- Illustration by Mr Patrick Leger
- Words by Mr Alex Bilmes, Editor-in-Chief, British Esquire
Mr Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho is, in my view, one of the quintessential masterpieces of late 20th-century American fiction. A Swiftian evisceration of capitalist excess, it is an ultra-violent, serio-comic assault on the rampant consumerism that came to define its era - and, many would argue, continues to define our own. And it's not very nice about mainstream pop music, either. It is America's only true existentialist novel, and it has really good jokes. All that, and it anticipated and skewered celebrity culture almost before anyone else noticed it was upon us.
American Psycho's anti-hero, Patrick Bateman, is a Cerruti-armoured Wall Street banker with a drug habit, a brutal contempt for women, an overdeveloped appreciation for the music of Huey Lewis and the News, and a sideline in vicious execution. Lonely, status-obsessed, deeply disturbed, prone to tears, Bateman dresses to kill - in increasingly outlandish fashion. That's when he's not offering his shockingly bland received wisdom on the cultural artefacts of the day. (When Ms Whitney Houston died, in 2012, rather than wade through the lachrymose newspaper encomiums, us Ellis aficionados were sent straight back to our dog-eared copies of Psycho, to read once again the magnificent chapter in which Bateman, in merciless journalese, extolls the virtues of Ms Houston's "state-of-the-art ballad", "The Greatest Love of All").
American Psycho is a profoundly moral book, written by a young man horrified by the decadence of the world in which he was living
Some readers - perspicacious ones, at that - have understood the novel's events as Bateman's fantasies, the revolting imaginings of an unhinged mind. They think the novel takes place in his head. To which I say: whatever gets you through the night. That's certainly not my reading of American Psycho. And I sense, from my conversations with its author (I have interviewed Mr Ellis on more than one occasion) that it's not his, either - although he's far too canny to ever offer a definitive take; doubtless because there isn't one.
American Psycho was published in 1991, when some would argue that the 1980s, as we've come to understand them, were just getting going. Patrick Bateman has since become fixed in the popular imagination as one of that earlier decade's financier bogeymen, up there with Mr Oliver Stone's Gordon Gekko, Mr Tom Wolfe's Sherman McCoy, and real-life villains including Messrs Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky. But 1990s Wall Street psychos made 1980s Wall Street psychos look like choirboys, and Bateman would have made mincemeat - probably quite literally - out of any of those guys: he is scarier, sadder and much, much madder.
Misread by many as a lurid, misogynistic, yuppie slasher novel, American Psycho's fraught publication - it was rejected by Mr Ellis' first publisher - was greeted by a deafening chorus of disapproval from the tweedy New York publishing establishment. The novel's most famous assailant was Mr Norman Mailer, a literary pyrotechnician of an earlier generation - and a man who, lest we forget, once stabbed his own wife - who, in an attack of fearful pomposity, wrote an article in Vanity Fair calling for a panel of "12 respected novelists" - including, one presumes, a certain Mr Mailer - to adjudicate on whether or not the work ought to be brought before the public at all. In retrospect, as Mr Will Self, another needle-sharp satirist, once said to me, the brouhaha seems "quite simply, pathetic".
Mr Self is right: American Psycho is a profoundly moral book, written by a young man horrified by the decadence of the world in which he was living. Any suggestions to the contrary - that Mr Ellis somehow revelled in the warped psychology, the monstrous vanity and the sickening violence of Bateman (or approved of the MOR soundtrack) - were unfounded. The trouble was, Mr Ellis' book had the sexy sheen of the milieu it was attacking (of course it did, dummies; it was a satire) and its author was the literary boy wonder of the downtown Manhattan nightclub scene where many of the acts in the book occur (of course he was, bozos; for all its extravagance American Psycho has the unmistakable tang of truth: its author knew of what he wrote).
Mr Ellis once described 1991 as "the year of being hated". Certainly an unholy alliance of the professionally outraged (liberals, conservatives, feminists) lined up to tear a strip off his new season Yamamoto jacket. But the folderol had the typical effect: American Psycho became a bestselling succès de scandale and, more than two decades on, reading it today is still a rite of passage for any young person interested in money, fashion, style, design, sex, fame, food, pop culture and "how they lived then".
In 2000, after a protracted gestation, a slightly underpowered film adaptation was released, with Mr Christian Bale's committed turn in the lead role - yup, he was Bateman before he was Batman - rather let down by the film's uncertain tone. Should it be a grotesque art-house comedy or a B-movie shocker? The director, Ms Mary Harron, seemed caught in two minds. Now, more promisingly, American Psycho is going to be a musical, at the Almeida Theatre in London. No doubt the novel's Grand Guignol elements will make for some dramatic set pieces. I wonder if a blood-spattered Bateman will do "The Greatest Love of All" while wielding an industrial staple gun? Hope so.
Reading it today is still a rite of passage for any young person interested in money, fashion, style, design, sex, fame, food and pop culture
As I say, I have interviewed Mr Ellis more than once and I've had a number of nights out in his company - dinners and drinks in London, Paris and LA. He lives in West Hollywood now, where he is a screenwriter (most recently The Canyons), a Twitter provocateur and - though he wouldn't thank me for saying so - a bon vivant: a night out with Bret is a lot of fun. I haven't seen him for a few years - we're not close friends, by any means, but I'm fond of him - and I've no clue what he'll think of a musical of his magnum opus. What I do know is that he is far away now, from the young man who wrote American Psycho, and from the world that created it - and pleased to be so.
"I never truly felt comfortable in literary circles," he told me when we spoke in 2010 over dinner at the Chateau Marmont. "A lot of that has to do with the way my novels were reacted to." The literary establishment, he told me, always treated him as if he got lucky, as if his works were not worthy of the attention they got. "Being the playboy monkey was fun when I was young but I'm not interested in being that person any more," he said. "I no longer feel the pressure to be someone I'm not: 'the author Bret Easton Ellis'."
He may never write another novel. Even if he were to do so, it's highly doubtful it would have the impact of American Psycho. But then, what novel since then really has, and what novel ever will again?
MR PORTER is Production Sponsor of American Psycho: A New Musical Thriller, showing at the Almeida Theatre in London from 3 December 2013 to 25 January 2014. For more information, click here