Who's a psycho now?

The most chilling thing about 'American Psycho' - now a film - is what is says about us, writes Deborah Orr
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The Independent Culture

In 1991, Bret Easton Ellis published his third novel. It was a strange book, about a shallow archetypal yuppie who was also a psychopathic serial killer. It was written in flat tones of affectless distance; the action took place in absurd and absurdly trendy restaurants, or in the perfect, perfectly modern apartment of its anti-hero, Patrick Bateman. There was little narrative, although there were endless passages describing every detail of the clothing and food and objects which peopled the book more vividly that the people. The novel was clearly satirical, the observation wickedly funny.

But there were sections in the book which descended into the most explicitly detailed violence and torture ever seen in a novel which aspired to literary seriousness. It was not at all clear whether the novel's protagonist was actually perpetrating these acts, or whether they were simply a part of his own drug-fuelled psychosis. The storm of controversy which greeted the book's publication assured that its sales were vast, and they remain so to this day. The book, though defended by a minority, was broadly dismissed by the critics as exploitative, cynical and misogynistic.

The temptation to be cynical about the forthcomingAmerican Psycho film is intense. The film's producers are keen to stress their integrity as an independent film company, the feminist and intellectual credentials of their director, Mary Harron, and the quiet commitment of their star, Christian Bale. They are less keen to explain how it happened that partway through production, they sacked both Harron and Bale (later reinstated) in favour of Oliver Stone and Leonardo DiCaprio, who in turn made their excuses and left as rank publicity was heaped around them.

Instead, they tell us that "now, nearly a decade after the book's publication, benefiting from the distance and sharpened perspective that comes with time, American Psycho's provocative social commentary can be re-evaluated and appreciated. Looking back from the cusp of the new millennium, we realise it operates metaphorically and that its content is not as emotionally charged nor as literal as it once seemed. It can finally be confronted - this time in the form of a stunning social satire for the screen". In essence, the film's publicity notes seem to be suggesting that Mary Harron's American Psycho should be viewed as cinematic York Notes, existing only to assist with interpretation of the text. The idea is that we were all too implicated in the 1980s to read American Psycho with any distance and therefore to understand it. Now, with the help of the film-makers, the real intent and message of the novel will become clear.

Cynicism aside, there is some truthin that. Except that while the film is in almost all respects faithful to the book and accurate in its transpositions of its themes, the one aspect of the novel which it has excised is the one which caused all the trouble in the first place. The graphic scenes of torture are now merely implied.

For me, that was always the case. I certainly understand exactly what Harron means when she recallsin an interview with Filmmaker magazine that on reading it at the time she "thought it had been terribly misread. Everyone seemed to be disregarding the satire." But while I also read American Psycho as social satire, I tended to skip over the pages which described in detail those acts which I had read about again and again in summary in newspaper articles reviling them. You didn't have to read American Psycho to know about those bits; you only had to read the book if you really wanted to have a bash at understanding their context.

But Harron's film comes close to dealing with context alone. She has pared down the violence to the point at which it is acceptable to audience and censors - the only cut required was part of a sex scene. It may be to her credit that she has done so without disturbing the integrity of the material, or it may be that the film is merely the final proof of what many people always argued - that the graphic violent detail was entirely gratuitous. Harron's view is that "it was a film that had to be carefully handled or it would become offensive. We wanted to make a disturbing film but not an offensive one."

She has succeeded in that. I came out of the film feeling much the way I felt when I had read the book - disturbed. Not merely by the narrative contents of this schlock-horror morality tale, but with what to me seems to be a valid, graphic and of course entirely negative exploration of materialist values. Perhaps the most disturbing thing for me is the level to which I feel myself to be implicated in these sorts of cultural values. Harron expresses similar feelings when she suggests that she was part of the Eighties. "But I also sort of disapproved of it. I think that in any satire you need that ambiguity, between loving and hating your subject."

There can be no doubt that Ellis too has this ambiguity in his approach to his subject. It can be argued that his book was far from being a dark satire of the Eighties and instead one of the most stark outcroppings of the self-indulgent nihilism which marked the most loathsome excesses of the decade. Certainly Ellis appeared to see no problem with writing a book violently satirising materialism and at the same time accepting a $300,000 advance for it from a vast corporation. Morgan Entrekin, who as a young editor at Simon and Schuster had first discovered Ellis and signed him up to adapt his first novel, Less Than Zero, from his own journals, saw trouble ahead from the moment he read an early manuscript.

He had become good friends with Ellis and had spent a great deal of time with him while he was writing the book. He had known that "Bret was going to dark places, he was reading FBI reports on serial killers, he was very intense." He found the book "disturbing, hilarious, everything that it is". He also felt that S&S would not know how to handle it. "I didn't think anyone would understand it. I believed that while it is rarely the role of a publisher to explain a book, with this one you had to take that position." He made an offer to take over publication with his own small imprint, which has now grown into Grove/Atlantic, one of the USA's leading independent publishers. His bid was unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, months passed and gradually gossip began to circulate about the book. The art department at S&S had refused to design a jacket, and some staff were leaking galleys of the offending passages. Finally, almost a year after the book was finished, the press broke the story. Juxtaposed in the same issue of Spy magazine, were two stories. One was a gossip item about how Ellis's book satirised the behaviour of senior executives at Gulf & Western, the parent company of S&S. The other was a report on the reactions of such magazines as Hustler and Chic, which had been sent galleys by Spy, offering them for publication. Letters from these porn magazines rejected the material in the strongest terms, and S&S cancelled the book. Entrekin tried again to argue that the work could be best served by publication with a small independent imprint, but instead the book was picked up by Vintage, and published to the farrago of abuse which Entrekin had predicted and feared.

Entrekin's version of the story is instructive, not least because it strikes at the central dichotomy of Ellis's position. Entrekin would strenuously deny that Ellis had much choice when it came to plumping for the big advances of the huge corporate machines which deliver to him the kind of lifestyle which he satirises so effectively. But the fact remains that while all of Ellis's work rails against late-20th-century capitalism, he is unable to offer more than the smallest hint of an alternative vision.

American Psycho is at heart a simple book, not least in the crudity of its evocation of the darkness beneath perfect surfaces. It works least effectively when read at face value. We're all in agreement now that the Wall Street or City yuppies of the Eighties were monstrous, as was the general cultural preoccupation with serial killers. That a satire should merge these horrors to suggest that each says something about the other is fair enough. You could also argue, I think with absolute validity, that the conspicuous consumption so fetishised in American Psycho has far from disappearing become a defining part of the mainstream. Likewise, our obsession with serial killers has similarly been sanitised. We all find it distasteful to dwell on the details of real death, in the manner of such Eighties partworks as Marshall Cavendish's Murder Casebook, while we accept John Lanchester's The Debt To Pleasure or Thomas Harriss's Hannibal books as literary masterpieces.

But really, none of the controversy was about those things. Rather, it specifically questioned the necessity of detailed descriptions of the torture and butchering of women. The only justification I can find for the graphic violence against women in American Psycho is one which reads it as a metaphor for the violence and suffering perpetrated on the vulnerable by unfettered free-market capitalism. But the truth is that in no interview has Ellis suggested that his intention was for it to be read in that way.

There is some indication in the book and the film that such a reading might be valid. Patrick Bateman, the American Psycho himself, makes a long speech to his companions listing all the ills of the world, and that is perhaps meant to stand alone as a marker of intent. Except that for all of his claims to morality, Ellis remains firmly in the milieu which he so despises. Ultimately his work is about self-hatred and about the inability to escape from the cultural prerogatives of modern times. The most upsetting implication of his writing is that maybe none of us can.

'American Psycho' (18) opens 21 April