From Prophets to Psychos

Subtitle: Please don’t tell Patrick Bateman that I miss him, because I don’t.

Today, let’s talk about Bret Easton Ellis. Does he have anything to do with Jason Mraz or the happy little cult thing we have going here? Not really. But he’s a writer who has his own little cult following, and I like to think my fellow Mraztafarians are a literary bunch. Religion-wise, well, there was a point when many considered Ellis the anti-Christ, so we’ll call that close enough.

I picked up Ellis’ Lunar Park recently because I once wrote a paper on American Psycho (the paper itself wasn’t too impressive, but the title I came up with – The Entrails Justify the Mean – was inspired). I studied it for a class I had on Literary Controversies wherein we covered pretty much anything that had people calling for the author’s head on a plate.

We read old interviews and articles surrounding the book, and back when the book was first released, Ellis didn’t have a whole lot to say for himself, other than no, he was not a woman hater and did not fantasize about carrying out the despicable acts from the book himself. He was just young and cocky and thought it was an interesting topic to explore and can you just hurry up and give him his paycheck, please? But years later he’s ready to say something, and a lot of something.

In Lunar Park Ellis stars as himself and begins with a straight autobiography, talking about his younger years, about the women and the partying and how he remembers very little of it. He isn’t even all that sure how American Psycho got written, claiming it happened over a year-long stupor. He says it was like someone else was writing the book through him, that the book wanted to get written. But does he mean it, or is this part of the fiction? Because next it all goes a little sci-fi as his most horrific creation comes back to haunt him and his fictional family, and the crimes in American Psycho start to happen for real… fictionally.

So I’m about halfway through the book and I started to think, wow, good ol’ Bret must have been carrying around a lot of Psycho guilt all these years to finally come out from behind the curtain and speak directly to the audience (albeit through the fictional Ellis) with lines like:

“I did not want to go back to that book. It had been about my father (his rage, his obsession with status, his loneliness), whom I had transformed into a fictional serial killer, and I was not about to put myself through that experience again – of revisiting either Robert Ellis or Patrick Bateman.”

But that’s exactly what the whole book is about, revisiting the two biggest ghosts from his past. So is it guilt, or just another smartass narrative trick?

And as if speaking to the ladies in my class who felt like Ellis had purposely written something hateful and disgusting, he spells it all out for them, maybe just to set the record straight, or maybe hoping that all his detractors will feel silly for being so up-in-arms about a book: 

“Patrick Bateman was a notoriously unreliable narrator, and if you actually read the book you could come away doubting that these crimes had even occurred. There were large hints that they existed only in Bateman’s mind. The murders and torture were in fact fantasies fueled by his rage and fury about how life in America was structured and how this had – no matter the size of his wealth – trapped him. The fantasies were an escape. This was the book’s thesis. It was about society and manners and mores, and not about cutting up women. How could anyone who read the book not see this?”

It’s brilliant, or at least clever. He’s himself in a fictional story, but questioning his own judgment within that story and in reality both, saying, “I found myself in Patrick Bateman’s shoes: I felt like an unreliable narrator, even though I knew I wasn’t. Yet then I thought: Well, had he?”

I enjoy the book-about-a-controversy-about-a-book-within-a-book format. You can read it as a straight story, you can read it as a confession, or you can read it as an experiment in narration. Like Ellis or hate him, he knows what he’s doing, whether or not he’s sober enough to know he’s doing it.

Ok, I’ll try to tack on a Mraz-like thought for those of you who need a fix: Do we want artists to explain themselves? As much as it drove me crazy, do I want to know what Bill Murray whispered to Scarlett Johansson at the end of Lost in Translation? Do I ever really want to know for sure who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? Do I want Jason Mraz to write a book about every song he’s ever done, who it was about, why he wrote it, what some of the lyrics mean? Not really. A little mystery is a good thing, it makes your brain work harder and appreciate the artist’s creativity a little more. And that’s what’s best about this book. It gives you some answers, but then takes them away. Because in the end, all we really know about Ellis is what an unreliable drunk he (says he) is.

Well played, Bret.

Read Slate’s more literary review:


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