Revisiting American Psycho: The effects of postmodern irony in literature

American Psycho features a psychopath archetype who objectifies rapes, and butchers women.

American Psycho

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When it was released in 1991 with explosive controversy and a thundering hype, Bret Easton Ellis’ ironical novel American Psycho was a sensational pop-culture phenomenon, a global subject that sparked larger conversations about censorship, free expression, misogyny, violence, corporate shallowness, pornography, etc.

It is undoubtedly a difficult book to read with endless paragraphs of explicit violence and misogyny. What is such a strange phenomenon concerning the grotesque and perverted violence is that it is employed as an end in itself. It’s so devoid of insight, substance, or thought.

Sexual violence purely for the sake of provocative, shocking element is empty vacuous literature and not to mention it fetishes this sociopath archetype who objectifies rapes, and butchers women. It is essentially pornographic in its descriptions. Making Patrick Bateman a self-aware, ironist who mocks the jaded yuppies, almost to the point of deconstructing their motivations and psyche is not compensation for his sociopathic behavior.

How far does irony go?

One disillusionment often documented widely with this sort of postmodern irony stems from this contradiction at display here wherein there’s a stark disassociation with one’s actions.

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The person still completely participated in the said action while distancing the “real self” from it. Bateman, the infamous protagonist, still butchers women, hanging out with those very yuppies he mocks and is a dazzling embodiment of the very lifestyle he claims he is tired of.

Postmodern irony at the atomic level is simply escaping your responsibility for your actions because it’s not your “real self” that’s indulging in it. Bret Ellis said in an interview that, for the most part, American Psycho was just him writing out his frustration at his life, which corresponded closely, to Patrick Bateman’s; the murder scenes were added later. 

Now, what do we, as literature enthusiasts, derive from that? What does that mean? That clinical descriptions of incessant violation of women is a provoking aesthetic to a soulless story of soullessness?

That’s very revealing of the author’s thought processes. After all, books do not exist in a vacuum.

They exist in a socio-cultural fabric and end up influencing many impressionable people. This is not an advocation for moral tales or moral underpinnings in fiction. But merely that awareness should exist of the effects of such fiction.

One of the reviewers at that time said that “This shouldn’t be judged on how dark it gets because it’s not a moral fable and it’s not ‘real’, fiction is literally making stories up.” That’s exactly the implicit conceptual justification in the book, just one layer above.

One important thing about American Psycho is that it shows – by its very existence, by its immense success – something absurd about the society that birthed it.

But it illustrates something, even more, deeper: the banality of evil. The author is not incredibly different from you or me, nor does he explore the descent of madness in depth. But by flaunting his ironical mockery, his indifference, his shocking extent of insensitivity, he exemplifies how an author might inadvertently do evil.

And there is something evil in what he’s done, by writing it out the way it is written, romanticizing a cynical, messed up approach towards life and, hence consequently legitimizing it, seeking to legitimize an ironic distance from violence eventually. In the end, there’s only one question that demands an answer here: does literature, society, culture need more violence for its own sake?

What’s sickening and maddening is this ridiculous pose of Bateman, of the book itself. That this self-awareness and irony somehow elevates this piece of self-absorbed fiction beyond the generic violence in other books.

There is no insight into psychosis, no valuable or interesting turn on the archetype, no examination of anything, its pages and pages of clinical descriptions of excessive violence towards women. The prose is mediocre at best and incredibly dull at worst.

In the larger context of literature in society, what kind of role does this kind of fiction play?

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Even at the time, it was published, this gag of conceiving of a character who exemplifies all the soulless, rapacious, amoral traits we’ve come to associate with that level of wealth and privilege was widely done. It’s not an impressive feat of imagination.

Where is the distinction between the reader vicariously thrilling at the protagonist’s sexy immorality and starting to dig him, or, in a more meta, implicit way, to start to become like him?

Bret Ellis doesn’t care, pretty obviously. Or more accurately Bateman doesn’t care.

He is content at mocking the losers and bums and prostitutes he butchers out of boredom and out of a twisted, exhausted sense of dull pleasure.

How is that different from a reader who laughs at American psycho to prove he’s in on the joke, too? How can you make a moral challenge (and Ellis himself is fond of saying what a moralist he is) to the readers when the readers you’re trying to shock are too busy patting themselves on the back for getting the irony (because it’s sort of hard not to get)?

What’s absurd, they might just think it’s funny, as is evident from tons of raving reviews.

Who is fooling who here? What good does it do for a society that starts to laugh at its own sense of intellectual superiority, using a piece of art that depicts brutality as its occasion for ostensible social diagnosis, and thinks it’s just super-freaking-cool for doing so?

Nietzsche says: it takes a lot of moral and intellectual courage to meet pain and evil with laughter- you have to learn how to do it; you have to give up a lot and sacrifice a certain glimmering thing to be able to be that tough.

To survive like that. It’s really magnificent to be able to overpower the bullshit of the world with a free spirit and fresh air and conviviality. Laughter- the good laughter, the really potent stuff, the laughter of exorcism- does not come cheap.

Even if we were to interpret American Psycho on the level its author intended, the laughs it offers, the finger it jabs, doesn’t mean anything. It’s superficial, hollow, and mechanical.

It’s cheap laughter at the world. There’s nothing to be gained. After three decades later, the novel retains its power to shock and offend. Literature teaches how to be, and sometimes, how not to be. American Psycho seems to fall in the latter category.

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