‘Something I think about when I’m watching things like Olympic meets,’ Andy Warhol wrote, ‘is When will a person not break a record? If somebody runs at 2.2, does that mean that people will next be able to do it at 2.1 and 2.0 and 1.9 and so on until they can do it in 0.0? So at what point will they not break a record? Will they have to change the time or change the record?’ The line of inquiry might be applied to Bret Easton Ellis (for one), who, in pushing to the limit the current parameters of literary transgression, effectively landed us in the vicinity of zero with his last book, American Psycho:
Back in my bedroom, Christie lies on the futon, tied to the legs of the bed, bound up with rope, her arms above her head, ripped pages from last month’s Vanity Fair stuffed into her mouth. Jumper cables hooked up to a battery are clipped to both breasts, turning them brown. I had been dropping lit matches from Le Relais onto her belly and Elizabeth, delirious and probably overdosing on the Ecstasy, had been helping before I turned on her and chewed at one of her nipples until I couldn’t control myself and bit it off, swallowing ... In the morning, for some reason, Christie’s battered hands are swollen to the size of footballs, the fingers are indistinguishable from the rest of her hand and the smell coming from her burnt corpse is jolting and I have to open the blinds, which are spattered with burnt fat from when Christie’s breasts burst apart, electrocuting her, and then the windows, to air out the room. Her eyes are wide open and glazed over and her mouth is lipless and black and there’s also a black pit where her vagina should be ... What is left of Elizabeth’s body lies crumpled in the corner of the living room. She’s missing her right arm and chunks of her right leg ... Her head sits on the kitchen table and its blood-soaked face – even with both eyes scooped out and a pair of Alain Mikli sunglasses over the holes – looks like it’s frowning. I get very tired looking at it.
Pasolini’s horrific film Salò – to which I would not be surprised to learn Ellis owed a debt of inspiration – comes to mind more than once while reading American Psycho. Salò, centring on the Nazi occupation of Northern Italy between 1944 and 1945, sets out to explore the unfathomable evil of fascism and to probe, by way of Sade, the interconnections between identity, power, Fascism, and anarchy: ‘The one true anarchy is that of power,’ says one fascista; ‘We Fascists are the only true anarchists,’ says another. American Psycho, by contrast, centring on the virulent narcissism and consumerism of the Eighties, sets out to entertain with its depravity. It’s a pop chronicle of evil: the protagonist, a vile Wall Street broker named Patrick Bateman who inexplicably turns serial killer, is, it turns out, just your everyday fashion victim – Ellis’s version of the Nazi. Like the murderer nervously wiping away his fingerprints, Ellis engages in the meticulous erasure of any evidence of humanism from his book. The object is all; there is nothing beyond or behind it. On the one or two occasions when Ellis does make an attempt at explanation, it feels like worried after-thought, and the effect is that of hollow Meursaultian parody:
Nothing was affirmative, the term ‘generosity of spirit’ applied to nothing, was a cliché, was some kind of bad joke ... 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 ... Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaningful ... this was civilisation as I saw it, colossal and jagged.
Ellis’s revelation that the book’s harrowing scenes are not the work of his imagination, but rather are culled from FBI criminology textbooks, renders his erasure truly chilling. In the relentless quest for new and ‘powerful’ forms of representation, the human body has become a fashionable last frontier for artists and writers alike; graphic depictions of decay and carnage are now the order of the day. And while these alone still have the capacity to make one blench, what in Ellis’s book makes one gape is his offering up of bodily mutilation in the same spirit of dark, smug chic that attends his obsessive cataloguing of designer apparel, electronic equipment, restaurants, rock bands, drugs and TV shows.
Ellis might have chosen to enhance our understanding either of the perils of consumerism, or of the pathos of the psycho killer, or to delineate a convincing trajectory between the two. What he presents instead is an exploitative schizophrenic hybrid that brings us no closer to an understanding of either: American Psycho is a profoundly sadistic book, in impulse and execution. Through Bateman, Ellis himself assumes the role of stalker – in pursuit of the reader, who lives in terror of the author’s next assault.
Less Than Zero, Ellis’s first book, was written under the aegis of Joe McGinnis, Ellis’s creative writing instructor at Bennington College, and was published in 1985, when Ellis was just 21. Its subject was the very wealthy, very decadent and very lost youth of Los Angeles (Ellis’s own milieu), and he eyed them with a blend of adolescent pique and melancholy. The book, with its irresistible blend of youth, glamour, money and seaminess, was a publisher’s dream; it sold, and it made him instantly famous. Its first-person narrator (the narration in Ellis’s book is always first person), Clay, home for the Christmas holidays, is ostensibly just as blank and disaffected as every other character in the book, but his disaffection is intended to be of a higher order. One need read only the book’s opening words to grasp what becomes the book’s endlessly reiterated theme: ‘People are afraid to merge.’ They are words that stay in Clay’s mind for ‘an uncomfortably long time’ – a demonstration (along with sudden weeping spells) of his sensitivity, a quality the other characters in the book are denied. Clay is the only character with a shred of character, in other words, and his role is that of social observer, imprisoned in a world he despises but is powerless to escape. (He can’t summon will because he doesn’t know what that is.) The rest constitute a Boschian cast whose names (Blair, Kim, Trent, Rip, Derf) and identifying characteristics (blond hair, blue eyes and chemically tanned skin – one of the book’s many metaphors for illness) meld into a generic blur. The days for Clay and his friends pass in a wearying, mindless repetition of MTV, drug-taking, shopping and impersonal coupling, which constitutes the novel’s plot. The greatest terror of these characters is boredom; their greatest pleasure – well, there isn’t any, really. It’s just not a part of their emotional vocabulary. (The silent black maids glimpsed wandering through the living rooms with their hair in curlers are the only memorable presences in the book.) Ellis himself seems to fall prey to the failure of imagination that afflicts his characters. His style, like that of virtually every young American writer coming of age in the Eighties, is heavily influenced by Raymond Carver, but he shares none of Carver’s wonder at his creations and certainly none of his feeling for their banality.
Clay makes only a cameo appearance in Ellis’s second book, The Rules of Attraction, a campus novel set in New Hampshire at an expensive private college, but all of Ellis’s books are of a piece, and the book is a logical sequel to Less Than Zero. It’s the same group of disaffected, rich characters, except that their names are different and they’ve lost more of their innocence; narcissists all, their potential for delusion is limitless, and they demonstrate a considerably enhanced appetite for cruelty and treachery and, naturally, no capacity whatever for love. (The key figure is Sean Bateman, the troubled younger brother, it turns out, of Patrick.) The only character whose innocence is remotely intact is a young woman too soft for the world, who must kill herself by slashing her wrists in the bathtub. Her peers, naturally, are either oblivious or indifferent. Speaking in turn, the book’s characters tell of their boredom and egotistical infatuations, and reveal through their rattlings the utterly subjective worlds in which each is sentenced to live out his unhappy life. The novel is a monochrome black.
The Informers is a muddy collage of what can at best be called vignettes, unified only by the fact that all of the characters live in Los Angeles and that some of them have made their debuts in Less Than Zero and Rules of Attraction. Ellis has (perhaps strategically) neglected to set any new records; rather, he hovers within reach of his last book. Stylistically, it’s a sloppier Rules of Attraction: each chapter is narrated by a different, unidentified ‘I’ who serves to ‘inform’ not so much on the other characters as on, again, the terminal decay of American society. That the voice of this ‘I’ is always the same is supposed to suggest our own interchangeability and increasing inability to make distinctions. Tonally, the book is an amalgam of his earlier works: part wistful anomie; part gore (a woman is humorously cannibalised by a vampire). There is no plot to speak of, something that’s supposed to reflect – guess what? – the fragmentation of existence.
From the beginning, Ellis has played to the media. The prize for this has been a notoriety that has, with the publication of The Informers, garnered him, among other things, the prized feature in Vanity Fair, and a coveted television interview with Charlie Rose. (When Rose referred to him in an interview as ‘celebrated’, Ellis was quick to add: ‘and reviled.’) Such publicity is nowadays in most quarters equal to a stamp of literary authenticity – which, for Ellis, is just as well. Notwithstanding the undeniable shock value of American Psycho it’s not, finally, a very interesting novel; it is nevertheless Ellis’s only book of significance. In a way, it’s as disposable as everything in it; it’s hard to imagine anyone reading it twenty years hence – a witches’ brew of obsolete, long-forgotten signs and signifiers floating in a broth of gore. And Ellis himself is no American Psycho, as some have claimed, or even an American Sade. With his spirit so sadly confused, his motives so hopelessly muddled, his imagination so locked in the exitless maze of popular culture and the quest for fame – and his literary talent so tepid – he resembles far more yet another American Tragedy. An undeniable rite of passage for a young writer today is that he must wade his way through the media swamp – a milieu more real to Ellis, for the moment, than any other. And it’s a long way to the other side, if he means to cross at all.