A Consideration of American Psycho

American Psycho in Retrospect

and another

Decide for yourselves--what follows is merely my own intuition and opinion about the harm this and other works of "literature" can cause.  I'm willing to say that I am possibly wrong.  I'm willing to say equally that I may disagree with those who take the opposite point of view, but I do not have any animus toward the arguments made in their favor.  But I cannot overcome my moral repugnance at some subject matter.  So, beware, statements that follow may be hyperbole and overstatement--though I've tried to keep them relatively cool and level.  I would be happy for any demurrals or any arguments that would persuade me to see the books discussed otherwise, but the horror in which I regard certain moral transgressions against innocents will be difficult if not impossible to overcome.

This particular book just gives me the opportunity to discuss a general feeling I have about books and subject matter.  Just as with Lolita, I found myself abandoning this book a little more than half-way through and then struggling through to the end.  Perhaps I suffer from the same lack of a sense of humor that the article describes--but somehow Patrick Bateman's shenanigans don't strike me as the stuff of humor no matter what the circumstances.

There are some subjects, no matter how beautifully couched or archly written, no matter how knowing or humorous, no matter how smugly self-assured and self-involved (I think here of Nabakov whose writerly persona is so thoroughly repugnant that if one wishes to enjoy the fiction one needs to forget who has written it, and whose opinions are as pertinent and yet blindly prejudiced as those of certain other professional critics) that simply cannot be ignored for the sake of art.  When we do so we coarsen discourse and society.  I know, that is not a popular opinion; however, I'm very willing to say that the epidemic of sexual child abuse and of attempts to legalize it (NAMBLA, for example) is directly attributable to Nabokov's broaching of the subject matter and the beautiful and even sympathetic treatment of the monster at its center.  The critical acumen necessary to twist Nabokov's distant and yet not disapproving treatment of Humbert Humbert into an indictment of what he does is not present in the ordinary reader.  And the fact that the victim is punished as thoroughly as the transgressor doesn't help the case of the critics who would argue that Nabokov's work is not at least superficially sympathetic to the monster in the middle.

So too with American Psycho.  From Less than Zero on, Ellis has been interested to the point of distraction in the extremes of people and situations.  Whether American Psycho is ironic, humorous, blatantly satirical about 20th Century Economic Homo sapiens shrinks into insignificance in light of the sheer delight the author takes in his loving descriptions of death and dismemberment.  Yes, Patrick finds himself ultimately bored with it all, moving from bad to worse in the course of the novel, and yes there is an indictment of the mindset.  But with that all, there are unquestionably scenes of pornographic violence to which we have become so inured that we're now willing to pronounce the book a masterpiece.

It was a mistake with Lolita, and it is a mistake with American Psycho as well.  It is my ardent hope that they both sink into the psychological mire from which they emerged never to face the world again.  However, as with the work of the Marquis  (odd to think of him on Bastille day, hein?) I fear that they will form the underpinnings of a literature of psycho-sexual disorder--Venus in Furs, Juliet, Lolita, and American Psycho are all stitched from the same cloth.  Lolita is perhaps the least explicit of the group (mercifully), but perhaps more hideous for what it announces than any of the others save American Psycho.  This literature is not new, nor is the ardent support it receives from the literary establishment--de Sade is routinely taught in course on French literature for his sublime prose.  Nabokov is read even in Tehran.  And American Psycho is held up to us as an example of humor, satire, and nihilistic excess.

I only hope a few of us retain the vision to announce the the emperor has no clothes at all.  Nabokov's prose does not redeem a novel that can only in the most convoluted deconstruction and reconstruction be made out to be moral.  Like Kubrick's films, one can make the case, but an easier case is made not for a "moral novel" but for a misanthrophic view of humankind held up for examination.  It does not redeem the approach.  I can appreciate Nabokov's prose in other works--Pale Fire and Pnin without having to accept Lolita as a work of moral fiction.  Even if so intended, I rather trust the judgment, "by their works ye shall know them."  And the works of Lolita and American Psycho have done nothing to elevate the human spirit nor point out the horrors of what they discuss.

And you may take me to task on this--I know I'm in a minority--but I have tried.  I've tried and tried to convince myself that the moral center of a novel does not matter.  That one can write a very moral novel about very amoral and immoral material (which I believe to be true)--but I cannot see it in the books under discussion.  And I'm not entirely sure, because I have not gotten through enough of it--but Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones may belong squarely in these ranks.


  1. You and I might differ on how to articulate our reactions, but we share a absolute bottom-line assessment of AMERICAN PSYCHO and LOLITA, two novels that were for me so repulsive that I could not force myself to finish either one. I have been accused of having a Pollyanna attitude toward certain exemplars of "literary fiction" because of my rejection of the themes and the way those themes are explored by certain novelists. Well, so be it. Life is too short (and already dark and savage enough) for me to spend precious moments wallowing in the mirk and mire of human depravities. An acquaintance, formerly of Texas A&M, argues that LOLITA is one of the greatest novels in the English language. I cannot agree with him. Either he is right and I am wrong, or I am right and he is wrong, but I cannot imagine that we can both be right. Therefore, being a jury of one (which is what reader's really are, in spite of critics who would urge a different kind of aesthetic upon readers), I come down against LOLITA (and the similarly unpleasant AMERICAN PYSCHO). This is perhaps unfair of me to wonder, but I do wonder about the psychology of critics (the Texas A&M gentlemen excepted) when they jump up and down in their praise for books like AMERICAN PSYCHO and LOLITA; perhaps, after all, criticism is more subjective than critics would like to admit. If that is the case, I reluctantly accept the Pollyanna label, and withdraw into my own vision of what is worth reading and what is worth abandoning.

  2. Postscript: Please excuse all the grammar and typographical errors in my previous posting. I am embarrassed by the sloppiness.

  3. Dear R.T.,

    You won't get an argument from me--we might say it differently, but as you noted we come down on the same side of the coin.

    Oh, and welcome to my Pollyanna world--I'm the one always saying to people--let's think about something that is good about this.

    And re: mirk and mire--I couldn't agree more--as the compassionate Buddha has said--all life is dukkha--and we certainly don't need to make it more so.



  4. Steven,

    I suspect you are a voice crying in the wilderness. I haven't read _American Psycho_, and based on the descriptions I've come across, I'm not likely to.

    I have read _Lolita_ and also have seen the film. I have read that _Lolita_ is supposedly an allegory depicting the encounter between the worldly wise and possibly decadent European civilization and the young innocent civilization now maturing in the New World.

    James did it earlier and better, and the evil is clearly evil in his works.

    I also disagree with the opinion that _Lolita_ is one of the greatest novels etc.... But, then, I have my problems with Nabokov anyway and find his works generally unpleasant.

    Every so often, I pull out my copy of John Gardner's _On Moral Fiction_ as a restorative and a defense for my own values.


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