By David Saavedra
This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of American Psycho, the novel by Bret Easton Ellis that caused a great controversy back then and which, today, seems placated by the passing of time, forgotten in the recycle bin of all things that aren’t susceptible to be retrieved and defended; a faraway memory apparently as dated as Natural Born Killers or Historias del Kronen; a work we’re too tired of talking about, already absorbed by the mainstream thanks to the subsequent exploitation on behalf of popular culture of the figure of the capricious psychopath belonging to the beautiful people who listens to Enya, kills for pleasure or boredom and records all his atrocities on videotape.
But are we? These were my prejudices when I decided to read the novel twenty-five years later and still I discovered many other more or less revealing things on it, the most noteworthy being the omnipresence throughout the novel of Donald Trump as the great personal hero and behaviour model of Patrick Bateman. Even though the novel was published in 1991, it’s set in Manhattan around 1988, during the last years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency and with Ed Koch as mayor, the man who is partly attributed the merit of New York’s gentrification and economic boom of the time. Bateman is the embodiment of the yuppie dream: young, handsome, elegant and cultured, a rich Wall Street winner, hyper consumerist and without any kind of moral prejudices that can stop his will to accumulate more power and money. On top of that, he feels repulsion towards prostitutes, taxi drivers, ethnic minorities and homeless people, who they humiliate with a vengeance anytime he’s got the chance. That dark side is suggested as part real and part fantasy, as his reflection on a broken mirror, or as the embodiment of the repressed desires of his social group. Also, with his hyper refined taste for haute cuisine with the perfect gastronomic combination, good clothes, cosmetics and trend magazines, he’s anticipating the metrosexual man.
Somehow, and taking as an example two films from the time, Bateman would be a kind of errant son of Mickey Rourke in 9 1/2 Weeks and Charlie Sheen in Wall Street. In the jocular play of coexistence of fictional and real characters the novel presents, our protagonist lives in the same building as Tom Cruise (the eighties version, of course, from Top Gun to Cocktail), who he meets in the lift in a hilarious passage. It can be quite disturbing to picture that context, think of the 2008 crisis and the famous idea of Refunding Capitalism, glimpsing all the dust and mud with the feeling that, in fact, not mush has changed. There’s where the ghost of Donald Trump emerges, who back then was the god of Manhattan sharks and now might become the next US president.
On the other hand, where the novel’s obsolescence can be more felt is in the mentioning of technological advances. It happened again to Easton Ellis with Glamourama, in which the constant use of a pager on behalf of the protagonist sounded frankly shocking after the appearance of mobile phones. There’s a feeling that characters are stopped in time during the long time the author devotes to writing the novel, while outside events happen at a high speed: a war in which literary fiction inevitably loses the battle. In American Psycho, the only character behaviour that would be different today has to do with technological aspects: there’s still no Internet or WhatsApp but still phone booths and video shops –Bateman keeps on saying he needs to go and take a film back–, and the symbols of material status are huge hi-fi equipment’s at a time in which the CD was being to be sold as the great medium of the future.
Music, by the way, is very important throughout the novel. I remember that the main character’s obsession for Phil Collins (a recurrent myth for the enemies of the ex Genesis musician, always keen to say that his is music for sociopaths) was talked about a lot at the time. Paradoxically, the British artist would have in 1989 –that is, around the time the story takes place– one of his greater hits with Another Day In Paradise, a song conceived to raise awareness of the situation of the homeless, something that makes me wonder whether it would have disappointed Bateman or, on the contrary, he would have found it very funny. During three chapters in three different parts of the book, Easton Ellis leaves the main plot aside and decides to thoroughly analyse, through his character’s voice, the careers of Collins, Whitney Houston and Huey Lewis & The News (all of them blockbusters at the time in the US). These are genuine music reviews that could have been published on Rolling Stone or a similar magazine, and I find them particularly fascinating.
At the same time, the music played at the trendy hot spots the characters visit (many of which still exist today) and where cocaine runs galore give us an idea of what people listened to in those years: INXS, Belinda Carlisle… The main character also shows a high regard for the Talking Heads. There’s even a quote taken from one of their lyrics on the novel’s foreword. It reads like this: “And as things fell apart/ Nobody paid much attention”, it was taken from their song (Nothing But) Flowers (included on the album Naked, dating from, yes! 1988), and which appears along passages by Dostoyevsky and the expert in good manners Judith Martin. There’s also a humorous reference to a character having tickets to go and see a certain Milli Vanilli, and also a long passage in which the main character explains his experience in a U2 show, during The Joshua Tree tour, for which he’s on the list. After his initial despise for the Irish band, Bateman lives an epiphany when Bono, singing Bullet The Blue Sky, looks him in the eye while singing about God and the Devil.
As an omnipresent cultural reference we also find the musical Les misérables, a huge success at the time, and also a grotesque morning TV programme, the Patty Winters’ Show, the anti hero is obsessed by. But the unanswerable proof that American Psycho hasn’t lost its validity is the fact that, in a perverse coincidence, it has recently been turned into a musical itself that premiered in London in 2013 and will be shown in Broadway this year. Leaving out the mostly forgettable film version directed by Mary Harron in 2000, or even the project for a TV series that would imagine a fifty-year-old Bateman today, let’s just ask ourselves whether Donald Trump will appear on the Broadway musical and let’s remember the two slogans featured in the novel that, by the way, inspired a couple of Nacho Vegas album titles: Desaparezca aquí [Disappear here] and the unforgettable end, Esto no es una salida [This is not a way out]: the novel is, thus, absolutely valid today.