Over the past week or so I’ve been wondering a lot about whether a good book can make one feel and/or act like a worse person. I’ve come to the conclusion that it can if it’s written by Bret Easton Ellis.
Last year I read Ellis’s Less The Zero in one afternoon and walked around feeling like a deranged sociopath all day. American Psycho, partly because I didn’t read it in one gulp and partly because I can’t identify with yuppie Wall-Street douches from the 80’s – as compared to the meaning-deprived young people of Less Than Zero – did not have quite the same dramatic effect. Yet I still found myself with a higher propensity to say things that are just mean over the past week. To everyone who’s had to talk to me, I apologize, but I blame Ellis.
Amerian Psycho is about yuppie Patrick Bateman who buys stuff, judges people, does drugs, goes out to eat in fancy restaurants and in his spare time, murders, rapes and tortures. Ellis describes all of these activities in the same disengaged monotone and the reader doesn’t get the sense that Bateman distinguishes much between decapitating sex-workers and ordering a bottle of Evian. He does both a lot.
I saw the movie version of American Psycho a few years ago and it’s been one of my favorites ever since. Christian Bale pulls off by far his best performance as Bateman and while reading I was struck by how faithful the movie was. Both are strong critiques of the psychotic nature of America in the 80’s and the rise of consumer capitalism. The book is focused very specifically at the commodity level – probably around twenty percent of the novel’s words are brand names. There’s also a strong element of biomedicalization (PDF warning, but it is an awesome read) with Bateman and his contemporaries – who are really indistinguishable from Bateman – spending a large portion of their days maintaining their bodies through compulsive weightlifting, dieting, manicures and a lot of blow.
The one solid contrast I saw between the book and the movie is that Ellis doesn’t see Bateman as exceptional in any way. The movie emphasizes the second word of the title while the book focuses on the first. Throughout the novel there are various allusions to other yuppie psychopaths with the same extracurricular activities as Bateman. He is not an aberrational character in the novel, rather he’s a product of his environment. And it’s in describing the environment of post-modern capitalism where Ellis really excels. From now on when people ask me what the hell I mean by the post-modern condition, I’ll redirect them to this passage:
Sex is mathematics. Individuality no longer an issue. What does intelligence signify? Define reason. Desire-meaningless. Intellect is not a cure. Justice is dead. 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. Love cannot be trusted. Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in . . . this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged . . .
Ellis’s point isn’t so much that society’s hard-fought indifference allows us to turn a blind eye to murdering millionaires, rather he asks how could Bateman not become a psychopath?
As promised, I want to connect this to Malcolm Gladwell’s newest New Yorker piece. In the incredibly well-named “Cocksure,” Gladwell asks to what degree a demand for overconfident bankers caused the financial crisis. The basic thrust of the piece is the same as in American Psycho, given the incentive structure, how could the bankers not have destroyed the financial system? From Gladwell’s article, it looks like the main job of financial serivces execs is to measure their dicks and call everyone else a fag. (Seriously, here’s what Bear Sterns exec Jimmy Cayne said on the record about Treasury Sec. Geithenr: “This guy thinks he’s got a big dick. He’s got nothing, except maybe a boyfriend.”) What the hell kind of adult says shit like that?
For years these are the management qualities that the deregulated markets encouraged. Incentivising reckless risk-taking with other people’s money using financial instruments designed to camoflauge risk is a bad idea. We end up with these Bateman-wannabes guarding America’s money. That’s what we asked for and that’s what we got. Reading American Psycho, it was striking to see how little has actually changed.