American Psycho – The Post-Modern Gothic


Over on Twitter the theme is this week has been post-modernism – with that in mind there are a few things that have come up again and again that I wanted to explore in a little more detail. As a Gothic literature geek and a huge theory fan I couldn’t think of a better text to start with than Bret Easton Ellis’s horrifying, complex and thoroughly post-modern Gothic novel, ‘American Psycho.’

According to Fred Botting it is with Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Dracula (1992) that the death of the Gothic takes place. The form has been ‘divested of its excesses, of its transgressions, horrors…and rich darkness’[1] which, whilst compellingly argued is not entirely correct. The classical period of the Gothic genre might have concluded but this does not mean that Botting’s claims are accurate. What immediately complicates matters is that the Gothic is one of ‘literary criticism’s most expansive concepts’[2] covering as it does ‘a body of works, a historical period, a formal aesthetics, a discursive field and an epistemological theory.’[3] Through close textual analysis of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho (1991) it can be shown that at the moment of what Botting calls the Gothic’s death the practises of the Gothic were being wrought into new forms which, whilst post-modern in their execution and ideas actually continue the discursive concerns of classic Gothic works. American Psycho proves the congruence between postmodern concerns and the issues explored in Gothic novels. Far from dying the Gothic thrives away from the aesthetic concerns of the past and finds new fears to exploit – fears of a new and distinctly post-modern world in both the text and the theory underpinning it.

As a post-modern novel the text adheres to the most commonly articulated definition, ‘I define post-modern as incredulity towards meta-narratives.’[4] Whilst accurate this common quote is glib and not necessarily the most instructive point if taken in isolation. However quoting from Lyotard in greater details will help show the connection between the post-modern and the novel itself.

This scepticism around grand narratives results in narrative function is losing, its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal it is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements; narrative, but also denotative, prescriptive, descriptive, and so on. Conveyed within each cloud are pragmatic valencies specific to its kind. Each of us lives at the intersection of many of these. However, we do not necessarily establish stable language combinations, and the properties of the ones we do establish arc not necessarily communicable[5]

Key to understanding the novel is the failure within it of grand narratives and an increasing amount of fragmentation.  Excellent illustrative points of the failure of communicable relationships are shown by Bateman’s interaction with the dry-cleaners, ‘what are you trying to say to me?’[6]  Following swiftly on from this Bateman’s violent reaction suggests a deeper frustration, ‘If-you-don’t-shut-your-fucking-mouth-I-will-kill-you.’[7] His complete inability to make himself understood causes immense frustration, ‘I shout, red faced on the verge of tears, I’m shaking…’[8] However, whilst an awkward inability to bridge a cultural divide is hardly conclusive, in one form or another this complete inability to form genuine communicable relationships could be said of Bateman’s interaction with virtually every other single character in the text.

The language of the novel is full of masking and obstructing conversation, from his interactions with friends in the club, ‘I can’t hear anything’[9] to his environment, ‘the music is one long unending song that overlaps with other separate songs connected only by a dull thumping beat[10] direct communication proves to be impossible. Even when Patrick places himself in a situation which would ordinarily help direct communication it proves to be out of reach. His conversations with Evelyn document clearly the gulf between Bateman and his fiancée;

“Hundreds, thousands of roses. Photographers. Annie Leibovitz. We’ll get Annie Leibovitz”…But she’s still talking, she doesn’t hear a word; nothing registers. She does not full grasp what I’m saying. My essence is eluding her.[11]

Later describing her as ‘a machine’ Patrick ends up talking simultaneously with her, as it’s implied that not only does she not listen, but to Patrick she may not actually be capable of doing so. The inability to connect in a meaningful way with any body produces a huge amount of strain on his own mental coherence, ‘in a fragmented post-modern world of isolated individuals beset by guilt, anxiety and despair…produces narratives that focus on psychological disturbance.’[12] Bateman constantly attempt to articulate the depths of his own insanity but gets nowhere, ‘Listen, guys, my life is a living hell…they utterly ignore me.’[13] What places further strain upon the character’s psychological coherence are not simply his own interactions. More telling is how Bateman’s conception of himself and others is predicated entirely upon external sources – his only understanding of others, and himself,  is on the external constructions of identity provided by things such as clothing, new possessions or reservations at exclusive restaurants.

The novel highlights the danger of such surface level constructions of the self, this ‘depthless image, divorced from attendant complications of reference’[14] is rife throughout the novel, especially in how Bateman views those around him. His obsessive care over personal appearance,‘Le t me rephrase the ques – Wait, how does my hair look…’[15] and value judgments over how others appear utterly consume his interactions. This extends to every aspect of his possessions[16] and even how he judges everyone else around him.  His reaction to his friend’s new business card is an excellent example of the shallowness of the interaction between them all,

“Nice, very nice I have to admit…But wait. Let’s see Montgomery’s” Price pulls it out and though he’s acting nonchalant, I don’t see how can ignore it’s subtle off white colouring, it’s subtle thickness. I am…depressed that I started this…I’m finding it hard to swallow.[17]

This inability to connect with people on a level aside from the material is one that the novel suggests Bateman may well be aware of. In the Chapter ‘End of the 1980s’ the reader is presented with the clearest description of Bateman’s inability to navigate the language games of the society he lives in. He talks of nightmares, ‘the smell of blood works its way into my dreams which are, for the most part, terrible’.[18] After coming across Jean the two begin to talk until the reader is granted a rare glimpse into the depths of Bateman’s madness:

It did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change or that the world could be a better place through one’s taking pleasure…Nothing was affirmative, the term generosity of spirit applied to nothing, was a cliché, as some kind of bad joke. Sex is mathematics. Individuality no longer an issue. Reflection is useless. The world is senseless. Evil it’s only permanence. God is not alive[19]

Here the readers sees the complete failures of the ‘grand narratives’ that so much of the post-modern age is a reaction against.  In short, what the reader is allowed to observe in this moment is the issue raised by David Punter. The problem with these concepts of love, individuality and even God is that these concepts do not ‘emerge into the world where fixed points can be pinned down and used to guide others through our maze…no distinctions are possible.’[20] As Lyotard expresses the problem ‘there is no longer a horizon of universalization’[21]  as all concrete absolutes have been dissolved by the ubiquity of surface.  The only logical response from Bateman is alexithymia – a complete disconnection from an emotional inner life and ultimately a rejection of any kind of solid internal conception of the self:

‘…there is an idea of a 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 lifestyle’s are probably comparable: I simply am not there. It is hard for me to make sense on any given level. My self is fabricated, an aberration. I am a noncontigent human being. My personality is sketchy and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent…I still though hold on to one single bleak truth; no-one is safe, nothing is redeemed[22]

In an environment where the sign has become so utterly vital but decoupled from its signification Bateman’s startling admission fits almost perfectly Baudrillard’s ‘successive phases’[23] of simulacra. Firstly, ‘it Is the reflection of a basic reality, it masks and perverts a basic reality, it masks the absence of a basic reality’[24] and finally ‘it bears no relation to any reality whatever.’[25] As a rich and successful product of the hyper capitalist decade Patrick Bateman’s behaviour, on one level, fits perfectly with the societal definition of success. His hyper sexual appetite and consumption of drugs and alcohol can be seen as the twisting of this reality and final his true actions and feelings are the utter absence of any actual humanity.  Bateman uses his material possessions, his good looks and wealth to not merely disguise his own twisted inner life, but ultimately, as revealed in the quote above, to hide the fact that his disguise of normalcy is covering a complete absence of any coherent self.[26]

Ultimately there is nothing in Bateman’s world that is not serving as a simulacra of reality. He is completely vulnerable when the physical signs that he places around himself are challenged by an encounter with an ‘other.’ His horrific response to Bethany after she asks him whilst giggling ‘who hung the Onica’[27]  is viciously sadistic and the pattern repeats whenever he is confronted by anything or anyone that is alien to his constructed self. His obsession with designer labels, with ‘originals’ are a means of attaining, and crucially retaining some kind of stability – Bethany’s comment about the Onica is a threat and provokes his anger. He feels ‘intensely threatened by anyone displaying ‘any difference: beggars, the homeless, women and those with less’[28] whether that less is money, connections or his own perception of taste. The gay man with the dog that Bateman murders, the encounter with the taxi driver[29] who recognises him and even his bizarre elevator ride with Tom Cruise[30] all serve to show the depth of his alienation and how much he depends upon the simulacra of success to maintain a normal façade.

Perhaps more disturbingly the text also gives the reader the idea that Bateman’s reactions to his environment are not unique but symptomatic of a wider discourse worked throughout the novel. The implication of the behaviour of others who share Bateman’s word and world view is that the reality the characters move in and their perceptions of it have become almost completely uncoupled from one another. As Patrick bleakly explains, ‘surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in…this was civilisation as I saw it, colossal and jagged.’[31] In between conversations that revolve almost entirely around the etiquette of dress, restaurants or sex the identity of the self begins to become diffuse.  Mistaking people for others that look similar becomes almost endemic as identity becomes contingent upon Valentino suits, Oliver Peoples glasses and the correct suspenders – names become almost meaningless and the individual becomes ephemeral. In short, the means of producing the image of the self has becomes so standardised, so organised by the mechanics of capitalism, that the individual is an illusion’ with ‘complete identification with the generality’[32] of culture. Even to Bateman himself, who switches between referring to himself in the third person as ‘him’ or ‘Bateman’ and narrating in the first person[33] rather than being to maintain any control.

From the conversation to the culture Ellis evokes the surface is predominant – the constant references to the Patty Winters Show, a cross between self-help and talk show, and Bateman’s obsessions with videos place culture in a specifically image obsessed mode. Thus what culture, and the individual are reduced to be Bateman’s maxim, ‘adapt or die.’[34] The vision of civilisation that Bateman shows highlights the universality of this obsession with surface and the cost to humanity; ‘everyone on the streets looks sad, the air is full of decay, bodies lie on the cold pavement, miles of it, some are moving, most are not. History is sinking and only a very few seem dimly aware that things are getting bad.’[35] Culture is exposed as a ‘mix of violence and apparent reality’ which when coupled with the choice of tense as present continuous prose traps both Bateman and the complicit reader within the same artificial and empty world, mediated only by the technological images of the videos that Patrick obsessively re-watches and the vivid image descriptions of his sadism and violence.

The level of psychosis towards the novel’s climax becomes almost impenetrable as Bateman realizes the inescapable nature of his own existence, ‘there is no catharsis, no new understanding can be extracted…there has been no reason for me to tell you any of this, this confession has meant nothing.’[36] As Punter notes, ‘there is no possibility of affect…no action carries any more meaning’[37] but is whether or not this bleak postmodernism succeeds as Gothic writing that must be examined. As Botting argues if the Gothic represents a ‘writing of excess’[38] then it would seem that the novel certainly fits. The descriptions of Bateman’s violence are horrific yet the writing itself remains cold and emotionally free from affect achieving not a traditionally Gothic melodrama but a colder negative type of excess – a glut of emotionless-ness rather than the more excessive Gothic writing of the past. Just as Bateman defines himself in purely negative terms – the novel represents the excess of absence, in his profession, possessions and conversation the lack of real substance becomes almost self-parody. It is unclear what he actually does in the office; his apartment is decorated lavishly but with utter minimalism and any reader access to his psyche is kept distant, just as his past and insight into his motivations are.

However what renders Botting’s claim to the death of Gothic most suspect is the novels sophisticated technical style, ‘it has followed the tradition of not merely describing but inhabiting the distorted forms of life, social and psychic’[39]  bringing us ‘sharply against the raging monster’ that Ellis creates.  Disconnected from himself and his surroundings we recognize the similarities that we share with the sadistic and psychopathic individuals that make up the novel. This tension between recognition and repulsion is not only a classic Gothic technique, but is emblematic of the novel as a whole as it rests on the problematic, the impossibility of actual decision-making. Our knowledge is so epistemologically flawed that where once it may have been noises in the forest that provoked horror it is now the problems of self, and how we exist in the world we have created. In the ‘apparently hypermodern style of American Psycho[40] the impossibility of escape to a better past or present is destroyed whilst it similarly destroys ‘through it’s very continuity any hope of meaningful action in the present.’[41]

Important to understand is that this stasis – this inability to move past the present horrific moment produces a kind numbing effect. As the novel degrades into a series of present moments where individuation is obliterated and the self is left absent the amount of horrific images and violent acts only increases. Desensitized the reader is forced to exist in that resentful present along with the suffering Bateman. External to the text the same idea is applicable. The post-modern style questions the grand narratives of literary coherence and formal style and reduces them to interchangeable constructs. Culturally the novel represents the saturation point – a gothic tradition so rich and complex that the culture it fed into is numb to horror and sensation. The formal high aesthetics of the Gothic may have ended but the constructs of society have been ruthlessly exposed as horrifying in themselves. Botting is wrong to call the Gothic dead – it’s discursive and theoretical richness has never been more difficult, more challenging and more necessary to look at. As literary history advanced the Gothic has provided the dark counter argument to the positive, progressive artists. The post-modern world was supposed to provide ultimate freedom but the dark Gothic warnings of American Psycho show the dangers and dark side to our current ideological concepts just as Gothic writing has done throughout history.

[1] Fred Botting, ‘Gothic,’ (London: Routledge,1996) pg. 180

[2] Sian Silyn Roberts, ‘A Transnational Perspective on American Gothic Criticism’ in The Transnational Gothic, Literary and Social Exchanges in the Long Nineteenth Century, (London: Ashgate Publishing, 2013) pg. 21

[3] ibid

[4] Jean-François Lyotard, ‘The Postmodern Condition, A report on Knowledge,’ trans. Geoff Bennington and Brain Massumi, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984) pg. xxiv

[5] Ibid

[6] Bret Easton Ellis, ‘American Psycho’ (London: Picador, 2006) pg. 82

[7] ibid

[8] Ellis, ‘American Psycho’ pg. 83

[9] Ellis, ‘American Psycho,’ pg. 61

[10] Ibid pg. 59

[11] Ibid pg. 124

[12] Ruth Helyer, ‘Parodied to Death – The Post Modern Gothic of American Psycho’ in MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Volume 46, Number 3, Autumn 2000, pg 725-746

[13] Ellis, ‘American Psycho,’ pg. 347

[14] Allan Lloyd-Smith, ‘Postmodernism/Gothicism’ in Modern Gothic, A reader edited by Victor Sage & Allan Lloyd-Smith, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996) pg. 8

[15] Ellis, ‘American Psycho’ pg 377

[16] One only needs to look at the beginning of the chapter, ‘Morning’ where the description of Bateman’s apartment and his possessions as well as his exhaustive morning routine stretches to 10 pages, all covered in brand names and statements about the efficacy of the products rather than any kind of emotional response to what he has. Crucially he never associates any positive feelings from his wealth, only seeming to notice the ability of his beauty regime to delay aging.

[17] Ellis, ‘American Psycho’ pgs. 42-43

[18] Ibid pg. 371

[19] Ibid pg. 375

[20] David Punter, ‘Gothic Pathologies, The text, the body and the law’ (London: Macmillian Press, 1998) pg 202

[21] Jean-Francois Lyotard, ‘Defining the Post-Modern’ in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2nd Edition  editors William E. Cain, Laurie A. Finke, Barbara E. Johnson, John McGowan, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Jeffrey J Williams, (London: W.W Norton and Co,  2010) pg 1466

[22] Ellis, ‘American Psycho’ pg 376

[23] Jean Baudrillard, ‘The Procession of Simulacra’ in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2nd Edition  editors William E. Cain, Laurie A. Finke, Barbara E. Johnson, John McGowan, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Jeffrey J Williams, (London: W.W Norton and Co,  2010) pg 1560

[24] ibid

[25] Ibid

[26] As an interesting side point it is worth pointing out that the TV show ‘Dexter’ features exactly the same conceit. Michael C Hall’s character apes normalacy despite the fact this disguise is not covering anything except the absence of his own normative actions

[27] Ellis, ‘American Psycho’ pg.244

[28] Ruth Helyer, ‘Parodied to Death – The Post Modern Gothic of American Psycho’ pg. 740.

[29] Ellis, ‘American Psycho,’ pg. 392

[30] Ibid pg. 71

[31] Ibid Pg. 375

[32] Max Horkenheimer and Theodore W Adorno, ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’ in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism 2nd Edition  editors William E. Cain, Laurie A. Finke, Barbara E. Johnson, John McGowan, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Jeffrey J Williams, (London: W.W Norton and Co,  2010) pgs 1123-24

[33] The Chapter ‘Chase Manhattan’ is probably the most sustained periods of narrative inconsistency as Bateman’s evening degenerates into a police chase and shoot out, that Bateman sees specifically from outside of himself in a series of pastiche style imagery

[34] Ellis, ‘American Psycho,’ pg. 345

[35] Ibid pg. 385

[36] Ibid  pg. 377

[37] David Punter, ‘The Literature of Terror Volume 2, The Modern Gothic,’ (Edinburgh: Addison Wesley Longman, 1996) pg. 177

[38] Fred Botting, ‘Gothic’ pg. 1

[39] Punter, ‘The Literature of Terror Volumne 2…’ pg. 178

[40] Ibid

[41] Ibid pg. 179


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