Last time I gave some background on my own thoughts and experiences with Bret Easton Ellis and his book, American Psycho. Naturally it is now time to talk about Dante.
Dante Alighieri composed the epic Italian poetic masterpiece The Divine Comedy, made up of three books (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso) that chronicle an obsessively constructed and heavily allegorical religious journey made by the narrator (a fictionalized version of Dante himself) as he is guided through Hell, Purgatory, and finally Heaven, and is in the process expunged of all sin and allowed to gaze upon the glory of God. Of these three books, the part of the Comedy that sticks with readers (and with the generations) the most is Inferno. In much the same ironic and paradoxical way that Satan is the most interesting character in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Hell is the most intriguing and interesting part of the Comedy.
So it is that Inferno has been rewritten and restaged and adapted countless times to various means and ends, including what sounds like an absolutely hysterical Niven/Pournelle SF version. If you’re unfamiliar with the basic premise of the whole Inferno thing: Hell is a series of concentric circles within the earth (below Jerusalem, even), and in each circle all the sinners of a particular type (the gluttonous, or the lustful, or even simoniacs) are punished in a multitude of allegorical and surreal ways that are the type of brutal you only get from medieval theology (like being buried upside down with the soles of your feet eternally aflame in a grotesque parody of baptism).
In the plot of the Comedy, the whole thing works like this: Dante tells us that “Midway in our life’s journey [he] went astray,” meaning that in the middle of his life he wandered off the correct spiritual path and found himself “alone in a dark wood[.]” (By the by, all of my Dante quotes are taken from the superb John Ciardi translation, so if the wording seems different than what you know because you’ve grown up reading blank verse translation of the Comedy or something, that’s why.) The allegorical bits here are clear enough — I’ve lost the correct path through life and now I am in a spooky woods, oh no! Fortunately, the spirit of the Roman poet Virgil shows up and explains to Dante that Beatrice, a fictionalized version of a woman who Dante had hella courtly love for and who now resides in Heaven, has demanded Dante be saved, so she’s pulled some bureaucratic strings and now Virgil is here to get the party started.
Dante and Virgil set off on their whirlwind journey through the afterlife, the idea being that once Dante sees the wide variety of earthly sins and their appropriate punishments, along with the virtues and their rewards, he’ll be better equipped to ward off sin and move toward virtue on his own. So to start things off, Virgil takes Dante through the Inferno, or Hell, and pretty much right off the bat we get what is probably the single most famous line from the entire Comedy and one of the most famous lines in all of Western lit:
I AM THE WAY INTO THE CITY OF WOE.
I AM THE WAY TO A FORSAKEN PEOPLE.
I AM THE WAY INTO ETERNAL SORROW.
SACRED JUSTICE MOVED MY ARCHITECT.
I WAS RAISED HERE BY DIVINE OMNIPOTENCE,
PRIMORDIAL LOVE AND ULTIMATE INTELLECT.
ONLY THOSE ELEMENTS TIME CANNOT WEAR
WERE MADE BEFORE ME, AND BEYOND TIME I STAND,
ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE.
Pretty heavy stuff, man. This is the inscription Dante reads over the gates of Hell, and the “Abandon all hope” thing is everywhere in popular culture. It’s also a launching-off point for me, since this series is ostensibly about Bret Easton Ellis and American Psycho and so far I’ve written 600 words on a medieval Italian poet. So what do these two dudes have in common?
As it turns out, quite a lot. Let’s take a look at the very beginning of Ellis’s novel:
ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Miserables on its side blocking his view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn’t seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio, “Be My Baby” on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.
So there’s that pesky phrase, that thing about abandoning all hope, and right here at the beginning of the novel! Perhaps — just maybe — it is not simply graffiti but a clue that the story we’re about to read is, in many ways, not about a successful investment banker on Wall Street in the 1980s but really about Hell?
Well, yes, of course that’s what it means. This isn’t a one-off reference, either, something Ellis threw in to make us associate Wall Street with the Inferno; the novel has many parallels to Dante. American Psycho is not, however, a one-to-one adaptation of the original in the same way, say, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres is a pretty close retelling of King Lear, where the narrative architecture is almost exactly the same. In Psycho Ellis consciously uses Dante for what might be termed the foundation of the story: certain ideas, certain character relationships. But Ellis scrambles Dante’s vision, moves it around, cuts up characters (literally, I guess) and puts them back together as others; certain themes from Dante are excised entirely, while others that seemed pretty minor are pushed to the center-stage and exaggerated and elaborated for all they are worth.
In other words, what happens is that Ellis reads Dante, says to himself, “That’s pretty cool, I can do something with that, but I don’t need all this stuff about allegory or Heaven or Catholicism or which Popes are going to hell.” So he tosses all the crap doesn’t interest him, takes what he likes, and builds a new piece of literature based on that. The same acquaintance of mine who says Ellis is the best 20th century novelist calls this sort of thing rewriting, and I see no reason to call it something else.
So American Psycho is a rewriting of Dante. But Michael, you say, you’re basing this all on one line at the beginning of the book! Surely there is something more to it! And boy, are you in luck, because there is.
Before I get into the real nitty-gritty of what’s going on between Psycho and Inferno, it may help to map out a few points about character relationships. Remember that Dante was his own main character, though he in a sense reduces himself to an allegorical everyman; Dante is led through Hell by his artistic hero, the Roman poet Virgil, and the entire journey takes place at the behest of Beatrice, who is a woman beautiful and holy beyond mortal love, hence requiring the courtly stuff. Virgil has no trouble guiding Dante through Hell and most of Purgatory, but once it’s time to tour Heaven he has to turn back because, as a pre-Christian, it’s simply not in the cards for him. So when Dante finally does get to Heaven, it’s Beatrice who takes on the role of his guide.
Now, I have a very specific reading of these relationships that is not necessarily shared by anyone else, but it goes something like this: a confused and troubled guy is helped through a tough situation by his best friend, but the friendship is ultimately not enough to make the troubled dude okay and so he gets handed off (baton-like) to the woman he loves so the real healing process can begin (or something phrased in an equally asinine way). The reading relies mostly on dramatic structures that I’ve seen in both old and new forms of popular entertainment — like say, romantic comedy films. The wacky sidekick characters to the protagonist are always plenty interesting, they usually get the best jokes or the snappiest lines, but they’re never enough to get the protagonist to stop pining after the love interest. It’s always the same: your friends can help you, but it takes love to make you whole.
So naturally in adaptations and rewritings of Inferno we get relationships that mirror this setup. There’s the troubled and/or somehow naive and/or clueless main character, almost always a smarter/sharper guide, and usually a wise third third party, beloved by the main character but in some way unreachable. American Psycho follows this pattern to some extent — or seems to.
The first paragraph/sentence is actually pretty disingenuous. It makes you think the story is going to be told in third person, but it mostly isn’t. It’s the first-person present tense almost stream-of-consciousness narrative of Patrick Bateman, the titular psychopathic American. The first paragraph is him describing to us Timothy Price, who is a friend of his from the same firm. The relationship between them is odd. I mean, most of Bateman’s relationships with other people are pretty odd — whenever a character enters or re-enters he describes for us their clothing in excessive detail, including brand names and his own personal opinions on how well the outfits come together and I mean this happens every time — but with Price it’s even stranger.
You see, Price is having an affair with Bateman’s girlfriend Evelyn. It’s something he suspects and is pretty much confirmed in the first few chapters when Bateman watches Price and Evelyn practically make out in front of him. Surprisingly, Bateman doesn’t really care about this — it’s our first clear view of how amazingly detached he actually is from everyone, including the woman he is supposed to, in theory, love. (Later, we find out that almost all of Bateman’s circle have quasi-open relationships like this, but here it seems like a contained incident.) You also get the distinct impression that he’s letting Timothy get away with it because, as he tells us, Price “is the most interesting person” Bateman knows. Of the various peripheral characters Bateman goes clubbing with, Price is the only one to emerge with a distinct personality at the beginning, and if Patrick has a best friend, well, it’s probably him.
So we have our Virgil. And not only that, but our Virgil runs off within the first hundred pages of the book. While in a club called Tunnel, named after the fake railroad tunnel and glow-in-the-dark tracks that run into it, Price suddenly begins to wonder where the it leads — “Where do those tracks go?” No one seems intent on answering him, and besides, the tunnel’s fake, but Price keeps asking. He and Bateman do some subpar cocaine and finally, in a scene everyone except Bateman handles with surreal, amused complacency, Price jumps the railing and follows the tunnel away into the darkness.
“Price! Come back!” I yell but the crowd is actually applauding his performance. “Price!” I yell once more, over the clapping. But he’s gone and it’s doubtful if he did hear me he would do anything about it. Madison is standing nearby and sticks his hand out as if to congratulate me on something. “That guy’s a riot.”
McDermott appears behind me and pulls at my shoulder. “Does Price know about a VIP room that we don’t?” He looks worried. (p. 62)
Price is not mentioned again for another three hundred pages. I mean it, he’s not even mentioned in the next paragraph. He simply disappears — the most interesting person Patrick knows, poof, gone! I’m sure you see what I’m driving at here: the friend who leaves. And if Price is our Virgil, then who is Beatrice?
One candidate seems to be Jean (“My secretary who is in love with me,” as Bateman repeatedly refers to her) but really, though she is a kind and honest person, Jean seems to be just as susceptible to the materialism and superficiality of the world as anyone else — Bateman plays her like a piano, telling what she should and shouldn’t wear, what’s classy and what isn’t, and she’s in love with him but he is unreachable to her. The better candidate is a fairly incidental character named Bethany.
She is Bateman’s ex-girlfriend from college, and he implies that he habitually beat her and this is the reason they broke up. Nevertheless, when he runs into her by chance they make plans to have lunch together and catch up. Bateman, in his relationships with women, usually lusts for control (he hires prostitutes, orders them around with very specific instructions for various sex acts, records them doing as he asks, then usually kills them and records that too) and, as with his secretary Jean, he usually has it. After all, he’s fit and handsome and rich. Bethany is notable, then, because she is someone who has escaped Patrick and, strangely enough, comes back; he seems to assume it’s because she wants sex, and when it turns out she really does just want to catch up, he becomes furious. To add insult to injury, Bethany is actually engaged to someone else now, and she shrugs off all (or most) of Patrick’s advances.
So here we have the girl with a pre-established relationship to the main character, and she has somehow ended up in a situation where she is estranged from him and seemingly beyond earthly reach. Seeing the connections here? And what does Patrick do with his beatific guide once he finds her?
Why, he beats her, drives nails through her knuckles, maces her repeatedly, rapes her, mutilates her genitalia, dismembers her, partially cannibalizes her, and then leaves some of her remains sitting around his expensive Manhattan apartment to rot. Of course.
So obviously something’s wrong here. Either Ellis is doing a hell of a deconstruction of Dante or we’re approaching this from the wrong angle. Virgil bails too early and Beatrice is ripped to shreds, and suddenly our Dante Pat Bateman starts looking like a very confusing character.
This is the part where I play the pedant and say, yes, I’ve been laying out this reading in the completely wrong way to prove a point: if American Psycho is a rewriting of Dante, then obviously we expect the main character to have the relationships I’ve described and have them play out in the expected manner — for sake of example, another Dante rewriting that pulls this off with remarkable skill and subtlety is Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.
But that is not what happens in American Psycho. The plot of the Comedy means the protagonist (in our case, Pat Bateman) needs to undergo expurgation, some change, he needs to become better.
He doesn’t. Bateman kills what seems to be countless people, is chased by the police, confesses everything, and is still never caught. The book ends with him clubbing, like always, and looking at a sign: THIS IS NOT AN EXIT. We never leave the Inferno. Why?
Well, this is when the novel goes from “pretty good” to absolutely fucking brilliant.
You see, Pat Bateman isn’t Dante. He’s one of the damned. He’s a shade condemned to Hell, enduring eternal torture, that Dante passes on his way to bigger and better things. If Pat went astray midway through his life’s journey, then he never got out of the darkened wood again — his Virgil is a womanizing cokehead who left too soon and he kills his Beatrice out of sheer wrathful spite. So not only is he damned, but, when you get right down to it, he chooses to be damned.
This installment ended up being longer than I expected, but the third may surpass it. Next time I’ll explain in more detail how Bateman is damned, how it continues to relate to and rewrite Dante, and, in a surprise twist, how it also relates to and rewrites the work of this man:
See you then!