It is unusual that a novel published as recently as 1991 should be mentioned by scholars, critics and readers in the same breath as the phrase ‘the great American novel,’ but Bret Easton Ellis’s memorable and shocking novel, American Psycho, is one that has been.
When contemplating the concept of the great American novel one’s mind usually goes back as far as Mark Twain and Herman Melville and their great classics, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick, as though the great American novel has to be the province of writers of a bygone age, whose novels have stood the test ot time. We do allow more recent novels into that capsule, like The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, but a book as recently written as American Psycho is unusual.
Moreover, there are enough objections to American Psycho, also by critics and readers, to beg the question ‘how can such an objectionable book be put in the same class as Mark Twain’s and Herman Melville’s great and noble books?’ The governments of some countries consider American Psycho so disturbing that it can only be sold in shrink-wrapping.
On its initial publication the novel was reviled for its gleeful violence –violence, particularly against women, something a contemporary civilised society won’t stand for. What is more, Ellis was himself given a hard time, denounced as a misogynist as though his protagonist, Patrick Bateman, was the writer, Ellis, himself, in disguise. That’s like saying that Bram Stoker was a vampire. Like Count Dracula, Patrick Bateman is a memorable villain, but nothing like his creator at all.
The novel does not have a plot, or story, in the conventional sense, and what story there is is not all that interesting. It is the protagonist, Patrick Bates, that makes the novel a fascinating, page-turning read.
Patrick Bates is a handsome, rich, arrogant twenty-eight year old Wall Street investor. Charismatic, popular and sociable, he also happens to be a psychopath, narcissistic in the extreme, and a serial killer.
He exemplifies the consumer society, going after everything new, with an apartment full of state-of-the-art gadgets. He is a compulsive shopper choosing clothes with an obsessive detachment, which is echoed by an equally obsessive disengagement in choosing his victims.
In the place of what would normally be a plot in a novel, with a consistent timeline and a logical sequence of events there is, instead, a series of random events told from the protagonist’s point of view. There is no character development. Bateman frequents restaurants in the company of other New York yuppies, whom he doesn’t see as people, but observes as objects. As we observe them through his eyes they have no personalities. Instead, he describes them by what they are wearing and who designed their clothes. Those descriptions become quite wearying and even boring, but that’s because it’s the way Bateman sees them. He’s both passingly interested in those superficial things and bored by them.
The only things that really interest him are his own appearance, which he is obsessive about, and women, with fantasies about what he wants to do with them (which is to dismember them) which he does fairly frequently. He’s also interested in what items cost and he’s fascinated with Donald Trump, whom is referenced throughout the novel. That indicates to the reader the things that he values most in another person: wealth, success, extravagance, beautiful women and a disregard for the law or any conventions. The Trump theme also anchors the novel in the late eighties, with all that goes with the decade.
The concept that goes under the heading of “the great American novel” is difficult to pin down. “What does ‘the great American novel” mean? It implies that there is one, opening the likelihood of a debate among two or more novels. But, depending on how one defines the term, several may qualify. The American Dream, for example, is such an American theme and so well treated in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, that the novel is in the running, or the painful American scar produced by a history of slavery and racial strife, explored by Mark Twain in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is another enduring American theme. Both those novels are on everyone’s list of contenders for the title.
Rampant capitalism is a characteristic feature of modern America. American Psycho is set at the end of the twentieth century, when American capitalism had developed beyond the function that had initially driven it. The eighties was a decade in which the shallow and vicious aspects of capitalism characterised it. It was concerned with material gain and superficial appearances in an environment where surface and optics were more important than substance. Patrick Bateman epitomises that: he acts as if everything, including people, is a commodity. The characters are predominantly concerned with material gain and superficial appearances, Pushed to its extreme that attitude is evident in the rampant objectification and brutalisation of women that pervades the novel. Bates tells us that if he sometimes feels uncomfortable about his dismembering of women “I just remind myself that this thing, this girl, this meat, is nothing.”
Patrick Bateman’s response as an affluent person living in a superficial world characterised by the incoherence of capitalistic consumption and wall-to-wall media is a fractured personality with episodes of schizophrenia. Late twentieth century American culture has the effect or rupturing personality and isolating the fractured individuals, who live in a world in which fantasy and reality become indistinguishable.
Bateman’s constant references to Donald Trump are significant here. They make Bret Easton Ellis something of a prophet in that a quarter of a century after the publication of American Psycho his protagonist’s hero, a similar type in the same culture, with the same fragmented personality, lost between reality and fantasy, was elected President of the United States.
One of the things that registers the novel as a contender for the title ‘the great American novel’ is that on a rereading of it during or after the Trump years things jump out of the text that explain the origins of some of the main problematics of contemporary, early twenty-first century America. That places American Psycho alongside novels like The Great Gatsby and Huckleberry Finn, not only a modern classic but a contender for the appellation ‘great American novel.’
What’s your take – do you think American Psycho is truly the great American novel? Or is there another novel more worthy of this moniker? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.