Saturday, August 06, 2011

Books: Speaking of American Psycho . . .

In the Times, there's a neat Google map of the locations that appear in Mary Harmon's cult horror/satire American Psycho.

Two things strike me as notable about the map. First, the section the Times ran it in: "Dealbook" in the business section. Second, the specific fact that it refers to the film alone.

Just some thoughts.

In his 1991 memoir of the Gulf War, ex-Marine Anthony Swofford admirably demolished the notion of filmmakers diminish our taste for conflict when they depict the violence of conflict in graphic terms. Previous, and perhaps more eloquent, writers had dismissed the utility of anti-war art before. Leslie Fiedler, for example, astutely pointed out the obvious in his introduction to Jaroslav HaĊĦek's classic unfinished novel The Good Soldier Svejk and stated that anti-war art hasn't done anything to prevent us from going to war, it's simply stripped it of its nobility. Swofford went one further than Fiedler and suggested that, by stripping it of the nobility that inscribed conflict within a matrix of civil action and responsibility, modern graphic depictions of war became a sort of naked celebration of the unleashed power of violence. Freed of the ideals of combat, what's left is a darkly glamorous wallowing in the use of force, liberated by the presumption of evil of any need to answer to moral calculus. Horace's suicidal war erotica might not have been "true," was it really worse than Blackhawk Down's war porn? Swofford recalls how, prior to deployment, he and his fellow Marines would eat up ostensibly anti-war films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon, getting a proxy wargasm off the display of raw hell that they would soon (potentially) be in a position to wield themselves.

Curiously, workers in the financial sector have the same weird fascination with their own potential corruption. In the 1980s, Gordon Gekko, allegedly created as a symbol of what was wrong with America, became something of a spiritual folk hero to the legions of overpaid insignificants toiling away at the bottom tranch of various wealth factories. (One of the few standout scenes in the otherwise mediocre Boiler Room involves the wannabe brokers watching Wall Street and ritualistically reciting lines along with the actors in the film the way geeks recite lines from Star Wars.) For the bloodthirsty guppy who longed to be a shark in the chum clogged pool of pre-Silicon Alley bubble Wall Street, you couldn't find a better icon than Patrick Bateman, the exquisitely acquisitive mental case at the center of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho.

As a literary character, Bateman was kind of a bust - at least for the purposes of using him as anti-saint for the quants and bottom feeders of the Financial District. Though Ellis later claimed that Psycho was the second novel he completed, Patrick's first appearance was as the respectable, pompous, and dull older brother of Sean Bateman in Rules of Attraction. In his cameo, the notably not particularly psycho Patrick plays the hectoring voice of adulthood, reminding Sean yet again that the seemingly consequence free decadence of college life is temporary. Given what later know of Patrick, the scene seems unlikely at best.

Even when Bateman got his own book, he wasn't really fit for duty. Though he's now overshadowed by his cinematic version, the literary version of Bateman is an odder and, despite the extreme gore and violence of the novel, more intellectually demanding beast. In the novel, Bateman literally slides in and out of fantasy: many of the characters and locations of the novel are lifted directly from other Brat pack novels and various '80s lit classics, a detail that's often overlooked, partially because the cult following of Ellis's novel is, I think, not the same audience for the novels Ellis alludes to. (Which is my nice way of saying that a lot of the people who love American Psycho don't read a lot.) For example, people often point out that the name of the firm Patrick works for, Pierce and Pierce, is a punning allusion to Bateman's extracurricular activities. It's less common for readers to point out that Bateman works for the same firm as Sherman McCoy, the main character in Bonfire of the Vanities. American Psycho's something of a '80s Wall Street version of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, yet only a single reference to Ellis's use of meta-fictional elements appears in the wikipedia entry for his novel (near-victim Allison Poole is correctly sourced Jay McInerney's Story of My Life). This odd mingling of the "real" and "fake" within the story has important implications for whether or not Bateman is actually committing any of the increasingly surreal murders he so graphically describes. (Notably, wikipedia doesn't ever suggest the possibly that Ellis himself admits, that Bateman's no killer.)

It would take the movies to streamline and simplify Bateman. Ellis wasn't very impressed with the film. Because "the medium of film demands answers," her said, the character of Bateman becomes "infinitely less interesting." (The adaptation also seems to mark the beginning of Ellis's unfortunate public displays of cinema-centric sexism: since the adaptation of American Psycho, Ellis has been known to raise a stink among the Jezebel-following crowd with seemingly throwaway comments about his belief that women can't direct films.) Regardless, director Mary Harmon's drastic constriction of Ellis's original work clarifies what Bateman is, makes explicit the connections between his violence and the economic rapaciousness around him, and sacrifices nuance for satiric punch. She created a monster where Ellis had built a mystery. And for the drones of Wall Street, that's just what they needed. Sexy, predatory, unstoppable - Patrick Bateman was the new Gordon Gekko. The alluring image of what, in their unrestricted hearts, they could be. Hot stuff. Plus, nice hair.

Which also brings us to the locale map. I'm not certain that such a map would be possible for the novel. Ellis's book purposely has Bateman slide into some Wonderland Manhattan of near-real but not-quite places that seem to exist in a fantasy un-Manhattan matrix Bateman's spread over the real city. Only the movie, with its radically dumbed-down insistence on the literalness of Bateman's existence and activities would demand a geographic sense of '80s New York.

But I ramble. Check out the map and enjoy.

4 comments:

Erin said...

This is a great article. I have to say that even as a feminist I think the Jezebel folks are over the top if not outright trolls.

Also, do you think the killings in the movie version of American Psycho were real or metaphorical?

Paul said...

Re-watching Vampire's Kiss recently, it seemed almost freakishly similar to AP. I had put it down to a certain magpie ethos in Easton Ellis, but now it seems all of a piece with the book's encyclopaedic nature.

Adam Blomquist said...

"Which is my nice way of saying that a lot of the people who love American Psycho don't read a lot."

To say I guffawed is an understatement. Your blog is my single favorite thing on the internet.The smartest bit of writing on the book or the film that I've read.

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