions it only glancingly, but the Guardian praised the book too, in a strange way. Fay Weldon‘s “An honest American psycho” is emblematic of how writers tied themselves in knots thinking about the book—the difference here being that Weldon comes out in favor of the novel, or at least in favor of the anti-censorship forces around it. The book is “brilliant,” she writes, for the reason people found it outrageous: It’s a horror novel without the comforting moral resolutions of most horror novels. She writes:
It’s because there’s always been someone in the other books to play lip service to respectability: to the myth that the world we now live in is still capable of affect. The serial killer gets discovered, punished, stopped. There are people around to throw up their hands in horror, who can still distinguish between what is psychotic and what is not. Justice is done. There is remorse. Just not in American Psycho. And we hate him for saying it. In American Psycho not so. Nobody cares. Slaughtered bodies lie undiscovered. The city has fallen apart. Nobody takes much notice. The police have other things to do. Those who are killed don’t rate – they are the powerless, the poor, the wretched, the sick in mind, the sellers of flesh for money: their own and other people’s. The tides of the city wash over them, erase their traces.
How much of this is genuine praise and how much of it is a satire of its own sort, sending up the hypocrisy of the era? Is it really a “myth that the world we now live in is still capable of affect?” What’s with the schoolmarmish tone? (“[N]ot in American Psycho…. In American Psycho not so.”) Weldon’s chief pleasure seems to be more in tweaking the noses of the hypocritical bluehairs who would abolish the book than in defending the book itself. It’s a self-insulating argument, as if to say, “You think American Psycho is bad, buddy? Lemme show you American society!”
We can look back at all this and not take it so seriously—and taking it too seriously might’ve been the problem in the first place. As Jordinson points out, the satire that was off-putting back then has only gained potency over time:
As well as being a repulsive nightmare, Patrick Bateman is a comic creation of the highest order. His snobbery, his bad taste, his obsession with Les Mis and ability to take Huey Lewis and the News seriously, his terror when someone has a better business card than him, his constant worry that he has “to return some videos” all add up to one of the funniest comic creations since Bertie Wooster. True, he isn’t quite such pleasant company as Bertie, but what did you expect? He’s a psycho.
The book may not have improved over time, but we may finally have reached a point where it can be discussed on its own merits.