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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Is American Psycho a More Important Novel than Beloved?

Posted on Tue, Apr 14, 2009 at 3:15 PM

posted by Arts Intern Matthew Vollono

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There is an interesting essay in Bookforum by social critic Walter Benn Michaels, critiquing the modern American novel’s ability to accurately comment on contemporary life. According to Michaels, too many critically acclaimed novels written during the last twenty-five years have focused on historical themes designed to appeal to the liberal concerns of the upper middle class (the Holocaust, that whole slavery thing, class differences), while few have taken on the real problem of the last twenty-five years: “market triumphalism”, i.e. the blood-thirsty capitalist urges that landed us into the dire state of economic dishwater we now find ourselves swimming in.

While I agree that American literature is sufficiently stocked with novels about the colossal tragedies embedded in our own history, I think his research is a bit thin. To say nothing of his claim that Bret Easton Ellis wrote one of the best books of the last quarter century.

Michaels writes:


The past twenty-five years have been a pretty sad time for the American novel, and a lot of the best ones have been committed to historical caretaking. It’s no accident that Toni Morrison’s Beloved was proclaimed the best work of American fiction over the period by the New York Times… and when Morrison wins the Nobel Prize and Obama becomes president, we’re being reassured that we are headed in the right direction, even if we’re not there yet.

But as the current economic catastrophe has the great merit of demonstrating, we are not headed in the right direction. People are losing their health care, their houses, and now their jobs for reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with bad things that happened in the past (done to and by our ancestors) and everything to do with bad things happening right now (done to and by us).

So maybe it’s time to forget about the Holocaust for a while and focus on the free market instead, to stop congratulating ourselves on being against genocide and to start questioning what it means to be for free trade. Although it doesn’t appear anywhere on the Times’s list, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho is a far better novel than most of the ones that do, and the Psycho’s self-consoling reminder, “I am rich—millions are not,” has the merit of problematizing the upper middle class’s sense of its virtue rather than, like Roth and Morrison, pandering to it.

Yes, but as the financial success of Ellis has shown, criticizing the bourgeois is never as radical as its practitioners like the public to believe. If sheer book sales tell us anything, the upper middle class is no different for having their sense of virtue "problematized" (i.e. being referred to as psychotic) than they are for being pandered to (i.e. reading about the horror their ancestors went through.)

If anything, the upper middle class enjoys the attention. Less than Zero, Rules of Attraction, and American Psycho have all been made into hit movies, the latter adored by millions of upper middle class college students the nation over. Why is Ellis so successful? Because his writing plays directly into the long accepted notion that capitalism (and all the luxuries the sweet life affords) breeds emptiness and violence. And capitalists love to shell out big money to watch how awful they can be.

So how is his sleek brand of modern literature helping America? It's not. And hasn't the greed and materialism Ellis satirized in American Psycho already been explored years earlier? It has.

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The bottom line: more books about the evils of American free enterprise will do little to stop the tide of greed in this country. Most novels that rub their noses so thoroughly in the concerns of contemporary culture feel dated before they even hit the best seller list. The bourgeois may not drop their monocles in shock upon reading Beloved, but one hundred years from now our society will be richer for having read it (American Psycho - not so much).

Thirteen years ago Jonathan Franzen wrote a essay in defense of the novel entitled "Why Bother." He writes:

"History is a rabid thing from which we all would like to hide. But there's no bubble that can stay unburst. On whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, tragic realists offer no opinion. They simply represent it."

I couldn't agree more.

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