Scott McLemee
Slaughtering Satire: "American Psycho"
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Newsday, 13 April 2000

When American Psycho first appeared in 1991, people greeted Bret Easton Ellis's novel with loud and unambiguous expressions of disgust. Some of them had even read the book.

The yuppie who narrated its 400 pages, a feckless and affectless stockbroker named Patrick Bateman, consumed nouvelle cuisine while spinning out long and numbingly detailed lists of the various big-ticket luxury consumer goods he purchased. In his (abundant) leisure time, Bateman enjoyed the less refined pleasures of raping, torturing, killing and disemboweling people: mostly strangers, usually women.

Feminists objected to that part. The book was practically a handbook for serial killers, they complained - as though someone taking up that hobby would need a manual. They were considerably less outraged when anti-porn activist Andrea Dworkin wrote a novel in which a female narrator killed a homeless guy for kicks, just as Bateman had. Which may, in retrospect, have been a cultural turning point. Why should fantasies of unmitigated cruelty be the monopoly of one sex?

In any case, American Psycho now arrives at the cineplex with the imprimatur of Mary Harron, a director whose first film, I Shot Andy Warhol, chronicled the life and times of Valerie Solanas, founder and sole member of a group called the Society for Cutting Up Men.

Even critics who loathe the screen version of American Psycho have called it a satire on the 1980s. That label -- like the director's gender -- takes some of the stink off the book's reputation. By avoiding the mostly violently revolting imagery of Bateman's sadism -- keeping well within the limits of run-of-the-mill Hollywood gore -- Harron is supposed to have turned "American Psycho" into a hard-eyed look at consumerism.

Now, that satirical intent was evident in the book. So was the troubling suggestion at the movie's close: namely, that Bateman may never have killed anyone; that the scenes we have witnessed are just images sketched in the blank pages of his daybook. Bateman could be just a garden-variety misogynist with a vivid fantasy life and too much spare time.

Yet for all this high satirical intent the screen version of American Psycho lacks nerve -- or rather, pardon the expression, guts. The quality that reviewers have dubbed "satirical" consists, for the most part, of the film's loving pastiche of late '80s style. It recreates the era of power suits; Phil Collins; trendy, overpriced, pretentious restaurants and cordless telephones as big as your head. Such a nostalgic-yet-sarcastic posture of retroactive condescension is more or less what people think of as satire today -- after a generation's worth of toothless and brainless Saturday Night Live sketches.

But in its strongest form, satire is a genre of moral criticism. Its lesson is, as the title of Samuel Johnson's poem has it, "The Vanity of Human Wishes." A trend or behavior is exposed as both absurd and corrupt. At its most severe, the satirist's vision of society is genuinely horrible, even nauseating. Ordinary conduct of respectable people looks monstrous when portrayed by Jonathan Swift or William S. Burroughs. These writers and their fictional creations don't make wisecracks; they show a world coated with blood and filth. It is condemned as evil, not just tacky.

Now, American Psycho (novel and film alike) is certainly disgusting: Patrick Bateman is evil, no doubt about it. But this "satire" owes more to the idiom of entertainment than the vocabulary of social critique.

Throughout the late 1980s, while Ellis was writing the novel, there emerged a subgenre of horror fiction called "splatterpunk." Its name obviously rode on the coattails of cyberpunk -- the science-fiction movement that blurred the borders between human and computer, between consciousness and simulation. Cyberpunk writers had projected an imaginary world (which subsequently became very familiar) of virtual reality, of digitalized mind-games. Splatterpunk, by contrast, focused on human flesh, living and dead, and on all the revolting things that can done to it. It tickled the reader's gag reflex with scenes of dismemberment, cannibalism and necrophilia. (All of which also turned up in Ellis' novel, in more classy and literary form.)

Traditional horror fiction relied on anxiety: nameless dread, the sense of menace. On the other (presumably, severed) hand, splatterpunk went for maximum feasible disgust. It borrowed, openly and self-consciously, from the shock cinema of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and hockey-masked maniacs with knives. Splatterpunk was visual and visceral. Adherents defended the movement as transgressive, anti-authoritarian and multimedia. But it was difficult to conceal the obvious: People enjoyed splatterpunk fiction for the same reason they would rent snuff movies, if Blockbuster carried them.

American Psycho offers all the sick kicks of splatter, while thoughtfully providing the plausible alibi of allegory. The serial killer's unquenchable appetite (the way he consumes and destroys and discards his victims) serves as a grotesque embodiment of the spirit of consumerism. To underline this seriousness of purpose, Ellis has Bateman step back from the mayhem, occasionally, to reflect on his own nihilism: "My personality is sketchy and unformed," Bateman muses, "and my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent . . . My pain is constant and sharp, and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape."

But these passages, which are absolutely essential for justifying the novel as anything but sensationalistic garbage of a vicious sort, represent a serious problem. The events in the novel (and the film) are presented from within Bateman's own consciousness. There is no "outside," no vantage point from beyond his awareness, from which anything can be seen. We are told, by Bateman himself, that he feels no concern for anyone else - while also lacking any stable sense of identity. But a person who lacks a core self would not be capable of saying, "I lack a core self." He would probably say, "I want my MTV!" and leave it at that.

The implication throughout American Psycho is that Bateman lives in a psychic dead zone; that he reflects and embodies the status-driven and conspicuously consuming world around him. So where does Bateman get the idea that it is even possible to feel anything inside?

Amidst the bloodletting, the narrator pauses to deliver impassioned essays on the emotional complexity and maturity reflected in the careers of Huey Lewis and the News, and similar pop pablum. Not only does his psychopathology manifest the values of the trash culture around him; the very possibility of imagining anything else derives from the same debased source. Once you wrap your head around this paradox, it is difficult to know whether American Psycho is a satire of nihilism -- or its most perfect manifestation.