Twenty-five years ago this month a novel was published -- and it drove people crazy.
It's probably appropriate that it was called American Psycho.
You may have heard of it. The term has, quite appropriately, entered the American vernacular. Looking at this presidential race, the GOP is on the verge of nominating one. But the novel was not about politics -- its about America's soul. It centers on a young, handsome, very masculine Wall Street banker named Patrick Bateman who enjoys, in his off hours, clothes shopping, renting video tapes, going to fancy restaurants, and committing horrendous acts of murder.
Written by Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho was a strong indictment of the 1980s "greed-is-good" consumerist ethic. But the novel also has a clear fascination with it. The book itself is a bit of a slog to read. It has no real story, no discernible plot -- it just drags along, scene after scene, nothing really interesting happening, until your brain goes numb. In between graphic descriptions of Bateman's murders and scenes of him hanging out with his atrociously shallow friends, there are lengthy descriptions of beauty products, electronics, work out routines, and hilarious dissections of forgotten 1980s pop songs like "Hip To Be Square."
The numbing affect of all this is quite intentional. It's what makes American Psycho a strangely brilliant novel. The book wants you to hate it! It wants to dull your brain to the point that the murders are yet just another thing in the banal life of Patrick Bateman. It makes us, the readers, feel almost indifferent to them and it also makes us, in a way, complicit in his crimes as we are in creating a society that nurtures the evil likes of him.
Read it ... if you dare.
Before American Psycho was even published in March, 1991, it had become a scandal. Apparently the book's original publisher dropped it after Ellis delivered the manuscript and the publisher saw what a violent, disturbing "story" it was. Many employees at the publisher refused to work on the book and it was eventually published elsewhere in a first-edition paperback (I happen to own one of these copies). Much of the violence, it should be said, is of a sexual nature -- it graphically describes the mutilation of women and the violence visited upon them makes rape seem almost like a quaint, preferable alternative (it's that vile). This caused various feminists groups to call for boycotts of the novel. Many public intellectuals (like Norman Mailer) and reviewers condemned the book for existing at all and Ellis for writing it. It was hard to imagine, even back then, that a novel -- a work of fiction, after all, mere words on a page, the oldest of old school media, describing things that had never happened to people who had never existed -- could create such a raucous. But it did. And, naturally, the novel became a bestseller.
In the years since, American Psycho has never fully gone away. There was a movie of it in the year 2000 and now, believe it or not, a Broadway musical, soon to open. Both retellings are not quite as horrendous as the original source material, a perfect example of how something is changed and diluted when it goes mainstream.
As for Bret Easton Ellis, he had written a couple of books prior to this one (most notably Less Than Zero), and several since, but American Psycho is the book that defines him and will probably be his greatest literary legacy.
Why does American Psycho endure? Because it's more relevant than ever. Ultimately this book is not about murder but about the insanity within America, within all of us, about how we live our lives, and about how the ways we try to define our identity in this materialistic culture actually thwart our common humanity. It exposes something within us. And we cannot look away no matter how much we wish we could.
Again, just look at the current presidential race. Can anyone argue that our society is more sane than ever? American Psycho was prescient.