Jay Loves A Book #5 -- American Psycho

When I was in graduate school, we got to create our own curriculum for the freshman English classes. We had to have our syllabii (syllabuses?) approved, of course, but the approval standards were not that strict, and we were all English majors, and so, therefore, skilled at the bullshit that professors liked to hear, so we pretty much got anything we wanted approved. One semester, I did a whole freshman comp class on tropes in horror fiction. Another semester, we spent all 12 weeks on The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom. (It hardly seems fair, does it? :) )

One semester, my friend Joe, a fellow graduate student, decided to do a whole semester on the theme of the unreliable narrator, and the first book he chose for the class was American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. All the rest of the graduate students were like, "aww, man! I should have thought of the unreliable narrator!" (That semester I was doing E.M. Forster--as an aside, I learned the important lesson "never teach any book you love to college freshmen, because they will hate it and make you feel like a jerk for making them read it." Philistines!) We were all impressed that Joe would have made such a choice--American Psycho, we thought, would be the perfect choice for college freshmen. It has sex, it has violence, it has really funny riffs on Phil Collins and Huey Lewis and the News! What's not to love? Joe's students, we thought, would come in every day and think about how awesome Joe was to have chosen such a perfect book.

Boy, were we wrong.

After first 50 pages, they really liked it. They didn't understand the point, and they were confused by all the 80s references, but the business card scene was a hit (it's a classic--if you haven't seen the movie with Christian Bale, you should--the rendering of the business card scene in the film is pitch perfect) and they find the main character simulatenously funny and boring, which is how they're supposed to find him (in my opinion).

After the second 50 pages, they were still pretty much liking it. They were surprised that there was such graphic sex in a "school book," but they hadn't really caught on to the fact that Patrick Bateman (the main character) is totally whacked in the head. They still liked him, and even thought he was funnier now, since he got so many chicks.

Joe got his first complaint after the third 50 pages, in which Patrick kills a bum and maims the bum's dog. (And then goes on a hilarious riff about Genesis--no, I'm not kidding--on the very next page. But the complaint wasn't about Genesis. It was about the treatment of the dog.)

And by the fourth 50 pages--in which Patrick kills two hookers and some other people--the class was in full revolt. Kids were coming into his office and crying and asking for other assignments. One girl wrote her daily writing about how if she was forced to read anymore of this book, she was complaining to the head of the department. One boy stopped coming to class.

Needless to say, Joe torpedoed the rest of American Psycho, and moved them on to Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived In The Castle, which, for some reason, they were okay with. ::shrugs::

We--the graduate students, including Joe--were stunned. Most of us loved American Psycho. It was so...ironic. Ellis has a genius for summoning up a particular type of lifestyle that not a lot of people can do without sounding (to quote Holden Caulfield) phony. And, in some ways, Patrick Bateman is Holden Caulfield, only a Caulfield consumed by the very phoniness he hates, separated from himself and everyone else by his own fear of being fake. American Psycho, to an English graduate student (or, at least to the ones I knew), was like a perfect storm of literary and cultural allusion, chock full of all of the "entertaining" things about American culture--sex, and violence, and mediocre pop music--both condemning and glorifying them at once. We loved it, and we expected the students to love it, too.

But we'd forgotten that college freshmen weren't us. They weren't necessarily "sophisticated readers." That they weren't necessarily familiar with the tropes that ellis was playing off of. That they didn't see the narrative devices at work. That they didn't understand that Patrick, in fact, might not have killed anyone, that his elaborate descriptions of death and injury and sexual degradation (the likes of which they'd never even seen in a book before*) were fantasies created by the empty and soulless world he lived in. And that, ultimately, even those fantasies couldn't save him. As the book's last line says "...above one of the doors covered by red velvet drapes in Harry's is a sign in letters that match the drapes' color are the words THIS IS NOT AN EXIT." In Ellis' world, there is no way out. Perhaps that's what the students were afraid of.


*I wholeheartedly recommend the movie version of the book, by the way--Christian Bale is outstanding and it's got the feel of the novel right--but it's noteworthy, I think, to point out that if the movie version had been out when Joe was teaching and he'd shown it to the class, most of them would not have blinked an eye. The stuff in American Psycho, even in a completely faithful adaptation to film (which the existing movie is not), is nowhere near as disturbing to the average American college freshman as the book is. If I were still an English graduate student, I would have 20 pages to say about that, relating to the performative nature of language versus the static nature of images, but since I'm not anymore, I'm going to go with this: sometimes your imagination is scarier than anything you can be shown.


Dear Jay,

this is a fascinating post! My name is Peter Ricci, and I am a college student and writer who is currently contributing to an upstart online magazine called 'Too Shy to Stop.' We focus on culture and the arts, and a couple weeks ago I actually wrote an essay defending 'American Psycho.'

I focus more on the rhetoric behind Ellis' argument, and I would love it if you checked it out and commented! Here is the link: http://tooshytostop.wordpress.com/2008/10/21/let-the-american-psycho-speak/.


Peter Ricci

Sunday, November 16, 2008 at 1:47:00 PM EST  

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