Catching Up With American Psycho

Dwight Garner (The New York Times) on the cultural legacy of Bret Easton Ellis’ most controversial novel

american-psycho-movie-musical-news-culture.jpgWhen Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho” was about to be published in 1991, word of its portrait of a monster — an amoral young Wall Street serial killer named Patrick Bateman, who nail-gunned women to the floor before doing vastly worse to them — was met with outrage.

There were death threats. A book tour was scuttled. The Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women proposed a boycott of the novel’s publisher. An advance review of “American Psycho” in The New York Times Book Review was titled “Snuff This Book!” Some stores refused to stock the novel.

I didn’t read “American Psycho” at the time. I was two years out of college in 1991, and while I’d eagerly ingested the stylish mid-80s debuts of the so-called “brat pack” writers, of which Mr. Ellis’s novel “Less Than Zero” (1985) is a crucial artifact, I’d moved on.

Yet it disturbed me that, in the moral panic over “American Psycho,” so many smart people made a rookie mistake: They’d confused author with character. Bret Easton Ellis and Patrick Bateman were pariahs.

Flash forward 25 years, to 2016. Lo, how things have changed. Over the past decade or so, Bateman has become a pop something, a grinning, blood-flecked national gargoyle. A brash new musical based on “American Psycho” is set to open on Broadway. You can purchase Bateman action figures. Bateman memes — photographs and GIFs from the director Mary Harron’s excellent 2000 film version of “American Psycho” — splash across every corner of the web. (“I have to return some videotapes” is among the movie’s indelible lines.)

Each Halloween, there’s at least one Bateman at the party, some fellow with a gleaming ax and a raincoat, his hair slicked tightly back in that cretinous late-80s style still favored by Donald Trump’s sons.

How to fathom the second coming of Patrick Bateman? The cult following and gradual critical embrace of Ms. Harron’s film, which starred Christian Bale, has played the primary role. Ms. Harron recognized the coal-black satire in Mr. Ellis’s novel and teased it to the surface. In her “American Psycho,” dire comedy mixes with Grand Guignol. There’s demented opera in some of its scenes. The film, like a painful zit on one’s lower lip, pops.
That Mr. Ellis’s novel, alleged by some to be among the most misogynistic books in American lit, was coaxed to cinematic life by a woman adds Möbius-strip layers of cultural complexity. Film and gender scholars will be off in the corner, continuing to untangle the knots, for at least a generation.

“I read American Psycho for the first time recently, and this is certain: This novel was ahead of its time.”

With time, the book itself has picked up a good deal of grudging respect, too. It’s seen as a transgressive bag of broken glass that can be talked about alongside plasma-soaked trips like Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange” (1962) and Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” (1985), even if relatively few suggest Mr. Ellis is in those novelists’ league.

I read “American Psycho” for the first time recently, and this is certain: This novel was ahead of its time.

The culture has shifted to make room for Bateman. We’ve developed a taste for barbaric libertines with twinkling eyes and some zing in their tortured souls. Tony Soprano, Walter White from “Breaking Bad,” Hannibal Lecter (who predates “American Psycho”) — here are the most significant pop culture characters of the past 30 years. Along with Bateman, they comprise a Mount Rushmore lineup of the higher antihero naughtiness. (Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is among the too-rare rejoinders to a world in which men can brutalize women without regard.) Thanks to these characters, and to first-person shooter video games, we’ve learned to identify with the bearer of violence and not just cower before him or her. [Read More]

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