On American Psycho
I knew that sitting down to finally read American Psycho would carry with it some moods that I brought to the table about the book, the author, and (am-I-a-fourteen-year-old-girl-like) literary feuds. These carefully considered tweets in 2012 were quite endearing:
LM:How would you contrast your efforts in this regard versus those involved in most television or most popular fiction?
DFW:This might be one way to start talking about differences between the early postmodern writers of the fifties and sixties and their contemporary descendants. When you read that quotation from “Westward” just now, it sounded to me like a covert digest of my biggest weaknesses as a writer. One is that I have a grossly sentimental affection for gags, for stuff that’s nothing but funny, and which I sometimes stick in for no other reason than funniness. Another’s that I have a problem sometimes with concision, communicating only what needs to be said in a brisk efficient way that doesn’t call attention to itself. It’d be pathetic for me to blame the exterior for my own deficiencies, but it still seems to me that both of these problems are traceable to this schizogenic experience I had growing up, being bookish and reading a lot, on the one hand, watching grotesque amounts of TV, on the other. Because I liked to read, I probably didn’t watch quite as much TV as my friends, but I still got my daily megadose, believe me. And I think it’s impossible to spend that many slack-jawed, spittle-chinned, formative hours in front of commercial art without internalizing the idea that one of the main goals of art is simply to “entertain,” give people sheer pleasure. Except to what end, this pleasure-giving? Because, of course, TV’s “real” agenda is to be “liked,” because if you like what you’re seeing, you’ll stay tuned. TV is completely unabashed about this; it’s its sole raison. And sometimes when I look at my own stuff I feel like I absorbed too much of this raison. I’ll catch myself thinking up gags or trying formal stunt-pilotry and see that none of this stuff is really in the service of the story itself; it’s serving the rather darker purpose of communicating to the reader “Hey! Look at me! Have a look at what a good writer I am! Like me!”
Now, to an extent there’s no way to escape this altogether, because an author needs to demonstrate some sort of skill or merit so that the reader will trust her. There’s some weird, delicate, I-trust-you-not-to fuck-up-on-me relationship between the reader and writer, and both have to sustain it. But there’s an unignorable line between demonstrating skill and charm to gain trust for the story vs. simple showing off. It can become an exercise in trying to get the reader to like and admire you instead of an exercise in creative art. I think TV promulgates the idea that good art is just art which makes people like and depend on the vehicle that brings them the art. This seems like a poisonous lesson for a would-be artist to grow up with. And one consequence is that if the artist is excessively dependent on simply being “liked,” so that her true end isn’t in the work but in a certain audience’s good opinion, she is going to develop a terrific hostility to that audience, simply because she has given all her power away to them. It’s the familiar love-hate syndrome of seduction: “I don’t really care what it is I say, I care only that you like it. But since your good opinion is the sole arbitrator of my success and worth, you have tremendous power over me, and I fear you and hate you for it.” This dynamic isn’t exclusive to art. But I often think I can see it in myself and in other young writers, this desperate desire to please coupled with a kind of hostility to the reader.
LM: In your own case, how does this hostility manifest itself?
DFW: Oh, not always, but sometimes in the form of sentences that are syntactically not incorrect but still a real bitch to read. Or bludgeoning the reader with data. Or devoting a lot of energy to creating expectations and then taking pleasure in disappointing them. You can see this clearly in something like Ellis’s “American Psycho”: it panders shamelessly to the audience’s sadism for a while, but by the end it’s clear that the sadism’s real object is the reader herself.
LM: But at least in the case of “American Psycho” I felt there was something more than just this desire to inflict pain—or that Ellis was being cruel the way you said serious artists need to be willing to be.
DFW: You’re just displaying the sort of cynicism that lets readers be manipulated by bad writing. I think it’s a kind of black cynicism about today’s world that Ellis and certain others depend on for their readership. Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic, and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s cliched and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend “Psycho” as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.
Wallace, here, is attempting to make a distinction between his writing and that of Bret Easton Ellis, a distinction that for Wallace is crucial. He sees his role as a writer as one that he must employ responsibly, to care enough about his reader to want to hurt them. The “caring” is the key term here, and one that he does not cede to Ellis; in American Psycho the only one who is a victim is the reader herself. I am quite sympathetic to Wallace’s take on fiction and its importance in contemporary life, and thus I have always taken as axiomatic the sadistic relationship that some texts without the same moral pensiveness of a Wallace or Homes or Franzen, like this one, have with their readers (and therefore ought not be put in the same category). But, I think that Wallace’s critique was particularly sharp towards Ellis because of Ellis’s inversion of the Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (Wallace highly valued the 19th century Russian novels and their moral ferocity). One can easily read American Psycho and see that if Raskolnikov were alive today, he would be a psychopathic mass murderer with no redemption (as opposed to a dyspeptic who killed in a moment of passion and spends 500 pages coming to terms with his actions until an ultimate moment of Christian redemption). And, while I actually don’t think Wallace’s take is too inaccurate, I found American Psycho to be riveting, feeding the proclivity we have to watch over and over a horrifying accident or tragedy or two planes crashing into a World Trade Center. After the first hundred or so pages, you become absolutely certain (even without Wallace’s goading), there is nothing you will be “getting” out of American Psycho. But, I think Wallace is mistaken to discount the text’s “value” as merely a “performative digest of late-eighties social problems.”
There is no doubt that American Psycho is overwhelmingly negative, but key moments arise that make us aware of our complicity in this experience. One such moment arises when Bateman becomes unglued in a police chase and the narrative voice becomes fractured into two “personalities,” becoming third-person:
…there is an idea of Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there. It is hard for me to make sense on any given level. Myself is fabricated, an aberration. I am a non contingent human being. My personality is sketchy and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent. My conscience, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at Harvard) if they ever did exist. There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference toward it, I have now surpassed. I still, though, hold on to one single bleak truth: no one is safe, nothing is redeemed. Yet I am blameless. Each model of human behavior must be assumed to have some validity. Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do? My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact I want pain inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. But even after admitting this– and I have, countless times, in just about every act I’ve committed– and coming face-to-face with these truths, there is no catharsis. I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing… (376-377).
This moment is very complex and highly problematic in the literary-ethico complex that we have as readers of “serious fiction.” We have a return to the image of Raskolnikov, in the moment of confession he experiences a catharsis, giving the text itself an opportunity to moralize for the reader. The character’s catharsis becomes the reader’s as well. When Ellis invokes the opposite, does this mean that anti-catharsis also becomes the reader’s as well? I’m not so sure. I think that enduring the moments of excitement and the moments of disgust, weighing them against one another, allows the novel to invite conflicting affects. For example, the incessant listing of brands, descriptions of clothing, sex and food function, in their high concentration, as a means to facilitate antagonism/disidentification towards Bateman, but they ingratiate him to the reader as well because of their sensuous quality. When Wallace states that “the sadism’s real object is the reader herself,” he sees this enjoyment that the reader as taking in the reading as not producing anything for itself. But the negative or the abject in this case I think does produce an affective dissonance; we mostly hate Bateman, want him to get caught, want him to suffer back, but do we want him to experience any catharsis? Are we wishing he would “get better”? The show would end. Do we harbor strong connections with his victims, or await the next one in the series? Do we weigh the homeless against prostitutes against yuppies against the poor puppies. Of course we do. But, none of this is lost on the reader. We can feel ourselves experience heightened sympathies, sensuous arousal, jaded cynicisms, or, worst, nothing at all. If, as Jameson says, post-modernism is defined as a “waning of affects,” doesn’t American Psycho, in its abjectness and negativity, make us aware of it; Or, in its unbalanced affects, doesn’t it offer us a horrifyingly revealing cognitive map of the modern subject? Either way, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.