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The American Psycho Files

Bret Easton Ellis. Picador, London, 1991.

Compiled by David Carroll

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#2, 1994

American PsychoConsider this: "I have been assured by a very knowing acquaintance in London, that a young healthy Child well Nursed is at a year Old a most delicious norishing and wholesome Food, whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked or Boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a Fricasie or a Ragout."

One literary guide describes Swift's Modest Proposal as "a masterly but horrible piece of irony". Which is precisely what American Psycho is. I don't know whether Oscar Wilde had Swift's American acquaintance in mind when be quipped: "America is the only nation to have gone from Barbarism to Decadence without first passing through Civilisation."

He certainly might prophetically have been describing Ellis's Masters of the Universe.

Extreme social conditions demand extreme responses. Which is why Ellis is entitled to his excess.

His Manhattan yuppie brokers -- all of whom hate women; it's just that the central character takes their hatred to its (bio)logical conclusion -- in their obsessive restaurant quests recall nothing so much as Seneca's account of Roman banquets at which live fish were served in tall glasses, so that each guest could enjoy the death throes of the next course.

Little wonder that the historian Suetonius observed that interest in eating had become a national obsession.

This same Suetonius also recorded of one emperor that be had the throats of children slit while he sodomised them in order to enjoy their death contractions.

The narrator of Ellis's brilliant debut novel Less Than Zero, says: "All that does matter is that I want to see the worst." American Psycho wants no less; it uses its satire to rub our noses in the decline of the West.

Ellis has the right to say: "I have written a wicked book and feel as spotless as a lamb." (That earlier dark satirist of American capitalism and American psychos, Herman Melville, on finishing Moby Dick).

Sydney Morning Herald -- June 15, 1991

Editorial Adjustments In 'American Psycho'


The version of "American Psycho" to be published next month by Vintage Books will include many changes from Bret Easton Ellis's original manuscript, whose publication was abruptly canceled by Simon & Schuster three months ago.

But Sonny Mehta, the publisher of Alfred A. Knopf and the man responsibly for the purchase of the novel, said that none of the "innumerable adjustments" altered the fundamental thrust or tone of the story whose graphic descriptions of sexual brutality led Simon & Schuster to cancel publication at the last minute.

The cancellation, which came after the book had gone through final editing and legal checks, set off a furor, with some people in publishing contending that Simon & Schuster had been guilty of editorial cowardice and even censorship while others said the publishing house had merely shown commendable good taste.

"It is still very much Bret's book and has not been toned down," Mr Mehta said. All of the "innumerable adjustments were arrived at through discussion with the author." he described the editorial process the book had gone through as "the same process that all our other books undergo."

Mr. Mehta, who oversees Vintage, an imprint of Random House, said the book was now shorter and better, but declined to estimate how much shorter. "Nothing radical has changed, although there are a lot of adjustments," he said.

Amanda Urban, Mr. Ellis's agent, said the book had gone through "normal editing". "There was some cutting of the beginning of the book," she said, but no editing whatsoever of the violence. Bret is totally happy."

Referring to Simon & Schuster's parent company, Paramount Communications, Ms Urban said at the time of the cancellation that it was a case of a "giant corporation responding to prepublication controversy and strong-arming its publishing division into abandoning its own tradition of fearless publishing."

Richard E. Snyder, chairman of Simon & Schuster, said he had canceled the book because it was in very bad taste.

The novel, as it was to have been published by Simon & Schuster, depicts a serial killer who murders and dismembers women, children and animals.

Mr. Mehta's decision to buy the book for Vintage angered women's groups, some of which have called for a boycott of the novel. The Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization of Women called it "a how-to novel on the torture and dismemberment of women."

During the editing process of "American Psycho," several editors at Random House privately expressed relief that the war in the Persian Gulf has distracted attention from the book. One said, "'American Psycho' will be published in March or when the land war starts."

New York Times -- February 18, 1991

'Psycho': Wither Death Without Life?

The trouble with "American Psycho" is, of course, that you can't create a meaningless world out of meaninglessness. Surface, surface, surface can not serve to define substance. For meaninglessness to cohere it needs a context of meaning. "American Psycho" is built out of meaninglessness except for a couple of outrageously comic satirical scenes, the best of them an episode in which Patrick explains to the woman who wants to marry him that he can't stand the burden of a commitment because he has this little problem with mass murder and she fails to hear what he is saying in her desire to pin him down. You get the feeling that Mr Ellis began writing his novel with a single huge emotion of outrage and that he never in his three years of working on it paused to modulate that emotion or to ask if it was helping to construct an imaginary world. How else could he have written scenes so flat and tedious that the reader wants to scream? Surely not with profit or exploitation in mind. If so commercialism has never before produced anything so boring.

The idea that technique has meaning begins in the classroom. Only a student of modern literature could have conceived the idea that putting together what he saw as symbols of the Reagan 1980's would constitute an artistic statement about the 1980's. That is the true outrage of "American Psycho," not its violence to women, men, blacks, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, homosexuals, homeless people, rats and dogs (all of whom Patrick Bateman succeeds in insulting to one degree or another), but its violence to an organic idea of art. It is significant that Thomas Harris's novel "The Silence of the Lambs" depicts far more degrading treatment of women than "American Psycho" does, and yet no one is complaining, despite the current success of "Lambs" as a film. That is because the killer's psycho-pathology is given a moral framework.

"American Psycho" lacks such a moral framework. Mr. Ellis teases us near the end into believing that Patrick Bateman may finally be brought to justice. But he isn't; at the book's close he is still at large. The author is saying that today such monstrous criminality is indistinguishable from the general behavior of society. But Mr. Ellis's true offense is to imply that the human mind has grown so corrupt that it can no longer distinguish between form and content. He has proved himself mistaken in that assumption by writing a book whose very confusion of form and content has caused it to fail, and for that offense and no other does one have cause to excoriate "American Psycho".

New York Times -- March 11, 1991

Censory deprivation

Iago was a big wimp: As far as popular music enthusiast Glenn A. Baker is concerned, Bret Easton Ellis's novel about the unspeakable designer from hell can stay wrapped in plastic forever.

Why bother with this vast mystery (ie, why was it written?) when the sum total of the guy's musical knowledge was revealed by the (song) title of his first book -- Less than Zero?

The rock brain has uncovered two pop heresies in Ellis's latest, American Psycho: he wrote that You can't always get what you want was by The Beatles, and Be My Baby was by The Crystals. It should be The Rolling Stones and The Ronettes, respectively.

Maybe Ellis was listening to them backwards and got confused.

Sydney Morning Herald -- June 27, 1991

There is strong evidence that the potent images in American Psycho were lodged in Wade Frankum's unbalanced mind -- where highly disturbed sexuality and murderous impulses dwelt -- in the days before he set out on his final journey. The copy of the book was, according to Milton, "well-thumbed." Even more revealingly, when Frankum arrived at Strathfield railway station on Aug. 17, he obliquely warned the stationmaster of the impending horror. "You had better go home, Clive," he said. These are almost the same words as those spoken by the hero of American Psycho to a woman he is about to murder.

Time -- January 6, 1992

SIR: Wade Frankum reads American Psycho. Wade Frankum becomes a mass murderer. Kevin Waller (Herald, March 9) puts the case for the new censorship in no uncertain terms: "I find it impossible to justify their [the Strathfield massacre victims'] suffering in terms of an individual's right to read books and watch films and videos of gross cruelty." I share Mr Waller's concern, but did he notice the other book found in Wade Frankum's bedroom? Newspaper reports at the time stated that Frankum had also been reading Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Is it possible that this great work of literature could have helped Frankum along the path to murder?

SMH -- March 11, 1992

Bret Easton Ellis Answers Critics of 'American Psycho'


As his novel "American Psycho" arrives in stores and death threats are delivered suggesting he should be dismembered like the victims of the book's fictional killer, Bret Easton Ellis seems dismayed that his work has sparked the biggest literary brouhaha since Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses."

"I had no idea the novel would provoke the reception it's gotten, and I still don't quite get it," he said last week in his first interview since Simon & Schuster abruptly canceled the book's publication three months ago and it was resold to Vintage. "But then I was not trying to add members to my fan club. You do not write a novel for praise, or thinking of your audience. You write for yourself; you work out between you and your pen the things that intrigue you."

For Mr. Ellis, 26 years old, those intriguing things were the obsessions of an affluent group of rootless young executives schooled by day in Wall Street greed and seeking by night to use the easy money of the late 1980's for the instant enactment of every fantasy.

New York Times -- March 6, 1991

The case for publishing

JAMES FRASER, publishing director of Pan Macmillan Australia, defends the decision to release American Psycho

A publisher's office is a clearing house for ideas. It's not my job or in my interest to suppress the ideas in the books I publish. This is especially true in books for adults, both fiction and non-fiction. It would be immoral for me to try to sanitise a book I had agreed to publish -- and it would be bad business. Publishers have expectations about the market they send their books into -- its taste, its buying power -- but the market can never be pre-judged in any rigid or absolute way. The publisher would be the loser if he or she did that.

Censorship is an attempt to make one idea exclude another and, for the publisher who has the job of building a list with a wide range of titles, this would clearly be madness. It's not my job, either, to second-guess what the state will think of the books I put into the marketplace.

American Psycho is a sensational case but what publishers have to contend with routinely in publishing non-fiction books is that the truth may also be judged defamatory under Australian law. This is the real issue for community debate -- to what extent does it want to hear the truth about itself, about individuals within the community and about the governments the community elects. If we care about the preservation of standards, there is none higher than this.

The Bulletin. June 18, 1991

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