Kimball is utterly unaware of how truly vacant I am," says Patrick Bateman, the young investment banker who moonlights as a serial killer in Bret Easton Ellis's third and latest novel, "American Psycho" (399 pages. Vintage. $11). By page 275, unfortunately, the reader is way ahead of the private detective who appears only briefly and fecklessly. And way ahead of Bateman, too, who doesn't know when to quit - either killing or talking about himself: The older brother of Sean Bateman, a lead in Ellis's second book, "The Rules of Attraction" (who is in turn a college friend of Clay, the poor-little-rich-boy protagonist of Ellis's 1985 debut, "Less Than Zero"), Patrick Bateman is less a real character than a grotesque nouvelle cuisine meal ordered repeatedly by practically everyone in "American Psycho." Let's see, I'll start with the Harvard man and some bland investment-banker sauce, then a main course of alienation (overdone, please), followed by sexual psychosis topped with whipped murder. Beverage? Bitter social satire, no sugar.
For a guy who continuously spills his guts - and a lot of other people's - Bateman is pretty much a blank. At the office, he frets about "the Ransom account" and "the Fisher account," but his tasks are revealed with all the detail of Darrin's job at the ad agency in the old "Bewitched" sitcom. He hangs around with his buddies McDermott, Price and Van Patten, who prattle about the right brands of booze, suits and accessories. Nothing these moneyed Slaves of the Universe worry so much about requires any education, real taste or life experience; it's all overpriced consumer hardware that any 26-year-old with a platinum American Express card can enjoy. Deep down, in fact, Bateman is a rube: he rents the tape of "Body Double" about 40 times instead of just buying the damned thing, and he's happy with his video club because it lets him check out as many tapes as he wants as long as he spends two grand a year on it.
But Bateman has a big kink: his amalgamated desires for consumer perfection - ostensibly fired to a fever pitch by New York in the Reagan '80s - are turning him into a bloodthirsty maniac. The pleasures promised by price tags turn ugly everywhere before his eyes. He is constantly and profoundly disappointed. "[As] inconspicuously as possible I try to peer over the counter to check out what kind of shoes she's wearing, but maddeningly they're only sneakers - not K-Swiss, not Tretorn, not Reebok, just cheap ones." Even his athletic coitus is rendered interruptus for lack of the right (water-soluble, that is) spermicide. Although Bateman fantasizes slicing up female acquaintances, his first kill (knife to the eyeballs) is a male bum. But he soon starts dispatching women in ways that make chain sawing gentle by comparison (crucifixion by nail gun, breasts exploded by jumper cables, starving rat inserted vaginally). At the height of his derangement, he parades naked around his apartment sexually attached to a severed head.
Bateman is a sloppy murderer and a bad housekeeper, so it's especially odd that none of his handiwork hits the papers, not even the sensation-seeking New York Post (which Ellis repeatedly mentions). No cops come sniffing around, only one of the victims is ever missed and Bateman himself hardly skips a lunch date. His confession that "My appearances in the office the last month or so have been sporadic to say the least" carries no hint of pending unemployment, and his bottoming out - sleeping under his bed, drinking his own urine and Fed Exing the shriveled heart of one of his victims to her mother - turns out to be temporary. For anything besides another murder to happen (we experience a mere 20 of them) would, of course, require a plot, something Ellis has not yet been able to deliver. As in his first two novels, he merely winds up a clock of circumstance and lets entropy of the soul run it down.
"American Psycho" is more, however, than an exercise in extreme sexual violence. The jolting gore is surrounded by an almost trance-inducing mantra of brand names; every character, right to the bitter end of the book when the point has been made a hundred times over, is introduced, item by item, by his or her designer clothes and accouterments. ("Russell was wearing a two-button wool sport coat by Redaelli, a cotton shirt by Hackert, a silk tie by Richel, pleated wool trousers by Krizia Uomo and leather Cole-Haan shoes.") Bateman's disease, Ellis contends, is our disease: we want it all, we want it now and we really don't care who's hurt in the getting.
We Americans are still haunted by the paradox Tocqueville pointed out 150 years ago: democracy and mercantilism mean that anybody with a fat wallet can live like royalty, but never the real kind whose lineage assures the throne. (When a girlfriend calls him Honey, Bateman reacts: "King, I'm thinking. King, Evelyn, I want you to call me King.") So we build hierarchies of the right clothes, the right clubs, the right electronics, only to have them crushed by the next wave of nouveau riche poseurs with a line of credit at Citibank. In the jockeying for position, people lose their humanity and become mix 'n' matches of jackets, watches, skirts and suits. To underline the situation's hopelessness, Ellis concludes "American Psycho" with the sight of a sign: THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.
In the hands of a near-great writer, "American Psycho" might work, but Ellis is only passably good. He admits anachronisms like "tipsy," "Jeez" and "Yikes!" and his recurring references to what's featured on "The Patty Winters Show" is a lame steal from Jay McInerney's "Coma Baby" headlines in "Bright Lights, Big City." In place of setup, Ellis pulls retroactive fact out of a hat when he needs it (". I carry the body up four flights of stairs until we're at the unit I own in the abandoned building"). The book seems barely edited once, let alone twice.
"American Psycho" stands accused, however, of being not only mediocre, but base, misogynous and dangerous. Its defenders invoke what might be called the Masters and Johnson law: better to know these things than not to know them, and fiction is our best probe into the dark side of the human condition. Although the novel will not likely cause any real deaths (unless chanting Giorgio Armani can kill), it does up the ante. Disembowelment will soon be de rigueur. (Dennis Cooper's "Frisk," a novel of gay serial murder which adds child torture and offal-eating to the menu, awaits publication by Grove Weidenfeld in May.) The climate of fiction grows steadily darker, its texture much coarser. Those who argue that equally shocking violence goes all the way back through "Beowulf " to the Bible should try savoring: "Most of her chest is indistinguishable from her neck, which looks like ground-up meat, her stomach resembles the eggplant and goat cheese lasagna at Il Marlibro or some other kind of dog food, the dominant colors red and white and brown." When asked if he knows of a more graphic book, Ellis told NEWSWEEK, "Maybe there hasn't been."
Although the content ("She was too ugly to rape") of "American Psycho" is - and should be - incontestably objectionable to women, its cultural politics are worse. In the current issue of Vanity Fair, Norman Mailer (whose "An American Dream," with its unapprehended wife-murderer Stephen Richards Rojack, somewhat presaged Ellis's novel a generation ago) gives Ellis a light pat on the head for trying his hand at a serious social critique. Mailer's essay and Ellis's book both assume that the fictional dismemberment of women is, in the end, men's business. The best that women can do in the cause of literary catharsis is to serve as brutalized bodies in novels, or as boycotting banshees in real life. Ellis, of course, is not actually Bateman, but on the back cover of "American Psycho" the author's photograph is posed and lighted quite like "Bateman's" on the front, and it's next to a boldface resume of the banker, not the author. So when Bateman says, near the end of the book, "My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact I want my pain to be inflicted on others," we would be well advised to start listening for other, less nihilistic voices in American fiction.
Her head sits on the kitchen table and its blood-soaked face - even with both eyes scooped out and a pair of Alain Mikli sunglasses over the holes - looks like it's frowning. I get very tired of looking at it and though I didn't get any sleep last night and I'm utterly spent, I still have a lunch appointment at Odeon with Jem Davies and Alana Burton at one. That's very important to me and I have to debate whether I should cancel it or not.
From "American Psycho," by BRET EASTON ELLIS'PSYCHO' HISTORY
Ellis turns his book in to Simon & Schuster. All seems fine. His editor requests only minor revisions.
The book's jacket designer bows out: "I felt disgusted with myself for reading it."
In-house grumbling intensifies when the novel is presented at a sales conference.
Time magazine assails it as "A Revolting Development." In Nov., Spy magazine is even more scathing.
S&S CEO Dick Snyder finally reads the novel and, citing matters of taste, tells agent Amanda Urban S&S is not "willing to publish" it. Rumors circulate that Martin Davis, chairman of Paramount Communications (S&S's corporate parent), ordered Snyder to kill it. All involved deny this. Ellis gets to keep his $300,000 advance.
Knopf president Sonny Mehta snaps it up as a Vintage book for an undisclosed sum.
NOW's L.A. chapter announces a boycott of Knopf and Vintage books.