Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Shock fiction

Dearest Bibliophiles,

In Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho, Patrick Bateman is a savant of evil, a sort of artist of the perverse and horrific. Violence--particularly sexual violence--is juxtaposed with the most insipid aspects of 1980s yuppie culture. At one point, several pages are given to a four-way go-nowhere conversation over which restaurant to eat at, while other sections chronicle the kidnap, torture, and death of various victims (usually women).

It's all but impossible to miss the book's Christian parallels--for example, the first sentence is a quotation from Dante's Inferno, while the last sentence is a nod to Sartre's depiction of Hell in No Exit. One could read the novel as Bateman being a demon and his world, from which anything like God is conspicuously absent, as Hell. While the book caused an uproar during its initial publication (Ellis received death threats), it was lauded by critics as a commentary on our own immoral--or amoral--society. Norman Mailer called it "The first novel to come along in years that takes on deep and Dostoyevskian themes."

Mailer's parallel to Dostoevsky is apt. The Russian legend's Notes From the Underground is quite similar to American Psycho: the bizarre and grotesque narrator, the heavy but indirect social criticism, the amorality. And Dostoevsky was certainly a moralist, if ever there was one. His entire career can be seen as one long argument against the revolutionary atheism of his youth, which—he thinks—leads to moral decay and despair. With the early Notes as a sort of trial-run novella, he went on to create similar characters in his great novels: Crime and Punishment's Raskalnikov, The Brothers Karamazov’s Ivan, and Demons (AKA The Possesed)’s Stavrogin. Dostoevsky showed us men as products of their time. In this way he used character construction as the arena for his social criticism.

Reading American Psycho in this way would appear to exculpate Ellis, at least as far as the book’s morality goes. On this view, the immorality and horror he depicts is not from him but rather from us, the society around him. He’s just holding up a mirror in the person of Patrick Bateman. In Ellis' own words: "[Bateman] was crazy the same way [I was]. He did not come out of me sitting down and wanting to write a grand sweeping indictment of yuppie culture. It initiated because my own isolation and alienation at a point in my life.I was living like Patrick Bateman. I was slipping into a consumerist kind of void that was supposed to give me confidence and make me feel good about myself but just made me feel worse and worse and worse about myself. That is where the tension in American Psycho came from."

Is this adequate, though? Ellis' personal motives aside, does our moral edification really require us to read, in excruciating detail, how Bateman uses knives and a caged rat to torture a sex worker to death? It’s certainly plausible that moralistic criticism is one thing that Ellis is trying to do, but that by no means implies that he succeeds. Perhaps Ellis merely further inures us to horror and violence by employing it so aggressively in his work. Or could it be that the real function of violence in the novel is merely to grab our attention, create controversy, scare the shit out of the reader, and that the moral-critic argument is just a ruse? Could gore function here the same way that it functions in vapid gross-out zombie flicks? It’s not clear that Ellis, by parodying the horror and violence of his society, successfully criticizes it. And for someone exploiting horror to create shock-value in his fiction, what could be better camouflage that pretensions of moral superiority?

(Indeed, Ellis goes on to criticize himself for this sort of hypocrisy, in Lunar Park. He writes of how he spent his life writing novels about bad behavior while still participating in that bad behavior [i.e. drugs and nihilism, not torture and murder] and then excusing himself by calling it ‘research.’)

Your author doesn’t know what to make of this. Reading American Psycho a few years ago, I remember that there were certain sections so gut-wrenching that I had to read a few sentences, put the book down for a minute, and then read a few more sentences. There can be no doubt that Ellis is one hell of a writer when he wants to be. What’s still ambiguous, though, is whether his parody constitutes a critique.

What do you think? Does Ellis successfully attack the selfishness/nihilism/materialism/impersonal violence/etc. of 1980s/contemporary America? Does he exploit horrific violence in his work for shock value, while masquerading as a moralist? Is he somewhere between these two extremes? Is something completely different going on that this essay fails to appreciate? And more generally, when and how is it legitimate to use shock-tactics in art?

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