Picture a Saturday night high street. See the bare limbs, flesh glaring biscuit-orange under canopies of street lamps and the neon flashing of signs for pubs and clubs. All is bewildering, all is bright and vivid and searing. High heels and crumpled blazers, unbuttoned shirts and bodies stumbling all over the road, shrieking and laughing and throwing blind curses to the sky. There are people conversing in drunken slurs, echoes of animal-sounding noises, shadows of disaster thrown up the walls. At the weekend, with sun-down comes turmoil: the interruption of the normal.
Writing several decades ago, Mikhail Bakhtin coined the term ‘carnivalesque’ to refer to the nature of carnival, a time in which normal social regulations and restraints are temporarily suspended. This includes social hierarchies and associated cultural expectations and mores. Carnival is a brief period, an interruption of ordinary life that opens up a space outside of regular time, enabling freer, closer social interaction between those who would normally ignore one another (a peasant sharing a toast with a lord; a banker arm-in-arm, sharing a heartfelt singalong with a construction worker at a music festival), the acceptance of bizarre and outlandish behaviour which exposes the underbelly of humanity, the intermingling of opposites (the sacred and profane, high and low, young and old, classy and trashy) and finally carnival is a sacrilegious experience, devoid of holiness and instead a mockery of all things godly. Bakhtin suggests that the state of carnival is valuable in its ability to produce a social condition, however fleeting, of equality and freedom, a reversal of all the cultural norms that carefully structure everyday lives. In short, carnival means the ordinary world thoroughly shaken and flipped upside down:
Carnival is a pageant without footlights and without a division into performers and spectators. In carnival everyone is an active participant, everyone communes in the carnival act… The laws, prohibitions, and restrictions that determine the structure and order of ordinary, that is noncarnival, life are suspended during carnival: what is suspended first is hierarchical structure and all the forms of terror, reverence, piety, and etiquette connected with it… or any other form of inequality among people [From Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, my emphasis added]
Think of the example Bakhtin provides: the medieval carnival. Lords and ladies would mingle with the peasantry, sharing rich feasts (think wild boar, think excess, think decadent berries, slabs of cheeses and intricate pastries – the burger stand and the Waitrose meal-deal of the Middle Ages), there would be grotesque entertainment, where jesters provided relief from the humdrum boredom of everyday labour. There would be wrestling, archery, hammer-throwing, dancing and general disorder, raucousness and debauchery. Think long wild spirals of medieval hair, clothing being ripped by trampling feet, misfired arrows, shouting, chaos, a sense of triumph and a sense of defeat. A state of pure pleasure and excitement and unity, where all sense of time and habits is lost. These activities aren’t policed; there are no authorities, just a rupturing occurrence of equality.
A key feature of carnival is the grotesque body. This refers to the human form made disgusting, abject, exposed. Inevitably, this involves the opening of bodily orifices, an exposure to shit and piss and sick and blood. Julia Kristeva, in her essay Powers of Horror argues that what these substances (and other triggers of revulsion such as the weird skin that forms on warm milk) is their exclusion from the ‘symbolic order’: being neither subject nor object, these abject fluids draw us ‘toward the place where meaning collapses’, and to put it simply, remind us that everything structured, everything familiar – ‘identity, system, order’ – can collapse, can momentarily be lost. The losing of these necessary familiarities causes discomfort because it reminds us not only of our own mortality (there is blood, we have blood, therefore we live and one day will die) but of the ‘fragility of the law’ that binds us within the symbolic order of social and metaphysical distinction. What is real, what is imagined, what can be touched, what can be lost – all thrown into confusion.
Considering the nature of medieval carnival then, where eating is loud, messy and public, manners are absent and bawdy humour is rife, it is easy to see how Kristeva’s theory of abjection links in with Bakhtin’s notion of the carnivalesque. The explicit exposure of grotesque, sweating, expanding bodies and their apertures (eaters, circus entertainers, fire-eaters, dancers, nudists and other performers) creates the collapse of social regulation, internalised politeness and cultural restrictions that preserve normality and define how we live, who we are, what place we occupy in the rigid hierarchies of the world.
The grotesquery of the carnivalesque haunts not just history but also contemporary life. What springs to mind for me are TV shows like Embarrassing Bodies, The Biggest Loser and Supersize vs. Superskinny revel in their exposure of grotesque bodies: bodies that upset the social order, that overspill, that violate expectations of the ideal self. Through their television screens mass audiences observe with fascination and horror the layers of flabby skin, the genital warts, the rashes and the hair loss and the gaping, hungry mouths. What is so compelling about these programs, which seem to delight in their own scatology? I would argue it is their exploration of the abject, their emphasis on the materiality of the human body and self, as well as the fluidity of this materiality – and not only its mortality but also its ability to change, to become thinner, fatter, more tanned, spottier. There is a similarity here to the public autopsies which literally dissected the nitty-gritty of human flesh before an entranced audience. When we watch Gillian McKeith in You Are What You Eat poking around examining someone’s shit, we are confronting our strange, precarious existence as physical entities, as Kristeva puts it: ‘These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being.’
So the grotesque forces us to face up to the abyss of possible meaninglessness that besets our very existence. Carnival is a stage for celebration and freedom, but it is streaked with this dark note of the sinister limits of humanity (or could it be called unhumanity?).
I am led now to think back to debauched goings-on that characterise British nightlife. It is quite easy to compare, at least to some extent, the club scene and the music festival with the medieval carnival. Think of all the sweaty bodies thrown together: lawyer, banker, prostitute, mayor, all dancing outside of their normal clothes, their normal dispositions, their normal souls. Collapse of order. Entertainment has not evolved much in civility: one only has to take a trip to an inexpensive British-dominated seaside resort abroad to discover carnival wonders. Grotesque strippers whose very anatomies have been adorned with the alterations of plastic surgery; whose very bodies violate and confuse the (socially constructed?) definitions of human and inhuman, male and female, real and fakery; whose very bodies are abject in themselves, who violate all symbolic hierarchies. The ordinary citizen puts on a dress or a t-shirt and sheds temporarily their identity, dives into the sea of disruption and debauched, drunken catastrophe.
I think of so many human bodies scattered like ants, half-naked on the street. We dance, we dance, but together we fight, we spit, we are sick. Are we free? The rich snort cocaine in the toilets while the poor share their escapism in drink and junk food, and gradually the substances are passed down the food chain, and either way all normal reality is collapsed. Whether in the bar, the cinema, the club, the street. Yet always there is a going back – the freedom is only temporary.
Perhaps it is worse in these post-recession, cut-ridden times. Where to find relief from the mundane trawl of economic news, of job-hunting, of fitting one’s life into a monotonous form? The more human life is repressed into artificial structures and rigorous norms, the more the pressure builds to release, the more our indulgences become more disruptive, the more we binge and cause chaos and feast.
Can we find carnival at a rave?
Can we find carnival in the graffiti that sticks like smears of sick to the graves of urbanity? The need to upset borders, make violent, meaningless marks.
Is carnival an intrinsic part of our humanity?
Perhaps there is a carnal need for escape, for explosion.
Another example of carnival suggested by John Fiske in Understanding Popular Culture is that of the television game show. The presenter tries to assert domination by ridiculing contestants, but contestants respond by ridiculing the presenter. All hierarchies are upset, as money becomes not a currency of earning but something that can be won at the spin of a lottery, the opening of a mystery box. Jokes are rife, people often cry, music fills the atmosphere with a carnival sense of celebration and ridicule. Onlookers watch on with perverse fascination, anticipation, sometimes revulsion, sometimes boredom.
I was recently talking to a friend about the big Scottish music festival T in the Park, and he said that it was one of those things that ‘you kinda hate at the time, but love it afterwards’. I think this sums up the experience of carnival quite well, in some ways. The stress of the occurrence of carnival – the intensification of sensory pleasures and horrors (the live music, the colours, the portaloos, the mud that seeps in through your trainers) perhaps makes the carnival (festival, gig, club, drunken night at the pub/disco/park) hard to absorb at the time. Perhaps because you are too busy experiencing and participating. Too busy actually feeling exhausted, exhilarated, intensely confused and disorientated. But on reflection, the upset social norms can be ignored, and the experience is fitted snugly together by the reason-seeking mind. We remember the good bits, and the bad seem good, and everything is a great whirlwind of excitement and pleasure that sticks because up against normal life the value of the event cannot be measured.
There is also something in the fact that grotesque experiences provide a kind of social glue or bonding through stories. People go out to lose their inhibitions: to get roaring drunk and behave ‘appallingly’, or at least in ways that upset normality. But, fundamentally, they mostly forget. It’s up to their group of friends to get together and fill in the blanks, often chipping in with their own fictional missing pieces. Stories that live on and are retold and recycled and not only provide valuable conversation fodder but serve as a way of uniting and reinforcing friendships. It takes a night of disorder, disruption and eventual recovery (an adventure, a taste of the carnival) to enjoy normality again, to be reminded of who is there and who you are and how everyone relates to you.
In a world where the Chancellor of the Exchequer attempts to show he is a ‘man of the people’ by tweeting a picture of a burger and fries he intends to have for dinner, it is no wonder the world requires remedying through brief disruptions. As disillusionment filters through the everyday mist of reality, perhaps public craving for the carnivalesque has increased, as the thirst for the abject relates to our need to prove that there is a point, a borderline which enables the dissolution of meaning. Where everything seems more and more absurd, where money seems a mere plaything of gambling bankers, so easily borrowed and so easily lost; where our everyday lives are structured by euphemisms and business jargon and lies, it is no wonder we seek to obliterate social norms in alcohol, clubbing, violence and lust. And with the internet, who knows where the exhibitionist and border-crossing nature of carnival behaviour might end up?
Bakhtin, M. (1929) Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics.
Bakhtin, M. (1941). Rabelais and his world
Fiske, John. (1989) Understanding Popular Culture.
Goulding, C., M. Saren, J. Follett (2003) ‘Consuming the Grotesque Body’ in European Advances in Consumer Research Vol. 6, pp. 115-119
Kristeva, J. (1982) Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection.
Getting the bus for most people isn’t a problem, in fact for many it is an inevitable stage of the everyday routine. Buses get people to work, school, holiday destinations – and, more importantly, buses get people home. Yet, for almost everyone who gets them, buses are frankly a right pain in the arse.
My relationship with the humble bus all started when I was fourteen and began travelling into town by myself and with friends, which necessitated a move away from the convenient but uncool parental taxi service towards less convenient but slightly more socially-acceptable public transportation. At first, the idea of being on a bus was exciting: leaning my head against the window feeling the roar of the wind outside as we rushed along, talking to strangers, listening to music as I watched the hills go by rather than being forced to listen to Steve Wright’s Sunday Love Song’s on Radio 2 (sorry Mum). Admittedly, trains were better suited to the wind-in-your-hair function, but back in the day, train times in Ayrshire were rather less frequent than the bus ones. And so, the greater half of my adolescent years was spent riding buses, or more likely waiting endlessly for them to arrive.
In fact, I’m sure I can blur much of my teenage years into an eternity of waiting in the rain at myriad bus stops. It is generally a standard principle that a bus is either five minutes early, and disappears before you get a chance to run like an idiot after it, or else it’s 45 minutes late and the driver and all passengers look grumpier than Nick Clegg.
It is also a standard principle that those waiting for a bus will generally unite at a bus stop with the social glue of the Great British Moan. Whilst this is a gloomy disposition that reflects our weather, it nevertheless provides a useful way of connecting disparate generations. Elderly people love to talk about buses. My nan, like many other people’s grandparents, has probably memorised her local bus timetable. She knows their numbers, she knows which ones are reliable and which ones to avoid. She likes to moan about the drivers and the rising prices. Well, I do too. Some of our best intergenerational bonding has stemmed from conversations complaining about buses.
Regardless of the positives that can come out of poor service, the sheer cost of travelling by bus in my opinion is rendering void any novelty value they might still retain. Buses are getting extortionate. The slogans about cheap travel for students plastered on the back of our local buses are a joke. To make the eight mile journey from Maybole to Ayr it would set me back almost £4 (for a single ticket), when I can get to Glasgow with my third-off young person’s railcard for just over £5 – a journey over five times the distance. Not to mention the substantial luxury of train travel in comparison to buses, where leg room is smaller and the chance of being flung violently into the person in front/beside/behind you is considerably higher.
On a train, I have access to lots of comforts. I might be able to charge my phone. I will be greeted on occasion by a friendly ticket officer, rather than a bus driver irate with the stresses of traffic and grumpy passengers. I have a little table if I want to drink my coffee, write or read a magazine (perhaps the complementary Metro). Late night train travel allows a snapshot into local nightlife, although sometimes it isn’t necessary to take the late train to see this, however. It is not unusual to see someone casually open a can of Tennents at ten in the morning, or to witness a band of rowdy men (on a stag-do, or on their way back/to a rugby/football match) cajoling the ticket conductor and singing rude songs. A hazard of both bus and train travel is the lonesome teenager playing awful dance tunes out loud through the tinny speakers on his/her phone. This was the mode through which I experienced my delightful first exposure to Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’. So, don’t get me wrong, train travel is by no means a leisurely experience. Anyone who has undergone the horror of taking the evening train back from Ayr to Glasgow on a hot day, will know this. Being packed into a tightly enclosed space with a load of highly-intoxicated, sunburned, tired and aggravated Glaswegians who have just spent a day by the beach is far from light pleasantry.
Yet while trains have their problems, at least they are generally reliable. By reliable, all I mean is that they tend to head from one place to another, stopping at fixed destinations on the way. Recently, commentator Caitlin Moran tweeted that:
To some people (particularly those who are drivers and rarely take public transport) this disruption to service might seem astonishing. To me, it’s comically familiar. Growing up, I used to regularly get the 361 bus to travel to my friend’s house in a tiny far-out village. It stopped in many different farm towns and villages, and was notorious for its lateness, tendency not to show up and the antics of its drivers. I loved that bus, although it was a bloody nightmare. It was the bus we had to get at nine in the morning after a rough night of partying, and journey along those endless winding roads, being thrown between seats, trying our best not to throw up. It was the bus whose driver has, on separate occasions, pulled up by the side of the road to get a chippy, to take a piss in a ditch and to buy a pack of cigarettes (which said driver proceeded to smoke outside of the bus while we waited patiently inside).
Caitlin Moran later added that everyone on the bus was being ‘very British’ and politely pretending that nothing was wrong. I would like to suggest that such awkward manners are less visible during bus travel in Scotland (well, I can’t speak for everywhere, but at least South West Scotland). As soon as the bus driver accidentally stalls, or refuses some twenty-year-old chancer a half, cue the cries of (and I quote) “ya fucking fanny” and “fuck you wee man”, and general laughter and goading from the other passengers. Well, some of us will try to turn our heads, but generally being on a bus seems to be a more raucous affair than it is down south
Raucous indeed; maybe even adventurous. The notorious 361 was also the bus that one day broke down in the middle of nowhere, while I was on it. Being a highly trained professional, the driver attempted to ring someone ‘in the know’, but succeeded only in engaging what sounded like an exchange of swear words and incomprehensible banter. It being the middle of nowhere, his phone signal then suddenly went and the call was cut off. Said driver left the bus and began angrily kicking at the wheels and inspecting the engine, before standing outside lighting cigarette after cigarette and turning his head around to admire the rural landscape. Meanwhile inside the vehicle, a group of middle aged women on the back seats had pulled out cans of fizzy juice and with conspiratorial giggles were proceeding to top them up from a bottle of vodka. Procuring paper cups from their Farmfoods bags, they offered their concoctions around the bus with much bravado, cursing the uselessness of the driver. As said drive returned to the bus after getting through presumably to his manager, rather than being calmly offered a refund and a possible replacement means of transport, we were told we would have to wait until they could get the sputtering vehicle itself repaired. My friend and I decided it would be miles quicker to walk to the nearest village, where she lived and could provide me with a lift home.
As we wandered the several miles, on a Friday night in July sunshine, quite content with this little drama, the 361 suddenly trundled past us. Arrogantly, it honked its horn but did not stop to let us on board. We didn’t wave our fists, but just laughed incredulously and kept on walking. Service to rely on.
Following my initial recreational experience with buses as a means of getting into town to meet friends, during my latter means of school I learned what it was like for working people who had to get the bus everyday. I had taken subjects in a college and school in a different town which required several bus rides a day, so that I was hopping around from place to place and finding the majority of my week spent perched on the edge of my seat, trying to read while resisting the urge to vomit (whether said nausea was induced by the driver’s furious attack on bends or by the body odour of the man/woman in front of me I could never tell, probably it was both). I spent so many hours waiting in the frozen cold at bus stops with a bunch of old people wrapped up like Eskimos, or other college students standing catatonically puffing on cigarettes. How I longed to smoke in those days, just for something hot to travel fast to my lungs. Frequently I wore two pairs of gloves at once.
There was one day a week, a Thursday, when I had to get four buses a day, and that truly was hell. But it was also amusing, like the times nearing summer when for some reason the normal-sized bus was replaced with a monster of a holiday coach, which provided a bit of midweek excitement. Or when a woman, looking like she had dressed in my brother’s preteen sportswear wardrobe, got on lugging a titanic-sized flat screen television and proceeded to hug it to her seat like a warm fuzzy bear. Or witnessing the fights that broke out when some kid tried to get on as the bus was pulling away, and the driver exploded into fits of rage and cursing about the arrogance of youth.
Maybe I’m doing bus travel a disservice; maybe taking the bus isn’t what it was a few years ago. Maybe post-recession it’s all got a bit more efficient. I don’t know and maybe I won’t find out, because these days I do everything I can to boycott buses. Walking everywhere helps, and investing in a value-for-money railcard. At least I’m being green.
What I will say about buses is that they are, for good or for bad, a communal experience. Inevitably some ghost from primary school past will float on and treat you with a journey’s worth of gossip about old teachers, or a slightly ominous man in a tracksuit will strike up a fascinating conversation about his egg sandwich with you, or a pair in front of you will keep turning around to inform you each time the bus driver picks his nose and looks straight in his mirror. Maybe there isn’t that kind of intimacy on the train…unless, like the trains where I’m from, the train often has to stop for extended periods after hitting a cow on the line, and what unfolds is like something from a Martin McDonagh script: a gross and darkly hilarious suspension of regular social norms where conversations turn to graphic depictions of absurd animal violence, and people who would normally take a glimpse at one another and then look the other way are suddenly engaged in furious conversation like old mates. I guess waiting for some specialist to come and ‘remove the animal’ (read: scrape cow guts off the train) has its dramatic effects.
Coming to some kind of conclusion, I admit this article has been a bit of a rant, but I hope it is more a record of experiences than a whole-hearted attack on bus travel. After all, it will always have that nostalgic quality: the acrid smell of body odour, stale perfume and freshly-opened cheese and onion crisps; the thundering voices of the half-deaf passengers trying to speak on their brick-like mobile phones; the grimace of the bus driver as he realises he has to count your change from a tenner. Or maybe just the excitement of travelling to college for the first time, or going to a friend’s house and surreptitiously sipping vodka from a plastic coke bottle whilst discussing the forthcoming antics of the evening. When you take a bus, you definitely feel like you are going somewhere (I suppose it bloody well should considering the cost), and there is always the added fun of staring out at the scenery and batting away the wasps, flies and other natural paraphernalia that comes flying in the open windows.
Yes, the bus is certainly the most humble means of transport. Nevertheless, it has to be said that I’d rather walk.
I have just read a book that has all at once captivated, disgusted and intrigued me; a book that has left me strangely both emotionally drained and intellectually stimulated. Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho plunges the reader into a world of late 1980s ‘yuppie-ism’: the world of Wall Street, hyper-consumption, misogyny, racism, inane pop culture, television, sex…and violence. Written from the first person perspective of its protagonist (although somehow I find the term protagonist with its heroic connotations inadequate), Patrick Bateman, the novel has an unusual cyclical structure that plays out as a repetitive narrative of visits to classy restaurants, mundane descriptions of the latest consumer goods, chapters that read like music reviews and then the most controversial element: the horrifically graphic scenes of sexual violence and psychopathic slaughtering that got the book banned by its initially intended publishers.
Yet I don’t believe that Ellis includes these gruesome chapters just as a twisted indulgence, a pornography of violence. As I will discuss, they play a part in Ellis’ searing, often satirical portrayal of the Reagan era in America: a critique of neo-liberal values, consumerism and technology that is arguably more pertinent today than it was twenty years ago. The heartlessness, depravity and monotony of this culture and the novel itself is summed up in the opening line: ‘abandon all hope ye who enter here’, which is ‘scrawled in blood red lettering’ on the side of a building. This quote is an intertextual reference to Dante, who in his Divine Comedy suggested that this was the written passage that appeared in the entrance to Hell. When you pick up American Psycho and read the first lines, which immerse the reader immediately in the divided cityscape of 1980s New York – a world of graffiti, advertisements and pop culture – you cross over a threshold, you cross over into a tightly-confined mind that experiences its own corruption in a fictional universe that is all too like our own. What is interesting about the novel is on the one hand its hypothetical exploration of the thoughts of a psychopath, but also its trenchant critique of a society obsessed with surfaces, purchases and the perpetual presence of the flickering flow of television; a society plummeting towards absurdity and the eradication of all meaning – at all levels from the individual mind to the collective conscience.
Despite being the novel’s narrator, Bateman reveals little about himself other than his routines, his clothes and his opinionated taste in music. He indulges in lengthy passages detailing his workouts, his use of face masks, his appearance, eating habits, sexual interests; but the novel provides little in the way of solid character description. The narrative is therefore intensely claustrophobic, as we are restricted to Bateman’s narrow, white, narcissistic upper-class view. Moreover we know nothing of the Bateman behind the suit and Ray-Bans; we don’t know about his childhood, his relationship with his parents is only briefly suggested in a single flash of a chapter, and although it is the source of so much expendable income, we never find out what he actually does at work, other than order his secretary to make him dinner reservations. This latter point is especially interesting within the context of contemporary culture, where people are becoming ever-more critical of what these high-flying guys in banking and finance actually do; as bonuses and salaries remain sky-high in spite of the recession, there is increasing concern with regards tothe elaborate and obscure games that these ‘yuppies’ spend their time with – playing with money, justifying their existence. Ellis clearly does not seek to redeem the Wall Street yuppie, but instead caricatures his position and the career in general – which for me culminates most humorously in a chapter where Bateman and his coworkers engage in a highly-charged comparison of the stylishness of their respective business cards, that reads like a competition between prehistoric men flexing their muscles or showing off their hunting skills.
This leads into the question of masculinity and self in the novel. In a world where the most socially-esteemed jobs require what might be considered traditionally ‘emasculated’ behaviour – Bateman, it seems, is a proto-metrosexual – how do men assert their masculine identities, especially with the increasing challenge of the rising status of women? Bateman’s gendered self is ambiguous: on the one hand he is obsessed with his physical appearance – going for regular manicures, massages, constantly working out and asking if his hair looks good – and on the other asserting patriarchal dominance by literally killing, and in some cases torturing, those that either threaten his position (e.g. his colleague Paul Owen who has the superior business card) or those that he is different from and wishes to demonstrate are beneath him: women (especially models and prostitutes), beggars and homosexuals. This creates a bizarre, twisted sense of capitalism gone mad, of the ‘dog-eat-dog’ ideology of everyman for himself, of free market competition gone out of control. The individual, in his quest for success, seeks a greedy taste of the ‘Swordfish meatloaf with kiwi mustard’; that is, the excess and the addictiveness of the American Dream.
The novel thus remains engaged with material inequality, even though its focus is on one end of the scale – the high-flying lifestyle of yuppie clubs and restaurants. Throughout the book, Bateman and his friends taunt the plethora of beggars that haunt the streets of New York, holding out bills of money only to snatch them away in front of their starving eyes. At one point, Bateman even shoots a busker, just because he can; because he has the urge to kill and feels the man’s life is worthless. Yet there is an ironic discrepancy between Bateman’s behaviour and the outward image he projects of someone in tune with social problems. Early in the novel, Bateman delivers a speech that reads like the words of a politician: ‘we have to end apartheid for one. And slow down the nuclear arms race, stop terrorism and world hunger…strengthen laws to crack down on crime and illegal drugs’. All this from a man who personally terrorises the poor and vulnerable, regularly takes cocaine and is quite happy to waste money on often-uneaten restaurant food whilst trampling all over street beggars. Perhaps, therefore, Ellis meant to parody the hypocrisy of governments that proclaim their acknowledgement of socioeconomic problems but do nothing or little to actually tackle them. The irony of Bateman’s ‘identity’, then, is the way in which his words do not distinguish him but blur him further into convention, as he constructs his self by appropriating the words and values of others – particularly his hero Donald Trump (which says a lot about yuppie conscience). Indeed, this is humorously parodied in the fact that all food and tastes are judged not by individual experience but by reviews characters have read in glossy magazines.
So in spite of Bateman’s carefully constructed external self as a socially-conscious businessman, his identity remains a space of vacuum. Everything around him – his friends, his values, his lifestyle – is utterly superficial, and it turns out that he is too:
‘…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 lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there […] My self is fabricated, an aberration. I am a non-contingent human being. My personality is sketchy and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent.’
When it was first published in 1991, American Psycho was accused, among many things, of being a poorly-written, immoral book, but I believe these early critiques were based on strong misreadings. The above passage, with its incisive insight into the thoughts of someone staring into the abyss of his own personality, its chillingly controlled and intoxicating prose, shatters any accusation that Bret Easton Ellis is a bad writer. It opens up the concern of many ‘Generation X’ writers: the paradox of identity in the late twentieth century. In a world where identities become more important, as each person seeks to distinguish themselves within the ocean of material things, selfhood in fact seems to dissolve, fragment, disintegrate under the weight of excessive choice and infinite expectations. Bateman reflects that ‘there is no real me’ in spite of the solid flesh, the personality moulded out of a particular consumer lifestyle, the ‘illusory’ mask of self presented in the fashionable clothes, the haircut, the voguish business card. American Psycho challenges many conventions of the novel, and one is character development: Bateman may become more reflective as the narrative ‘progresses’ but he does not undergo transformation or redemption. He remains all surface, with no core sense of morality and self beneath the veneer of his existential acts – he ‘simply [is] not there’.
This reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, written a hundred years before American Psycho at the fin-de-siècle of the nineteenth-century. Like the ‘yuppies’ of Wall Street, Dorian and his friend Henry Wotton not only challenge traditional masculinity, as appearance-obsessed ‘dandies’ (the late Victorian metrosexual), but they are also excessively idle and spend their privileged lives like Bateman and his colleagues, indulging in sensual pleasures, conspicuous consumption and attending the finest venues of society. Narcissism and art are thematically central, just as narcissism and pop culture are to American Psycho. The fable-like plot of Dorian Gray turns on a Faustian bargain Dorian makes with the devil, whereby he barters his soul in exchange for eternal youth, so that his portrait grows old and twisted while he remains all surface, forever flawless and smooth. Dorian’s narcissism and pursuit of pleasure leads him into a spiral of moral corruption, visits to opium dens, murder and sexual depravities which, while completely removed from the Ellis’ gore, were nonetheless shocking at the time.
Each novel has lengthy passages cataloguing the material objects that consume the lives of its protagonist, emphasising the vacuity of their identities beneath the sheen of their flawless appearance. Yet Wilde, unlike Ellis, gives his novel closure: he provides some moral consequence to this hedonistic lifestyle, rather than as Ellis does allowing the reigning continuity of surface he gives some ethical depth. While American Psycho’s plot is an endless repetition of music reviews, restaurant, concert and club visits and violence, from which emerges no character development or moral conclusion, Dorian Gray traces the deterioration of a character whose initial purity is corrupted by a range of identifiable sources including art (notably, a ‘poisonous book’ thought to be J. K. Husyman’s A Rebours) and the influence of those around him. Dorian Gray ends with final punishment as Dorian tries to destroy the painting but in doing so reverses the mysterious spell, so that he acquires all the ugliness of his sins and the picture is restored to its original purity. Perhaps this structural difference can be attributed to the distinctive literary contexts of each book: while Wilde was writing in and to some extent subverting Victorian realism, Ellis is embedded within a more postmodern tradition that is sceptical about there being a moral centre to which texts can turn to, and is instead interested in showing how the boundaries of morality and self are not only fluid but at times seemingly invisible.
Indeed, what is particularly intriguing about Bateman’s monologue is the statement: ‘my self is fabricated, an aberration’ (my emphasis). Bateman spends his entire time striving to fabricate a self that fits in with the expected and respected norm embodied by the clone-like yuppies (indeed, because of their similar clothes and haircut they often mistake each others’ identities and this largely goes unquestioned in the narrative) and yet Bateman himself is an ‘aberration’ of this mundane normality. He’s an anomaly, defined by his psychopathic serial killer tendencies. Yet by linking the two – conformity and deviance – the text suggests that perhaps Bateman’s psychopathy is a product of society; it is not just a personal pathology but deeply embedded within the frustrating, depthless culture in which he finds himself skidding along with no hope of even drowning in. There is no way of drowning in a postmodern, or what Baudrillard calls a ‘hyper-real’ world where everything is interchangeable and signs refer to nothing but an endless stream of more signs – a choking bombardment of advertisements, appearances and vacuous conversation. Murder, rape and drugs provide some alternate reality, something real and solid and potent, that produce actual effects and allow Bateman to distinguish himself in some dark, significant way, even just as an ‘aberration’. It’s a chilling thought.
Although the novel never punishes its serial killer – Bateman is never caught, even though he drags a body-bag through the street, is helicopter-searched by police and leaves rotten body parts stewing in his apartment – the absence of a moral framework actually adds to the richness of the text. In his essay ‘From Work to Text’ Roland Barthes argues that the ‘writerly’ text offers up a plurality of readings rather than containing a single concrete meaning. It is in a sense an ‘event’, a surface (particularly relevant to American Psycho!) which engages the reader in a ‘practical collaboration’. This is achieved by the proliferate meanings offered up by the text: the intertextual references (abundant in Ellis’ novel, from Dante to Satre to Whitney Houston) and the elaborate web of signification spun in the writing, which encourages the reader to weave a fabric of meaning from the complexity of clues scattered throughout the prose. The pleasure of the text is our freedom to skip over passages, and to pay more attention to others. To endlessly reread and gain new insight, to create new meaning from. I find myself skim-reading the endless monologues about the latest technology, and often skipping entirely the really graphic parts; but this is not necessarily a bad thing, it merely prompts me to reflect on my role as reader in playing a role in constructing meaning in the text. It isn’t just there, but I actively make it depending on what I want to get from it.
Ellis also engages the reader in the ‘free play’ of meaning by leaving significant gaps in his text; the most notable of these gaps is the question of the unreliable narrator. Wayne C. Booth defines the narrator as ‘reliable when he speaks for or acts in accordance with the norms of the work (which is to say, the implied author’s norms, unreliable when he does not’. The subtle but at times overt irony that plays out in American Psycho, from Bateman’s extreme sexual and violent conquests and the ease in which he gets away with them to the literary language itself, is essential to raising questions about Bateman’s reliability. The tone he uses to describe the monotony of having to make reservations and his matter-of-fact description of his gym is the same tone used in his description of the scenes of grotesque and sadistic torture, necrophilia and cannibalism. Not only does this suggest that Bateman has been desensitized to pornography and violence but it also blends the normal and the abnormal together into a disturbingly hyperreal narrative of contemporary life. A life where rape and murder deserve no more expressive prose than a trip to ‘return some video tapes’. The prosaic language used to describe these scenes evacuates all possibility of the erotic or suspense that characterises porn or horror and instead foregrounds the acts themselves as real, painful and distorted occurrences – which in turn leave us with a sickening sense of our own voyeurism, raising wider questions about society’s enjoyment of such explicit forms of cultural entertainment. This notion of voyeurism is also highlighted by the repeated occurrence of such scenes (often signified by the foreboding chapter heading ‘Girls’ which I came to dread), creating a circular narrative which emphasises the text’s sense of claustrophobia and entrapment and recreating the inescapability of the distastefully explicit within modern culture.
Moreover, in relation to unreliable narration, the absurdity of Bateman’s rampant and seemingly meaningless killing sprees raises the question of whether what Bateman does is actually occurring, or whether it is an extended fantasy he projects as a way of indulging in his feeling of vacuity and ‘heartlessness’ within a featureless life of mind-numbing consumption. Is he merely fabricating his own alter-existence that plays out just like the pornographic films he rents from the video-store? The text provides little evidence to confirm or deny Bateman’s reliability, and this is what is so seductive about American Psycho: the fact that we as readers are left to judge the veracity of Bateman’s narration, which in turn leaves us within a complex moral vacuum. Unlike other books about serial killers, American Psycho doesn’t contain a detailed narrative explaining the root causes of Bateman’s pathology – abuse in childhood, a defined psychiatric condition etc. Bateman pops valium, Halcion and various other ‘pop’ drugs but he is not on medication for paranoid schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder or the like; the blame for his condition is thus found within a complexity of societal factors rather than an easy psychological diagnosis. The exact cause is left for the reader to decide: we have to map out Bateman’s life – his pleasures, his friends, his behaviour – in order to make judgements about the myriad origins of his psychopathy.
Another area of contemporary society which Ellis explores critically in American Psycho is technology; specifically, television and the telephone. The telephone was invented to improve communication, but in the novel it is the site of communication breakdown. For example, when Bateman and his coworkers make a conference call to decide their evening plans, the conversation breaks down into meaningless and often disconnected statements. There is nothing efficient about this communication. Moreover, the telephone presents an uncanny means of correspondence, since it removes the face and replaces it with the voice. This makes the person at the end of the line both familiar and unfamiliar, which raises interesting questions in terms of the fluidity and fragmentation of self depicted in American Psycho. At what could be argued is the novel’s most intense point, whereby Bateman has been on a killing spree, is chased by police and is now hiding in his office, he makes a call to his lawyer and leaves a message detailing all the murders he is committed. Yet when he meets his lawyer the next day, the lawyer not only refuses to believe the answer-phone message but he actually thinks Bateman is someone else – he thinks that the message was a joke played by someone else at Bateman’s expense. Telephone technology has not increased the potential for meaningful and intimate human interaction but merely created further distance, and in doing so distorted what is real and disconnected the ‘I’ that is speaking.
In terms of television, the book is rich with critical analysis. The debate about TV images and their influence on human behaviour goes all the way back to Plato. In The Republic, Plato puts forward the analogy of a cave in which prisoners have been chained since childhood so that all they can do is stare at the shadows on the wall which create shapes and sound; this is the only reality they know of, yet it is a reality constituted merely by the shadows of things, not the things themselves. If one prisoner escapes and sees REALITY itself, it will seem less real than the shadows. Like the prisoners of the cave, most people in contemporary society are in a sense ‘chained’ to the all-pervasive presence of television, which has become the source of much of our knowledge: the ‘shadow’ images of television are used to shape our morality, ideals, values etc – our whole perception of the world. Television, moreover, provides a perpetual ‘flow’ of time, squashing the past and present together in an ‘extended present’, which gives a rhythm and routine to our daily lives. Bateman’s life is partially constructed around his watching of the morning The Patty Winters Show, Late Night With David Letterman and endlessly re-watched video tapes such as the thriller Body Double in which a girl is murdered by a handheld drill.
When television images are extreme ones of hardcore pornography or violence, questions are raised about how far they can be blamed for real life violent behaviour. Perhaps Bateman can so easily murder without remorse because his acts of violence seem less real than the highly stylised images he consumes on a daily basis. This is a real life concern: the murder of James Bulger by two young boys in 1993 was blamed by some on the film Child’s Play 3, leading to calls for a ban on the film. Anthony Burgess’ novel also explores this link between video images and violence in A Clockwork Orange, where classical Pavlovian conditioning is used to re-calibrate the protagonists’ perception of violence: Alex is strapped to a chair, injected with a nausea-inducing drug and forced to watch violent films so that he learns to associate cruelty with sickness. Yet eventually, this ‘Ludovico technique’ is reversed and once again he is back to the same old daydreams of bloodlust; it is only through a process of experience and growing up that Alex comes to leave his days of brutality behind. Thus rather than allowing for a simple causal effect between images and action, Burgess overall complicates the relationship between television and violence.
A more recent play by Martin McDonagh, The Pillowman, is also a useful text for grappling with the link between art and violence. The play’s storyteller, Katurian, claims that ‘the only duty of a storyteller is to tell a story’, yet his stories become implicated in criminality as they have influenced others to commit crimes that copy the sinister plots of his fables (which involve swallowing apple-men containing razor blades and child crucifixion). It’s an infinitely dark and at times sorrowful play, but also it’s very funny: it raises a myriad of questions about authorial responsibility but rather than answering them The Pillowman blasts all moral closure with nihilistic conclusions, green pigs and its at times absurd, circular dialogue. It is a very clever, layered, metafictional commentary on the relationship between art, suffering and violence and I highly recommend it.
So to what extent is Bateman’s behaviour the product of the films he watches, or the TV shows which range in topics from ‘Toddler Murderers’ to ‘a man who set his daughter on fire while she was giving birth’? Again, the text offers no straightforward answers, and indeed it is possible that the orgiastic violence he indulges in isn’t real at all but merely fantasies extended from the flickering images he sees on television. This is an intriguing idea, especially going back to Plato’s notion that the man who leaves the cave will find reality less real than the shadows; the text leaves the question of what is ‘real’ in the novel, and even – what are the implications for the violence of American Psycho itself? It may be classified as fiction, but feminist group NOW attacked the novel upon publication as ‘a how-to novel on the torture and dismemberment of women’. Will some readers read Ellis’ text naively? Can it be blamed for furthering society’s desensitizing towards violence through its graphic scenes?
I think what redeems American Psycho in this respect is its self-conscious irony. Yes, it is horrifically graphic, but it does so for a purpose: to deconstruct and expose the way in which slasher movies, porn and the like have become part of popular culture, and to restore a shocking element to these forms of entertainment which have become so stylised and normalised. Additionally, like The Pillowman, Ellis’ book is also inherently funny. There are random standout lines such as the comment ‘”I bet Bono has a small dick,”’’ when Bateman and his friends go to a U2 concert, and also the narrative contains many running jokes, such as Bateman’s compulsive need to ‘return some video tapes’, and several repeated miscommunications such as when Bateman says he works in ‘murders and executions’ but this is interpreted as ‘mergers and acquisitions’, thus blending together ironically Bateman’s mundane day-job with his vicious night-job. There are also surprising parts of the book which seem human, such as when Bateman visits his mother in her care-home and all he can do is look at himself vainly in the mirror that he’s ‘insisted’ on having there and think about are the expensive things she’s wearing (bought by him). When Bateman asks his mother what she wants, her reply: ‘“I don’t know. I just want to have a nice Christmas”’ is tearfully poignant in that it summarises the inability of consumption to fill the gap in their relationship, to fulfill the mother’s spiritual need to enjoy Christmas, a traditionally family-orientated event. The maternal relationship is hinted as strained and distant as all mother and son can say to one another is ‘“you look unhappy”’ and talk ‘“uselessly”’ of a recent party. This breakdown in communication is actually full of pathos and presents a refreshing break in the text, but one that opens up another possible, yet unexplored, avenue of explanation for Bateman’s insanity.
In sum, the text offers no answers. Bateman’s violence we must explain ourselves by piecing together the various sources in the text – from television to consumerism to a societal crisis of masculinity. Ellis doesn’t pretend to moralise, and his book ends with the ambiguous reference to Sartre’s play No Exit, as Bateman stares at a red-lettered sign on the door of a bar saying ‘this is not an exit’. The text thus begins and ends with a textual allusion to hell, but hell itself is not contained within the novel – the end is not an exit from the tortuously mundane, unequal and cruel world Bateman exists in – it is firmly our own world, from which there is no exit. This is an unsettling and nihilistic vision, but one in which unfortunately resonates as violence, consumption, immoral bankers, social inequality, identity crises and televisual domination are all swarming features of life in the twenty-first century; perhaps even more so than back in the late 1980s where the novel is set. The musical backdrop may have changed, but largely, the culture has not. And this relevance factor is why I recommend American Psycho.