“SOME EDITORS at Random House expressed their relief that the Persian Gulf War diverted attention from the book,” The New York Times reported in 1991. The war was the first in Iraq declared by George Bush Sr. The book, American Psycho, the novel with which the American Bret Easton Ellis marked an epoch at age 26 with his disturbed protagonist, the murderous yuppie Patrick Bateman.
Using the existential emptiness of the character and the violence described in morbid detail, Ellis constructed a savage satire on the predatory consumerism that corroded everything. American Psycho shook the establishment literary and raised considerable media dust. The editors of Simon & Schuster declined to publish the book, calling it “in bad taste.” The legendary Sonny Mehta, who then ran the Vintage label, got hold of the manuscript, respected the macabre tone, took it out on the streets and sang bingo.
It didn’t take long for Ellis to receive threats to dismember him and torture him as Bateman did in the novel. The author became a hated and admired character, capable of radiographing with sophisticated and grotesque precision the miseries of his society. “What happened with American Psycho today could not happen, “said Ellis in 2019.” The content that stirred so many people, today is everywhere. It gore it is everywhere. The things we see today were unimaginable in 1991 and that is why the book was so successful. “
Indeed, feminists and progressives proclaimed their disgust at the story of that deranged Wall Street pup. Many were outraged that these murders and dismemberments were being printed, especially of women. He interspersed long tirades about pop songs, notes on fashion and a lot of cocaine, using a literary style “of male obsessive compulsive disorder, with endless enumerations and hyper-detailed descriptions”, as critic Marco Roth, of the magazine N+1. One of the voices most opposed to the book was that of Gloria Steinem, Christian Bale’s stepmother for a few years: the actor who would end up playing Bateman in the movie Directed by Mary Harrow, giving her a very prosperous second life. Remarkable irony that it was indeed a woman who ended up bringing this postmodern fable of diseased masculinity to the cinema, almost a decade after it hit bookstores, giving it a very prosperous second life.
In 2021, 30 years after its publication, there is something in the book that remains disturbingly valid, although its surprise effect has been worn out. The character of Bateman is a confessed admirer of Donald Trump, and who would have thought in 1991 that the tycoon would end up moving to the White House.
Ellis used a furiously postmodern syncopated rhythm. “He transformed the novel into a story about male vanity,” writes critic Dan Crowe. “It is not only the representation of a toxic or hegemonic masculinity, but the culmination of the same idea of masculinity without filters, in its purest form.” For years the novelist referred to his father, Bob Ellis, a real estate agent in Los Angeles and a man with irrational and pathological features, as the model for this sadistic male figure. Beneath the quiet and sunny life in the suburbs there was humiliation and mistreatment. As journalist Lily Anolik, a deep knowledge of the world of Easton Ellis, recounts: “The family home was not a safe place, and Dad would not come to save you from the bogeyman hiding in the closet. Rather, home is where fear lives and the monster is the father from whom he managed to escape through the books ”. Ellis had made his debut as a novelist at 21 with the dazzling Less Than Zero when he was a college student at Bennington. That college for rich kids devoted to the punk gap turned out to be an unsuspected focus of talent. Three exponents of the so-called Generation X, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt and Ellis himself met on campus in the eighties. They say that he arrived with a suitcase loaded with drugs and another with the notes that would end up making up his first novel. The success was instantaneous. There was something fresh in his narrative and something very rotten in the world described.
With Bateman he shared a deep unease: “He was crazy in the same way as me. The story started from my own alienation at one point. I fell into a consumer vacuum that should make me feel good, but it made me worse, “he explained in 2019.” Writing a novel is like an exorcism. It allows me to get out of the pain and make sense of it ”. The label of uncomfortable has not left him. “We don’t want him as one of our own and we may wish he didn’t exist. But regardless of what you think of him as a novelist, whether you see him as a clown or virtuoso, villain or provocateur, you have to admit that he knows the code of American culture of the last 40 years, “says Anolik. The critic Roth sneers at how naive Bateman is today: “What seemed exaggerated has almost become domesticated. American Psycho is the apotheosis of consumerism. But the protagonist has a remnant of conscience and is too articulate compared to Trump or his henchmen, who, murders aside, have even less empathy, “he reflects and regrets that today there is no space to tell terrifying stories” that do not lead by the hand explaining to the reader that he must be horrified ”.
Bad times for satire, and in that it agrees with a great admirer of Ellis, the novelist Ottessa Moshfegh: “Subtlety is necessary for satire, but it is not appreciated in the United States. We value poise, direct attacks and celebrations. It is a weakness ”. And that conversation of the start of American Psycho: “I am creative, I am young, unscrupulous, highly motivated, highly skilled.”
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.