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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

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.


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.

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

American Psycho Part 2: “Midway in our life’s journey I went astray”

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:




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?

bret_easton_ellisAs it turns out, quite a lot. Let’s take a look at the very beginning of Ellis’s novel: dante

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!

Why American Psycho Is a Great Novel (And Also a Great Horror Novel) Part 1: Some Background Fluff


When I first read Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, I must have been around 14, give or take a few years.  The movie was out at the point — the movie was probably the reason I read the book — and while I remember somewhat enjoying it, it was also pretty inscrutable.  Even at 14 you can understand satire, and that’s what a large part of what American Psycho seems to be.  But if we treat it as a satire, then we run into problems, namely, that it doesn’t give us any viable path other than the one it criticizes.  This is not to say that satire should be didactic and have a coda explaining how to live a holy life, but that a satire implicitly shows us the ‘right’ way to live by very meticulously describing the ‘wrong’ way the characters in the satire live.  So when 14-year-old me set aside American Psycho upon first finishing it, I thought, “Well, gee, okay, so what was the point?”

The correct way to live, if you read the novel straight, seems to be “Don’t live as a young, successful investment banker from a well-off family in 1980s New York because the prevailing climate of superficiality and greed will strip you of your identity and your conception of human dignity.”  That’s all well and good, I suppose, but I never have to worry about being an investment banker in 1980s New York, let alone all the stuff about being successful.  On the other hand, a broader way to read the point is that we shouldn’t be greedy and superficial in any context.  Well, yeah, okay.  I mean, there are children’s cartoons that give us the same moral and with as little ornamentation, and it only takes like 22 minutes to tell us, not 400 pages.

So obviously I was sort of not impressed with the book when I was 14.

About two weeks ago, it happened that I got the flu.  I was laid up in bed and could barely gather enough strength to go search for food, I skipped going to the gym, and I completely neglected my homework.  What I did do, however, was reread American Psycho, sleeping in between chunks of the book for about an hour and having some pretty terrible fever dreams because of it.  Anyway, I did not just reread American Psycho for shits and giggles — an acquaintance of mine who is in a position to have knowledgeable opinions on such things has told me a few times that Bret Easton Ellis is the greatest novelist of the 20th century.  This is obviously a helluva thing to say, considering it means Ellis beats out Joyce, Nabokov, Faulkner, Hemingway, Pynchon, and whoever the hell else you want to name (maybe some women and people of color, as the liberal arts student in me is shuddering at the alabastar patriarchy of that list I just rattled off).

That Ellis is the best novelist of the last century is the kind of claim I want to take to task, but it’s also one that’s hard for me to assess since the only Ellis I’ve read is Psycho and, as I have explained, when I did read it I was a scrub.  So I am planning on working my way through Ellis’s novels, attempting to suss out whether or not my acquaintance’s claim is well founded.  I figured there was no better place to start than, well, where I started seven years ago, and so I reread American Psycho.

And holy cow, man, it is pretty awesome.

Also: turns out it’s not a satire, and to assume it is of course produces the deficient reading I had when I was 14!  Mostly.  Sort of.  Don’t worry, I’ll explain this all eventually.

So over the next few weeks I’m hoping to have a series of short-to-longish blog entries explaining why American Psycho is success from both a literary standpoint and from the standpoint of the conscientious horror reader.  This oughta be fun.  Keep an eye out, because in a week or so I’ll hopefully have up a piece on exactly what Bret Easton Ellis has to do with Dante Alighieri.