So foul and fair a day I have not seen

No entry last Friday because, as it happened, all that day I was traveling north.  I spent the weekend in Edinburgh, which was definitely the most awesome place I’ve seen so far in Britain.  While London is neat in its own way, mainly because it’s London, Edinburgh is really notable because it also has a lot of history, and most of this history wasn’t bombed to hell by the Germans and replaced with horrific 60s architecture.

The two panoramas I have here were taken from the top of Arthur’s Seat, and climbing it was probably 1) the coolest thing I did in Edinburgh, and 2) one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.  It is one of the most marvelous things I’ve ever done, and the view was outstanding.  When I got to the top I began reciting “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins over and over again, and I’m not even particularly religious.  It was just that amazing.

And, of course, how could I have possibly gone to Scotland and to Edinburgh Castle, the ancient seat of the Scottish kings, without snapping this little beauty:

Good times are to be had in Scotland.

In other, almost entirely unrelated news, while on the train to and from Edinburgh I managed to read quite a few books.  This is because the train ride is damn long and I’ve apparently developed some sort of speed-reading capability, but since (as I’ve mentioned) there are  a million used bookstores around here I can pick up new material for cheap.  So I managed to reread Joyce’s Dubliners (good, of course), along with reading for the first time William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland (pretty okay, still need to find a hard copy of his The Night-Land since I’ve only read it online), and something like two dozen of MR James’s ghost stories.

I also read some in a classy little hardcover I picked up on a whim — it was only 75p and clocking in at just over 100 pages it has that “old-timey tiny hardcover” mystique, but unfortunately it isn’t that good.  It’s a collection of poetry and prose, but the stories are mostly plotless social realist vignettes that are sort of infuriating (when I finish it seems like nothing has happened, but I have the annoying feeling that the author’s played a trick on me) and the poetry is just sentimental and/or maudlin.  It’s called The Chameleon and is by a guy named Ignacio Muez Ajedra.  Yes, that name seems very Spanish, but the book is written in British English.  I don’t know if he was an immigrant or if the book was translated because the copyright page only says it was published in 1900 by Crane & Sons, as you will see, Google yields nothing on the man nor anything on his publisher.  There’s something a little neat, though, about having an old book that no one remember by a forgotten writer — kind of an Shelley’s Ozymandias vibe or something, or maybe I’m just a melancholy jackass.  At any rate, whoever Ajedra was, his name will now be forever linked with my blog once the Google bots start crawling over these words.  Sorry, man.

Also this week I saw a production of Measure for Measure at the Almeida here in London, and I have to tell you, it was superb.  I mean that as sincerely as I can, and I can’t relate to you how great this production is without sounding hyperbolic.  Let me put it this way: when I read Measure for Measure for the first time a few months back, I was pretty unimpressed.  The play seems sloppily written, perhaps somehow corrupted or even half-finished, and overall as a reading experience it’s very unsatisfying.  In the end it just doesn’t make any damn sense.  It is the job of a production, in my opinion, to find some way to fix these problems — not rewrite it or anything, coming up with fake Shakespeare dialog or whatever, but to find a way of staging it so that the audience is presented with a coherent and cogent reading of the play where the textual faults are levered as assets.

This production, suffice it to say, does that with flying colors.  I may write a whole entry on it later, when I have more time, but over the next few weeks I’ll also be seeing productions of Twelfth Night, Richard III, King Lear, and a recently written “sequel” to Macbeth called Dunsinane. If I can find some way to string my responses to all or some of these plays together I may put together a weekly series like my American Psycho exercise a few months back.  We’ll see.

On the tube

On a good day it takes me something like 40 minutes to get to classes, or to get back home.  On a bad day it can take an hour.  There’s really nothing to be done about this in the mornings — it so happens that I have to take the tube most days at a time when everyone else in the area is also heading to work, so the trains are packed.  Heading home in the evenings, on the other hand, is something of a crapshoot; the rush hour never seems to be very consistent in when it decides to happen, and usually my rides back are less cramped than my rides in.  I’m usually even lucky enough to get a chair!

Now, there are a few things people do on the tube to keep themselves occupied.  I’ve already mentioned reading, though a lot of people also listen to iPods and such things.  I do both or one or the other, but I’ve also devised a little game to pass the time during the longest stretch of my commute, when I get on the Northern Line at Leicester Square.  The game is called “Who’s Getting Off at Camden Town?”

Here’s how it works: you covertly assess everyone in the current train car and, based on their outward appearance and demeanor, guess who among them is going to get off at the Camden Town stop.  Every time new passengers get on in between your current stop and Camden Town, add them to the pool.  You start with a score of 0; for every person you correctly guess is going to get off at Camden Town, your score is increased by 1.  For every person who you think will get off there but who actually leaves earlier, your score gets -1.  The game effectively ends when you reach the Camden Town stop; if any of your picks remain on the train past the stop, your score receives no merit or demerit.

Obviously to play you have to be northbound and on the Northern Line, or sufficiently far out and southbound; the best times to play, however, are Friday and Saturday evenings, when the nightlife at Camden Town is thriving.  This is also the easiest time to play, because you’ll really pad out your score with a bunch of easy guesses.  However, if you want an extra challenge, try playing during the day or on weekday afternoons.  You’ll still get the very obvious ones, but not quite as numerous, and sometimes they’re heading to other places; you’ll also get some real surprises, like men in conservative suits and little old ladies who are going out to shop.  If you have a friend on the train, you can try to compete or gamble, and these hard-to-guess passengers really add an element of risk.

In other news, last weekend I saw an absolutely mediocre production of Macbeth, which in the end I am so apathetic to that I chose to blog about what the hell I am thinking on the damn Underground rather than try to say anything substantive about the production.

See you next week.

Disruption

So it’s Friday, getting on into the evening here in London, and I don’t have a blog post.  There is a good reason for this, as my internet was out most of the day and I was attempting to fix it, something I have finally achieved my tricking Blue Yonder into thinking my router is in fact my cable modem. This would have been no problem at all for someone who has experience with cable modems, but that I ain’t.

What I’d planned to write today was a hopefully amusing article on newspapers here in the UK, specifically a few operating in London.  I know that sounds about as exciting as a box of twine, or probably less so, but the way in which newspapers unabashedly take political sides in this country fascinates me.  I don’t blog about politics because it’s not a good way to make friends, plus I’m generally apathetic to the whole business, but it’s also interesting for me to see how different sides here view our sides back home; plus, something really hilarious (to me, anyway) popped up in the Evening Standard a few nights ago, so if I get time maybe I’ll do a mid-week update, or just save it for next Friday.  Usually I’d just write it tomorrow, but as it happens I’ll be going to Stratford-upon-Avon to meet up with some people, so blogging then is shot, but HEY, it’s Stratford so who cares.

I suppose I can rattle off a few words about my classes.  I have a history of photography class that, while not a roller coaster ride, keeps me interested because I like tracing the development and evolutions of artforms.  I also have a class on British culture, which seems like a general history/sociology blend and should be pretty easygoing.  By far my least favorite class deals with social welfare issues and their history here in the UK; I don’t dislike the class because I dislike social welfare, but I dislike it because it is run by breaking us up into small groups and having us discuss various problems (eg, multiculturalism) and then bringing the class back together to get some common points.  I’d much prefer a straight lecture-style class because as I see it this discussion is completely useless — for instance, we were most recently told to discuss the perception of the word ‘welfare’ in America.  I don’t know about you, but it’s blatantly obvious where this is going to go: every group will say that welfare has a negative connotation.

Well, they did.  After like half an hour of dicussion.

So then the prof told us — surprise! — that in the UK ‘welfare’ has a different shade of meaning, one encompassing basic public services such as ambulances and education, and is not necessarily as negative as it is in the States.  Woo-hoo.  Basically, as I see it, this class is going to be many, many weeks of us arguing ourselves in circles over problems that are essentially insoluble and end up being a big waste of time.

Of course, there’s also my Shakespeare class.  We’re reading Macbeth, which I am basically tickled pink over, along with Measure for Measure and Twelfth Night.  I’ve never read Measure (aside: abbreviating that M4M might seem like a good idea but it isn’t) but I’m glad to tackle Twelfth Night in a classroom setting since I also happen to enjoy it greatly.  How greatly?  Well, I only really like one of the other comedies, really, so maybe that tells you something.  (Of course, I haven’t read them all — maybe I’ve just read the boring ones first?)

Anyway, a few nights ago we went on a walking tour of “Shakespeare’s London” across the Thames.  Of course, Shakespeare’s London is a bit of a misnomer because when Shakespeare and the Globe and the bear-baiting rings were in operation there, it wasn’t really London, and most of it has fallen apart or burned down by now, so a Shakespeare-centered walking tour of the area basically consists of looking at places where things used to be.  Nevertheless it’s possible to look at the empty lot where the Globe once stood and then convince yourself you’re feeling a pseudoreligious sense of awe because you are literally oh my god really standing where Hamlet was unleashed on the world.

An addendum: last night I went to Piccadilly Circus and saw The 39 Steps at the Criterion, and it’s a wonderful show.  Mel Brooks tried his hand at Hitchcock sendup with High Anxiety, but in my opinion it kind of fell flat; this production, meanwhile successfully manages to parody Hitchcock while being a rather earnest homage to the man and his work.  It doesn’t help that it recasts the original story in sort of the style of a Cary Grant 1940s screwball comedy, which I admittedly have a soft spot for.

Packing, The Tempest, ghosts, and so on

Obviously last Friday marked the first occasion of me skipping my self-imposed blogging day, but that’s probably somewhat understandable given 1) it was Christmas, and 2) I was sick as a dog.  Today is equally special because 1) it is the first day of a New Year, and 2) it’s five days until my flight to Old Blighty.  I have no particular enchantment with the idea of the new year and I’m not one to make resolutions so I’ll spare you that.  I’ve been packing on and off again for most of the past week, since I’ve never had a trip of this length or international variety before and I’m worried to pieces about whether or not I’ll have everything I need and still come in under the airline’s weight limit.

Also I have a new rejection count: 36.  Ta-dah.

In other news, my original plan to ring in the new year was to do a lengthy write-up of last fall’s most successful horror flick, Paranormal Activity.  It didn’t happen for a couple of reasons, the chief one being that there are far too many ways for me to talk about the movie — I can fit it into three or four different contexts and produce a coherent reading from any of them.  Suffice it to say that the movie is good — not as good as the press would have you believe, nor as scary (unless I am just desensitized), and it has a few notable flaws, but it still manages to be one of the best horror films of the past decade.  As someone who is very obviously picky about this sort of thing, I suppose that’s saying something.

A friend of mine, in response to my reading of American Psycho, jokingly asked me which Shakespeare Paranormal Activity rewrites, flippantly suggesting The Tempest.  I laughed, but the more I thought about it the more I realized it was absolutely true.  It’s obviously not an intentional rewriting, but screw intent, and I think highlighting connections between The Tempest and Paranormal Activity actually produces a really interesting reading of the latter.  So if I ever feel like doing something completely and utterly ridiculous, you can expect my writeup on that, though if my blog degenerates into me excavating Shakespeare from artifacts of modern pop culture I might have to change the name.  The same friend who got me to thinking along these lines was kind enough to even offer a title: Rebarded.  So props to her for that.

American Psycho Part 4: THERE IS, IN FACT, AN EXIT

Hello to anyone who’s stumbled this way from Professor Brainworm’s blog!  I hope you’ll bear with me, since I can be pretty longwinded.  Anyway.

Our journey through the wonderful world of Bret Ellis’s novel American Psycho thus far could be summed up in the following way if it were a game of Clue:  Shakespeare’s Macbeth in Dante’s Inferno with Reagan’s Manhattan.  Today on the ominously dubbed Black Friday, I’ll finish up my little ramble.  I plan to for a rebuttal to the issue that, after the explicit pornography and violence, is the most challenged aspect of the novel: its nihilism.

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I encountered something like this when I first read the book when I was 14.  You’ll recall I took it as a straight satire, and so in the end I didn’t feel like it had accomplished the actual goal of satire: I didn’t know what better lifestyle was possible, because in the novel if you are not Patrick Bateman then you are one of his shallow friends or a homeless person, and none of these options are very good.  But as I’ve said, Psycho is not a satire.  It has satiric elements, certainly, in a similar way the recent film version of New Moon inexplicably has a scene that satirizes modern Hollywood action films.  Bret Ellis’s satire is much more deft, of course, and much more regularly implemented; it’s not a one-off scene, but a large part of the text.  Yet it is not, as we may be tempted to think, the heart of the text.

The heart is salvation.

Rewritings of Dante are always about salvation in the same way sonnets are always about love.  A traditional if boring sonnet is one that lists, without irony, the traditional values that make a loved one, well, loved.  An exciting sonnet is one that talks about how love is impossible, a lie, fake, a delusion — but even when it tries to negate those things, it is still a poem about love.  Similarly, a traditional rewriting of Dante is going to be about a dude going through some hardship, suffering, and becoming a better person in the end.  An exciting rewriting of Dante, like American Psycho, is going to pull the same trick as the not-about-love sonnet: it will try say that salvation does not exist, is impossible.  But the idea of salvation is still there, lurking behind every venomous negation, and sometimes — sometimes — it manages to glitter through.

The pattern is pretty straightforward in Dante.  Dante and Virgil travel through Hell in Inferno, where they see the consequences of sin, and then move onward to the Mountain of Purgatory in Purgatorio.  Purgatory, of course, being the place where sins are purged from the soul prior to entering Heaven.  To enter Purgatory, however, they have to pass by a robed angel who guards the gate; Virgil urges Dante to beg the angel to let him enter, and the following transactions occur:

Devoutly prostrate at his holy feet,
I begged in mercy’s name to be let in,
but first three times upon my breast I beat.

Seven P‘s, the scars of sin,
his sword point cut into my brow.  He said:
“Scrub off these wounds when you have passed within.”

Canto IX, 109-114

Each of the seven P‘s on Dante’s forehead represents one of the seven cardinal sins that Purgatory is supposed to rid him of; after passing through each circle one disappears and Dante feels lighter.

miquel-barcelo-purgatorioIf you’re in any way religious — particularly if you are Catholic — this may have echos of Ash Wednesday.  If you’re a godless heathen, then the short of it is that Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the period of penitence and fasting leading up to Easter.  On Ash Wednesday, the penitents are marked by the priest with a cross of ashes on the forehead, a reminder that human beings come from dust and, but for the grace of God, they’ll someday be to the dust returned.  In other words, it’s a humbling process, just as the journey through Dante’s Purgatory is meant to humble those souls that were sinful in life but not beyond hope.

Now that’s all well and good, you’re saying, but what in the hell does Ash Wednesday have to do with American Psycho?

Since there’s nothing I like more than tossing away conclusions I’ve already made, think back on our initial reading of the Inferno influence on Psycho in Part 2.  We mapped out a set of relationships between the characters to mirror that of the Comedy’s Dante-Virgil-Beatrice triad, and our best Virgil candidate was a sort-of-friend of Patrick Bateman’s named Timothy Price.  He’s like Virgil, I said, because he’s the most interesting person Bateman knows, someone he seems to admire in a really odd but genuine way, the closest thing Bateman has to a friend, and he leaves Patrick before the end of the novel.

But Tim Price is unlike Virgil in one very important way: he comes back.

….[F]or the sake of form, Tim Price resurfaces, or at least, I’m pretty sure he does.  While I’m at my desk simultaneously crossing out the days in my calendar that have already passed and reading a new best seller about office management called Why It Works to Be a Jerk, Jean buzzes in, announcing that Tim Price wants to talk, and I fearfully say, “Send him… in.”  Price strolls into the office wearing a wool suit by Canali Milano, a cotton shirt by Ike Behar, a silk tie by Bill Blass, cap-toed leather lace-ups from Brooks Brothers.  I’m pretending to be on the phone.  He sits down, across from me, on the other side of the Palazetti glass-top desk.  There’s a smudge on his forehead or at least that’s what I think I see.

“You’ve been gone, like, forever, Tim.  What’s the story?” I ask, again noticing the smudge on his forehead, though I get the feeling that if I asked someone else if it was truly there he (or she) would just say no.  (p.383-384)

Price disappears within the first 60 pages of the novel and returns in the last 20.  After he ran off into the fake train tunnel in the club, he has not been mentioned at all — but suddenly here he is, with a peculiar smudge on his forehead.  The chapter he reappears in is called Valentine’s Day, which is on February 14th, and it so happens that this part of the novel takes place in 1989, when Ash Wednesday fell on February 8th.

I’m sure you see what I’m driving at.ash

So Price, when he returns, comes in the form of someone penitent — or at least that’s how Bateman feels.  We know he’s prone to hallucinating, and here he openly questions whether or not he actually sees the smudge.  Nevertheless, we know that Price is someone Bateman admires — “I’m wondering and not wondering what happens in the world of Tim Price, which is really the world of most of us: big ideas, guy stuff, boy meets world, boy gets it” (384).  There is something about Price, some spirit or personality or agency, that Patrick sees as lacking in himself; suddenly it makes a whole lot of sense why the opening paragraph I quoted in Part 2 almost makes it seem like the novel is going to be a third-person narration about Tim Price, but is actually just Patrick thinking about Tim Price.

So what is it Price has that Bateman doesn’t?  In Part 3 I said Bateman’s chief sin is that of despair — he does not think the world can be made better, and his only attempts to even try are simply gross, violent parodies of the shallowness and greed he sees all around him.  Price, it would seem, is not a victim of this despair.  He’s just as rich and shallow as Patrick, just as obnoxious, but in the scene at Tunnel when he becomes fed up with the empty life he leads he doesn’t just lapse into a murderous frenzy (or fantasy) like Patrick seems to have done.  Instead, he actually tries to get out, something Patrick has never attempted — something that he is, in fact, probably afraid to do.

Is Price actually on his way to salvation?  After all, he left, but he came back.  His first conversation with Bateman may — just possibly may — imply that he is looking for girls to hook up with, since he asks Patrick for the number of a woman they both know who is in a relationship with a mutual acquaintance.  Like Patrick, we can’t be sure if Price is really penitent, and we don’t see much of him at all until the very last chapter, the one that ends with Patrick reading the NO EXIT sign.

Bateman and some of his friends, including Price, go out to a club.

On the [TV] screen now are scenes from President Bush’s inauguration early this year, then a speech from former President Reagan, while Patty [the talk show host] delivers commentary.  Soon a tiresome debate forms over whether he is lying or not, even though we don’t, can’t, hear the words.  The first and really only one to complain is Price, who, though I think he’s bothered by something else, uses the opportunity to vent his frustration, looks inappropriately stunned, and asks, “How can he lie like that?  How can he pull that shit?”

“Oh Christ,” I moan.  “What shit?  Now where do we have reservations at?  I mean I’m not really hungry but I’d like to have reservations somewhere.” (p. 396)

nancy-ronAnd from that, the conversation devolves into everyone arguing about where to eat, Price’s concerns left unaddressed.  Even if something else seems to be bothering Price, he does seem to have a bone to pick with Reagan — what was he lying about?  What sort of shit is he getting away with?  I wasn’t watching much TV back then, but one possibility is that Reagan is speaking about the 1989 IRS investigation of him and his wife Nancy for unpaid taxes on various gifts they received while in the White House.  It was eventually determined that the Reagans owed three million dollars on “fashion items” (to quote Wikipedia) that had been given to Nancy.

Reagan here represents the freewheeling economic attitude and casual greed that characterize Ellis’s portrait of the decade, the broad symbol of the lives that all of the horrible characters in the novel lead, and it is only Price who questions him.  And it’s Patrick, bored and uninterested, who changes the subject.

Price looks away from the television screen, then at Craig, and he tries to hide his displeasure by asking me, waving at the TV, “I don’t believe it.  He looks so… normal.  He seems so… out of it.  So… undangerous.”

“Bimbo, bimbo,” someone says.  “Bypass, bypass.”

“He is totally harmless, you geek.  Was totally harmless.  Just like you are totally harmless.  But he did do all that shit and you have failed to get us into 150, so, you know, what can I say?”  McDermott shrugs.

“I just don’t get how someone, anyone, can appear that way and yet be involved in such total shit,” Price says, ignoring Craig, averting his eyes from Farrell.  He takes out a cigar and studies it sadly.  To me it still looks like there’s a smudge on Price’s forehead.

“Because Nancy was right behind him?” Farrell guesses, looking up from the Quotrek.  “Because Nancy did it?”

“How can you be, I don’t know, so fucking cool about it?”  Price, to whom something really eerie has obviously happened, sounds genuinely perplexed.  Rumor has it he was in rehab.

“Oh brother.”  Price won’t let it die.  “Look,” he starts, trying for a rational appraisal of the situation.  “He presents himself as a harmless old codger.  But inside…” He stops.  My interest picks up, flickers briefly.  “But inside…”  Price can’t finish the sentence, can’t add the last two words he needs: doesn’t matter.  I’m both disappointed and relieved for him.  (p. 397)

Here we see that the sort of will Bateman perceives in Price is not a delusion — it’s real.  Price has the ability to change, he has the desire; only he is offended that a person in power lies, cheats, and steals.  Only he’s been to rehab, only he wears the phantasmagorical smudge of the penitent.  His description of Reagan as a harmless-looking man never seems to finish, perhaps because it frightens him: Reagan can look like an old movie star, an aw shucks nice guy, but within him dwells the capacity for cruel and casual evil.  Bateman is the same way: he looks normal, but there is something terrible inside of him, something he has decided to stop fighting, and that is why he finishes the sentence in a way Price probably wouldn’t agree with: he claims that what’s inside doesn’t matter.  Price’s gradual realization seems to be moving in the opposite direction, the idea that the inside does matter.  Success has a greater dimension than economics, than wealth and power and being physically attractive; it is a moral and spiritual matter.

Remember that the beginning of the story makes it seem like Price will be the main character — we are told what he is doing, who he is, we are told that he notices the words ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE.  And now here we see him beginning to understand how life should be lived — with honesty and compassion.  Timothy Price is the Dante figure here, and he’s traveled through Hell and seen the results of a sinful life; now he’s penitent, the ash is on his brow, and it is his responsibility to cleanse himself, to work toward a more honest and compassionate life.

We don’t know for sure if he does — he’s a little afraid, as Patrick notes — but the fact that he can do this makes all the difference.  There is an exit, but it’s not easy to get to and even more difficult to pass through.  It’s a path Bateman doesn’t want to acknowledge, and thus he is damned.  He’s not Dante, and he’s not Virgil; he’s one of the screaming shades, tortured for eternity in Hell, punished in accordance to the decisions he’s made in life.

dantes-hell1

In a purely aesthetic sense, this is why I think American Psycho is a great novel: it is well written — extremely well written, in fact, and though Patrick Bateman’s endless recitation of brands and clothing lines may get grating, it’s also an inextricable part of his character, a fundamental element of his voice and his psychology.  The novel is also, I think, in meaningful dialogue with other works of literature that have come before it — it shows us how Macbeth may play out in the modern day, the unassuming madman, and it turns Dante on his head by showing us how one can so easily despair into Hell, or Hell on Earth.

In a more personal and moral sense, this is why I think American Psycho is a great novel:  It tells us something very profound and very important about human existence — not how to live in an obvious, satirical way, but more in the sense of what it is like to live.  We are surrounded on all sides by greed, cruelty, injustice, and horror; in such an environment it may seem like there’s nothing to do but give up, to become greedy and cruel and unjust and horrific in our own turn, and while that is always a possibility it is never the only choice.  There is a moral way to live, a good way to live, a better way to live; the trick is to remember that it exists, even when so many people around you don’t believe it.saturn

And this is why I think that American Psycho is a great horror novel:  Obviously the reasons above apply, horror should not be above the requirements for something to be a piece of literature, it should be well written and canonically articulate.  But it actually adds another criterion: a horror novel has to be scary.

There are two types of scary, as far as I am concerned.  One is the splatterpunk approach, graphic violence for violence’s sake, gallons of gore that gross you out, make you feel like barfing.  The thing about this type of horror is that it doesn’t last, it’s too physical, too visceral; it’s also, unfortunately, the more popularized part of American Psycho.  Yes, splatterpunk is here — loads of it, in fact, and yeah, it’s gross as hell and effective for what it is.  But there’s something more clever than that at work, too: the second type of horror, what you might call metaphysical horror or philosophical horror, the sense of fear and unease resulting from the sudden realization that the world does not function according to whatever rules you take for granted and the universe might be, in fact, a much more dangerous and inhospitable place than you believed.

Bret Ellis combines both splatterpunk and philosophical horror by making Patrick Bateman so unreliable.  Whether or not he commits the murders is unimportant in the splatterpunk sense, because the descriptions of them are just as graphic and gut-churning.  But the fact that these may all be fantasies — that Patrick is just some hopeless, repressed guy living out psychotic daydreams behind an ordinary exterior — takes it to another level.  Suddenly everything is thrown into question.  I’m thinking of a part near the end of the novel, where Patrick mentions his housekeeper coming into his apartment and cleaning bloodsplatter off the walls and floor — as if it didn’t matter, as if it weren’t a problem for her at all.  If the blood is really there, is the maid keeping her mouth shut just to save herself, or does she simply not care enough to report Bateman?  If Bateman is making it all up, how many people do you meet every day are just like him?  How many repressed psychotics walk among us?  If Patrick isn’t lying, if he does some or all of the things he claims to, then how believable is it?  Do we live in a society so disconnected, so unfeeling, that we would just allow this stuff to happen so long as we didn’t have to deal with it?

The cannibalism and rape make you queasy, and the implications make you uneasy.  You can forget about all of the murders in time, but can you get rid of the nagging question:  How does the world work?

To answer that is to overcome or make peace with the philosophical horror the novel instigates.  The easiest way to read the book is to say that yes, the world is cruel and senseless and evil and no one cares, the world is terrible and we are all trapped in it and THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.  But I hope that over the past few weeks I’ve shown that there is another answer.  Sure, it’s small and difficult to find, requiring a careful and thoughtful reading of the text, but it’s there.

There is hope; there is possibility; there is salvation; there is, in fact, an exit.

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American Psycho Part 3: “Is this a dagger which I see before me”

So far I’ve given a brief overview of Dante’s Divine Comedy with a special emphasis on Inferno and how the Dante-Virgil-Beatrice relationship works.  From this we were able to conclude that 1) American Psycho is a rewriting of Inferno, and 2) it is not just any rewriting of Inferno but one from the perspective of the damned, ie the narrator, successful 80s investment banker and serial killer Patrick Bateman.  But this raises plenty of questions, like: why is Bateman damned?  What did he (or does he) do wrong?  More complicatedly, what do we get by retelling the Inferno from the view of someone who can never escape it when Dante’s story originally is, by nature, about the actual change Hell puts the traveler through, eventually allowing him to evade its punishments?

I’m going to answer these questions, or at least try to.  To start, though, we have to step away from Dante and skip over a few hundred years and a couple city-states until we find ourselves in England with William Shakespeare.  Why is Shakespeare important?  Because, silly, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, and while Bret Easton Ellis has his own special rewriting of Inferno in American Psycho, it’s a very particular rewriting of the Bard’s Scottish Play.

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Macbeth, ladies and gentlemen.

So if you’re unfamiliar with Macbeth here’s the rundown: Macbeth and his pal Banquo are thanes to the Scottish king Duncan.  They bump into three witches, who make some prophecies about Macbeth being king and Banquo being the father of kings; Banquo shrugs it off but the prophecy upsets Macbeth, who we begin to suspect is pretty insecure about things.  I think — I am probably wrong because I’ve never bothered to count and haven’t even read every play, but it strikes me this way — that old Mickey-B speaks in asides more often than any other Shakespeare character.  He’s constantly bopping off to mutter to himself about the witches, their prophecy, whether they were good or evil, who suspects him, who doesn’t, and on and on and on.  In modern cinema this would be conveyed by having a character almost constantly being heard in voice over, stressing over whether or not everyone around him thinks he’s cool or a dweeb.

As is so aptly illustrated by the kitties above, eventually Macbeth tells his wife about the prophecy, which turns out to be something of a mistake.  She goads him into murdering Duncan by essentially telling him that a Real Man would totally kill the king if it meant he could have the throne.  This convinces Macbeth pretty quickly, which only further proves how weirdly neurotic this guy is.  But it gets worse, of course, because soon Macbeth goes from “sort of pitiable henpecked regicide” to “completely fucking bonkers (but also still really insecure and a murderer).”  The bonkers part is hinted at early on, when Macbeth prepares to enter Duncan’s bedchambers and murder him, pausing to remark to the empty air, “Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand?  Come, let me clutch thee” (II.ii, my copy of the play ludicrously doesn’t have line numbers so screw you I’m not counting these things for my citations).

Now, it’s completely possible Macbeth has decided to be extra contemplative and poetic in this momentous time prior to coldblooded murder, but the other explanation is that Macbeth is hallucinating.  During the murder itself, as he tells his wife, he also thinks he hears phantom voices decrying his misdeed, in response to which she tells him to sack up goddammit.  But Macbeth’s mental state only declines further; due to an unfortunate confluence of events, he decides he must also have his old friend Banquo murdered — which happens, with more or less no complication.  Things get hairy, though, when the ghost of Banquo appears during a banquet, sending Macbeth into a babbling tizzy and leaving Lady Macbeth scrambling to explain to her guests what’s wrong with her husband.  You see, though there are stage directions for the ghost and Macbeth is very strongly responding to it, absolutely no one else can see it, meaning that it’s entirely possible that Macbeth is imagining the whole thing.

For me, this idea that a lot of the crazy stuff happening is all in Macbeth’s head is what makes the play so damn cool, and it’s a big part of how Macbeth ties in with American Psycho.  My linking of Inferno to Psycho relied a lot on narrative arc and inter-character relationships; this isn’t true for Macbeth, because the links here are not about the little clues Ellis scattered around the novel.  He quotes Dante directly, but unless I missed it, he never quotes Macbeth; if you comb through Psycho looking for an analogue for the witches or Lady Macbeth you’re not going to find them.  The connections between the play and the novel are much more subtle, in that there is really only one big link: a character type.

batemanTo put it quickly and simply, Pat Bateman is Macbeth.  It’s so cleverly updated, I think, that it’s pretty easymacbeth to miss: one of Macbeth’s defining early characteristics is his insecurity, so Bateman constantly obsesses over what he is wearing in comparison to what everyone else is wearing, which stereo system is the best or most expensive and can he get one, and in one scene practically has a panic attack when he sees that a colleague has a more stylish business card.  And just as Macbeth is prone to seeing things, so is Bateman, who imagines that Satan is speaking to him through Bono at a U2 concert, an anthropomorphic Cheerio is being interviewed on his favorite sensationalist talk show, a park bench is stalking him, and, in a scene launched into the general pop culture by the film version, an ATM wants him to feed it a stray cat.

And even though I said that the main connection is the character type, there is actually a tiny little Macbeth/Banquo parallel for Patrick and another banker at his firm, a guy named Paul Owen.  Bateman mostly resents Owen, with the implicit reason being that Owen is marginally more successful — he’s handling a very high-profile account but is being stingy on the details, something that annoys the other Wall Street guys but seems to drive Bateman up the wall.  So, of course, Bateman kills him, stages it to look like Owen took off for London without any advance notice, and starts mutilating prostitutes in Owen’s vacant apartment.

A detective shows up for a chapter or so to investigate Owen’s disappearance, and for a moment it seems like Bateman will be caught.  But, no, that doesn’t happen — because even though Bateman completely made up the story about Owen going to London, it holds water.  Other people claim to have seen him there, to have had lunch with him.  This is made entirely questionable because a recurring situation in the novel is Bateman and/or his friends trying to remember the name of someone they’ve seen in a club or, even more frequently, Bateman calling guys he meets by the wrong name only to find out later they are someone else, or Bateman himself being mistaken for another person.  There’s a lot of stuff there about how disconnected these guys are from each other and from their own identities, but in more practical terms it means that someone in London from the New York circle could have easily mistaken someone else for Owen.

Except it gets trickier.  A dozen or so chapters after Bateman defaces Owen’s apartment, he drops by again — only the entire place is clean, spotless, and a real estate agent is showing a young couple around.  Bateman is shocked and tries to figure out what happened to all the viscera he left behind, asking the agent how long the apartment has been for rent and who lived there last, but she seems oddly guarded.  Patrick notices the place smells especially clean, as if a lot of disinfectant or deodorizer has been used recently to get rid of a stench.  There are then two possibilities for what’s happened: the agent is complicit in a conspiracy to cover up the murders in the apartment, which were never reported, or Bateman has imagined the whole thing, even the excess of deodorizer.  The strange looks the agent gives him could either be hints that she knows that he knows she knows — or they could be because some random guy just barged in on her appointment and started asking questions.  Is Owen alive or dead?  It doesn’t matter, really, because either way, like the ghost of Banquo only Macbeth can see, Owen’s status is something that only Bateman has cause to doubt, and it threatens to overturn his entire life.

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I can't tell if that dagger's been photoshopped in or if it's the ugliest prop ever. Either way, fantastic.

And this is where Ellis turns the volume way, way up on my favorite part of Macbeth: not only are the floating daggers and phantom voices and ghosts possible hallucinations, the murders themselves are also of questionable authenticity.  We can’t trust a thing Bateman says, and as he comes to realize, he can’t trust himself.  Both Macbeth and Bateman suffer from this same self-doubt — they’re both neurotic as hell, after all — and though Macbeth and everyone around him eventually knows and understands what he has done, for Patrick this never happens.  No one ever catches him, no one ever even comes close to suspecting him, and to top it all off, maybe he’s actually never done anything to make himself suspect.  Say what you want about Macbeth, he at least managed to kill a king, but for all we know Bateman is simply a delusional psychotic, a man who can only assert himself — murderously or otherwise — in daydreams and fantasies.

The end result for both characters, though, is pretty similar.  When Macbeth sees where his choices have gotten him — his wife has committed suicide and he’s facing an insurgency of other thanes who think that king-and-Banquo-killing are not proper traits for a ruler to have — he has this famous, nihilistic little ditty:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (V.v)

This is the point where Macbeth basically loses it.  He decides that nothing means anything — not even his choices, whether he chooses to murder people or not, because no matter what you do life is going to be a bitch and then you are going to die.  I’ll say it again: it’s nihilism, a complete and utter lack of faith in anything.

Here’s what Pat Bateman has to say on the subject:

…where there was nature and earth, life and water, I saw a desert landscape that was unending, resembling some sort of crater, so devoid of reason and light and spirit that the mind could not grasp it on any sort of conscious level and if you came close the mind would reel backward, unable to take it in.  It was a vision so real and clear and vital to me that in its purity it was almost abstract.  This is what I could understand, this was how I lived my life, what I constructed my movement around, how I dealt with the tangible.  This was the geography around which my reality revolved: it did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change or that the world could be a better place through one’s taking pleasure in a feeling or a look or a gesture, of receiving another person’s love or kindness.  Nothing was affirmative, the term “generosity of spirit” applied to nothing, was a cliché, was some kind of bad joke.  Sex is mathematics.  Individuality is no longer an issue.  What does intelligence signify?  Define reason.  Desire — meaningless.  Intellect is not a cure.  Justice is dead.  Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things, emotions, that no one really felt anymore.  Reflection is useless, the world is senseless.  Evil is its only permanence.  God is not alive.  Love cannot be trusted.  Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in… this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged… (p. 375)

Wow, okay, so a lot less pithy than Shakespeare, but it’s much the same sentiment.  It’s still similar in tone and tenor to Macbeth’s little outburst.  This is something a guy today — or a guy in 1980s Manhattan — would actually say, this is how he would articulate a revelation of nihilism.  This is the modern description of despair.

And despair brings us back, believe it or not, to Dante.

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Despair, by definition, is a state of losing hope or hopelessness.  And remember those words over the gate to Hell, those words Bateman reads in graffiti in the very first line of Psycho: ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE.  In Dante the inscription is meant to be read only by the damned themselves — they have nothing to hope for, obviously, because they’re already in a situation where there’s no recourse.  Dante-the-Character is simply a special case, a living man traveling through Hell; he’s not meant to lose hope but regain it.  And when you think about it, that’s a pretty strange thing to happen, especially when he sees the following things going down in Hell:

1) Dudes running around in circles for all eternity, being chased and stung by giant hellwasps, the stings on their back blistering and producing pus which runs to the floor on which they are running
2) Dudes encased in eternal flames
3) Dudes being bitten and transformed and burnt up by a never-ending series of snake bites from the pit of serpents in which they are rolling around for all eternity
4) Dudes turned into trees and torn apart eternally by bird women
5) Dudes submerged in lakes of fire or boiling shit, as the case may be

And that’s just some of the punishments — Hell is a big, violent place.  And that’s another way Ellis rewrites Inferno: the violence of Hell’s punishments is turned into the graphic violence of Pat Bateman’s murders (or murderous fantasies, as the case may be).  This was, as you probably know, the most controversial element of the novel, and yeah, it would probably make any reader laugh queasily when Patrick decides he is going to eat a woman he’s killed but, since he’s lived a privileged life and doesn’t know how to cook, he instead eats a bit of her raw and weeps at the absurdity of it.  But come on, Dante is just as bad — I mean, rivers of boiling shit and running around on a mixture of your own blood and pus?  Jeez.

But there’s a snag.  In Inferno all of the punishments are justly deserved and justly dispensed according to God’s love and infinite wisdom (or that’s the way things are set up in the moral universe of the poem).  In American Psycho many of the people Patrick kills are just as shallow and pettily cruel as he is, but Patrick is not an omniscient and loving God, he’s just some yuppie asshole, and some of his victims are actually innocents (even children).

This is crux of what Bateman is and what he has done: in his rant about the meaninglessness of existence, of how horrible society is, he almost sounds like he’s a guy who wanted to hope in the opposite direction but never quite grasped it.  And true, earlier in the novel he gets a little offended when his friends make anti-Semitic remarks, but otherwise he takes just as much delight in teasing bums as they do.  But maybe that’s because of Patrick’s neuroses — he doesn’t have to work, for instance, but he says he does because he wants to “fit in.”  He wants to be what everyone else is, he wants to make sure he is in good standing, he is attracted to a society that he on some level knows is despicable.  And since he knows it’s despicable, what does he do?

He murders people, or thinks about it.  And he constantly talks about it in conversations, slipping Ted Bundy trivia into debates on fashion, he calls his lawyer and confesses his real-or-imagined murders, everything.  Bateman, in fact, wants to be caught.  He wants to shatter the smug, superficial complacency of everyone around him, and apparently the only way he can think to do it is by being a psychopathic killer.  And it doesn’t work, nothing changes, nothing happens, he’s never caught, and he loses hope — what little he had.  But is murder the best way to change the world?

My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world now.  In fact I want my pain to be inflicted on others.  I want no one to escape.  But even after admitting this — and I have, countless times, in just about every act I’ve committed — and coming face-to-face with these truths, there is no catharsis.  I gain no deeper knowledge of myself, no new understanding can be extracted from my telling.  There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this.  This confession has meant nothing… (p.377)

No.  And Bateman, deep down, perhaps never believed otherwise, as he tells us earlier: “it did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change or that the world could be a better place through one’s taking pleasure in a feeling or a look or a gesture, of receiving another person’s love or kindness.”

So the final despair is actually the endpoint of a much larger and more encompassing despair that Patrick’s been dealing with for a while.  He began with the assumption that the world was stupid and depraved, and he tried to change it by being very obviously stupid and depraved himself.  When it didn’t work he despaired in his despair.

In the seventh and eighth cantos of Inferno, Dante and Virgil come to the fifth circle of Hell, which is a rancid swamp surrounding the River Styx.  This is where the wrathful and sullen are punished — the wrathful run through the swamp, rolling around in the muck, clawing and tearing and biting at one another.  The sullen reside below the swamp itself, lying beneath the muck and visible only because their breathing causes bubbles to float to the surface, saying over and over again:

‘Sullen were we in the air made sweet by the Sun;
in the glory of his shining our hearts poured
a bitter smoke.  Sullen were we begun;

Sullen we lie forever in this ditch.’
This litany they gargle in their throats
as if they sang, but lacked the words and pitch.

So what are the sullen guilty of?  Of seeing the world, made for them and made beautiful by God, and saying, “Ugh, so what?”  Their punishment is to stay forever in one place, drowned, because they felt it was useless to act or care about anything in life.  They had no hope for anything — they despaired.  And so it is interesting to note that Patrick Bateman, regardless of what he has done, belongs there in the fifth circle of Hell: he is in pain and wants others to feel it, so he is wrathful, but if he never manages to actually go through with his desires, if he only fantasizes but maintains his hopelessness, then he is one of the sullen.

We have the THIS IS NOT AN EXIT episode because Patrick’s done his best to avoid every saving grace afforded him: he let his Virgil sleep with his girlfriend, he killed and dismembered his Beatrice.  He never believed he could do otherwise; Bateman’s despair is what damns him.  Macbeth at least gets to die fighting but Patrick is condemned, like the damned in Dante’s Hell, to live on in his sullen (perhaps murderous) stasis.

That does it for this installment.  I have to give props here to The Acquaintance Who Says Bret Ellis Is the Best Novelist for mentioning the probable Macbeth connection offhandedly once, since I obviously followed through on it for a lot of helpful stuff.

Next time: I’ll explain how there is, in fact, room for hope and redemption in the world of American Psycho, and how we see it play out.  There will also, I think, be a short wrap-up where I explain why this book isn’t simply a great novel, but a great horror novel, and that should be it for this series.  See you then.

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Significance to be explained in Part 4: THERE IS, IN FACT, AN EXIT