Le mémoire de maîtrise de Thomas FENAERT ne doit pas être copié dans un autre travail universitaire ou toute autre publication sans que le nom de l'auteur ne soit explicitement cité.
La mise en forme et l'intégralité du texte d'origine n'ont pu être conservées.
UNIVERSITÉ CHARLES DE GAULLE LILLE III
IN THE NOVELS
BY BRET EASTON ELLIS
Note de recherche présentée
en vue de lobtention de la Maîtrise
Directrice de recherche:
Madame Claire FABRE
INTRODUCTION . . 5
I.EMPTINESS, REDONDANCE,AND VACUITY: A STUDY OF ELLIS
CHARACTERS . . ... ... 10
2. Appearances . ... . ...23
3. How can we say that Ellis characters are empty? . . 36
II. THE GENERAL LACK OF MORAL VALUES AND OF HUMANITY AND THE RISE OF EVIL IN ELLIS NOVELS . . .. ..56
2. Boredom ... . 79
3. The Failure of Humanity . 95
III. THE ROLE OF THE READER .. 114
CONCLUSION .. . .168
WORKS CITED .. 171
Bret Easton Ellis is a contemporary American writer, now in his late thirties. He defines himself as a satirist, and he underlines the fact that his works are filled with irony, and should be taken as critiques of what is represented in his novels. This is not always obvious, and his novels remain rather ambiguous and controversial. Critics argue that he is rather a stylist, which seems equally true, as Ellis novels can be easily recognizable among other novels, even with the ones dealing with the same subjects. The basis to Ellis novels is the notion of emptiness. Emptiness is indeed central to Ellis works, to his style, to the fictional world he represents, to the aims of his satire, to his characters personalities and to the reactions his novels can induce to the reader. The Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary defines emptiness as "the state of having nothing inside", which is rather vague, and does not help us with what Ellis aims at doing. Still, the same source gives us a second definition of emptiness, which appears to be much more suitable to what we aim at demonstrating in this study: emptiness is the state of something "having no value; without sense or purpose". This definition seems completely appropriate for what we want to underline here. This is especially relevant when we think that Ellis novels have an esthetic value, as they are first of all a work of fiction, and a piece of literature (which would imply that it is to be considered as art). The issue is how to create something beautiful with nothing, and most important with sterile emptiness, and more important for a literary work, how to render this impression of emptiness in a written text. We can wonder how a work of art can be centered on something which does not exist, and how can Ellis use this impression of vacuity without being tempted to abandon his will to criticize the artificiality of the world we live in. Because this is where the problem lies: Ellis caricatures the excesses of our society, which is centered on worthless concepts. Still, we can wonder about the authors honesty, as he ridicules the world in which he himself was born, bred and still lives in.
Nothing can be built upon the ground Ellis deals with in his novels, at least nothing steady, nothing positive. His characters seem to be lost, nothing seems to redeem them. They are attracted into the vacuum that is the society they evolve in, and it would take them a lot of willpower to get out of the tragic fate they are heading to, but they do not even have a personality strong enough. Ellis underlines the fact that the world his characters evolve in can only engender destruction. No hope is allowed, the characters are not to be trusted. The novels written by Ellis are centered on emptiness, and on the fact that even if the world is collapsing, no one wants to do anything to prevent this. This is foreshadowed by the quotation opening American Psycho "And as the world fell apart, nobody paid much attention", which is an excerpt from a song by the American New-Wave band Talking Heads. In some ways, Ellis novels give us an hyperrealistic view of what America is, on the exact opposite of what is shown to us by the media, and it is also contrary the traditional vision of the American Dream. When he centers his portrait of modern America on this notion of emptiness, Ellis paints a very pessimistic portrait of the country. In this case, Ellis uses emptiness as a metaphor for everything that endangers Americas youth. Still, we can wonder what makes Ellis young characters empty, and what are the means Ellis uses to make us understand what the problem is with them, and we will also try to wonder what his actual intentions are The United States appear to be a country in which young people have lost control over their lives and are trapped by all the temptations that are offered to them.
This actual emptiness is also to be found in these characters essence. The characters are empty shells. Ellis designed them as puppets, devoid of any personality, completely stupid and ridiculous. They do not have feelings, and by extension they cannot move the reader. They inspire him with disgust, but they also make the reader laugh, because of their mental vacancy. Ellis seemed to aim at creating a world which had been so absorbed by artificiality that it becomes completely unfriendly, and even hostile to the reader. We can wonder how Ellis manages to make his readers feel uneasy when reading his novels. In Ellis novels, the emptiness of the characters lives is corruptive, since it engenders boredom and frustration. The fact that the characters cannot be satisfied with their lives makes them evil. Emptiness always bears a negative connotation in Ellis novels. The void in the characters lives cannot seem to be filled. The characters cannot seem to find peace, and to build a stable, simple life that could make them happy. Instead, they are taken into a spiral of violence and of destruction that is concerning for their future and for the future of their society.
Emptiness is also to be found in the writing of the novel itself. Ellis novels are works of fiction, the pot of which is rather limited and can be summed up in a few sentences. The fact that there seems to be no coherence between the chapters, and that there
is a multitude of characters does not help to make the novel more meaningful. The trouble with Ellis novels is that if we read the texts in their literal meaning, the authors message is not at all clear and can be easily mistaken. We can wonder why Ellis chose to use an (apparently) vacuous point of view, his narrators never give any opinion on what they see, and there is no external narrator that seems to convey any message. There is an apparent vacuity of ideology, which can be disturbing, given the fact that the content of Ellis novels is of a dubious morality (the words and deeds of Ellis characters are in many ways immoral and even blasphemous). We will wonder if Ellis really intended to use this ideological emptiness, or if he tries to shock his readers in order to convey a different message, and how he manages to create two different ways to read his novels.
This is where the moot point around Ellis lies: he has written some texts which are so cold, which are delivered in such a deadpan way, that we can never be sure where the authors aim is and what his position towards his characters and his narrators lies. There is a controversy around Ellis name, because his novels, when they are read in the literal sense, contain a message that cannot be defended. His novels seem to praise violence, and to be overtly racist and misogynist (especially in the case of American Psycho). In his novels, Ellis breaks some taboos, and uses some characters which are terminally evil. This is why there is some ambiguity in the authors words. We can wonder where his intentions lie: does he want to shock the reader, or does he want to use irony to criticize what he seems to support, or does he want to make sales, on the back of some sordid thrillers. This is a long-running debate between Ellis supporters and his detractors, which has been ignited after the release of American Psycho. Ellis novels can rightfully be seen as sordid thrillers, attracting their readers with an uncensored display of sex and of violence. In the same way, the description Ellis does of the murders can be accused to incite to murder and to rape. Still, can Ellis novels be nothing more than a commercial novel, a product made to make sales, making profit out of the readers curiosity and voyeurism. This would be why Ellis novels are ideologically empty, why his novels seem to have no morals, and why the tone used in his texts is so cold. Ellis would be then nothing more than a sensationalist author, a bad writer writing skillfully some sordid novels in order to become rich quickly. We shall try to find out here which answer is the most likely.
In this study, we will concentrate mostly on Ellis three most popular novels: Less than Zero (1986), American Psycho (1991) and Glamorama (1998). The author has also written another novel, The Rules of Attraction (1988), and a collection of short stories, The Informers (1995), but these are minor works, in which Ellis applies his style without innovating, and these novels are frankly weak. Our goal will be to show how Ellis can master his use of emptiness and of artificiality in his novels, and to realize a sharp criticism of society, using shallow characters, and telling about the absurd codes ruling that society. On the other hand, we will also deal with the emptiness present in Ellis novels on which the author has no control, and which turns his novels into some abject products that do not deserve to be called literature.
Firstly, we will deal with the question of artificiality and of identity when it comes to the characters. We shall try to say if the characters rather conform to a group or if they still are individuals, in a world where appearances rule, and often hide awful truths. We will also study the way in which Ellis designs his characters in order to make them hollow and we will also try to say in which way we can say that they are empty. Then, we will deal with the destruction of values that is created by the fact that the society the characters live in gives them no satisfaction, and finally infuriates them, and pushes them to perform evil deeds. First of all, because their desires seem to be never satisfied, and that they would do anything to find pleasure, but that most of the time their quest does not lead them anywhere, and they become frustrated. This frustration quickly turns into boredom, a boredom from which they do not seem to disappear.
We will also deal with the paradoxical action of writing about boredom. The frustration accumulated and the crazy will to follow what the society wants from them tends to dehumanize them, and to eradicate genuine feelings. We will try to say how. Finally, we will study how this impression of emptiness is conveyed to the reader, as the reader plays a very active part in Ellis novels. First of all, we shall try to explain how Ellis manages to convey this impression of emptiness, and to add an impression of realism to his texts. Then, we will devote a chapter to the study of Ellis use of the third person, for what it implies both for the author and for the reader and to try and explain what effects it causes. Finally, we will deal with the part of pornography in Ellis novels, and we will try to tell if Ellis really is a pornographic author, or if he uses pornography to suit his satire, something which would be confirmed by the humor and irony displayed in his novels.
A STUDY OF ELLIS CHARACTERS
Ellis characters appear to be shallow, empty characters, and this was intended by the author. They all show their psychological emptiness, their will to conform at any price to the society they live in. Still, one can wonder how Ellis manages to render this impression of vacuity and of uniformity in his narrative, and at the same time to create a work of fiction that makes sense, and which allows to create an underlying irony, because Ellis does have some reasons to create such hollow characters. The characters have to conform, as we have just said, to the rules imposed to them by the society they live in, the problem being that this may be incompatible with a will to affirm their own identities (if they still have one), and this can create some various reactions. The society designed by Ellis does not impose only ways to act, it also forces the characters to conform to a model of beauty and elegance that the characters have to follow in order to be accepted and loved. The trouble is that this love of appearances has replaced the love of moral qualities, and this causes the disappearance of true feelings, but also allows the persistence of evil. Finally, we shall try to say what is the use for Ellis to create these vapid characters, and how the author manages to render this impression of vacuity.
In Elliss novels, this question of identity always appears as a watermark. All that his characters want is to exist, and to be accepted in the society they live in, even if to reach that goal, they have to yield to the rules and codes of that society. Thus, it seems doubtful to say that they keep their identity when they have to conform and to lose their originality, and we will study why. On the other hand, the characters are not always aware of this deprivation of their identity.
All of Elliss characters want to be "cool". They want to fit into society and to be respected and to obtain whatever they want from it. In order to do so, they have to submit to certain rules and to keep up with what is "in". For example, in Less than Zero, which is set in California in the mid 1980s, you have to be tanned, and Clay, the narrator, who studies in the East, has lost his tan. Everybody seems to worry about this and advise him to go to a tanning salon. In the same way, the character seem to advise the narrator about just anything:
"I bet you dont even read The Face. Youve got to" [ ]
"Why do you have to?" I ask
"Otherwise youll get bored." (Page 86)
The Face is a rather trendy English magazine about fashion and society. What seem to be highlighted here are the stupidity and the absurdity of these codes. Of course, you can read a magazine to be informed, or to kill some time when you are bored, but you cannot be bored as a result of not reading a magazine. This statement seems devoid of meaning, but some of the characters seem to think it is not, and even to consider such statements as a general truth. Clay does not fit in his group of friends anymore, as the codes seems to tell that everybody has to "be blond and tan and to wear sunglasses". Later on, we learn that he cannot get a tan anymore, as he only gets sunburned. This is one of the proofs that he is now an outcast, that he is not like the others anymore, and then he is "excluded" in a way from the group. As he does not want to live the life he used to live before his departure to university, he does not belong to this group anymore.
This phenomenon is especially striking in American Psycho, as everybody looks the same, and that people with a difference (or less wealthy people in general) are mocked. This even leads up to cruel cynicism when they tell beggars to stand up and to look for a job. The characters of the novel all spend their time comparing their clothes, stereos, flats and even their business cards (in a particularly funny passage on pages 44-45). When one of them, for example, reveals that he has a sunbed at home, they all criticize him for his vanity, but as Batemans thoughts reveal "it would be a hip luxury, except I really have no room for one in my apartment". The key to success for yuppies in this novel is to own, to possess as much as the others, and more if possible. If you own less, then you are considered as a "dork". The same phenomenon even occurs when it comes to girlfriends and wives, a subject I will deal with later on.
The common point to all the groups of people described by Ellis is that they already all belong more or less to that society. We barely meet real outcasts. Even though the characters from Less than Zero consider themselves as "rebels", they also have to conform to certain rules, to do certain things, and to think in such or such way. In American Psycho, it is particularly blatant when you judge Batemans behavior towards Jean, his secretary, "whos in love with [him] and who [he] will probably end up marrying":
She smiles like some kind of cretin. (67)
Sitting across from Jean, right now in the darkness of Arcadia, its very easy to believe that she would swallow any kind of misinformation I push her way [ ] and I find this lack of defence oddly unerotic. (260)
What is truly striking in these passage in Batemans behavior is the lack of tenderness, or even of any respect towards a character that proves to him her love and devotion many times in the story. Batemans character is a monster who has no love for anybody but for himself. Jean is very different of Bateman, and, more generally, from other women in the novel, first of all, because she seems to have "natural" feelings. Her love for her boss is pure, when other women in the novel just look for a good match, that will give them the money they need, and this is also what makes her naïve. This naiveté bothers Bateman, who despises her because of this. His attitude towards his gay colleague Luis is also very significant:
In this instant he smiles, relieved that Im acknowledging his presence, but the smile soon becomes fractured and in the dark inner recesses of his fag mind he realises something and starts crying (page 294)
Bateman mostly shows his disgust, because of Luiss bad taste (when it comes to clothes), but mostly because of Luis homosexuality. As he is the only gay character of the novel, Luis does not completely belong to the cynical group Bateman belongs to, although he tries hard to join it, when he hides his real sexual tendencies, or when he tries to impress the others. Still, Luis has a certain individuality and shows sensitivity, and this makes him a rather pleasant character, compared to the other characters of the novel. On the other hand, Bateman shows more cruelty when it comes to his victims:
Hes dressed in some kind of tacky-looking lime green polyester pantsuit with washed out Sergio Valente jeans worn over it (this seasons homeless peoples fashion statement), along with a ripped orange and brown V-neck sweater stained with what looks like burgundy wine. It seems hes very drunk either that or hes crazy or stupid. (Page 129)
Here again, the character of Al, the homeless man, does not follow the codes of the environment Bateman and his colleagues live in. First of all, he is criticized, because he cannot afford to buy the expensive designer suits Bateman is wearing. Then, as he is a
tramp, Bateman has a very conservative reaction: if he is homeless, it is because he is an alcoholic. In this passage, Bateman shows his complete disgust, and this is why he feels that this man has to disappear. Moreover, there is a comical element to be added to it : the description he makes of this poor man almost turns into the description of a fashion show, complete with brand names and the very sarcastic "this seasons homeless peoples fashion statement". Not only him and his peers appear this verbally cynical to people who do not follow their way of life, they also show their contempt in their acts, for example by "baiting" homeless people by waving a bill in their face and then withdrawing it, or by inviting East Village "artists" in their dinners as buffoons:
Vanden seems amused and so now, unfortunately does Courtney, who, Im beginning to think, finds this monkey attractive but I suppose if I were dating Luis Carruthers I might too (p13)
Slash, the artist, is described as a "monkey", not as a man, which shows the lack of consideration they show for people different from them.
They form a micro society with their own dress code, their own slang and their own values (very perverted). Yet, this has a side effect. As everybody wears the same clothes and dates roughly similar women, they all seem to look the same, and as originality is not advisable, personal identities are negated. Designer suits and horn-rimmed glasses become a uniform, and names are turned into a detail. This is overly present in American Psycho, where the narrator is only called by his name by his closest acquaintances. As so many people look the same and work in the same places, it is understandable to mix two names:
Owen has mistaken me for Marcus Halberstam, but for some reason it really doesnt matter, and it seems a logical faux-pas since Marcus works at P&P also, in fact does the exact same thing I do, and he also has a penchant for Valentino suits and clear prescription glasses and we share the same barber at the same time, the Pierre hotel, so it seems understandable. (Page 89)
Astonishingly, it does not shock him anymore, and he does not even correct the person, as he is so used to this. He confesses that he does not know all of his colleagues names himself and often refers to them as "someone who looks like " ("Someone who looks exactly like Jonathon Leatherdale", page 195). The reader too is confused by the abundance of names and may be quickly lost, and just keeps in mind the names of the main characters, considering the others as various incarnations, or doubles of the main characters. Secondary characters are indeed very similar to the main ones, share the same jobs, look roughly the same and have the same hobbies. The fact that such characters are not given any individuality tend to turn them into clones of the narrator or of one of the main characters. In American Psycho, these main characters are Bateman, Jean, Evelyn, Courtney, McDermott and Price.
This motif of similarity is also omnipresent in Glamorama, where people are described according to whom they look like. Of course, we meet a lot of celebrities, whose names are already known by the public, and are associated with various connotations. Their role is secured by their fame, and everything some characters want, including Victor, the narrator, is to reach a status in this society, but there is more: for example, there is one character described as "looking like Christian Bale". Although he has a rather important role, when he tries to help Victor to get out of the terrorists grip, we never learn his actual name. People seem to live according to whom they resemble, but not according to what they are. In the same novel, another motif of doubles is introduced: the terrorist group replaces people they have killed by lookalikes, and nobody seems aware of the substitution, not even Victors girlfriend, after he has been replaced. This lack of identity or confusion of identities is then used for criminal goals, as doubles aim at infiltrating the whole cultural society little by little, to gain control over it. In the same way, in American Psycho, Patrick Bateman uses the confusion of names between him and Marcus Halberstam to trap and kill Paul Owen, and later on he uses Owens identity (and his flat) to commit a few murders without being troubled by the authorities. Considering this, Bateman is just a typical thriller villain, as the fact that the murderer uses his looks to seduce and trap his victims. We could say so if American Psycho was only a thriller (we will come back on this debate in the last part of this study). Still, it is also a piece of satire, and what Ellis criticizes through this use of the lack of identity, is that our society is so superficial, that, not knowing people enough, you can be manipulated very easily. Worse, it seems that this society does not seem to care about individuals. In Elliss novels, we face a social dictatorship, as the oppression of the society negates the individuals tastes, opinions and desires. Then, individuality and originality have to be put aside, and are even rejected. As it is stated on page 165 of Less than Zero: "You can disappear here without knowing it", when you blindly accept the rules and let them strangle you.
Although Elliss characters are submitted to the environment they live in, they remain individuals, with their own beliefs, their own characters. We will try to find out in the following pages if there is any trace of individuality in Elliss novels, and to try and see what makes the difference between one character and another. If the different narrators are of course well representative of the group they belong to, they want to highlight their differences as much as they can. What seems awkward in all of Elliss novels is the fact that the identification of the narrator is not immediate. Of course, as they are first person narratives, it seems natural that the narrators are not introduced straight away. Still, most of the time, we learn their names through the voices of other characters, and we do not get to know much about their lives, especially with Clay, in Less than Zero, about whom the narrative is rather vague. We even have to wait 5 pages to know his name. Most of the time, we do not even get the characters complete names. We are only told their first names ("Blair", "Daniel", "Trent"), or even sometimes just nicknames ("Rip", "Spit", "Ronette", etc ). We never learn any name, or anything about their jobs, barely anything about what they look like. Clays sisters names are never explicitly given, as such information is of no importance. They only exist in relation to Clay, and are never dealt with individually. On the other hand, gossip is reported about people that never appear at any moment in the novel. We are given for instance sordid details about the sexuality or the drug addiction of some characters which are not even present in the novel. These characters do not have a proper identity, they just are who Clay thinks they are, as he is the one who speaks. For example, Clay introduces Rip as "my dealer". We cannot even say in the beginning if the narrator really has an identity of his own. He appears, from the start, very negative and without any personality. He really confirms this impresion it towards the end of the novel, when he shows his disgust towards the behavior of his friends and decides to go back to New Hampshire and to start a new life.
In American Psycho, the problem of identity is very different and much more complex. Bateman and the other (male) characters all appear as identical, as they conform to the yuppie model. Individual identity hardly exists, as everybody is mistaken for somebody else. Moreover, no character really displays a personality of his own. They all seem cynical, pretentious, vacuous and vain. There is hardly any way to differentiate people, as it is stated on page 23:
"Why dont you just go for Price?" [ ]
"Hes rich", I say
"Everybodys rich", she says, concentrating on the TV screen.
"Hes good-looking", I tell her.
"Everybodys good-looking, Patrick" she says remotely.
"He has a great body", I say.
"Everybody has a great body now", she says.
In the same way as for the characters from Less than Zero, we hardly know anything about the characters, and it does not really matter anyway, as what counts is what they are in society: their job (most of the time, they work in the same company as Bateman), a more or less desirable girlfriend, and an elegant suit. They are designated by their full name or, most of the time, by their family names. Of course, Bateman only tells what he thinks of them, and thus we are really dependent on him to get some information about other characters:
I am fairly sure that Timothy and Evelyn are having an affair. Timothy is the only interesting person I know. (Page 22)
The only thing that makes Bateman really different from others is obvious: he is a murderer. This anonymity, far from disturbing him, allows him to kill without ever being identified and / or punished. Still, he likes to affirm his identity ("Hi, Im Pat Bateman" is constantly repeated, until it becomes a cliché, empty of any sense, as he himself says that "Patrick Bateman" is an invention. We will deal with this point later.) and he likes to boast about himself and what he does, even to his victims-to-be:
"So", I start, crossing my legs, "dont you want to know what I do?" [ ]"Well, I work on Wall Street. At Pierce and Pierce." (American Psycho, p171)
Bateman constantly utters his name, which people are going to forget straight away anyway, as if it had to mean something. In fact, all Bateman wants is to be respected or even feared by his peers, and to be adored by women. Yet, he remains a victim of the society he lives in, does not have a personality of his own, and remains anonymous to his peers. Funnily enough, the name of the company Bateman is working for is called "Pierce and Pierce", which may be seen as a reference to Bateman being a serial killer, when you take "pierce" as a synonym for "stab". The reader never gets to know the name of most feminine characters, which are considered as preys, in two different ways: in terms of seduction and of actual violence. Women do not appear to have any identity and are often referred to according to their body and to their looks in general ("a hardbody", "a totally fuckable babe"). In American Psycho, characters are somehow aware that they are not known for what they are, and they do not really do anything to change this. As long as they still fit into society, they do not really care about individuality. In the same way, when Bateman hires two prostitutes, he invents a new name for them, without caring about their actual name:
Christie takes a bath (I dont know his real name, I havent asked, but I told her to respond only when I call her Christie.) (Pages 169-170).
In Glamorama, we cannot really say that society smothers the individual, as its codes are not that obvious. Still, the question of personal identity is omnipresent, for Victor, the narrator, to begin with. In the beginning of the novel, Victor is a very stupid and vain young man, who wants to become famous, to become "someone" by any means. His father is an American senator, whose shadow Victor wants to get out of. To do so, he changed his name from "Victor Johnson" to "Victor Ward". Although he is very self-assured, he wants to ascertain his fame by any means, and to be more than "the it boy of the moment" (in a way, he wants to transform from "it" to "he"), which means that he has not broken through yet. If he wants to become famous, it is to fit in this world that surrounds him, but he is only part of it thanks to his girlfriend, a top model, and thus he does not really belong to it. His vanity and his infidelity will cost him his relationship and he will then undergo a descent into hell. Trapped by terrorists who will use him to plant bombs in various places, his humanity will surface. While somebody has replaced him and has managed to become more famous than he would never have been, the real Victor will plumb the depths of disgust, and a "new" Victor will be born, more humane, more sensitive, having lost the superficial side of himself, and with a brighter future in front of him, although he has lost everything. Once he is rid of his desires for fame, what is left of Victor is just plain humanity.
Glamorama also questions the link between image and reality. For example, most of the characters related to the terrorist group are not who they pretend to be, as they usurped somebody elses identity. Bentley, the terrorist in charge of image manipulations, highlights this:
Were you there or were you not? [ ] It all depends on who you ask, and even that doesnt really matter anymore. (Page 338)
If the characters of this novel appear as unique and not considered as a group, unlike in American Psycho, it is because Ellis wants to underscore how easy it is to replace people. Human beings appear here as interchangeable. And unlike Elliss other narrators, we get more and more compassion for Victor, a character highly unpleasant at the beginning of the novel, as he becomes more and more humane. If he began the novel as an empty shell, Victor is at the end of the novel not an empty and vapid being anymore, but a more likeable and sensible character. Now that we know what is left of individuality in Elliss novels and the influence society has on characters, we will try to discuss their reactions towards this negation of their uniqueness.
Even if they do not show it explicitly, all of the characters in Elliss novels are aware that their own existence is threatened by the society they live in. They react more or less violently, and in many different ways. In general, in all of Elliss books, these characters decide to hide their frustration, by just hiding, or even sometimes killing their feelings. In fact, they try to act as if they were getting rid of their humanity, by not showing any enthusiasm or any anger or any sadness, and by keeping a stiff upper lip in any circumstance. This can mostly be seen in Clays attitude, in Less than Zero. Whatever happens, he remains cold and does not show any feeling, even in the most terrible moments. For example, when his schoolmate Julian, now a drug dealer and a male prostitute, is killed by a local Mafioso, almost before his eyes, Clays only reaction is to "turn away and to leave the house". This lack of feelings also appear during happier times:
I try to wish my mother a Merry Christmas, but the words just dont come out and I leave her sitting in the car. (Page 59)
Clay is very similar to Camus LEtrangers Meursault, as he does not react to what happens around him. Finally, he chooses to escape rather than to face up to his life. Clay prefers not to act and to hide his disgust with the terrible events that take place in the narrative (as he states on page 164 "I walk into the bathroom, [ ] and flush the toilets repeatedly, but I dont throw up"). In a way, Clay appears as a monster, almost like Patrick Bateman is in American Psycho, as he does not show any positive or negative feeling, or even any natural "reaction", like in this passage he should show an expression of his disgust, but cannot. Clay cannot even vomit, to evacuate his disgust. In the same way, Clay does not express any joy or any sadness or any anger, and even in a non-voluntary reaction.
The worst thing we can remark is that Clay is not the only one in that position. If Clay just shows indifference, his friends Trent and Rip seem to have a certain delight in other peoples pain. For example, when they watch a "snuff movie", where an execution is filmed, Clay notices that Trent "has a hard on" (p. 143), and then they wonder:
How can you fake a castration? They cut the balls off this guy real slowly, you cant
fake that. (P.143)
Unlike some other characters of the novel, they love the life they live and appear as very likeable characters. The problem is that they overuse their status, and that their behavior becomes less and less controllable: one of them is a drug dealer, they are all drug addicts, they kidnap and rape a twelve-year-old girl, and the fact of watching the film of a violent murder excites them. They even have no compassion for their friends. When they see Muriel injecting heroin, Spits reaction is to say, "Oh man, this is wild", and somebody elses reaction is to take a picture! They act like psychopaths. In the young characters from Less than Zeros case, they find satisfaction in seeing other people suffering, and their behavior is as frightening as Batemans, although they do not go as far into violence as the latter does. They seem to think that they cannot be stopped and everything they want is to "have fun". Although these teenagers come from a rather rich background, and that they do not know need (we will study this in detail later on), their behavior and self-assurance is worrying, especially coming from young people
Batemans case is a bit different. Bateman does not kill because he is bored, he does it to discharge his own frustration. Unlike Clay, who is cold but harmless, Bateman kills in cold blood, and without any regret or moral consideration. His only feelings are envy, desire, jealousy and anger. He doesnt show any positive reaction. In a way, he is a victim of the anonymity of the society he lives in, something he shows when he tells his name to his victims-to-be, although he does not want to be caught by the police. These murders can then be seen as an attempt to self-destruction. Surprisingly enough, in spite of his foolishness, he is never caught and is hardly punished. Moreover, throughout the novel,
Bateman keeps the image of somebody rather normal (in his environment), does not appear more dangerous than any of his colleagues, and is even considered as boring ! (His girlfriend even tells him "Oh, stop scowling. Youre such a grinch." (Page 183)) Bateman himself states "My sanity is in danger of fading" (page 295). This appearance of normality
is just a façade, and at any moment, he can lose control. This puts him in a very dangerous and unstable position. If he wants to keep his social status, he has to control, to "behave", and not to obey his instincts. Thus, even in the moments where he is supposed to show his real self, he still has to follow social rules. Some parts of the novel picture him in a state of near numbness, as he is dazed by his drugs and tranquilizers abuse, and also by the life he is living. In the same chapter, Bateman confesses:
There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction but there is no real me. [ ] Myself is fabricated. [ ] My conscience, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at Harvard), if they ever did exist. (377-378)
Bateman knows about his non-existence, and, in fact, we can even wonder if this is not the reason why he never gets caught, because he simply does not exist. He just melts into the society hes living in. When he says so, he escapes any excuses for his behavior, and he also states that if Pat Bateman exists, it is only for other people. Even violence does not give him the impression to exist:
In fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. But even after admitting this and I have, countless times, in just about every act Ive committed and coming face-to-face with these truths, there is no catharsis I gain no deeper knowledge of myself. (Page 378)
His strict education, his unchallenging schooling and later on his boring job and his empty social life have made him lose his identity. Killing is for him the satisfaction of a need, as natural for him as drinking or eating. Still, after he has killed, Bateman does not seem to find any relief, he does not find any satisfaction in killing either. Although his life seems pointless, Bateman never considers suicide, firstly because of his paradoxical infatuation with himself, but also because he considers others as the reason for his pain, and he feels that they have to pay for this. In fact, none of Elliss characters ever considers suicide, even the ones who tend to self-destruction (in Less than Zero, Muriels anorexia and, later, her heroin addiction can be seen as a kind of suicide, but the suicidal act in itself is never considered.) Still, he does not seem invested by any divine or supernatural mission. He knows that he is not more untouchable than anyone else is. Still, he is very careless, and is not always very discreet (for example, when he brings some bloodstained bed sheets at a dry cleaners, or when he kills a young child in a crowded zoo).
Still, some of Elliss characters show more "natural" reactions to the world that surrounds them. These reactions can be shown in different ways, but they always reflect the characters despair, their disgust and their helplessness towards the world theyre living in. At first, we can witness expressions of despair, for example, on the tables of nightclubs:
Someones written, "Help me" over and over in red crayon on a table in a childish scrawl. (Less Than Zero, page 109)
Nobody ever knows who wrote such graffiti, and we never get any clue about this, but they just reflect the general state of mind of people who, like the main characters, have been trapped by the society they live in. This call for help can also imply that every sign of individuality, of any feeling, is to be hidden, or communicated in an impersonal way (here, graffiti), as if it was something shameful. It also adds a general feeling of insecurity and helplessness to the novel, but also the feeling that it is society that goes wrong, and not the individuals, although what is underscored here is "me". We can also remark this in the song lyrics that are quoted:
The Go-Gos are singing "I wanna be worlds away / I know things will be okay when I get worlds away" (Less Than Zero)
The lyrics quoted reflect most of the time uncertainty and despair. In Less than Zero, Muriel is one of the characters who shows a certain weakness and a great lack of defense towards society. She shows her despair by destroying herself. At first, she becomes anorexic (her anorexia is one of the very first piece of information we learn in the beginning of the novel), and later we learn that she has become an heroin addict (one of the very few subjects condemned by all of Elliss characters, which is almost always assimilated with death.) Muriel appears throughout the novel as a victim, and tries to find a refuge in drug addiction, the only thing that seems to make her happy:
She looks excited and I can make out the beginnings of a smile. (Page 77)
Moreover, her friends do not feel like stopping her, and they have to watch their friend "disappearing". Muriel adopts his attitude because of the lack of interest her parents show about her (parents lack of interest towards their children in criticized by Ellis in Less than Zero). Muriel is the archetypal example of teenage crisis, pushed up to a self-destructive extent.
In Glamorama, Victors reaction is more extreme. In the second part of the novel, when the terrorist group traps him, he is deprived of his liberty and of his identity, as he is replaced by a double. His first reaction is to take enough tranquilizers to enter a state of numbness, and thus, to submit to the oppression and to the blackmail he has to suffer ("Im drinking Absolut from a plastic cup [ ], eating Xanax, a cigarette burning between my fingers." p 385). Victor is then a victim, knows about his state as a prisoner, and is forced to accept it, as he has no other choice. Still, this life disgusts him. It is something we are made aware of inside the narrative:
Inside the house, shit, its fragrance, churns everywhere, muddy and billowing. (Page 382)
Victors disgust is expressed by the fact that he constantly smells an odor of excreta, even in the luxurious places he visits, like the Ritz or the Café Flore. Still, he cannot do anything, even if what he sees, hears and does make him sick, he has to submit to his jailers. Until the very end of the novel, and although he has the opportunity to start a new life, Victor has to back down, first to a mysterious man who orders him to go to Europe, then to the terrorists, and finally to an Italian paramilitary group. In spite of his self-confidence, he appears as a complete victim, as he knows about his condition, but does not do anything to change it.
In the society depicted by Ellis, one has to react in a very extreme way: either people lose their humanity and become monsters, or they become completely cold and indifferent to the world around them, or finally they are so disgusted with the situation they are in that they choose self-destruction rather than resistance. In any case, such attitudes can only lead to madness, one way or another. To sum this up, we can quote from Blair, who states "we all lost some sort of feeling " (Less than Zero, page 146)
Earlier on, we have said that what you are wearing defines your identity in the world described by Ellis. Still, Elliss characters are not, most of the time, who they seem to be. In spite of this, everybody feels more secure if they stick to the surface, and this is why appearances rule todays world. In Ellis novels, the question of misleading appearances is also discussed into length, and the role appearances play inside the narration.
First of all, the characters are concerned with appearances. If they put so much emphasis on their looks, it is because it is required to exist for the others AND for the society they live in. If the characters of American Psycho and of Glamorama put so much money on their clothes, it is to impress other people, and to show how cool and well-built they are. This tyranny of appearances is widely criticized by Ellis (who thinks it is because of media pressure). In Glamorama, in an extreme way, models become terrorists. As Ellis puts it:
The idealisation of beauty and fame in our culture drives people crazy in a lot of
ways: we resent it, we want it, we love it. [ ]What the media and the fashion world does is remind us everyday that we arent beautiful enough, that we need to be better-looking, that we will never live up to whatever the physical ideal of the day is.
In a way, we can say that one of the reasons that drive Patrick Bateman and Muriel in Less than Zero to madness and to a will of destruction (of self-destruction in Muriels case), is this perpetual will for more, and an eternal desire to look better.
When it comes to characters, appearances do not only concern looks, but also behavior in general. They have to act according to a certain way, to hang out with such or such people, and even to have a boy/girlfriend "matching" your status. For example, if Bateman is going out with Evelyn, it is partly because they evolve in the same circles:
"But your friends are my friends. I dont think it would work [if we split up]" [ ]
"Listen. I know that your friends are my friends and vice versa. Ive thought about that. [ ] You can have them." (Pages 339-340)
The problem is that, most of the time, they are not dating the person they actually have sex with. For example, in American Psycho, Patrick Bateman is Evelyns fiancé, but he cheats on her with Luis Carruthers girlfriend, Courtney, while Luis is in fact homosexual, and Evelyn cheats on Bateman with his colleague Tim Price. In Glamorama, Victor Ward cheats on his supermodel girlfriend with two different women, both of them being his bosss girlfriends. The problem is that when this is discovered, the characters in question can lose their status, like Victor who loses everything once his affair with his bosss mistress is discovered. As we have said earlier, in order to be accepted, they have to conform, even if they are not aware of this. These characters just invent a new self, and they just become the way the society wants them. Thus, we can never know who and what
Elliss characters really are, we only get the vision they have of themselves and what other
people say about them, and most of the time this just reflects their psychological vacuity
In the same way, feelings are also only on the surface. Love is hardly present, and couples are only together to keep an appearance of normality (for example, in American Psycho, Luis hides his homosexuality) and to keep a certain social status. Families are not very successful either: some of the characters resent their parents or their kin (in Less than Zero, Clay hates his sisters; Patrick Bateman and his brother Sean (one of the main characters of The Rules of Attraction) hate each other). Some families appear divided and estranged ("Where are your parents?" I ask [ ] "In Japan, I think" "What are they doing there?" "Shopping." (Less than Zero)). Friendships are very superficial (especially in American Psycho), and, in general, every attempt to express positive feelings is artificial and often fails.
Sadly, the fact that, in Elliss novels, the society as a whole is superficial is more concerning. In appearance, everything is fine, but when you scratch the surface, you can see that things are not going as well as it seems. For example, in Less than Zero, the world appears as a vast playground for the rich and spoilt youth described in the novel. They find various places to celebrate and to hang out (in spite of this, they are bored), and they seem to have everything they need to be happy. But when you look closer, you notice that there is hardly any "ordinary" people there, just these upper class people and their friends, families and circles. One of the only "common" people we meet is the maid, who, according to Clay, is "stoned all day". Apart from her, we only encounter an army of rich, young, blond and tanned teenagers. We remark the same phenomenon in Glamorama, where the only "ordinary" people we meet are the victims of the terrorist groups bomb attempts. In these two novels, we face no misery, as if it was hidden or as if the characters were not aware it existed. This is one of the characteristics of the American society, to pretend that there is no drug issue, and that poverty is losing ground (judging by the numbers of homeless people tormented by the characters in American Psycho, it is not exactly true ). Then, we have the feeling that it is a perfect society that is described here, but it is just a façade. When not sticking to a superficial view, problems appear very obvious: all the characters are bored, cynical drug addicts, and they do not show any sign of a positive attitude. In Less than Zero, the names of the places they go to seem to highlight these negative feelings: "The Nowhere Club" (page 89), "The Edge" (page 97), "After Hours" (page 108), "Lands End" (page 95), "The Wire" (page 95). "The Wire" is reminiscent of a prison, while the names "Nowhere" and "Lands End" connote a feeling of desperation, but also a certain uncertainty, or even a fatal doom. They go to such places to see concerts by "Vice Squad" (page 110), "Western Survival" (page 110) or "The Grimsoles" (page 115). If granted that some rock bands choose stupid names, in this case, the connotations are not innocent, as "vice" and "survival" seem to be two of the main subjects in Elliss novels, and "grim" can describe some of the characters. Finally, that society that gave them everything they need transforms into a golden cage, which ends up to bother them, and this pushes them towards more "extreme" leisure, and that is one of the reasons why they begin to act violently. Thus, we can also add that places are artificial too. As we never get any description, they are nothing more to the reader than a film set. For example, in the chapters where Glamorama is set in Paris, we only hear about stereotyped places like the Café Flore, or the Ritz, or the steps in front of the Louvre ("Tammy and I sit on a bench outside the Louvre next to the glass pyramid at the main entrance where right now a line of Japanese students files by."), and we know more about the people inside than about the place itself. In Glamorama, places are just a pretext. This lack of descriptions seems more logical when you consider that the characters are filmed in this part of the novel. Here, the places are not particularly looked for, they are just stereotyped, or even cliched, places. The Louvre, for example, represents Paris in the whole world.
What is truly surprising is that most of the characters tend to like to stick to appearances, for the others as for themselves. The reason for this is that their relationships are so superficial that they do not manage to know the others well enough to know who they really are, and it is more convenient to build your judgement on what others show. For instance, in American Psycho, when Evelyn talks about Pat Bateman, she says:
"Hes the boy next door. Thats Patrick" (p11)
By this, she means "hes nice, but hes a bit clumsy and stupid", although she knows very well how cruel and cold-hearted he can be. But she wants to keep the illusion that everything is all right, and ends up by persuading herself of it, as she wants to marry him, just to keep a certain status, although she cheats on him (and that he cheats on her) and there is no genuine feeling between the two. Apparently, this does not seem to bother Evelyn that much. The second reason to prefer to stick to appearances is that, sometimes some characters have nothing to show apart from their looks, as they really are empty characters. For example, in Less than Zero, Clay is so negative a character that if he did not look "cool", nobody would like him, as his girlfriend Blair puts it at the end of the novel:
"Other people made an effort, and you just It was beyond you. [ ] You were never there. I felt sorry for you for a little while, but then I found it hard to. Youre a beautiful boy, Clay, but thats about it." (P192)
And he even says so himself:
"I dont want to care. If I care about things, itll just be worse, itll just be another thing to worry about. Its less painful if I dont care." (P192)
Apart from his apparently "cool" and detached attitude and the fact that he is good-looking, Clay has just nothing worth in him (nor anything evil, in a way) in him, he appears like a huge void, and he is more dependent on image than any of Elliss characters. Clay is nothing but a puppet, manipulated by other characters (he does not want to go to such or such place, but finally he does, and cannot refuse). Clay seems unable to choose what he wants once for all. The only real decision he takes is to go back to New Hampshire, and to turn his back on his Californian life. In the same way, in the first two thirds of Glamorama, Victor also appears as psychologically vapid, and witless. He is nothing more than a semi-famous male model, known because of the several commercials he did and thanks to his supermodel girlfriends fame. When it comes to his personality, we face a totally empty person, given his stupidity and vanity. He can only drivel stupidities like "the whole point of [classic video game] Super Mario Bros. is that it mirrors life." (Page 22), or ""Nobody knows but Moi." "Whos Moi?"" Victor is only liked and has reached the popularity he has because he is handsome, and never misses an occasion to put himself under the spotlights (sometimes, he only manages to appear ridiculous. For example, in the hilarious MTV interview, on pages 140 to 142, where he defines himself as "Im a bad boy. Im a legend. But, in reality, everythings a big world party and there are no VIP rooms" (page 140), he just aligns stupid and irrelevant statements, which does not make any sense at all. This love of appearances has become for them a question of survival. The trouble is that, once people try to look for more than just this, they face a huge void. Characters like Clay and Victor just made up these appearances, they created what they reflect to other people, and they believe so strongly that they are what they seem that they managed to persuade themselves (and other people) that it is their real self. Both of these characters seem dependent on others and this is why they chose to hide what they are, to keep a good image for the others. As Bateman states on page 106 of American Psycho "I feel like shit but look great".
Even attitudes cannot be natural (in the "not artificial" meaning of the word). As the characters have to keep this "cool" attitude, they cannot act naturally and have to conform to the norm. This is especially striking in Glamorama. The fact that, in the second part of the novel, the characters are filmed by a television crew, and that they have to follow a certain script, and that their life and actions seem written in advance kills every attempt of "naturalness", since they have to repeat certain sequences several times:
A camera starts panning around us, and were asked to "do that" once more. [ ] I stop crying and we do it again. (Page 408)
Worse, the "script" forces some characters in a way they would not have acted normally. For example, Victor and Tammy, one of the terrorists, are supposed to have an affair:
She keeps muttering her lines, trying to remember hollow dialogue about our "relationship". [ ] "You both like Bruce. You dont want to hurt his feelings. Bruce is your fiancé, Tammy. Bruce is your best friend, Victor. [ ] Yet, your love, that overwhelming passion for each other, is just too strong. (Pages 325-326)
In the same way, in his interview to MTV (on pages 138 to 142), Victor feels he has to act like an arrogant and hateful character:
I represent a big pie wedge of the new generation. I may be a symbol. Pause. An icon? No. Longer pause. Not yet. (Page 140)
Still, Victors arrogance reveals nothing. He only manages to show how empty and vapid he is. In his discourse, Victor accumulates clichés, as if the addition of them was to make sense. He tries to appear like a hero, or like a big star, at least, but the contrast between his status as a very minor celebrity and his speech makes him ridiculous. This can be seen as a criticism of fame. Ellis may imply here that famous people cannot act naturally, and they are forced to conform to the image they want to give.
In the same way, in general, the characters tend to think that everything is going right, even though they know that nothing is that fine. For example, although they know that their life is completely artificial and that it does not have any sense, all of the characters of American Psycho are pleased with it:
On the TV screen at Harrys is The Patty Winters Show. [ ] Todays topic is Does Economic Success Equal Happiness? The answer, in Harrys this afternoon, is a roar of resounding "Definitely", followed by much hooting, the guys cheering together in a friendly way. (Page 396)
This is rather hypocritical, as self-pride cannot replace happiness, and they know it only too well, as they are not happy themselves. All of the characters in American Psycho, and in Elliss novels in general, are never satisfied. Still, they think they can find satisfaction in buying things, but it only brings material satisfaction that does not last long in general, as their needs and desires constantly evolve. Then, one can never be completely happy, however rich they may be. These characters (the ones in American Psycho, in particular, are so narcissic that they manage to persuade themselves that everything in the world is fine, and that people who did not succeed because they wanted to. As Patrick Bateman tells Al, a homeless man who will be one of his victims:
"Get a goddamn job, Al. Youve got a negative attitude. Thats what stopping you. Youve got to get your act together." (Page 130)
He does not even understand (or he is too cynical for this) that homeless people do not lose everything because they want to. Still, as he was brought up without realizing that all the people were not born rich or lucky, he just keeps a contemptuous attitude towards less fortunate people. For him (and all of his friends and colleagues, probably), this society offers everything to whoever wants to take it. Of course, thats not the way life is, and this is brought to the fore in the narrative (although Ellis interventions are rather discreet), for example, when Ellis ridicules Bateman, or, on the contrary, when he uses his characters to affirm revolting statements:
"You reach that point where it all makes sense, when it clicks, we get some crazy fucking homeless nigger who actually wants listen to me, Bateman wants to be out in the streets." (American Psycho, page 6)
The same phenomenon happens in Less than Zero, where the vision of Los Angeles that is given by Ellis is rather sanitized (the way it is shown in soap operas). As we evolve in a world of rich people, we are not made aware at all that poverty exists or that there is life outside the walls of the characters houses. Because of the environment they live in, Elliss characters have an image of the world that is less than accurate. They remain hermetic to what is happening around them. Still, the vision of "their" world has replaced the actual one, and that is how they manage to feel secure. Whenever they have to face what is really happening, they show a great lack of understanding and anger. They have managed to love so much the image they have of the world that they end up to live in an empty, artificial world.
Sometimes, if appearances do not hide anything, most of the time appearances are deceptive in Elliss novels. The characters that appear the most trustworthy are the most cruel and the most dangerous ones. The first example for this is to be found in American Psycho, with the character of Patrick Bateman. He is not at all who and what he claims to be. A respectable and vain stockbroker during the day, he becomes a cruel and cold-blooded murderer at night (this is a rather approximate statement, as Bateman also kills during the day). He is a handsome man, and other characters remind him of this:
Are you a model? [ ] I could swear Ive seen you in a magazine or somewhere
No, Im not, deciding to lie, but Im flattered
Well, you look just like a movie star. (Page 165)
You have a tender quality about you. (Page 212)
I have noticed your hot body. (Page 159)
Unfortunately for him (ironically), it is mostly men who compliment him (especially his gay colleague Luis, and this disgusts Bateman), while women tend to ridicule him (apart from his secretary Jean, who is genuinely in love with him), or, at least, to show him how devoid of culture and vapid he is:
"Who hung the [painting by] Onica? [ ] Youve hung the Onica upside down." (Page 245)
Patrick also appears very submissive and very dependent on the others, and especially on his domineering girlfriend. For example, he has to ask her permission to smoke a cigar. Still, Bateman counts very much on this appearance of "softness" (on a behavioral as on a physical point of view), and constantly tries to improve his looks, something we are made aware of in the second chapter, which entirely deals with his daily routine, and the beauty products he uses:
Then I inspect my hands and use a nailbrush. I take the ice-pack mask off and use a deep-pore cleanser lotion, then a herb-mint facial masque which I leave on for ten minutes while I check my toenails. (Page 26)
This appearance of beauty and of "normality" is used by Bateman to beguile the suspicions his victims-to-be could have. And it seems to work, as his victims initial reaction is to trust him:
Youre so kind, Mister. Youre a kind man. I can tell. (Page 130)
You live in a palace, Mister. Its a real palace. (Page 301)
Still, it is only a façade, and once he has gained the confidence of his future victims, he kills them savagely, he rapes them, mutilates them, plays with their limbs and blood after their death, and sometimes eats parts of their bodies. However, he gives clues about his being a serial killer. He speaks out loud sentences such as:
Im a fucking evil psychopath. (Page 20)
You are a fucking ugly bitch I want to stab to death and play around with your blood. (Page 59)
Or I like to dissect girls. (Page 216)
Still, the other characters are so blinded by what he looks like, and by their own conversation, that, most of the time, they do not react to what he says, and just carry on with their conversation. This may make us think that Bateman only imagined all of the murders he pretends to have committed. After all, Paul Owens death is demented at the end of the novel:
I-killed-Paul-Owen-and-I-liked-it. I cant make myself any clearer. [ ]
But thats simply not possible. [ ]
Why not? I shout again over the music. [ ]
He stares at me as if we were both underwater and shouts back, very clearly over the din of the club, Because I had dinner with Paul Owen twice in London just ten days ago. (Page 388)
While Bateman is supposed to have killed Owen, and to have invented the fact that he has moved to London, he suddenly discovers that it has become the truth. We can find two reasons for this: either the person hes talking to does not know Owen and has mistaken the latter for somebody else, or Bateman did not actually kill Paul Owen (and he did not commit the other murders either, as the bodies he was supposed to have stored in Owens apartment have also disappeared), and then what he reports in the book is just his imagination. This second hypothesis was put to the fore in the 1999 movie adaptation, directed by Mary Harron.
This impression of treachery does not only appear in Batemans "double nature", but also in the discrepancy between what he wants to do and his actions. For example, although he seems to hate his girlfriend Evelyn, he stays with her, but only for one motive: sex (which he does not get most of the time), and he shows this hatred any time he can. Still, he does not have to be tampered in his words, as he knows that she does not listen anyway:
Shes still talking; she doesnt hear a word; nothing registers. She does not fully grasp a word Im saying. (Page 124)
Bateman uses the fact that she does not pay attention to what he says to voice everything he thinks, even the most eccentric ideas:
Id want to bring a Harrison AK-47 assault rifle to the ceremony with a thirty-round magazine so after thoroughly blowing your fat mothers head off with it I could use it on this fag brother of yours (Page 124)
Finally, he shows real cruelty when he offers her a urinal cake, dipped into chocolate and presented in an expensive wrapping. Not only, she tastes it, but also she is so snub that she pretends to like it! Batemans reaction to this shows his real feelings about her:
To me she looks like a big black ant. [ ] eating an urinal cake [ ] and suddenly Im reminded that no matter how satisfying it was to see Evelyn eating something I, and countless others, had pissed on, it also makes me sad. (Page 337)
While Bateman pretends to be a devoted and loving boyfriend, he only takes pleasure in seeing Evelyn suffer, and, as soon as he loses any interest in staying with her, he just lets her down. Still, Bateman does not only act this way with Evelyn, but with every other character. In the beginning of his relationship with Jean, he states:
It strikes me how useless, boring, physically beautiful she really is. (Page 379).
This statement, once more, highlights the fact that he is only interested in appearances. His relationship with Jean already appears to him as unsatisfying as his relationship with Evelyn, as for one quality ("beautiful"), he considers her boring and useless, which shows his contempt and his lack of interest in his partner, and this shows that he is and will remain a misanthrope.
But Bateman is not the only one to hide his real self behind a screen of respectability. In Glamorama, the terrorist group is beyond suspicion, because of the identities of its members. They are all models or ex-models, or actors, all well-known in the fashion industry and in the world of entertainment in general, and this allows them to infiltrate luxurious places, and to easily find alibis, as, after planting a bomb, they go to a party. Indeed, a party scene follows a disturbingly violent scene (describing the victims of the terrorists bomb attempts), as if it was to show the hypocrisy of a society that continues to party when other people suffer. They hide their cruelty behind a cloud of glitter, and the pseudo-respectability that is given by their fame prevents them from being accused of anything. Jamie, one of the terrorists and Victors ex-girlfriend, explains this:
"How did he recruit people? It was only models and famous models. He wasnt interested in anyone else. He would use the fact that as a model all you do all day is stand around and do what other people tell you to do. [ ] And in the end, basically, everyone was a sociopath. [ ] He told me "Baby, George Washington was a terrorist" [ ] and things would just start unravelling and I became educated." (Pages 309-310)
Their goal is to use their fame to make themselves untouchable. Of course, this tendency to terrorism and to sociopathy among top models is exaggerated, and Ellis has used this possibility as part of his satire. Still, it is amusing, but also frightening to imagine that some celebrities could use their fame to escape justice. As Ellis puts it:
"What I did in Glamorama or what I propose is that [the tyranny of beauty imposed by the media and the tyranny of terror imposed by terrorists group] can be linked; there is a connection. But do I think that [model] Christy Turlington is actually planting bombs at the Ritz in Paris? No."
Once again, Ellis shows no animosity towards celebrities themselves, but he criticizes vehemently the system that makes demi gods of them, sometimes without any reason, as some celebrities fame is not deserved. In Glamorama, the complete discrepancy between Bobbys public image (a handsome, wise male model) and its real nature (a cold blooded, inhuman murderer) is particularly gruesome.
What is also disturbing is the contrast between the narrators thoughts and their actions. First of all, this is true with Patrick Bateman. His actions seem completely disconnected from his thoughts. If he constantly bothers his colleagues with what should be worn or not, and monologues rather lengthily about the beauty products he uses every day, his suits are always stained with dried blood, and, in his apartment, parts of dead bodies are scattered everywhere. In the same way, he states that the government should "strengthen laws to crack down on crime and illegal drugs" (page 15), but he himself is a serial killer, and is constantly under the influence or cocaine, alcohol, and/or pills. In the same way, whenever Bateman seems to show any sign of sympathy and/or compassion, the reader is told that most of the time he thinks exactly the opposite of what he says:
"You think Im dumb", she says. " You think all models are dumb.
"No", I say, trying to contain my laughter. [ ] I think you are totally brilliant and incredibly brilliant." (Page 212)
Bateman lies to get what he wants from other characters (most of the time sex), and, again, to keep his image of a nice, decent person, in order to keep the status he needs. Still, his thoughts reveal his cynicism. For example, when he nicknames one of his dates "Restaurant Whore" (page 74), because she seems to be ready to anything for a dinner at the Dorsia, an ultra select restaurant. Bateman is a hypocrite, living in a hypocritical society, and it is the only way for him not to lose face. This discrepancy between his words and his actions has a comic effect on the reader. It also has a tragic effect, in the sense of tragic irony, because the reader is turned into a powerless spectator, forced to attend to Batemans crimes, although the reader knows what is going to happen, unlike Batemans victims. On the other hand, the reader can also be seen as one of Batemans accomplices.
But Bateman is not the only character in Elliss novels to hide his real nature, as other characters have to hide their real self to obey certain codes, while the reader knows about this duplicity. In American Psycho, Luis marries Courtney at the end of the novel, although he is gay, once again not to be considered as an outcast (knowing his colleagues homophobia). In Less than Zero, Clay always seems to act against his will. He talks to other characters, but both his questions and answers show that he does not really have any interest in the conversation, and the characters he talks to do not have a great interest in it either, and this leads to some ironic and even surrealistic pieces of dialogue:
Blair mentions that Invasion of the Body Snatchers is on cable this week
The original? I ask, wondering why shes talking about that movie. I start making paranoid connections.
The remake? I ask cautiously.
Oh. I look back at my ice cream, which Im not eating much of. (Page 130)
Clay, as a very negative character, does not try to make the conversation any deeper. He just talks as if he had to fill in the silence, or to still behaves as if Blair and him were still friends. As Less than Zero, like the other novels by Ellis, is composed mainly of direct speech sequences like this one, the reader can feel that what is important is not explicitly said, but is more to be found in the characters various attitudes, when they are decided to do something. If Bateman says exactly the contrary of what he thinks, Clay does not appear that complicated. He cannot make any definite decision, and this is how the difference between his thoughts and his actions can be explained. His thoughts reveal that he does not really want to act at all, but the circumstances he faces force him to act against his will:
I dont want to get out of the car, but Blairs crying hysterically, her head in her lap, and I get out of the car and walk slowly to the coyote. (Page 131)
Clay appears to lack willpower and personality and he does not act on purpose because of this. Most of the time, other characters, or their attitude, force him to act. Still, when he appears to be a bad person, when he makes his friends suffer, when he shows no feeling when he should or when he does not act on purpose, it is because he does not feel the need to do what the others expect from him. We can differentiate two distinct attitudes on Clays part. When he is with "weak" characters, such as Muriel, Daniel or Blair, for example, his thoughts mostly reveal a lack of envy to talk or to act, but also boredom:
[About Muriel] I look at her and dont feel anything and walk out with my vest. (Page 138)
On the other hand, when he is with "stronger" characters, such as Trent, Rip or Julian, his thoughts mostly reveal disgust, although he never confesses his internal revolt:
Whats wrong, Clay? Trent asks me, this edge in his voice.
Nothing, I manage to say. (Page 187)
He chooses to hush up his disgust for the behavior of his friends, in order not to lose them, although he does not seem to like his friends anymore. He shows this at the end of the novel, where he does whatever he can to avoid them, and does not enjoy being with them anymore. Clay cannot voice his thoughts, first of all to keep his friends, and not or be alone. Worse, if the reader can note a difference between Clays thoughts and deeds it is because, most of the time, Clay has no real opinion or any feeling about other people. As he cannot just answer "I dont know" or "Im not sure" to any question without appearing as a simpleton, he has to follow his friends opinions, rather than going against them, and to cause some kind of clash. Unlike Bateman, Clay is not a treacherous character. He represents the stereotype of the bored teenager: he does not really have any opinion, and when he has one, he cannot be bothered with expressing it. Thus, nobody can judge him in a fair manner, as he does not show any element of his "real self". Only Blair manages to pierce this appearance of bored "coolness", and to show him how empty he is inside.
In Elliss novels, appearances often hide a personality completely opposed to what is shown by the character in question, although they do not always hide an evil personality. Still, even characters that seem harmless, or beyond suspicion, can use their appearance to conceal an unbearable reality. Still, they seem to be more stupid and vapid than absolutely evil. Moreover, such descriptions tell the reader many things about the characters, as they are actually nothing more than what they look like
3) How can we say that Ellis characters are empty?
We have just dealt with the question of identity and of appearances in Ellis novels. Ellis characters can only be identified by the way they look like, so that they are nothing more than a silhouette, a figure. Ellis designed some characters that are shallow, that show no interiority and that are not literary characters in the traditional sense of the word, as no literary illusion is possible. Finally, Ellis created a large number of characters, which appear and disappear, but which do not play a preponderant role in his novels. We will try to say why Ellis chose to do so, and also what makes his narrators different from the rest of his characters.
Paradoxically, although appearances rule the societies created by Ellis, characters are barely described. They are only characterized by the way they dress, and more rarely by the color of their hair or of their eyes. We do not find "classical" descriptions, although Elliss novels are in many ways hyper realistic. Moreover, what is striking here is the dryness of the descriptions. The narrator just sticks to what is essential to him, which means the way they dress, and sometimes a vague account of their physical features. We can start by considering a "typical" description that can be found in Elliss novels. For example, in Less than Zero, Clay introduces his university friend Daniel, who is one of the main characters of the novel.
I bring Daniel to Blairs party that night and Daniel is wearing sunglasses and a black wool jacket and black jeans. Hes also wearing black suede gloves because he cut himself badly on a piece of glass a week earlier in New Hampshire. I had gone with him to the emergency room at the hospital and had watched as they cleaned the wound and washed the blood off and started to sew in the wire until I started feeling sick and then I went and sat in the waiting room at five oclock in the morning and heard the Eagles sing "New Kid in Town" and I wanted to come back. (Page 4)
We learn slightly more about the characters looks thanks to some of the dialogues. For example, still about Daniel, one of the characters says:
"You look just like David Bowie." Alana, who is obviously coked up out of her mind, tells Daniel. "Are you left-handed?" (Page 8)
What we can say about this characters description is that it is rather unconventional. While the reader would expect a depiction of the characters looks, he is only told about the way he is dressed ("sunglasses and a black wool jacket and black jeans" "suede gloves"). Then, we are informed about a sordid anecdote, explaining why Daniel is wearing gloves, where what is underlined are mostly Clays disgust and the music that was played in the waiting room. With the second quote, we know slightly more about Daniels looks, thanks to his resemblance with the pop star David Bowie. We can guess that Daniel is blond and thin, but funnily enough, we cannot tell about the color of his eyes, since Bowies eyes are different colors. Still, this reference has a rather limited extent: first of all because, even if Bowie is famous, we cannot say that all of Elliss potential readers know what the singer looks like. In the same way, we can wonder if this cultural reference can pass the test of time. Thus, such descriptions are less than informative. In a way, we can say that Ellis meant this as if he wanted to show that what is essential does not reside in the looks, although looks are what we first see when we meet somebody for the first time. When we place it in the perspective of the narrative, we can think the characters are not fully described if we consider that the novels are diaries or internal monologues, and that the narrators does not address a potential reader. We can imagine that, as the narrator knows his friends, he does not feel the need to describe them entirely, he just tells what makes them different every time he meets them, i.e. their clothes. This kind of descriptions always stay very neutral, and we are not told what makes the characters described special, or at least, different from the others. We are not told anything about their personality either.
This logic of neutrality is kept and developed in a more extreme way in American Psycho. As we said earlier, the characters are defined by the brands of the clothes they wear. We know nothing about the characters looks or about their personality. In the following passage, Bateman describes his mistress, Courtney:
Courtney opens the door and shes wearing a Krizia cream silk blouse, a Krizia rust tweed skirt and silk satin dOrsay pumps from Manolo Blahnik. (Page 8)
What is underlined in this description appears trivial. In American Psycho, descriptions are focused on the characters clothes rather than on their general appearance, but here the narrator is obsessed with the brands of the clothes his peers wear. For Bateman, clothes brands worn by the characters tell a lot about them. In American Psycho, the trademarks in question are designer labels, not affordable by ordinary people. They can connote elegance and also are a sign of wealth. Still, as all of the protagonists of the novel wear the same kind of clothes, and when we consider their hard-hearted way to act, such connotations tend to disappear, as their vanity and their lack of consideration of others goes against the image of respectability they want to show to the others. Moreover, even if their style would tell about their personality, since many characters wear the same clothes, they are not original or singular in any way. For example, a few lines after Bateman described Courtney, he describes his girlfriend Evelyn, and the reader is made aware that both women are dressed in the same way.
Evelyn stands by a blond wood counter wearing a Krizia cream silk blouse, a Krizia rust tweed skirt and the same pair of silk satin dOrsay pumps Courtney has on. (Page 9)
If the descriptions done by Bateman aimed at defining an individual character, in order to make her recognizable among others, the fact that he focuses on clothes only does not lead to an effective result. Moreover, this description presents Courtney and Evelyn as doubles, which they are, in some way: they both have an "official" boyfriend, but they cheat on him with somebody else, both of them date Bateman (with the only difference that Evelyn only dates him, and Courtney only has sex with him), both of them want to marry to assert their social position, and both of them are addicted to tranquilizers. This likeness may also reflect Batemans misogyny (to him, all the women are the same). Once again, the motif of uniformity is exposed, through a motif of likeness and thanks to the voluntarily incomplete descriptions.
Finally, when it comes to the narrators descriptions, it is almost impossible to figure out what they look like, in order to try and differentiate them from the mass of the other protagonists of the novel. In spite of their judgements on other characters looks, and in spite of the fact that the world they live in is ruled by appearances, main characters are never precisely described. The reader has to gather the information scattered throughout the novel to know what the main characters are like. For example, the beginning of Less than Zero does not teach us a lot about Clay:
Nothing else seems to matter. Not the fact that Im eighteen. [ ] Not the mud that had splattered the legs of my jeans, which felt kind of cold and loose, earlier that day at an airport in New Hampshire. Not the stain on the arm of the wrinkled, damp shirt I wear, a shirt which had looked fresh and clean this morning. Not the tear on my grey argyle vest, which seems vaguely more eastern than before, especially next to Blairs clean tight jeans and her pale blue T-shirt. (Page 1)
In this description, we are only told about the narrators age (we do not know his name yet), about the clothes he wears, and about the feeling that he has to be dirty and ill at ease. The narrator seems to be out of a completely different world. This description is rather unconventional for the hero of a novel (although we cannot really say he is a hero). If the narrators clothes are described, it is only to underline the fact that they are unclean. The reader is thrown in medias res in the narrative. We are not given a lot of information about the narrator, about his past, about his relationship with the other character, Blair, neither in the first chapter of the novel, nor in the two next chapters. It is a common point to all of the novels written by Ellis: the narrators are not introduced "properly", or at least in a conventional manner (for example, what they look like, who they are, what they are like, and so on ). The opening scenes of the novels written by Ellis do not reveal anything about the narrators, and the reader is left in a blur (we do not know who is talking, who these characters are, and what they are doing), and it takes a few chapters to the reader to really become acquainted with the places described and with the characters taking part in the action. This effect is rather unusual and destabilizing for the reader, as the narrator is not identified straight away and is mixed up right from the beginning of each novel with an important number of secondary characters.
In Elliss novels, descriptions are incomplete, and do not help to isolate and to identify precisely the characters. The reason for this is Elliss will not too give too much personality and too much originality to his characters. This adds to the impression of uniformity, we get the feeling that all of the characters were created upon the same model, and this is achieved thanks to various means by the author. We are going to deal with these techniques in the next chapter.
In Elliss novels, the characters that are not the narrators are not given much importance. If some characters are necessary to the action, and can be considered as "supporting" cast, they are not given a better treatment by the author. As the narrator is not omniscient, we do not have a lot of indications about the characters in question: we do not know much about their looks, and more importantly, these characters barely act, as if they were part of the scenery. We can also notice this from the way the plot is developed, since what actually happens is very limited. For instance, in Less than Zero, the plot can be summed up in one sentence: Clay goes home for his Christmas holidays, meets a lot of people, and decides to go back to where he came from. In the same way, dialogues occupy three quarters of the novels in question. Finally, these characters seem to have no psychological features.
First of all, we can say that they are empty because their "part" in the novel is rather short, and the reader does not have time to become acquainted with them, and only one or two main features from their personality can be brought out. For example, in American Psycho, we learn about Evelyn, Batemans girlfriend, that she is vain, talkative and very ambitious. Still, we discover these traits because of what Bateman says from her (since we have to trust his own biased vision of the world, the opinion we have about her is influenced by the narrators judgement on his girlfriend), but also because of what she says in the passages in direct speech.
"Id want [for my wedding] a zydeco band, Patrick. Thats what Id want. A zydeco band." She gushes breathlessly. "Or mariachi. Or reggae. Something ethnic to shock Daddy. Oh I cant decide. [ ] Oh, and lots of choclate truffles. Godiva. And oysters. Oysters on the half shell. Marzipan. Pink tents. Hundreds, thousands of roses. Photographers. Annie Leibovitz. Well get Annie Leibovitz." She says excitedly. "And well hire someone to videotape it!" (Page 124)
Here, Evelyn appears to be representative of the stereotype of the rich girl, always excited about futile things, vain and slow-witted, and willing to shock her parents. Still, we can say that such passages do not display much of their wit, when we see the stupidities they say when they are given the occasion by the author and by the narrator to express themselves. In Elliss novels, we do not find "explicative" passages, telling about the characters we are presented in the passage, giving some hints about their personality, about their tastes, etc. For example, Bateman barely tells about his fiancée. He contents himself with describing her clothes, or indicates for example, that "Evelyns addicted to Parnate, an antidepressant" (on page 24). This is why Elliss "secondary" characters are only sketches, rough drafts. Ellis created a multitude of characters only as foils for his narrators. They are used by the author to surround his narrators, to exchange a few sentences with them, but they are only tools for Ellis, as if they were extras in a film, or as if they were part of the landscape. Moreover, in the perspective of the narrative, it seems logical that the narrators do not give them a lot of importance, since they do not care at all about their companions, their colleagues or their so-called friends. If the narrators personalities are already limited (we will tell more on this point later on), the other characters do not have any psychology, or it is composed only of a few roughly sketched outlines, which explains that we have the feeling that they are not human, because they are nothing but stuffed dummies, used by Ellis as counterparts for his narrators. They are counterparts, but they also are reflections in some way, as uniformity is present. Secondary characters are copies, more or less identical, of the narrators. In some way, McDermott, Price or Van Patten are very similar to Bateman: they have the same jobs, they dress in an almost identical way, they share the same ideas, and roughly the same hobbies. More than just being doubles of the narrators, secondary characters are very much like one another. They are so similar to each other that the reader has some real trouble to know who is who. For example, Batemans colleagues can hardly be differentiated, because they all work for the same company and do not show enough individuality to exist as self-sufficient characters. Only their names can isolate them. Another instance for this is to be found in Less than Zero: the characters Clay meets all look similar (they are all young, blond and tan) and they are only denominated by their first name, or by nicknames: "Trent", "Daniel", "Rip", "Spin", "Dead", "Derf", "Julian" and so on As the description of their looks is rather succinct, and as we do not know what makes them unique, we have the feeling to face an army of depersonalized zombies, which are devoid of any personality. We can think that this was wanted by Ellis, in order to show that surface, appearances and artificiality are taking more and more importance at the expense of moral values in todays America, as it is pictured by Ellis in his novels.
The second feature that makes secondary characters unimportant is the fact that, unlike the narrators, secondary characters barely act, if they act at all. Their parts are most of the time limited to a few sentences. What they do has most of the time no influence on the course of the narrative. Their actions have no influence on the thread of the novel. For example, in the very beginning of American Psycho, we find a long monologue delivered by Tim Price, where he denounces what are, according to him, the evils threatening America:
"In one issue in one issue lets see here strangled models, babies thrown from tenements rooftops, kids killed in the subway, a Communist rally, Mafia boss wiped out, Nazis-..." He flips through the pages excitedly. "- Baseball players with AIDS, more Mafia shit, gridlock, the homeless, various maniacs, faggots dropping like flies in the streets, surrogate mothers, the cancellation of a soap opera, kids who broke in a zoo and tortured and burned various animals, more Nazis and the joke is, the punch line is, its all in this city, nowhere else." (Page 4)
His rant will have no effect on the rest of the novel, as Price himself would not do anything to change the situation, because he is too selfish, and of a lesser importance than he thinks he is. The same Price will disappear from the narrative, without any explanation, only to reappear towards the end of the novel, without any additional justification. Tim Price is not the only character appearing and disappearing without any reason: after her break-up with Bateman, Evelyn never appears "physically" in the narrative again. In Less than Zero, Julian disappears during the first two thirds of the novel, and Clay is looking for him, finally he disappears again (and the narrator lets us think that he is dead). We do not hear either from Muriel from Less than Zero, after Clay sees her one last time at Kims house, in the middle of the novel. If their various fates could have led to the creation of "sub-plots", they completely disappear from the course of the narrative, as it focuses only on the narrators lives. The reader is left somehow unsatisfied, since many questions are left shelved in all of Elliss novels. This is especially striking in Less than Zero, as Clay chooses to leave (we could even say to flee), turning his back on his friends. Then, what other characters do barely have an importance if they do not have an effect on the narrators life. Moreover, like Clay in Less than Zero, some characters appear to be victim of forces stronger than they are. They do not really show any sense of determination, and we have the feeling that they are forced into making such or such choice. This can actually be the case, for example, for Julian, who is forced to become a prostitute and a drug dealer to soak up his debts.
"Leave me the fuck alone." Julian says. "Dont touch me."
Finn looks at me and then at Julian and sneers "Jesus, you are really pathetic, man. What are you gonna do? You dont have any choice. Do you understand that? You cant leave. You cant walk out now. [ ] You come to me a year ago with a huge debt and I give you a job and show you off and take you around and I give you all these clothes and all the fuckin coke you can snort, and what do you do in return? [ ] I didnt turn you into a whore. You did it yourself. (Less than Zero, page 170)
In some ways, we can even assimilate the characters created by Ellis to tragic characters. The reader is turned into an aware spectator of what is going to happen, in some kind of tragic irony. This is especially true in American Psycho, in which we can foresee the tragic fate of Batemans victims. This can also be remarked in Glamorama, especially in the last parts, in which the characters are filmed and have to stick to a script written in advance, and in which the characters themselves know what is going to happen, as they do read this script, but they cannot do anything to change their destiny (and do not really want to either ).
"Victor", the director says. "Ive debated showing you this."
He pauses briefly. He decides something and shuffles toward a large-screen TV thats ensconced in a white-oak armoire across from the bed Im shivering in.
"But in the light of whats about to happen, I think its probably imperative that you view this." (Page 393)
This lack of will to act is characteristic to most of Elliss characters. It is not a fear to act, it is just that some characters are anesthetized by the life they are living, and also by their drug consumption. For instance, in Less than Zero, we learn that Daniel has made a girl pregnant, but this does not seem to cause him a lot of torment, and he does not care at all about this girls destiny.
She might or might not be coming out to L.A.; that it might or might not be Daniels kid; that she might or might not get an abortion, get rid of it; that her parents have divorced and her mother moved back to Connecticut and that she might or might not go back there and stay with her for a month or so, and her father, some big shot at ABC, is worried about her. He says the letter wasnt too clear. (Less than Zero, page 55)
This passage is really symptomatic of the characters lack of power of decision and of the general indifference they feel towards everything concerning them, even towards some difficult subjects. The anaphoric repetition of "might or might not" does not make any sense. Here, the character in question has a lot of possibilities offered to her, but she cannot decide what to do, what to choose from, and she does not seem to care a lot either about her situation. Here, meaning is negated by all this indecision, and the character in question takes no decision, and Daniel does not seem to be keen on reacting either:
Daniel asks me if he should get in touch with Vanden and Im surprised at how much strength it takes to urge him to do so and he says that he doesnt see the point and says Merry Christmas dude and we hang up. (Page 56).
This lack of morality and of common sense, added to their cynicism, completes the process of dehumanization of Elliss characters. Their boredom and their lack of personality have turned them into empty shells, only able to talk, to gossip about their peers and to mock them, to take drugs and to look cool. This is highly caricatural, as Ellis uses these empty characters to convey his message. We do not think that Ellis is such a misanthrope to turn the human race in its whole into a bunch of zombies completely deprived of feelings. "Zombies" was chosen as the French title to The Informers, Elliss collection of short stories, and this is not without reasons, when we consider the characters Ellis created in his novels. The character the author creates are never meant to be considered as "human beings", and this may be why the author does not show any sympathy or any compassion for them, and why he chooses to inflict them the worst treatments, and to make them defenseless against their destiny.
In Elliss novels, it is clear that the author chose to create soulless characters. They are just puppets in the authors hands, they do not seem to have a past, or at least we do not know about it, their future is uncertain, and even their existence can be put in doubt, since they only exist for us readers through the narrators eyes. This can be an explanation to the secondary characters appearances and disappearances. They vanish from the readers "view" just because the narrator does not meet them anymore. For instance, in American Psycho, we might think that Bateman killed Evelyn, but it is more likely that Bateman and her do not meet each other anymore, since we can find this sentence after they break up:
To Evelyn, I successfully Federal Expressed, through the office, a small box of flies along with a note, typed by Jean, saying that I never, ever wanted to see her face again and, though she doesnt really need one, to go on a fucking diet. (Page 383)
This is also why some characters such as Tim Price in American Psycho, or Muriel and Daniel in Less than Zero completely vanish from the novel, just because the narrators do not meet them or ignore them, or just lose touch with them. The latter are all selfish and vain, and thus they do not care about their peers, which explains that they prefer to talk about themselves (and most preferably about futile subjects) than about other characters. Then, the lack of descriptions also results from a literary choice, because of the fact that the novel was written in the first person. As Ellis makes the choice not to have an external narrator (except for a very limited part in the end of Glamorama), the readers questions are left unanswered, and without the feeling to be really acquainted with the characters.
In some way, we can say that the author wanted the fact that it is impossible to really know the characters. It is not thinkable to identify with these characters, or even to like them, even the most "harmless" ones (for example, Blair in Less than Zero, or Jean in American Psycho), because the few personal features they show are more likely to be called flaws rather than qualities. The narrator and - by extension - the author, voluntarily puts aside the characters positive sides, in order to underline how morally bankrupt and vain they really are. In Elliss novels, secondary characters appear as nothing but evil, or at least flat. For example, Jean, Batemans secretary, appears as completely devoted to Bateman, her boss and later her lover, and she is portrayed as ultimately naïve, and also a bit stupid and vain:
"I said," and I repeat myself calmly, grinning. "Do not wear that outfit again. Wear a dress. A skirt or something."
She stands there only a little stunned and after she looks down at herself, she smiles like some kind of cretin.
"You dont like this, I take it." She says humbly.
"Come on," I say, sipping my Perrier. "Youre prettier than that."
"Thanks Patrick", she says sarcastically, though I bet tomorrow shell be wearing a dress. (Page 67)
In this passage, Jean, one of the most likeable and in some way the most human characters Ellis created (well come to the subject of humanity later on), appears completely devoid of personality, submitted to Bateman, and completely deprived of interiority (the only reaction she shows is to "smile like some kind of cretin"). We can feel compassionate for her, but we can never really appreciate her, since she is shown in a rather negative light, through Batemans opinion on his employee. In the passages she appears in, as selected by Bateman (and by Ellis), she is shown as a limited person, not dressing properly, being incredibly naïve, trying to do whatever she can to be remarked, and being considered as devoid of culture.
What kind of books does Jean read? Titles race through my mind: How to Make a Man Fall in Love with You Forever. How to Close a Deal: Get Married. How to be Married One Year from Today. Supplicant. (Page 265)
Knowing that no character is permanently present in Elliss novels, except the narrators, we can say that the passages where certain secondary characters appear are selected by the narrator and by extension by the author. Another element tends to affirm this possibility: secondary characters never show any sign of wit, of good will or of any positive feeling in general. In the same way, they are often ridiculed, and their conversation does not make any sense. It seems very unlikely to say that all of the characters evolving in Elliss novels are all fatally flawed or completely evil. Still, the passages where they are present show them in a rather unflattering light. We can say that Ellis chose to put his characters in some situations that tend to highlight their negative features, or at least to hide what could make them likeable or sympathetic. This seems to be wanted by Ellis, as if he wanted to draw an alarming portrait of the American society. This is done in order to create a climate of insecurity, which the reader can feel: there is no character that can be trusted or that we can identify with. At the same time, Ellis holds out a mirror to his reader, where the latter is supposed to recognize himself in the reflection painted by the author. Still, we can say that it is done in a superficial way, since the reader can only feel repulsion towards Elliss characters or to mock them rather than to admit that he shares some of their features. Because of this, we can say that there is a certain risk that the satire is not to be understood properly. Moreover, the cold and cynical tone used by the narrators can be mistaken for the authors voice, and can blur the comprehension of the novel. Still, thanks to humor, which is widely used in Elliss works, the impression we can have that Ellis is a misanthrope tends to disappear. Although his satire is very sharp, the reader is left uncertain about what the author wants to convey, since no actual conclusion is given to the novels. This is one of the weaknesses of Elliss style, because his narrative is too cold to actually find out on which ground he stands for.
In spite of this, we cannot help thinking that the society depicted by Ellis is in many ways a dystopia. What is frightening is that the world created by the author is very similar to our own world. Still, we have to remain very qualified about this statement: in some ways, nothing goes right in the society described in the novels in question, since all of the characters appear empty, vain, violent, are bent to self destruction and to madness, and they are led by desires they will never be able to fulfil. In the same way, while America in the late 80s was supposed to be a state of wealth, misery is overly present in American Psycho. Moral bankruptcy can be found everywhere. Finally, some characters need drugs to survive and/or to stand the awful life they are living. Still, they represent the higher layer of society, they have the money and the power, and they are supposed to be the more likely to be happy, but their despair comes in counterpoint to what we readers would expect, or contrary to what is shown on television, in "soap operas" for example. Once again, the protagonists are made to think that the world they live in is perfect, and that there is no reason to worry about anything. Still, in the course of the novel, the characters - and more generally their environment - slip deeper and deeper into madness. It is something we can tell thanks to the more and more erratic behavior of the characters and thanks to the surreal events reported happening outside the narrative. For example, in Less than Zero, Clay alludes to some violent murders, and the newspapers report the hallucinations some people had. The fact that the characters are completely devoid of personality and appear to be less and less human adds to the fact that nothing goes right. Secondary characters, since they show no positive feeling, and seem to have a repetitive life, can be compared to robots. For example, in Less than Zero, Clays friends share their time between going to the cinema, looking for drugs and going to parties and to clubs. In the same way, in American Psycho, the life of Batemans colleagues can be summed up to the titles of the first chapters: "Morning", during which they all watch a terribly trashy TV show, the Patty Winters Show; the "Restaurant" chapters (for example, "Harrys", "Pastels" or "Deck Chairs"), during which they all meet in a restaurant, try to impress each other, and gossip about their colleagues; the "Club" chapters (for example "Tunnel"), where the characters go to some club to meet girls and to try and buy some drugs; and finally the "Office" chapters, where, ironically, they do anything but working. The characters live a repetitive life and we can find this motif of repetition in all of Elliss novels. What the author wants to highlight is that their lives are hollow and unvaried, and it sometimes contaminates his own writing. Elliss characters appear to be models of what humanity should NOT become. In some way, they also are the products of the society they live in, in which they are more or less willingly trapped. Then, we can say that if Ellis created flat, empty characters, it is also and mostly to serve his satire. He uses his characters as guinea pigs that test the effects of society on human beings. This is why Ellis leaves them to the state of sketches and why he makes them suffer a terrible and inescapable fate. His characters are nothing to him but puppets, which is why he shows no sympathy for them, and creates, in some way, an "evil" race, not because they are fully negative, but mostly they are not able to do any good.
d) The status of the narrators in the groups they belong to
In all of his novels, Ellis chose to isolate one character belonging to the group dealt with in each novel, as if the character in question was the archetypal representation of the members of the group described. When we go through the text, this statement may appear limited, as the three narrators of the three novels all have characteristics that differentiate them from other members of the casts described. Still, if Bateman, Clay or Victor insist on underlining their uniqueness, they are also forced to admit that they are, in some ways, like their companions.
First of all, they cannot deny their physical and sartorial resemblance. For instance, in American Psycho, Bateman does not mind being mistaken for somebody else,
Owen has mistaken me for Marcus Halberstam. [ ] It doesnt really matter. [ ] It doesnt irk me. (Page 89)
Even though Im more handsome than Craig, we look pretty much the same. (Page 250)
If he is not disturbed by the fact not to be recognized, it is because he knows that they all wear the same kind of suits, and because he has his hair done in the same way as the others. His physical resemblance to other characters is known and assumed, and if we did not have access to his thoughts, nothing could distinguish him from his colleagues. He also has the same pleasures as his so-called friends: dining in chic and expensive restaurants, buying a lot of useless objects, going to night clubs, having a rather rich social life, and collecting sexual affairs. Bateman seems to be the more harmless, the more boringly normal character from the novel, and still his acts and his thoughts show that he is not who he seems to be.
Batemans such a bloody ass-kisser, such a brown-nosing goody-goody. (Page 367)
The same phenomenon happens with Clay, in Less than Zero, who is physically identical to most of the male characters from the novel.
There are mostly young boys in the house and they seem to be in every room and they all look the same [ ] I start to wonder if I look exactly like them (Page 140)
If Clay has lost his tan (something his friends do not seem to accept), and seems unable to become tanned again, he still represents the stereotype of the Californian teenager, young and blond (and a bit stupid, too). In the same way, if Clays main feature is to be negative and bored, it is an attitude apparently adopted by other characters. We can judge this through the conversation the characters are having, where questions never find an answer, and where silence is as present as words. The characters themselves do not seem to pay much attention to what they say. If the narrators moral and physical likeness cannot be denied, it has to be examined according to two aspects. The fact that these characters represent a group that they belong to is essential to the satire developed by Ellis. What is interesting in a satire is not to create one isolated character and to criticize him, but rather to condemn a category of people. If one character has to be the main one (and here, one of them has to be the narrator, it is only to find an example, in order to keep the form of the novel. Elliss works are not and shall not become pamphlets. The second interesting side to use a fictional character to criticize the group he belongs to from the inside. In one way or another, to underline his peers vanity and stupidity, the narrator has to be different from them, although he still has to be similar to his companions. We will try to see how.
The first main difference between Elliss narrators and their peers (their friends, colleagues, etc ) is that the narrators refuse for some reason their belonging to the group they are supposed to be part of. In Less than Zero, Clay does not like his friends anymore:
I see an old friend from high school sitting with some pretty blond girl near the front, on the aisle, but I dont say anything and Im kind of relieved when the lights go down that Trent hasnt recognised him. (Page 186)
For a reason that is not explained, Clay seems to reject his past (for example, in the end of the novel, he completely scraps his relationship with his girlfriend Blair with no obvious explanation). Apparently, it is his friends behavior, which is more and more destructive, that definitely disgusts him from them, but right from the start of the novel, we are made aware that Clay is not too impatient to meet them again, as hes been away for quite a long time:
Im a boy [ ] meeting someone [Blair] whom I havent seen for four months.
There are people at the party from high school, most of whom I havent seen since graduation and they all stand next to the two huge trees. (Page 5)
He does not seem particularly happy to meet them, and does not seem ready to enjoy his evening. In the same way, for some understandable reasons, Victor does not feel at ease at all with the terrorists, although they are roughly like him, handsome rich young models, and they ironically appear more respected than the narrator by the industry and by the other characters.
"These people are murderers, you asshole. Theyre fucking terrorists." (Glamorama, page 351)
Im promising myself that this will be the last time I see any of these people. (Page 396)
Victor cannot conceal his horror from the terrorists behavior and the disgust they make him feel. Finally, in American Psycho, if Bateman feels (and actually is) integrated in his group of "friends", he despises his colleagues and thinks that hes superior to them:
I imagine Luis at some horrible party, drinking a nice dry rosé, fags clustered around a baby grand, show tunes, now hes holding a flower, now he has a feather boa draped around his neck, now the pianist bangs out something from Les Miz, darling. (Page 292)
I hope Armstrong doesnt want to pay because I need to show to the dim-witted bastard that in fact I do own a platinum American Express card. (Page 139)
If the contempt emanating from Bateman is apparently not reserved to him (in American Psycho, all of the characters show condescension towards their peers), Batemans hate is expressed in a very harsh and violent way. He uses a very rude language, incompatible with the manners he is supposed to have. Even if Bateman is not different from his colleagues, and knows it, he treats them as "inferior" beings and considers them as less handsome, less elegant and less fashionable. These examples can lead us to this conclusion: if Elliss narrators are different from their peers, it is because we have a biased vision of their relationships with the other characters. This belongs to a logic of excess: Ellis exaggerates the words his characters use. As the novels written by Ellis are written in the first person, what we know about the characters comes from the narrator, and thus the narrators in question will never confess that they are not different from the other protagonists. The narrators are too infatuated with themselves, and they will always paint a favorable portrait of themselves.
Still, we cannot limit the difference between the narrators and the other characters to a difference of point of view. There are indeed some real disparities between the main characters and their peers, which reside in the narrators personalities. If their psychology, like the other protagonists, is rather limited, they have some main features that make them definitely different from the others: if Clay from Less than Zero can be criticized for his cold heartedness and for his negativity, he also shows some common sense, when he tries to oppose his friends madness, or when he appears less vain as them, since his friends only seem to care about their own pleasure. Ironically, Clay never seems to enjoy himself. This is what makes another difference with his ex-school friends. While the latter try to find some pleasure in any way, even through illegal and immoral means (drugs, violence, etc ), Clay never appears enthusiastic or excited about anything. In any way, this makes him different from the stereotype of the teenager, supposed to be excited about anything. In the same way, Clay never gossips about the other characters, although it is his friends hobby:
[Trent] tells me that Sylvan from France O.D.d on Friday. I tell him that I dont know who Sylvan was. (Page 144)
We can say that Clay is very different from his peers because he left for New Hampshire. Clay appears to be stateless (he is not that well in the east, and is not well at all in California)., while his friends (except maybe Muriel) appear to be completely at ease in their environment. It is the attitude of detachment that he adopts which allows Clay to throw a critical eye on the world he was living in, and which now disgusts him. In spite of this, he does not appear more likeable because he is not as stupid as his friends are. While his friends appear pleasant, charming and even full of humor, Clay seems boring, cold and disagreeable, even though his friends behave like criminals. In American Psycho, Bateman is very different from his colleagues: he is actually a psychopath. Batemans colleagues limit themselves to verbal violence, in appearance at least:
"No, thats Nigel Morrison"
"Ah" Price exclaims. "One of those young British faggots serving internship at "
"How do you know hes a faggot?" I ask him.
"Theyre all faggots." Price shrugs. "The British."
"How would you know, Timothy?" Van Patten grins.
"I saw him fuck Bateman in the ass in the mens room at Morgan Stanley", Price says. (American Psycho, page 36)
At the same time, Bateman is very cruel and even barbaric, as he takes a lot of pleasure in seeing his victims suffer:
In the kitchen I try to make meat loaf out of the girl but it becomes too frustrating a task and instead I spend the afternoon smearing her meat all over the walls, chewing on strips of skin I ripped from her body. (Page 345)
Bateman is sick, has been mad for years, and he is not punished for all of his misdeeds. If all of his colleagues are as unpleasant as he is, Bateman is disgusting not only because of his meanness and of his selfishness, but also because of his lack of remorse and of the obvious pleasure he takes when he kills and tortures. Apart from this, Bateman does not seem much worse than his colleagues, who are equally vain, sex crazed and cynical as he is. The difference between Bateman is that the frustration that results from the non-satisfaction of his needs, which are transformed into violent urges.
Bateman is so dominated by these urges, and he is so genuinely insane that his perception of the world tends to be changed because of his dementia:
Im loosening the tie Im still wearing with a blood-soaked hand, breathing in deeply. This is my reality. Everything outside of this is like some movie I once saw. (Page 345)
If Batemans colleagues seem to be obsessed with their social status and with their possessions, Bateman does not consider the "normal" part of his life as real and only reveals his "real self" when he lets himself give way to the violent side of his personality. That is why we cannot talk of heroes when we deal with Elliss narrators. They are too far from what the readers are, nobody would want to identify with them, and do not seem to have benevolence in them. A reader cannot identify with Bateman, and would rather be disgusted by the pain he inflicts to his victims; we cannot identify with Clay either, since he is too cold, too negative and too insensitive to be really likeable. In Glamorama, Victor Ward also has main features that differentiate him from the rest of the protagonists of the novel. Victor is utterly vain and stupid, and he is in a way worse than Bateman and his colleagues can be. In the first part of the novel, Victor appears completely devoid of any culture. He can only think about his looks, about the girls he would like to seduce and (very remotely) to the guests he has to invite to the opening of his club. Bobby Hughes, the leader of the terrorists humorously illustrates his lack of culture:
"Why me, Bobby?" I ask. "Why do you trust me?"
"Because you think the Gaza Strip is a particularly lascivious move an erotic dancer makes." Bobby says, "Because you think the PLO recorded the singles "Dont Bring Me Down" and "Evil Woman"." (Glamorama, page 315)
Victors stupidity is very often underlined and mocked by the other characters. It is his lack of culture and of common sense that makes him so vulnerable and defenseless compared to the other characters, especially the terrorists, who seem cold and determined to anything. While the characters he meets appear cultured and having ideals (and ideas), Victor appears ridiculous in comparison, and this can explain why he did not manage to find his place in the entertainment industry, but also why he cannot do anything to escape the grasp of the terrorists. Finally, we can say that Victor is different from his "peers", because he is the only main character of the novel that manages to stay alive at the end of the novel (all of the terrorists have died, and so has Chloe, and we learn that Lauren Hynde was replaced by a double years before the beginning of the novel). More important, Victor seems to have gone through redemption, and he has become a better person, while the whole world around him seems to have sunk into madness.
It seems important for Ellis to use narrators that have a vision of the micro society they live in from the inside. Thus, he needs to place his characters as "moles" inside the groups he wants to criticize. Thanks to the readers access to the narrators thoughts, which are most of the time horribly cynical and finally rather stupid and devoid of any sense, the satire Ellis wants to draw is made more accurate and sharp. Still, it is the differences between the narrators and the other characters that makes the satire more efficient, as the narrators opinions adds some irony when they are put in contrast with what happens in the narrative, in a critical, humoristic or in a sarcastic way.
If secondary characters cannot be ignored, it is fair to say that their existence is not essential to the narrative. We can say that they are disposable and/or interchangeable characters, since Ellis gives no hints about their future and they just vanish from view. They are only multiple representations of the same entity, sharing the same ideals and desires, not showing that they have an identity of their own, since their personality is very limited. Still, they are ideal targets Ellis uses to convey his satire. This can finally be seen as a clear opposition to "classic" novels, such as the ones written by Henry James, for example, in which every character was given a detailed physical and psychological portrait. This is a position against which many 20th-century American authors went up against, and Ellis belongs to this category
We have seen in this passage that Ellis characters were not traditional literary characters. They are made remarkable by their stupidity, by their lack of interiority, and by their psychological vacuity. The reader cannot identify with them because nobody wants to recognize himself or herself in Ellis characters, that are too superficial and vain to represent us equitably. Still, their psychological vacuity does not only make stupid characters of them, as in Ellis novels, emptiness is often connected with evil.
THE GENERAL LACK OF MORAL VALUES
AND OF HUMANITY AND THE RISE OF EVIL
IN ELLIS NOVELS
In the society painted by Ellis, the characters live empty lives, led by their will to fit in the world they live in, to be respected and to satisfy all of their desires. Their lives are empty because they are very artificial and completely detached from what is really important. Moral values are sacrificed to the cult of appearances, and these characters become madder and madder. There are several causes to the characters lunacy. They become increasingly violent and lose their grasp on reality. Their madness is first of all caused by their innumerable desires and by the fact that they can never be satisfied, and that they have more and more difficulties to find pleasure. This results in a very deep boredom, felt by most of the characters, which pushes them to act unlawfully. We will try to express how Ellis manages to render this impression of boredom in his novels, and if he proposes a solution to the characters weariness. The frustration of their desires, and their boredom makes them become less and less human, as they abandon their humanity and their moral values to try and fit in the world and to climb the social ladders. We will also try to say if there are traces of goodness in Ellis novels, or if they have all been corrupted by the society they live in
In the previous part, we have stated that the society pictured by Ellis is directed by appearances. Elliss novels always take place in some wealthy environments, and what appears is that envy and jealousy are omnipresent, even though the characters are not in need. Their envies and their desires drive the characters lives, and the society they live in pushes them to want more. Desire is central to all of Elliss novels, and the characters relationship to their desires (or to their lack of desire) can explain their attitudes and actions. In this part, we will try to study in which ways desires are present, and deal of the place of pleasures in the society painted by Ellis, and rather on how the lack of desires can have effects on their personalities.
a) Many different ways to desire
Elliss characters were all born rich. They all evolve in wealthy circles, and their families are what we can call nouveaux riches. This is especially true in Less than Zero, which takes place in California, and as Ellis puts it:
"In LA, old money only dates from the 1930s"
It is something you can guess, not only from facts, but also from the characters behavior. They behave like nouveaux riches, in the derogatory sense of the word. What is implied here is that everything they want to show is that they do have money. This means that they need the best (and the most ostentatious) cars, the biggest houses, the most expensive designer clothes, the latest gadgets None of the characters in Elliss novels has ever been in need of anything. They were born with a fortune and overuse this money, but they also used their parents name and fame to have access to the best universities, the best clubs, and the best jobs. They were probably never refused anything. Afterwards, when they are out of the family bosom, they get relatively easy (and well-paid) jobs, and they make a lot of money to add to the one they already have. Still, if the 1960s and the 1970s brought a handful of ideals and of demands for more freedom to the teenagers of that time, the 1980s and the 1990s did not provide young people with some ideals and some causes they could fight for. Realism, individuality, greed and depression have replaced the idealism and community spirit of the two previous decades, and the hippies have given birth to yuppies (in the literal as well as in the figurative sense). Collective desires (of freedom, mostly) were replaced by individual and materialistic desires. Then, Ellis implicitly asks one question to his readers: what more can you want when you already have everything that is necessary?
The characters only have materialistic desires. As they are nouveaux riches, they have made of consumption a new religion. They already own a lot of things and they still need more (something encouraged by advertisement and by companies in general). This perpetual want for more is one of the central subjects of American Psycho. All of the characters, not only Bateman, have extravagant desires. We know more about Batemans envies, because he is the narrator, and the whole narrative can be seen as an interior monologue. His desires always seem extravagant and unexpected. Although he seems to have everything he may desire, a nice apartment in New York, a wardrobe filled with designer suits, the latest hi-fi systems, and money, nothing seems to satisfy him. Worse, to desire things seems to be the only way for him to prove, to himself and to the others, that he exists. He has to fill the emotional void thats inside of him, and buying things is one of the ways of doing so, according to him. As a materialistic character, Bateman seems to attach more importance to objects than to people:
Daisy stands up, placing the spoon next to the Haagen-Dazs carton on the Gilbert Rhode-designed nightstand. I point. "No. Put it in the carton." (Page 213)
[In another passage, Bateman causes a scene in a Chinese laundry because they cannot remove "jam" stains from his bed sheets.] "Bleach-ee? [ ] Oh my god. [ ] Two things" I say, talking over her. One. You cant bleach a Soprani. Out of the question. Two, I can only get these sheets in Santa Fe. These are very expensive sheets and I really need them clean." (Page 82)
These desires are so omnipresent in Batemans mind that, as readers, we end up not paying attention to them anymore. "I want" and "I need" are so recurrent that they become as common as "I am". In the course of the novel, those desires become more and more incongruous, showing that hes slipping deeper and deeper into madness. In chapters where he appears upset, wants collide in his mind, and end up not making sense anymore:
J&B I am thinking. Glass of J&B in my right hand I am thinking. Charivari. Shirt from Charivari. Fusilli I am thinking. Jami Gertz I am thinking. I would like to fuck Jamie Gertz I am thinking. Porsche 911. [ ] A Valium. I would like a Valium. No, no, two Valium I am thinking. Cellular phone I am thinking. (Page 81)
His desires have become so numerous that they just come and go, they are ephemeral and most of the time, they disappear without having been fulfilled. In the passage quoted, we can notice that sexual desire is present. Bateman is driven crazy by the life hes living and the codes he has to follow. Desires seem to overflow out of him. Bateman seems frustrated by the fact that he cannot own everything he desires. His desires seem unlimited. This frustration has side effects: it is the cause of his murderous fury (well come to this point later).
Less than Zero is characterized by the lack of desire. In Less than Zero, the characters always got what they wanted, and this is in part the cause for their boredom, and what makes them corrupt and morally bankrupt. Moreover, as Clay is the narrator, we have access to his thoughts, and we realize that he does not feel unsatisfied on a material point of view. This perpetual material desire for more is truly peculiar to Bateman and his colleagues in American Psycho. They are truly representative of the yuppie movement: everything they own has to be shown off, so that they can generate envy and jealousy in other characters minds. What Ellis tries to demonstrate in his novels is that quantity does not mean quality when it comes to material things. The accumulation of ill-assorted objects can lead to bad taste (Batemans tastes are rather often discussed and ridiculed). On the other hand, these desires end up being devoid of meaning, as the accumulation of them tends to make them empty. Sometimes, what Bateman wants is so incongruous that the reader may ask himself if it is an actual need or just an expression of his madness, especially when you figure out that most of these "needs" are never satisfied.
Sexual desire is also central to all of Elliss novels. This is partly caused by the fact that all of Elliss narrators (bar Lauren Hynde, in The Rules of Attraction, and Cheryl, in The Informers) are all men, all handsome, and all single. Moreover, none of their couples is satisfactory: some search for their sexual identity (Clay in Less than Zero, Luis in American Psycho), some cheat on their partner (almost all of the characters), some are only guided by their lust and by their crave for sex (Patrick Bateman, Victor Ward). Whatever they do, all of them look for better sex and are not satisfied with monogamy. In Less Than Zero, Clay is, as usual, the less demonstrative character. He does not feel particularly attracted to anyone, and just pretends to have "bizarre sexual fantasies" to content the psychiatrist he sees. He is also hardly tempted by his girlfriends sexual proposal:
"Were leaving." I tell him, kind of excited by Blairs whisper and the gloved hand on my thigh. (Page 47)
He has no "proper" sexual desires, he is too bored for this, which makes him less human, in a way. Even if Ellis seems to criticize the excesses of sexual desire, the author claims that sexual desire is part of human nature. The fact that Clay has even lost his sexual desires shows that hes not really human, in spite of appearances.
In Glamorama, contrary to Clay, Victor appears to be sex-crazed. He would do anything for sex and just risks everything for it. Like most of Elliss characters, his relationship with his "official" girlfriend, Chloe Byrnes, a model, is not satisfactory, especially from a sexual point of view. Because of this (and also because of his unbounded ambition), he starts an affair with his boss official girlfriend, with whom hes having sex, but for whom he has nor any love nor any real desire. Later on, he meets his ex-school friend and ex-girlfriend Lauren Hynde, and here is what he feels for her:
Lust is something I really havent come across in a long time and I follow it now in Tower Records and its getting hard to shake off the thought that Lauren Hynde is part of my future. (Page 86)
Hearing this from a character who spends his time sweet-talking girls and having sexual relationships seems really surprising. On the other hand, we understand that he has no genuine feeling for his girlfriend (who, we learn from the novel, is desired by millions of other men). Sexual desires is an urge for Victor, that he has to satisfy straight away, as he cannot resist it, and lust finally causes his fall. Like Batemans material desires, Ellis ridicules Victors crave for sex. Victors sexual obsessions just reveal how vain he is. When he tries to satisfy his sexual needs, he is just flattering his own ego. In the first two thirds of Glamorama, Victor appears infatuated only with himself, as his girlfriend Chloe states:
"A mirrors your ideal mate." (Page 178)
Victors desire for women is so ephemeral that once he has had what he wanted, his desire just fades away. Victor is the caricature of a playboy: if a playboy supposed to be beautiful and witty, Victor is beautiful but desperately stupid and vain. He also has a very high opinion of himself. It is this perpetual sexual lust and an urgent need for money that will cause his fall: he is caught having sex with Lauren Hynde during the opening night of his own club, and loses everything. He is forced to accept a contract that will lead him to London, where a terrorist group finally traps him. His desires are so strong that they make him forget all of the social rules, and, as he fails to control them, he is excluded from society.
In American Psycho, Patrick Bateman shares Victors perpetual obsession about sex. He judges women only from their appearance, and in general he uses pejorative terms to talk about them ("this dumpy chick" (page 68), "the bitch" (page 76), "the Eurotrash girl" (page 79) "Courtneys a shallow bitch. But a physically superior, near-perfect-looking shallow bitch" (page 157), "the girl, who I wouldnt mind fucking" (page 196), "I slide up to a couple of hardbody rich girls" (page 198)). Bateman is a misogynist, and does not consider a woman for anything else than for her sexual potential. Likewise, he does not accept an invitation from a woman if no sex is involved:
Courtney Lawrence invites me out for dinner on Monday night and the invitation seems vaguely sexual so I accept. (Page 92)
Ward and Bateman have another common point: they like to describe at length their sexual relationships, and they also deal in detail with their fantasies. Ironically, we can remark that most of the time, their relationships are very disappointing for them, as they do not get what they want. We will tell more on the effect such passages are meant to have on the reader later on, but we can say that these passages are the only ones where Ellis writes descriptions. The author suggests thereby that our society is sex driven. It is the only thing everybody is more or less interested in, because sex is leading the world, in some ways (as it plays on human weaknesses). It is one of the reasons why appearances have so much power (if we want to look better, it is also to have greater power on others). Still, these descriptions are rather difficult to read, in the same way as descriptions of mutilation, because what is described is "hard-core" sex (we will come to this point in the last part). Finally, Batemans desires are mostly inspired by pornography. As his envies are most of the time not satisfied, he is reduced to rent X-rated videotapes. The titles of these videos add a bit of irony inside the text: "She-Male Reformatory" (page 111), or "Inside Lydias Ass" (page 97). Batemans taste for pornography can be seen as a way to withdraw his credibility as an elegant, mild mannered character. Finally, when he manages to attract a girl in his flat, he reproduces what he sees in these pornographic movies, which is why descriptions of sex scenes in American Psycho are so crude
As I said earlier, most of these desires are not satisfied, or they are fulfilled in a way that brings no satisfaction. This leads to a general frustration, especially when they do not really need anything. The fact that all of the characters already have everything they want, on a material point of view at least, forces them to find "alternative" pleasures, in order not to be bored
These "alternative" pleasures are looked for by some of Elliss characters, who have already tried and seen everything else, and are bored with "ordinary" leisure. Sex, drugs and violence all represent a certain danger in Elliss novels. We can wonder if the characters find some pleasure thanks to them, or if they do not bring any relief to their frustration, and just add to it, pushing them further into boredom, madness and depression. We can say that the characters want to find some pleasure in sex, drugs and violence, they do it in an extreme manner. The characters have no consideration about other characters or even about themselves, as these extreme practices can be seen as an attempt to self-destruction.
In the case of sex, it may somehow appear as a satisfaction of the characters obsessions. It appears to be indeed something very different. In fact, if characters such as Pat Bateman or Victor Ward seem to have an extraordinary sexual life, this statement has to be qualified. Most of the time, they do not manage to get what they want when they want:
She gives me a look so hateful that it seems doubtful we will have sex later on tonight. (American Psycho, page 17)
Although these two characters appear as handsome, distinguished and charming men, they are actually frustrated, because their sexual desires are not fulfilled. For example, Victor does not manage to make love to the girls he really desires (namely Marina Cannon, Jamie Fields and Lauren Hynde), and Pat Bateman has to hire some prostitutes to fulfil his envies. Of course, they have pleasure, but not the way they want it.
Im nibbling at a small tattoo on the inside of a muscular thigh and the moment my tongue touches her, she starts coming once, twice, three times. Knowing where this will not end up, I jerk off a little Im almost coming and then I think, oh screw it, I dont really have time for this, so I just fake it, moaning loudly, my head between her legs, movement from my right arm giving the impression from where she lies that Im actually doing something. (Glamorama, Page 21)
Batemans sexual fantasies are so perverted that he never manages to satisfy his desires with his "official" dates. As Bateman puts it:
Pornography is so much less complicated than actual sex, and because of the lack of complication, so much more pleasurable. (American Psycho, page 264)
The problem with the two passages we have just quoted is that sex is denatured. What is usually a proof of two persons love, or at least of their mutual attraction. In Ellis novels, the characters make love, but no love, no physical attraction are involved. The characters reproduce the scenes that they see in pornographic movies. Sexual relationships become performances, as they are devoid of emotions, and finally seem to imitate a genuine sexual act only, rather than being an actual one. The fact is that, as the characters do not feel any genuine emotion, their sexual relationships become only simulacra, and this is why they cannot find any satisfaction. This can be seen in Victors behavior in the passage quoted from Glamorama ("Knowing where this will not end up, I jerk off a little and Im almost coming. [ ] I dont really have time for this, so I just fake it, moaning loudly"). Victor finds no satisfaction in his sexual relationships because he feels that he has to pretend that hes enjoying himself, while he does not at all. This adds to the artificiality of the characters relationship, since they even fake what can be considered as a natural reaction.
Most of the time, even when Bateman had obtained what he wanted, his satisfaction is obscured by his desire to hurt. In this passage, Bateman has just spent the night with two prostitutes:
"Were not through yet" An hour later, I will impatiently lead them to the door, both of them dressed and sobbing, but well paid. (Page 176)
What is also interesting is the use of suspension points in this passage. In this case, for once, violence is not represented explicitly in the text. The reader is only told about what happens before, and the results of what Bateman did to them. Ellis does not tell when Bateman "only" hurts his victims. This can hint at the fact that Ellis is only interested in representing ultra-violence, and not this "ordinary" violence, which would fail to shock his readers. It can also reveal a part of Batemans personality: he does not think it is "important", when he "only" hurts his victims. In Glamorama, when Victor finally manages to sleep with Jamie, he soon realizes that he has been trapped, in order to suit the terrorists plans. A "normal" sexual life is unthinkable to Elliss characters. The characters sexual acts are performances, devoid of any emotion that are described in such passages. Only once, in American Psycho, does Bateman not tell anything about his night with a model, who seems genuinely keen on him, and to whom Bateman says to go before "something bad happens" to her (pages 212-214), but it is an exception.
No character seems to find satisfaction in their couples. They all have mistresses and/or lovers, and they all seem quickly bored by their relationship (Victor does not feel any pleasure anymore in his relationship with his mistress Alison). That is why Batemans case seems to be the most interesting: Bateman is obsessed by sex in an extreme way, and he is also a pervert. He is addicted to pornography, likes to tell about X-rated films he saw recently, in a rather candid manner, and his own fantasies are influenced by these movies. For instance, during a dinner where he is bored, he thinks about a pornographic movie he saw the night before. The contrast between the high-class restaurant where he dines and what he says has a comic effect on the reader:
Last night, I rented a movie called Inside Lydias Ass and [ ] I watched as Lydia a totally tan bleached blonde hardbody with a perfect ass and great full tits. While on all fours gave head to this guy with a huge cock while another gorgeous blonde little hardbody with a perfectly trimmed blonde pussy knelt behind Lydia and after eating her ass out and sucking on her cunt, started to push a long silver vibrator into Lydias ass. (Page unknown)
His sexual fantasies also have a tendency to affect his social life:
I get an image of Evelyn and Daniels girlfriend on a bed somewhere with the girl spreading Evelyns legs, Evelyn on all fours, licking her asshole, fingering her cunt, and this makes me dizzy and I head out of the restroom into the club, horny and desperate, lusting for contact. (Page 198)
On the whole, we can say that, in Elliss novels, sex does not bring any lasting relief. The characters finally have more pleasure imagining and fantasizing than in the sexual act itself. Their sexual life, however extraordinary it can appear, because of the variety of partners the characters have, does not make their life any better. The fact that they do not get what they want, and also the fact that they are most of the time forced to masturbate to find pleasure just brings frustration (in the case of Bateman, which is why he is becoming increasingly mad and violent). These failures can also bring boredom (Bateman still, but also Victor in Glamorama and Clay in Less than Zero, who is not even excited by sex anymore). The same conclusion that sex (and the lack of it) can only lead to frustration is shared by French writer Michel Houellebecq, but in a different manner. In his last novels, Extension du Domaine de la Lutte, and Les Particules Élémentaires, Houellebecq tells about characters whose sexual life is empty, and who tend to destruction (and also to self-destruction, as the narrator of Extension kills himself at the end of the novel). This will to destroy is caused by the frustration they feel because of their lack of sex.
Elliss descriptions shock not only by their bluntness, but also because Elliss characters appear as completely perverted, as they break many taboos: infidelity (all of the characters), pedophilia (Bateman, Spin, Rip and Trent in Less than Zero), rape (the same four), sadism (Bateman), group sex (Bateman and Victor (unwillingly, in his case)), and, most disgusting of all, necrophilia (Bateman again, as he likes to rape his victims after their death). Ellis explains why he turned the depiction of sex and its excesses into something disgusting:
Sex has become like the production of a movie where you are both the director and the main actor. You go to a party or to a club to find the leading actress of this film. Does she correspond to the ideal of beauty shown on the cover of Vogue magazine? If you start with this kind of ideas, it is impossible to have natural, relaxed and simple relationships. Because sex is actually an essential function, like eating or drinking. But if you make a theatrical representation out of it, it becomes an empty experience
The fact that sexual relationships are becoming more and more artificial and that the media dictates what you should look like to attract the others desires may show that the characters are less and less interested in long-term, solid relationships in Ellis novels. Sex is no longer the result of an emotion, but rather from something artificial, fabricated, and unsatisfying relationships. This can explain, in some ways, the treatment that is made of sex and of sexual desire in Elliss novels, as what characterize them are their lack of naturalness and their artificiality
All of Elliss characters try to escape their banal life, and / or to get rid of their boredom by using drugs. These drugs can be legal ones such as alcohol or tranquilizers (Xanax, Halcion or Valium for example), or illegal drugs dubbed "recreational", such as cannabis or cocaine, or even hard drugs, such as heroin. As usual with Ellis, their drug use has gone beyond the recreational use, and most of them have already become drug-addicts. We can even say that all of Elliss characters are addicted to something. In Elliss novels, drugs in general, or at least some of them, have a rather positive image. This can be explained by the fact that Elliss characters are all rather young, and that they are all rich, and we can say that among young people in general, drugs have a rather urbane image. The rich kids in Less than Zero all take cocaine, and even Clays young sisters, respectively 15 and 13 years old! (One of them even states "Thats bullshit. I can get my own cocaine" (page 17), when she is accused of stealing some from Clays). Cocaine has the reputation of being a "recreational" drug. It is true that you cannot die of an overdose of cocaine, still it damages your perception of reality. Moreover, it is a drug which has a glamorous image, that all the characters are looking for, that is done in the toilets of clubs and restaurants (and people even queue for this), but that can be taken in group. It is not, for the characters, a shameful drug. On the same plan as cocaine, the characters second drugs of choice are pills (tranquilizers and amphetamines). They take sleeping pills and antidepressants to calm down and relax, and, once more, they become seriously addicted to them:
I finally find the tube behind a huge bottle a jar of Xanax on the top shelf of the medicine cabinet. (Page 103)
They also use drugs to try to hide their boredom. The side effect of this is that they completely lose their concentration, reporting their attention on things that have no importance at all:
Id taken some Valium [ ] earlier this afternoon. [ ] Eyes suddenly focus in on the eyes of a small, dark, intense-looking guy wearing a Universal Studios T-shirt sitting too booths across from me. Hes staring at me and I look down, and take a drag, a deep one, off the cigarette. The man keeps staring at me and all I can think is either he doesnt see me or Im not there. I dont know why I think that. (Less Than Zero, page 18)
Pills and cocaine also create a sort of torpor, which does not help to follow a conversation. This explains certain gaps in the course of dialogues. Ellis simulates the effects of drugs in his narrative, in order to blur it. As the narrator is the main character, and that we see through his eyes, hear what he hears and are made aware of his thoughts, this blurring effect has important consequences on the course of the narrative. The narrator often concentrates on the wrong things ("I dont know why I think that"), loses the thread of a conversation, and sometimes has hallucinations:
I hallucinate the buildings into mountains, into volcanoes, the streets become jungles, the sky freezes into a backdrop. [ ] Lunch at Huberts becomes a permanent hallucination in which I find myself dreaming while still awake. (American Psycho, Page 86)
This explains why reading some passages of Elliss novels is so difficult, because it is very confused, and the narrator jumps from one subject to another, or just does not understand something. Ellis himself seems to have chosen to blur his narrative, to try and simulate the effects of the various drugs used by his narrators.
To evacuate the frustration induced by their sexual frustration and by their lack of desires, or the dissatisfaction of them, the characters try to find a new way to reach pleasure: they become increasingly violent, and less and less controllable. Violence is omnipresent in Elliss novels. His characters like to hurt other characters, in a physical or in a psychological way. They all appear as sadists, because the pain they inflict is done in a very cruel manner. In Less than Zero, Rip and Spin drug and rape an underage girl:
Theres a naked girl, really young and pretty, lying on the mattress. Her legs are spread and tied to the bedposts and her arms are tied above her head. [ ] Spin [ ] has a hard-on and he pushes it at the girls lips. (Page 176)
Rip and Spin are delighted with their attitude ("I got the high score" (page 178)), and, later on, we learn that they take a morbid pleasure to watch the film of a violent execution, or when they keep the body of a dead teenager:
Hes lying against the back wall, propped up. The face is bloated and pale and the eyes are shut mouth open and the face belongs to some young, eighteen-, nineteen-year-old, dried blood, crusted, above the upper lip. "Jesus" Rip says. Spins eyes are wide. Trent just stands there and says something like "Wild". Rip jabs the boy in the stomach with his foot. "Sure hes dead?" "See him moving?" Ross giggles. [ ] I cannot take my eyes off the dead boy [ ] Spin kneels down and looks into the boys face and studies it earnestly. Trent starts to laugh and lights up a joint." (Page 175)
What is truly striking in such passages is not only the violence that the characters show, but rather the delight they have in being violent. As they do not find pleasure in anything else, they have to turn towards some "forbidden" leisure, as they have the feeling to have already seen and done everything. What is shocking is not that Ellis depicts violent acts, but rather the gratuity of Clays friends acts. They are shown having pleasure in seeing weaker people suffer, like the young girl they rape. Clays friends are designed to be cowards. Their morbid fascination for violent murders and for everything linked to death is also relevant. They appear fascinated (and even sexually aroused) by the "snuff movie" they are watching. They seem to be hypnotized by the vision of this dead body. On the other hand, Clay appears to be less attracted by violence. Although he also shows some morbid curiosity, he appears disgusted by what he sees:
I leave quickly as the black man tries to push a nail into the girls neck. (Page 142)
I close the door and walk away. [ ] I dont say anything. [ ] I close the door behind me. (Page 177)
Clay is a weak character: he appears not to want to oppose his friends. Ellis did not make a daring character of him: he was designed as weak and submissive. He can never be considered as a hero, as his acts have nothing positive He only tries once ("Its I dont think its right" (Page 177)), and when he sees that his (timid) opposition does not change anything, he just leaves. His friends find a short-term pleasure in what they do, and the fact that they can be caught and condemned and the fact that what they do is forbidden just adds to their pleasure, as Rip explains to Clay:
"But you dont need anything. You have everything", I tell him.
Rip looks at me. "No, I dont." [ ]
Theres a pause and then I ask "Oh shit, Rip, what dont you have?"
"I dont have anything to lose." (Page 177)
Once again, Ellis makes as an attempt to self-destruction of their behavior: they are taking more and more risks as the narrative goes forward. First of all, they discover the dead body and observe it, then they watch the "snuff movie", and finally they become criminals themselves, when they kidnap, drug and rape the little girl. We can consider that Less than Zero in itself contains a gradation in violence. The closer we come to the end of the novel the more sordid it becomes. Towards the end of the novel, we are told about various news items, that add to the climate of madness and of violence:
The article said that there were people who drove on the street and saw ghosts, apparitions of the Wild West. [ ] One man had a tomahawk, which disappeared seconds later, thrown through his open window. [ ] A man had crashed into a palm tree because he had seen a covered wagon in his path and it forced him to swerve. (Page 194)
Before I left, a woman had her throat slit and was thrown from a moving car in Venice; a series of fires raged out of control in Chatsworth, the work of an arsonist; a man in Encino killed his wife and two children. (Page 183)
Such passages may imply the characters are not the only ones to blame for being violent. The society as a whole can be criticized for being too frustrating and attached to futile things, and thus to generate the characters madness and violence.
In American Psycho, physical violence is omnipresent. Bateman, as a murderer, is extremely cruel in his way to kill:
He starts nodding helplessly and I pull out a long, thin knife with a serrated edge, and being very careful not to kill him, push maybe half an inch of the blade into his right eye, flicking the handle up, instantly popping the retina. (Page 131)
The murders perpetrated by Bateman are very bloody, as he does not hesitate to dissect, to dismember, or, like in this passage, to gouge the eyes of his victims. Once again, we can say that there is a gradation in horror. As the narrative goes forward, the more unbearably violent (and gratuitous) the murders become. Batemans first victim is a homeless man, and then he murders two of his ex-girlfriends, one of his colleagues, a gay passer-by, three prostitutes, a taxi driver, a young boy and finally two policemen. There seems to be no logic to these assassinations: Bateman just surrenders to his urges, and kills without planning the identity of his victim-to-be. Still, we can note two recurring elements in his "murder ritual": first of all, he prepares very carefully each murder, and even imagines them:
I corner the injured rat just as it frees itself from the trap and I pick the thing up, sending it into a panic, making it squeal even louder. [ ] I sit in the kitchen thinking of ways to torture girls with this animal (unsurprisingly I come with a lot), making a list that includes, unrelated to the rat, cutting open both breasts and deflating them, along with stringing barbed wire tightly around their heads. (Page 309)
He finds more and more perverted ways to kill. He also buys objects to prepare his crimes: various knives, a power driller, and random items he uses to torture. The second "logical" element we can find in Batemans behavior is that he gives his male victims a quick death, while he likes to keep his female victims alive, so that he can torture them. This can be explained by the fact that Bateman has less trouble to bring women to his flat than to bring men there. It may also be because Batemans murderous urges mostly come after having satisfied his sexual desires. It is to be noted that Bateman does not compulsorily kill after having sex (sometimes, he "only" hurts his victims)
[Jeanette] has a black eye from last night since I had to coerce her over dinner at Il Marlibro to even consider doing this; then, after a more forceful discussion at my apartment, she consented. (Page 381)
Bateman does not find satisfaction in being physically violent. He just manages to evacuate the frustration of his monotonous and dull life, but he does not find any cure to his sickness, as he states so himself:
My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. (Page 377)
Still, the reader is never told what the actual causes of his pain are, but if his will is to "punish" everybody, there is more frustration to come. Moreover, Bateman does not find a lot of satisfaction when he kills somebody. He acts as if he had to punish his victims, and then he just shouts at them:
I scream at him only once: "Fucking stupid bastard. Fucking bastard" (Page 218)
"Theres a quarter. Go buy some gum, you crazy fucking nigger." (Page 132)
"And another thing", I yell, pacing. "Its not Garrick Anderson either. The suit is by Armani! Giorgio Armani." I pause spitefully and, leaning into her, sneer "And you thought that was Henry Stuart. Jesus!" I slap her hard across the face and hiss the words "Dumb bitch", spraying her face with Spit" (Page 246-247)
He feels no satisfaction or any delight. Worse, his murderous deeds only increase his anger. As we can see in the quoted passages, violence is also very often verbal in American Psycho. Although Bateman comes from a rather wealthy family, he uses a very coarse language. Moreover, Bateman appears to be a racist and a misogynist, and more generally intolerant against people different from him.
"Oh God, this is a nightmare, you fucking Jew?" [ ]
I get up and scream "Fuck yourself you retarded cocksucking kike." (Page 152)
"Your girlfriends a total bitch" I tell the guy. (Page 197)
"Listen to me, Luis. If you do not stop crying, you fucking pathetic faggot, I am going to slit your fucking throat. Are you listening to me?" (Page 295)
His words just reflect his thoughts and do not fit either with the image of refinement and elegance he wants to show. Bateman spends his time insulting the people he meets, and who are wrong because theyre different from him. Frighteningly enough, his colleagues have the same attitudes and show the same contempt towards "different" people, as shows Tim Prices monologue at the beginning of the novel, which reveals his hatred of everything.
In Glamorama, the relationship between pleasure and violence is less obvious. Still, the novel contains scenes of violence even more unbearable than the ones in American Psycho:
And the dying comes in waves [ ] In the business section, everyone is soaked with blood, someones head is completely encased with intestines that flew out of whats left of the woman sitting two rows in front of him and people are screaming and crying uncontrollably, wailing with grief. (Page 439)
If the bomb attempt is an intentional way to cause pain, the characters that are its instigators take no pleasure in making their victims suffer. As they are terrorists, they are violent, of course, but they do fight for a cause, and do not seem to take a sadistic pleasure in making their victims suffer, as they consider them as war casualties. Violence is one of the means for them to reach what they want to get, but it is not a game, however diabolical they may be.
Neither sex, nor drugs nor violence can bring a long-term relief to Elliss characters. They can be seen as temporary palliatives, to evacuate a part of their frustration, but they cannot make it disappear. Still, as they do not get what they want with these "alternative pleasures", they become even more frustrated. This accumulation of frustration and the fact that they can never fulfil their desires have various effects on the characters.
We have just said that Elliss characters never find a complete satisfaction of their desires. Most of the characters do not get what they want, or not the way they want it. Then, they become frustrated, and the frustration accumulated along the years leads them to madness. They do not find much pleasure in drug consumption either.
Drugs only appear as a short-term palliative, and the characters feel worse than before after the effects have worn out:
Im sitting in my psychiatrists office the next day, coming off from coke, sneezing blood. [ ] I start to cry really hard. (Less than Zero, page 111)
Moreover, in Elliss novels, and in American Psycho in particular, drugs seem rather hard to find. Ellis ridicules Bateman in his search for cocaine. When the latter goes to a club, he spends half of his time looking for cocaine, and most of the time, he realizes that he has been cheated:
Price sticks his own Platinum American Express card into the powder, bringing it up to his nose to inhale it. He stands there silently for a moment, and then gasps "Oh my god" in a low, throaty voice [ ] "Its a fucking milligram of [diet sugar] Sweet n Low" (Page 38)
This only manages to infuriate both Price and Bateman, although they insist on "doing it anyway". Drugs are, for them, a luxury, and it is modish to buy some cocaine. Here, this passage shows how vain they are. Drugs are not only for Ellis characters a way to escape their boring and monotonous life, they also are indicators of their way of life, and of the fact that they have money. Their snobbery, allied with their stupidity, creates a rather humorous scene. This passage underlines the fact that they would do anything to impress their peers, taking even the luxury to cut the "cocaine" with their credit card! Still, the author makes Bateman and Price ridiculous characters in this passage: not only they do not manage to seduce women, but they do not manage either to buy some "real" drugs. Bateman is ridiculed by Ellis because he does not manage to achieve what all of the others do without any difficulty: securing a table in a chic restaurant, seducing a beautiful woman, or finding and buying actual drugs. In Glamorama, the narrators drug consumption also leads to frustration. Victor is only taking tranquilizers to forget about the horrors the terrorists force him to commit. He then confesses that he spends his life in a kind of chemical haze created by the pills:
Im wearing Prada and mellowing out on immense dosages of Xanax and its a big hyped-up bash. (Page 300)
In another passage, he also says that hes being "fed Xanax". As this drug consumption does not emanate from him, it can bring no relief to Victors situation.
The characters sexual relationships are not satisfactory either, and they are all looking for a newer, better sexual life. This lack of satisfaction creates frustration, and although the characters do not stop to have sexual desires, this lust is more and more emptied out of meaning. Bateman has to hire call girls to satisfy his sexual needs, and he kills them after getting what he wanted. He has sexual relationships with many women but not with his girlfriend, and whenever he tries to have one, he is rebuked:
After attempting to have sex with her for around fifteen minutes, I decide not to continue trying. (Page 24)
Towards the end of the novel, Bateman voices less and less his sexual desires. If we cannot say that they have disappeared, we can consider that Bateman has abandoned some of them. Maybe we can even say that he is so frustrated by what sex provides him with, as his sexual life brings him no satisfaction. The fact that the characters sexual relationships are closer to simulacrum than to something really unique and emotional can cause an abandonment of sexual lust. Bateman does not voice his sexual desires anymore, because it appears more and more pointless, since the reader is made aware than even the satisfaction of his lust cannot change him. The same phenomenon appears in Glamorama, as Victor jeopardized his future for a relationship with Lauren Hynde, which led him nowhere. After having endured all of the horrors the terrorists had made him suffer, it appears that every trace of uncontrolled sexual lust has disappeared from Victor, and was replaced with humanity and common sense, as his attitude towards his ex-girlfriend Chloe shows:
The words "Im pregnant" sounded harsh to me but in an obscure way. Im in the center of the room, flattened out by this information and what it demands from me. I keep trying to form a sentence, make a promise, not wander away. (Page 411)
Sexual desire was ruling his life at the beginning of the novel, the will to survive has just replaced lust, which becomes very secondary in the last three parts of the novel (the ones where he tries to survive at any price). It is almost as if Victor was disgusted by sex, because he has understood that it can only cause him trouble. Victors fall was created by his sexual urges, and he seems to have understood this. Towards more serious trouble, sex has become very secondary, although it was Victors first center of interest. As sex is not satisfactory and only causes more frustration, it does not help the characters with the feeling of unease they have towards their lives. Although the characters all seem to have an extraordinary sex life, we quickly remark that it is very complicated and empty, as sex and genuine feelings never go together in Elliss novels. Sex is sometimes bought (Bateman has to hire some prostitutes), is only based on appearances and is never linked to any feeling of any sort.
Violence does not appear as a way to bring relief either. We have said that the violent acts Bateman commits do not appease him and that acting like psychopaths only bring short-term pleasures to the bored teenagers in Less than Zero. Moreover, the more violent the characters are, the more destructive they become. The fact that Bateman cannot be relieved when he is violent leads him to madness and to depression. His acts have less and less coherence and he is less and less careful not to be caught:
In the locker in the locker room at Xclusive lie three vaginas I recently sliced out of various women Ive attacked In the past week. Two are washed off, one isnt. Theres a barrette clipped to one of them, a blue ribbon from Hermès tied around my favourite. (Page 370)
I raise the gun to his head and in midnote pull the trigger. [ ] I pop the clip and replace it with a full one, then something bad happens because while doing this Ive failed to notice the squad car that was travelling behind me. (Page 348)
We can also notice the fetishist side of Batemans personality, and also how far his madness goes, when he keeps the vaginas. Violence has become so common for Bateman that it only contents him in very rare occasions:
The rape and subsequent murder of an NYU student behind the Gristedes on University Place, near her dorm, however inappropriate the timing, no matter how uncharacteristic the lapse, was highly satisfying. (Page 346)
Once again, this satisfaction does not last long, and does not prevent Bateman from suffering from depression (which, by the way, does not stop him from killing )
Finally, as we have said in the beginning of this chapter, material desires cannot be completely satisfied. In American Psycho, the characters, and Bateman especially, want to own everything fashionable, however expensive it is. Buying is for them a way to prove to themselves and to the others that they exist, and also to exert a certain domination on the others (when McDermott tells his colleagues that he has a tanning bed at home, everybody is secretly jealous of him). They also feel the urgent need to but things when they are feeling bad. In the chapter "A Glimpse of a Thursday Afternoon", Bateman says, "I buy two copies of my favorite compact disc, Bruce Willis, The Return of Bruno" (on page 151). This seems completely useless, when we wonder what can be the interest to buy two more copies of your favorite record. The other characters wants seem as useless as this one. Their desires are unlimited, and of course impossible to fulfil completely. This can be also seen in Batemans attitude, where he is fascinated by the abundance of objects in a supermarket:
I wave to someone who looks exactly like Duncan McDonald, then duck into Bergdorfs.
Paisley ties and crystal water pitchers, tumbler sets and office clocks that measure temperature and humidity and barometric pressure, electric calling card address book and margarita glasses, valet stands and sets of dessert plates, correspondence cards and mirrors and shower clocks and aprons and sweaters and gym bags and bottles of champagne and porcelain cachepots and monogrammed bath sheets and foreign-currency exchange mini calculators and silver-plated address books and paperweights with fish and boxes of fine stationery and bottle openers and compact discs and customised tennis balls and pedometers and coffee mugs
I check my Rolex while Im buying scruffing lotion at the Clinique counter, still in Bergdorfs, to make sure I have enough time to shop some more before I have to meet Tim Severt for drinks at the Princeton club at seven. (Page 178)
This passage seems rather remote from literature. The passage quoted is very reminiscent of a shopping list. The narrator completely disappears, to list only the objects he sees. The interest to this passage is more linguistic than literary, as there is no particular coherence between all of these terms. There is an effect of accumulation, but this effect seems pointless. The common point we can find to all of these objects is that they are all more or less useless ("office clocks that measure temperature and humidity and barometric pressure", "foreign-currency exchange mini calculators"), and that they represent a certain way of life, as these objects appear as rather destined to some upper class people (or at least, they used to appeal to these people, as the novel is set in the late 1980s). This passage seems to show that there is always something you can want, and if you follow this logic, you can never be happy, as the offer is unlimited. You can always be tempted to buy something. This may be why material desire can never come to complete satisfaction, especially in Batemans case. He is a victim of consumption: he always wants the best, the newest, the most expensive things. This can only lead to madness, as he becomes very quickly jealous and envious, and this is the reason for some of his murderous envies
As we have said earlier, the characters were never in need: they were born in wealthy families, they got everything they wanted before even asking for it, and where money was easy. Still, as young people, they would like to find something to rebel against. Yet, they cannot rebel effectively against a system, which has fed them, brought them up, and still supplies to their needs. Then, they can react in some different ways.
First of all, they can actually rebel against the system that made them what they are, but this is always done in a sneaky, indirect kind of way. Acts of rebellion are written on walls:
Written on the bathroom wall at Pages: [ ] "Fuck you Mom and Dad. You suck cunt. You suck cock. You both can die because thats why you did to me. You left me to die. You both are so fucking hopeless. Your daughter is an Iranian and your son is a faggot. You both can rot in fucking shitting asshole hell. Burn, you fucking dumbshits. Burn, fuckers, burn." (Less than Zero, pages 180-181)
"I saw some guy in the mens room a total Wall Street guy [ ] he was writing something on the wall above the urinal he was standing at. I went over to use the urinal and I leaned over to read what he wrote." Shuddering, I slowly wipe my forehead with a napkin.
"Which was?" Jean asks cautiously.
I close my eyes, three words fall from my mouth, these lips:
"Kill All Yuppies" (Page 374)
In both of these passages, a will to rebel is clearly expressed (we are not in George Orwells 1984), but the means to express it is rather peculiar: acts of rebellion are expressed in graffiti, not in actions or in words. In the second passage quoted, it is a general message, left there for everybody to read it. The reason why the first message was left there is less clear: it appears to be a personal message, addressed to its authors parents. As the author of the message remains anonymous, it can indeed be addressed to anybody. What is striking here is the reproaches formulated: the character rebels against his parents and wishes them to die, because they left him alone (one of the central themes of Less than Zero), but it is done with a rare verbal violence. What is revealed in what this character reproaches is that children become the contrary of what their parents expect them to become. There is a corruption of values: if teenage rebellion is something rather normal, the terms used here are very harsh and reveal a great despair, while teenage revolt is of course destructive, but allows the young person to build the adult hes going to become. In the second passage, what is suprising is that the character is in rebellion against himself and against the society that created him. He can also be seen as Batemans double in a way: he is dressed like him, and is, in his own way, an outcast in a world of yuppies. This can underline the fact that, if the same causes create the same effects, any of Batemans colleagues may be like he is, although he probably supposes that he is unique. All the characters in American Psycho are potential psychopaths, as they are all alike, as they received the same education, they live the same boring life and their love life is as disappointing as Batemans. These two characters question their place in the world they live in, but they do it in an ambivalent way. They say what they have to say publicly (everybody can read the message they wrote), but they also remain anonymous, but their anger is emptied out by this anonymity, as they do not seem to have the courage to sign what they wrote. In Glamorama, it is also the way the terrorist group acts. They kidnap, kill, and plant bombs, in a cowardly act to try and convey a message, which is never explicitly stated. Still, they never claim the responsibility for the bomb attempts, as they let the responsibility hanging on other terrorist groups ("The blast will be blamed on an Algerian guerrilla or a Muslim fundamentalist ", op. cit.) If rebellion exists, its meaning is emptied out by the fact that it is not assumed, and thus not effective and not making more sense than graffiti on a toilet wall.
The second attitude some characters adopt is to refuse the system they are living in and prove it through destruction, and more precisely self-destruction. The most obvious example for this is Muriel in Less than Zero. Muriel cannot live up to what the world she lives in wants from her. To express her feeling of discomfort towards her life, she becomes anorexic, and later on becomes addicted to heroin. Still, the reasons for her feeling sick are not very clear:
"Oh, [Muriel]s wonderful, Spit." Kim says. "Shes just been taking sixty milligrams of lithium a day. Shes just tired. [ ] Her mother bought her a fifty-five thousand-dollar Porsche [ ] She just left Cedars Sinai and once shes drunk shes fine" (Less than Zero, page 71)
Muriel has friends, she is rich, she has everything she wants, still all this material happiness cannot replace genuine happiness, which is something Muriels parents do not seem to understand, as they have bought her a new car. That may be the reason why she chooses self-destruction, to try and convey a message, maybe for more attention from her parents and from her friends, but we cannot be sure about this, as no message is explicitly conveyed. Some other characters choose destruction rather than self-destruction as a means to evacuate their frustration. First of all, Patrick Bateman kills for his own pleasure, but also because of his jealousy. Some of his victims have obtained what he did not manage to get, and this infuriates him. That is why he kills his colleague Paul Owen because the latter administrates a highly coveted account. He murders one of his ex-girlfriends because she married the chef of the very modish and ultra-select restaurant Dorsia, where Bateman never manages to get a table. In the same way, Clays friends are behaving more and more like criminals, because there is nothing more they can desire, but also because they have a twisted vision of reality:
"Its I dont think its right"
"Whats right? If you want something, you have the right to take it. If you want to do something, you have the right to do it" [ ]
"But you dont need anything. You have everything", I tell him.
Rip looks at me "No. I dont."
"No, I dont"
Theres a pause and then I ask "Oh shit, Rip, what dont you have?"
"I dont have anything to lose." (Page 177)
When he says this, Rip reveals something that appears primordial for the general understanding of Elliss novels. When they adopt this attitude, their first goal is to find some pleasure, but also, and mostly, to take some risks. When they do something illegal, they take the risk to be arrested, to go to prison, and to lose everything. This attitude can be seen as another attempt at self-destruction. In the same way, Batemans behavior shows that he always lets the possibility to be caught by the police, when he threatens other characters out loud, when he confides his murderous desires to his beautician, or finally when he confesses his crimes to his lawyer (who, finally, does not believe him ). In spite of all this, and not without irony, neither Bateman, nor Clays friends get arrested or punished in any way. On the one hand, they can continue their misdeeds, but, on the other hand, their rebellion against the system is empty of meaning, as they are not stopped. All of the characters have lost their innocence, and they all seem to be above the law, and the police never has any interest in their misdeeds. For example, the detective inquiring on Owen's disappearance in American Psycho interrogates Bateman, and the detective himself exonerates him from the possible accusation, while Bateman does not have any alibi. Justice is strangely absent from Ellis novels, and all of the characters find pleasure in defying the law in any way. In the same way, in Glamorama, the terrorist group is in revolt against the society they live in. Their lives and careers as models only brought frustration to all of them. Once again, what they really want is never explicitly said. In the end of the novel, they are punished, but their deaths do not change a thing, as their final misdeed (a bomb attempt in a plane) kills hundreds of people. In Elliss novels, revolt is present, but, most of the time, it is empty of meaning, and leads to nothing. Still, the characters that revolt are a very narrow minority. The rest of the characters prefer to submit to the end of their desires, to the monotony and to the lack of taste of their lives. They surrender to the system, and this submission leads to boredom.
The question of boredom is central to Elliss novels. It is felt by all of the characters, and it can explain the behavior of some of them. First of all, we will try to explain the reasons for the characters boredom, and the effects it has on them. Then, we will study the fact that it is important inside the narrative, but also outside the narrative, as Ellis used literary effects to show his characters boredom. We will try to tell what are these effects. Finally, we will find out if Ellis suggests a solution to boredom, through a study of the ending of each novel.
Boredom is omnipresent in Elliss novels, and it is all the more paradoxical when you consider that Elliss novels can be seen as the selected pages of a diary. It may seem strange indeed that the narrators choose to tell about moments when they were bored to illustrate their lives. We can see this as a message Ellis wants to convey: in spite of all the money they have, and of all the possibilities that are offered to them, they are bored. We can find several explanations to their boredom.
First of all, their apathy can result from actual boredom. There is nothing to do, so the characters feel wearied:
It begins to rain in L.A.. [ ] Nothing much happens during the days it rains. One of my sisters buys a fish and puts it in the Jacuzzi and the heat and chlorine kill it. (Less than Zero, page 104)
In this passage, the characters are bored because there is nothing they can do "during the days it rains". Then, we can remark that they begin to do random things, just to occupy their time, like, in this case, killing a fish. Even Clays two young sisters, who are fourteen and twelve years old, take a sadistic pleasure to watch an animal die. This can add to the impression that the characters innocence is lost from a very young age. This kind of attitude can (partly) explain the destructive behavior of some characters: they have to pass their time, and then, they find amusing to make (or watch) other people suffer. This can be the reason for Clays friends attitude. They are destructive, and they become more and more out of control, because they are bored. Another character that feels an intense boredom is Victor, in Glamorama, when he boards on a transatlantic ship to England in the second part of the novel. First of all, he is bored because of his cynicism: Victor thinks he is surrounded by "old people", and he did not want to go there at first, but he had to because of his urgent need for money. His thoughts reveal his boredom:
In the sky, theres never any trace of sun [ ] yet its always bright in a dull way. (Page 189)
Surrounded by so much boring space, five days is a long time to stay unimpressed (Page 189)
The second night of the voyage I had another boring dinner in the Queens Grill. (Page 193)
Victor is bored: the life on board appears monotonous and not pleasurable enough for him. Victor is forced to do a large number of activities there in order to kill his boredom:
Jurassic Park was the only movie playing in the Ships Dolby-equipped auditorium so I ended up in the casino a lot, uselessly gambling away the money Palakon had left me, dropping a thousand dollars worth of chips at the 21 table in what seemed like a matter of minutes. (Page 192)
Victor acts like a child in a way: he is bored, and feels that he has to find some amusement. What is paradoxical here is that he wastes, while he desperately needs some. It may reveal the fact that he cannot live without showing off. Victor needs to show that he is rich and that he belongs to the higher class, although he does not have any money left:
The sommelier Id befriended by ordering a $200 bottle of semi-decent red wine [ ] brought me another small tin of Beluga, recommended the foie gras [and] went back to the business of his life. (Page 193)
This is what partly causes Victors boredom: he is living a very exciting and busy life of luxury, and he meets a lot of different people, and on the boat he feels as if he was in prison. On the boat, he is kept cut off from the world, and this is what makes tedious his time on the boat. The fact is that the characters do not know what to do with their money and with the huge amount of free time they have, and then, they feel genuinely bored. Their way of living makes it impossible for them to live a "normal" life, they have to find other amusements that suit their way of life. In some way, most of Elliss characters can be seen as spoilt children, always looking for new toys, and this is the cause of their boredom.
There is indeed genuine boredom to be found in the novels by Ellis, but most of the time, the characters are bored because their negativity prevents them from taking the opportunities that are offered to them. This is particularly important in Less than Zero, especially the character of Clay, who represents the archetype of the bored teenager. By "bored teenager", it is to be understood not only a young person who suffers from actual boredom, but rather a young person who rejects the life he is living and the world he evolves in for no reason, as an expression of teenage rebellion. Still, this rejection of what his life used to be is a normal step in his existence. The teenager needs to destroy what his life used to be, in order to become an adult. In this case, none of these characters seem to become more mature. The mayhem they cause bring them no deeper knowledge of themselves or more freedom. Clay represents very well this category, as his main psychological feature is to be negative. He is so negative that his boredom becomes perpetual, and nothing can turn him away from this ennui.
I stand there for a pretty long time and Blair, after helping me lift the suitcases out of the trunk grins at me and asks "Whats wrong?", and I say "Nothing" and Blair says "You look pale" and I shrug and we say goodbye and she gets into her car and drives away. (Page 2)
This passage is located in the very beginning of the novel. We have just encountered two characters: the narrator (Clay, but we do not k now his name yet) and Blair. We do not know anything about them, nor about their past, only the place the novel takes place in (Los Angeles). The least we can say is that the incipit does not give the reader a lot of information. Still, it is already gives a clue about Clays personality. He has hardly arrived in Los Angeles that he already feels bad. In the same way, although Clay does not mention any feeling of sickness, he appears ill at ease in this passage (as Blair makes him remark, "Whats wrong?"). Then, he has a reaction that is going to come recurrently back "I shrug". Clay already appears as a negative character, as the only sentence he utters in this passage is "Nothing". Once again, he appears as a puppet in Elliss hands: he has no personality, does not make any choice and he does not express an opinion either. In this passage, he contents himself with "shrugging" which is a very childish reaction, or at least, a reaction of complete disinterest. In the same way, he hardly enjoys his fathers invitation for dinner:
I dont really want to go out to lunch today, would rather be at the beach or sleeping or out by the pool, but Im pretty nice and nod a lot and pretend to listen to listen to all his questions about college and I answer them pretty sincerely. (Page 33)
Clay fakes everything he does in this passage: he does not want to have dinner with his father but goes all the way, and he pretends to follow the conversation, as he "nods a lot" (which, in fact, highlights his complete disinterest in what his father says), hardly listens to the questions hes being asks, and answers only half truthfully. Once again, it shows that everything is ruled by appearances, even family relationships. No honesty is possible since none of the characters is completely truthful in his attitude towards the others. Clay never explicitly says that he is bored, but his attitude and his thoughts reflect a certain reluctance to act. Hes perpetually apathetic, whatever he does, and this boredom has a tendency to modify the narrative (we will study this point in the next part).
Finally, some characters are bored because of their cynicism. Some of them are so used to live in luxury, and to have high standards of living that they are blasés, and very quickly they feel wearied when confronted to more "ordinary" people or places As we have said earlier, this is the case, in Glamorama, for Victor, at least during his transatlantic crossing. To spend his time, "as Jurassic Park was the only movie playing in the ships Dolby-equipped auditorium", he goes to the casino and spends an awful lot of money. He is also mocking the other passengers:
Old couples sat on long couches everywhere, trying to complete massive jigsaw puzzles that they were getting absolutely nowhere with. (Page 192)
Victors life on the ship has nothing to do with the life he lives in New York, and this bothers him. To kill this boredom, he feels that he has to continue to live a life of luxury, although he is ruined. The fact is that Victor cannot realize that he has to live in a different way, and he drowns his boredom in a haze of tranquilizers and of alcohol:
In my cabin I opened a complimentary bottle of Perrier Jouet and downed two crumbled Xanax with it and then slumped into an overstuffed armchair. (Page 190)
In the same way, Bateman is terminally bored during some of the dinners he shares with the women he dates, because of he is cynical and very contemptuous. Bateman shows a huge lack of interest, and is widely bored by his very talkative girlfriend, Evelyn:
Evelyns face seems chalky to me now, her mouth lined with a purple lipstick that gives off an almost startling effect, and I realise that shes belatedly taken Tim Prices advice to stop using her tanning lotion. Instead of mentioning this and have her bore me silly with inane details, I talk about Tim girlfriends, Meredith, whom Evelyn despises for reasons never made quite clear to me. (Page 119)
Although Bateman is an unstoppable talker, he is very quickly bored by the other characters conversation ("inane details", although Bateman is the one that talks in length about the beauty products he uses every day). This passage underlines the fact that Batemans boredom is also due to his contempt towards other people, even towards his girlfriends and his so-called friends. Bateman is not the only character to react in such a way. His colleagues also throw their mutual contempt at each others face during their meetings in various bars, restaurants or clubs, as they all hate each other cordially. This can be illustrated by Batemans comments about his colleagues: he hates all of them for no precise reason, and would even kill the ones he appreciates, such as Craig McDermott:
I have a knife with a serrated blade in the pocket of my Valentino jacket and Im tempted to gut McDermott with it right here in the entranceway. (Page 52)
Ironically, still in American Psycho, other characters that feel bored because they are too cynical are the two East-Village "artists" invited by Evelyn for dinner, partly to "entertain" her guests. They reject their hosts contempt, in a very humorous way
Evelyn, in an attempt to start a conversation, says, after what seems a long, thoughtful silence:
"Vanden goes to Camden."
"Oh really?" Timothy asks icily. "Where is that?"
"Vermont." Vanden answers without looking up from her paper. I look over at Stash to see if hes pleased with Vandens blatant lie but he acts as if he wasnt listening, as if he were in some other room or some punk rock club in the bowels of the city, but so does the rest of the table, which bothers me since I am fairly sure we all know its located in New Hampshire. (Pages 13-14)
If Evelyn had invited these people as clowns, their preys are not as naïve as she thinks they are. Vanden and Stash both appear as cynical as their guests. They despise Bateman and his peers, because of what they represent. Yuppies are snobbish, vain, arrogant and totally devoid of culture. Bateman and his friends behavior appears completely strange to Vanden and Stash, because the firsts are overly mannered, which in fact, barely hide their lack of personality. They overdo their boredom, by acting in a completely impolite and childish way: Stash stares at his plate and Vanden reads a magazine, while their hosts try to impress them
Some of the characters feel bored not just because of the lack of distraction that they have (most of the time, they are offered a large choice of things to do), but also and mainly because of the emptiness and the artificiality of their lives. This influence their personality and they become quickly uninterested, and even contemptuous towards other characters. We cannot say that all of the characters are genuinely bored, as their detached behavior is fabricated, in order to look "cool". Still, boredom is always present in filigree, and Ellis manages to recreate this boredom through various literary effects
It is, indeed, paradoxical to write a novel that deals, at least in part, with boredom. We can wonder how it can be possible to write about a state in which nothing happens, especially in a novel written in the first person. Still, Ellis manages to use various literary effects to illustrate the boredom his characters feel, and to make the reader understand that the character feels annoyed, why he is so and what are his reactions in such a case
First of all, boredom can be felt in the way passages in direct speech are written. This can especially be found in Less than Zero. For example, in this passage, Clay listens to a conversation with only half an ear.
Kim takes a hit off before hugging both of us and saying "Happy New Year", then leads us into a high-ceilinged entrance room and tells us she just moved in three days ago and that "Moms in England with Milo" and that they havent had time to furnish it yet. But the floors are carpeted, she tells us, and says that its a good thing and I dont ask her why its a good thing. She tells us that the house is pretty old, and the guy who owned it before was a Nazi. On the patios, there are these huge pots holding small trees with swastikas painted on them. "Theyre called Nazi Pots", Kim says. (Page 70)
This passage is to be put in contrast with the usual reports of direct speech. Direct speech occupies three quarters (or at least two thirds) of the novels written by Ellis. We find, such passages, in indirect speech, in the middle of directly reported dialogues. Thus, the way this passage is organized can give us clues about the effects that it is supposed to have on the reader. First of all, the passage quoted here, although it is rather long, is composed of two sentences only. These sentences are rather long, are almost devoid of punctuation that could mark a pause (there are indeed commas, but only to underline "she tells us"). It is made difficult to read for the reader because the propositions on the first sentences are all subordinated to "she tells us". Moreover, a lot of information are given here, in a rather important flow, and in a very clipped manner: "she tells us and that and that " We can say that Clays perception plays an important role on the transcription of what Kim says. On the other hand, we can suppose that he does not hear everything she says, but this is dubious, since the amount of information given is rather important in a sequence that is supposed to be rather short. The reader is made to understand that Clay does not have an interest in what Kim says, judging by his only intervention in the passage quoted ("I dont ask her why its a good thing"). Clay only listens with a distract ear. What is peculiar in this passage is the insertion of sentences in direct speech, "Moms in England with Milo" and "theyre called Nazi Pots". This can be done in order to underline Kims exact words (parents seem strangely absent in Less than Zero, and the second quote connotes horror and ordinary madness). This can also be done because they are the only sentences Clay fully understands. In the same way, in Glamorama, Victor reports bits of conversation he only overhears:
Conversation revolves around how Mark Vanderloo "accidentally" ate an onion and felt sandwich the other night while viewing the Rob Lowe sex tapes, which Mark found "disappointing"; the best clubs in New Zealand; the injuries someone sustained at a Metallica concert in Pismo Beach; how Hurley Thompson disappeared from a movie set in Phoenix (I have to bite my tongue); what sumo wrestlers actually do; a gruesome movie Jonathan just finished shooting, based on a starfish one of the producers found behind a fence in Nepal; a threesome someone fell into with Paul Schrader and Bruce Wagner; spinning lettuce; the proper pronunciation of "ooh la la." (Page 157)
Contrary to the preceding passage, here the conversation lasts for quite a long while, and subjects are summed up. What is striking here is the futility and sometimes the absurdity of the subjects dealt with in this passage ("spinning lettuce", the "gruesome" film and its ridiculous subject). Victor seems completely bored, and is following the conversation only remotely, although he does not confess this openly. Once again, this passage is very clipped. This time, semicolons separate fragments of sentences. The propositions that compose this sentence are all subordinated to the same main clause "conversation revolves around " It is the contrast between the omnipresence of direct speech and such passages in indirect speech that can make us think that Ellis chose to show his narrators lack of interest thanks to this opposition.
We can also find clues revealing the characters boredom in the vocabulary they use, and also thanks to some recurring expressions. In Less than Zero, Clay is very negative and can never formulate a clear decision: "Nothing", that we can already find on page 2, is the answer to most of the questions hes being asked. In the same way, he shows his weariness thanks to some sentences such as "Im too tired to get up and stand by the window" (Page 3), "I dont say anything" (Page 11), ""You look unhappy", she says [ ] "You do too", I say, hoping that she wont say anything else." (Page 11.) "I dont want to go back to the main room." (Page 4) "I get the feeling that it doesnt matter a whole lot to Rip whether I stay or go." (Page 25) "The girl, whos sitting next to me, is drunk and has her hand on my thigh and is now asking if the Whiskey burned down and I tell her yeah, sure." (Page 108). This last quotation highlights Clays disinterest in people surrounding him and his boredom in general. First of all, the way this quotation is organized makes us think that Clay is bored, thanks to the juxtaposition of clauses, only linked with "and", and the fact that all of these propositions depend from the same subject, "the girl". This has the effect thanks to the length of the sentence and to the fact that all of the events reported are put on the same plan to make the reader understand that Clay is completely bored by this girls attitude. Then, what is also striking here is Clays answer to the girls question. If the character asks about something which did or did not happen (the question is left unanswered), Clay uses a very convenient answer "yeah, sure". That way, Clay does not contradict her and / or does not have to tell her wrong. He does not have o follow the conversation either, as he answers "sure", which, in fact, underlines his complete disinterest without making angry the person hes talking to (especially when we think that "yeah, sure" cannot be an answer to the question hes being asked). This very convenient answer comes back anaphorically in Less than Zero:
"Why dont we go to Palm Springs for a week while youre back?" He suggests.
"Yeah, Palm Springs. Sure" I tell him. (Page 28)
"You should come over, dude"
"Yeah, sure, Rip." We walk to the door. (Page 26)
"Clay did you ever love me?" [ ]
"Yeah, sure, I guess." (Page 191)
This repetition of "sure" shows how limited Clays critical mind is, and highlights the fact that he is perpetually bored, and cannot be bothered with contradicting the characters hes talking to, or even to continue the conversation. In the same way, Bateman also has recurring sentences that betray his boredom and his envy to escape a certain situation. Bateman constantly repeats "I have videotapes to return":
"Where are you going?" [Luis] whispers, bewildered.
"I Ive gotta " Slumped, I look around the crowded dining room, then back at Luiss quivering, yearning face. "Ive gotta return some videotapes", I say, jabbing at the elevator button. (Page 160)
"Patrick" [Courtney] says. "Dont leave me here. I dont want you to go."
"I have to return some videos." I lie again, handing her my empty champagne glass, just another camera flashes somewhere. I walk away. (Page 127)
What may seem to be a good excuse becomes increasingly ridiculous and devoid of meaning as the reader goes further in the novel. Their conversation seems stereotyped, as if it was ready in advance, in order to face any disturbing question, or to escape any situation that could bring trouble. In an ironic manner, this answer is even used when a detective questions Bateman on Paul Owens disappearance:
"Do you remember where you were on the night of Pauls disappearance?" He checks his book. "Which was on the twenty fourth of June?"
"Gosh I guess " I think about it "I was probably returning videotapes. (Page 273)
This motif of repetitions is very present in Elliss novels, we will come back to this point later on.
Apart from revealing their duplicity, the discrepancy between the characters thoughts and their actions is also used by Ellis to illustrate their boredom, as their thoughts have most of the time nothing to do with the conversation they are following or the activity they are supposed to perform. This reveals their lack of interest in what is said, or in what the others do. This difference makes the novel harder to read and entangles the plot some more. For example, in American Psycho, Bateman never listens to his girlfriend Evelyn:
" he went to Deerfield then Harvard. She went to Hotchkiss then Radcliffe." Evelyn is talking but Im not listening. Her dialogue overlaps her own dialogue. Her mouth is moving but Im not hearing anything and I cant listen, I cant really concentrate, since my rabbit has been cut to look just like a star! Shoestring French fries surround it and chunky red salsa has been smeared across the top of the plate which is white and porcelain and two feet wide to give the appearance of a sunset but it looks like one big gunshot wound to me and shaking my head slowly in disbelief I press a finger into the meat, leaving the indentation of one finger, then another, and then I look for a napkin, not my own, to wipe my hand with." (Page 123)
If Evelyn talks about another characters career, Batemans attention is reserved to his plate and he is captured by the way his dish is arranged. In this passage, the reader gets the feeling that Evelyn herself does not have control of what she says, and that she cannot stop talking, and can only pour out banalities. In the same way, Batemans description of his plate gives the reader the same impression. He cannot help detailing inane things, and this time with a humorous purpose. His boredom is not explicitly articulated, but is suggested by his behavior. It is to be noted that when Bateman is bored he has a tendency to become violent and morbid ("it looks like a big gunshot wound"). Ironically, if he does not listen, Evelyn does not pay much more attention to what he says:
"If Im not eating this tonight, and Im not, I want some cocaine." I announce. But I havent interrupted Evelyn. Shes unstoppable, a machine and she continues talking. (Page 123)
The complete discrepancy between the subject of their conversation and the object of Batemans thoughts reveal the depth of Batemans boredom, and suggests how far their respective worlds can be. This also gives an indication of how vapid and artificial their couple can be. In the same way, the introductory scene to Less than Zero already reflects Clays boredom:
She says, "People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles". Though this sentence shouldnt bother me. It stays in my mind for an uncomfortably long time. Nothing else seems to matter. [ ] It seems easier to hear that people are afraid to merge rather than "Im pretty sure that Muriel is anorexic" or the singer on the radio crying out about magnetic waves. Nothing else seems to matter to me but those ten words. Not the warm winds, which seem to propel the car down the empty asphalt freeway, or the faded smell of marijuana which still faintly permeates Blairs car. (Pages 1-2)
Clay begins his story by delivering a sentence that will recurrently come back throughout the novel. Clay seems mystified by this sentence, which has, in fact, no hidden meaning, it is just that automobilists are actually afraid to join Californian motorways. But for Clay, this sentence becomes a summary of what the society they live in is: people are afraid to be swallowed up by the world that surrounds them, and thus they have to find ways to resist this, and to assert their individual identities. This is why this sentence becomes more important than the rest. Right from the beginning of the novel, Clay already exposes his boredom and his indifference towards the world around him ("nothing else seems to matter but these ten words"). He already appears bored by what Blair says. He can hear her, but her words do not register in his mind. He does not even care that much about Muriels anorexia, although Muriel is one of Clays closest friends. Thanks to the complete opposition between these characters thoughts and what they are supposed to do, Ellis manages to suggest that his characters be in a very deep boredom. It also gives a comic distance effect between what they show and what they really think.
If boredom is not the central theme to Elliss works, it appears in filigree in all of his novels. As we said earlier, it can be seen as an explanation to some characters ill behavior. Moreover, Ellis chose to make boredom appear in his novels, through the effects we have just dealt with, since it is part of his characters life, and shows how unsatisfied they can be. Still, we can wonder if Ellis characters find a way to escape their boredom and to find happiness. This will be the subject of our study in next part.
We have stated that most of the characters in Elliss novels are bored. We have also dealt with the cause of their boredom and the way they react towards it, but also the way Ellis manages to write, in a paradoxical manner, about a state of nothingness. Through a study of the endings of Less than Zero, American Psycho and Glamorama, we shall see if Ellis frees his characters from boredom or not. The emphasis will be mostly put on the narrators, but we will wonder if other characters are freed from their boredom. Finally, the endings of Elliss novels do not bring definite conclusions to the stories, as the plot is not that central to his novels. We will try to say what the effects on the reader are.
The ending to Less than Zero is predictable, and is announced right from the beginning of the novel:
All it comes down to is that Im a boy coming home for a month and meeting someone whom I havent seen for four months and people are afraid to merge.
Clay is in California for his Christmas holidays only. He left New Hampshire, where he studies, to go to Los Angeles where his family lives, and where he grew up. He is not there for a long time, and knows it. Although he shows some signs of hesitation about going back to university or not, the ending to Less than Zero can be foretold:
"Are you going back?" Rip asks, not missing a beat [ ]
"I dont know. I suppose so." [ ]
"Well, I think you should go back", he says, pocketing the money. [ ]
"I dont know if I want to. [ ] Things arent that different there." (Pages 24-25)
The lack of surprise does not have a lot of importance anyway, as the plot is rather minimalist and can be summed up in one sentence: a young man comes back home, meets his friends, is disgusted by his life and decides to return to university. Building up a plot was apparently not Elliss goal, as he wanted to draw a social satire through his novel. Then, in the end of the novel, after he has been completely disgusted by the life he used to live and with the people who used to be his friends, he decides to go back to New Hampshire. One page 180, we find the first indication that he is actually going to leave: "the week before I leave, one of my sisters cats disappears". Finally, just before his departure Clay states:
When I left there was nothing much in my room except a couple of books, the television, stereo, the mattress, the Elvis Costello poster, eyes still staring out the window, the shoebox with the pictures of Blair in the closet. There was also a poster of California that I had pinned up onto my wall. One of the pins had fallen out and the poster was old and torn down the middle and was tilted and banging unevenly from the wall. I drove out to Topanga Canyon that night and parked near an old deserted carnival that still stood, alone in a valley, empty, quiet. From where I was I could hear the wind moving through the canyons. The Ferris wheel pitched slightly. A coyote howled. Tents flapped in the warm wind. It was time to go back. I had been home a long time. (Page 194)
Ironically, if Clay was bored in a very active world, this last but one chapter is characterized by the impression of silence given out by the text and the lack of activity in it. Clay takes a last look to his room (and does a description of his room, which is rather similar to the one he did in the beginning of the novel, where he also states that when he "enters [his] room, and see[s] that it hasnt changed" (page 3). Finally, he isolates himself for a farewell to Los Angeles in a deserted place, after breaking up (for good?) with Blair, and after realizing that he has nothing to do with his friends anymore. Clay does not get rid of his boredom, since negativity is part of his personality. Moreover, he puts an end to his hollow and pointless relationship with Blair, which did not make him any happier anyway. Still, he seems to find some peace in the deserted carnival, which explains his final statement, "it was time to go back". Clays departure can be seen as a kind of escape from the life he was living in California. We are not told if Clay manages to get rid of his boredom, but he does not seem very happy at the end of the novel. On the whole, Clay seems to be perpetually unsatisfied, and in some way, we can imagine that the boredom he suffers from can never find a cure.
In American Psycho, Bateman is bored because he is cynical and because the life hes living is repetitive and can only lead to madness. In order to get rid of his boredom, Bateman is also a murderer. Still, the society in its whole seems to be flawed. The novel already begins with a warning:
ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank (Page 1)
The reader is thus warned about the content and the general tone of the novel. We may hope that Bateman is cured, or at least that he would be stopped from killing, but the rest of the novel shows that nothing changes for Bateman. Worse, he is becoming less and less controllable as the novel goes forward. Even when he is stopped, once by the police, and a second time by a Pakistanese taxi driver, Bateman does not renounce and continues to kill:
"Youre a dead man, Abdullah." I repeat, no joke. "Count on it."
"Yeah? And youre a yuppie scumbag. Which is worse?"
He starts the cab up and pulls away from me. While walking back to the highway, I stop, choke back a sob, my throat tightens.
"I just want to " Facing the skyline, through all the baby talk, I murmur. "Keep the game going." (Page 394)
For him, his behavior is just part of a game: Bateman does not care about his victims life, as he treats them as objects. Then, we can say that the ending to American Psycho does not bring an actual conclusion: Bateman does not change, and he is not arrested either. He runs free and probably continues his dirty deeds after the events related in the novel, as his "guest appearance" in Glamorama lets us think:
Patrick Bateman, whos with a bunch of publicists and the three sons of a well-known producer, walks over, shakes my hand, eyes Chloe, asks how the clubs coming along, if tomorrow nights happening, says Damien invited him, hands me a cigar, weird stains on the lapel of his Armani suit that costs as much as a car. (P. 38)
We understand that Bateman did not change at all, that he is now working in the entertainment industry, that he still has his taste for expensive designer suits, and apparently still leads his "double life" ("weird stains on the lapel of his Armani suit"). In the same way, Bateman does not get rid of his cynicism. Even at the beginning of his relationship with Jean, which starts towards the end of the novel, Bateman already shows contempt for her, and even tries to cheat on her:
Nina Goodrich was wearing a sequinned dress by Matsuda and refused to give me her number, even though Jean was in the womens room downstairs. (Page 389)
When I find the strength to look back at [Jean], it strikes me how useless, boring, physically beautiful she really is. (Page 379)
But once again, his relationship with Jean is not satisfactory and will never be. Bateman can never get rid of the boredom he feels, that transformed into madness, a long time before his adult age (at one moment he remembers "the Christmas Eve when [he] raped one of [his] maids", page 342). He was born a monster, not able to love. Bateman was, is, and will be a misanthrope, and worse, he will never get rid of his psychopathy, and does not want to.
And though the coldness I have always felt leaves me, the numbness doesnt and never will. This relationship [with Jean] will probably lead to nothing this didnt change anything. (Page 379)
American Psycho, as a novel, has a rather peculiar ending. It closes on this sentence:
Above one of the doors covered by red velvet drapes in Harrys is a sign in letters that match the drapes colour are the words THIS IS NOT AN EXIT. (Page 399)
Like in the beginning of the novel, what is written is imitated and integrated inside the narrative: the capital letters are there to make the reader feel as if he was actually seeing the sign. Moreover, this sentence has implications in relation to the narrative: the end of the novel brings no conclusion, and leaves the reader unsatisfied, as if a sequel to the book was planned (which is not, actually). The reader is also left furious, in a way, as Bateman runs free, continues to kill and is hardly punished (the Armenian taxi driver only takes his sunglasses, wallet and watch from him; the police does not manage to catch him even after the pursuit; his lawyer does not believe him when he confesses his crimes). The reader is made to know that Bateman will continue his wrongdoing, and that nobody really wants to stop him. Worse, there is no trace of the murders he has committed: the bodies he left at Paul Owens apartment have disappeared, there are no newspaper articles and Owen seems to be finally alive. There is then the possibility that Bateman only fantasized these murders, which is left unanswered in Elliss novels, but which is privileged in the film adaptation by Mary Harron. This can create a certain doubt in the readers mind, and no definitive explanation will be given. Finally, this sentence, "THIS IS NOT AN EXIT", can be used to describe Batemans situation: he is trapped in the world he is living in, left alone to his own madness, and not finding a way to escape his empty and frustrating life.
In Glamorama, the problem with the ending is really different. Glamorama follows a well-developed plot, a very complex conspiracy is exposed throughout the narrative. Then, a first ending brings a definite conclusion to all the events that happened previously: all of the terrorists have been slaughtered by their leader, Victor kills Bobby, but his gesture is vain, as a bomb explodes in a plane, causing hundreds of victims. In this, this "first ending" can be seen as an imitation of the spy-novel style. But then, it would be done in an ironically tragic way, as the villains are defeated, but the hero cannot do anything to prevent the victims deaths. This "first ending" ends with the description of the plane crash. Then, the narrative becomes something completely different: the narrator of the following part is still Victor, but not the real one. It is the double, who replaced Victor after his departure from New York, who speaks. This is very troubling, as we are made aware of this really late in this part:
I punch in the code, breathing hard. "Come on, Come on". Another signal. Another code. And then I dial another number. "Its DAN". I say into the mouthpiece. (Page 459)
Then, we learn that he meets the girl Victor thought was Lauren Hynde, who is actually called "Eva". While the reader is made to understand that Victor came back to his "normal" life, it is then revealed that the double took his place, and replaced him perfectly well. He even reached a fame that Victor himself would not have reached. Anyway, the real Victor did not come back to his previous life, but then we can wonder where he is. The answer comes in the sixth and last book: Victor is in Italy in the end of the novel, where another paramilitary group keeps him, which motivations remain unclear. Finally, after his last jailer is killed, Victor is free at last. Symbolically, we can say that, in Glamorama, Victor goes from one prison to another: he is a prisoner of social rules and of his various obligations (at work, etc ). Then, he feels as if he were in prison on the boat that takes him to England. Once he arrives in London, he is imprisoned by the terrorists, and he is taken to Paris. He escapes and kills his jailer, but he is captured again and is kept in Italy. In the genuine ending of the novel, he is finally free (for good?). Victor compares his newly found freedom to a mountain that he has to climb.
Im staring at the mural behind the bar and in the mural there is a giant mountain, a vast field spread out below it where villages are celebrating in a field of long grass that blankets the mountains dotted with tall white flowers, and in the sky above the mountain its morning and the sun is spreading itself across the murals frame, burning over the small cliffs and the low-hanging clouds that encircle the mountains peak, and a bridge strung across a pass through the mountains will take you to any point that you need to arrive at, because behind that mountain is a highway and along that highway are billboards with answers on them who, what, where, when, why and Im surging forward, ascending, sailing through dark clouds, rising up, a fiery wind propelling me, and soon its night and stars hang in the sky above the mountain, revolving as they burn. The stars are real. The future is that mountain. (Page 482)
Symbolically, and thanks to this passage, we can say that Victor is the only character created by Ellis to become better at the end of the novel. Although Victor has lost everything (his work, his friends, his girlfriend, and even his identity), he has gained freedom, and he has gotten rid of his cynicism and of the boredom that resulted from it. ("Im falling forward but also moving up toward the mountain"). For this, Victor had to suffer a symbolic descent into hell and into horror with the terrorists, and to lose everything that attached him to his previous life ("Im surging forward, ascending, sailing through dark clouds, a fiery wind propelling me"). In some way, Victor ascends again after his descent into hell. The difference is that Victors reconstruction will be long, but this time he feels that he has time. Victor seems now decided to live a better, uncomplicated life, and to stop following appearances, which almost led him to death. In a way, we can say that Victor is one of the only characters created by Ellis to have a bright future in front of him. It is also the only optimistic ending Ellis gave to one of his novels, although the facts related in Glamorama are among the most awful and the most unbearable Ellis ever wrote.
In general, the endings to Elliss novels bring no positive change to the narrators situation. Their accounts just reveal how mad and empty the society they live in is, and it just scares them, forcing them to flee (Clay, Victor) or just makes them completely sick (Bateman). No punishment or any relief is brought to the narrators, and the reader is made to know that nothing will ever change them. Monsters they are and monsters they will remain. The only hope Ellis leaves is for Victor, once he understood how useless it was to play the game of social rules, and to live the empty and vain life he was living. He is freed and is on his way to becoming a better man
3) The Failure of Humanity
We have said in the previous part that Elliss characters are hardly the human beings they appear to be. Throughout the novel, the reader is made aware that they are very remote from humanity, in spite of appearances. In the same way, the relationships between the characters in question are very artificial, and no genuine positive feeling (love or friendship) exists. Jealousy, envy and ambition lead all the characters, and they suppress every attempt to benevolence. Still, after having stated about the characters in general, we have to deal with the role of women in the novels studied, and to try to see if the author shows more compassion for them. Finally, we will try to figure out if there are still "actual" human beings present, and what role they can play in contrast to the army of zombies that most of Ellis characters are.
None of Elliss characters could be called "human". If they can preserve the illusion that they are good, their behavior throughout the novel shows that it is nothing but a façade. Still, we can say that they were not flawed right from the start, but rather that they went through a process of dehumanization. This is especially true when we consider Bateman and his colleagues in American Psycho and the terrorist group in Glamorama. In American Psycho, we can say that they are dehumanized because they only care about themselves, and have completely lost their common sense. This is highlighted by their behavior towards characters they judge inferior, for example homeless people, taxi drivers or waiters:
Finally, exasperated, I ask, trying to appear casual, "You have? Really? Interesting. Just watch the road, Abdullah." (Page 391)
Our waiter reappears with a pepper shaker instead and insists on hanging around our table, constantly asking us at five-minute intervals if wed like "some pepper, perhaps?" or "more pepper?" and once the fool moves over to another booth, whose occupants, I can see out of the corner of my eye, both cover their plates with their hands, I wave the maitre d and ask him:
"Could you please tell the waiter with the pepper shaker to stop hovering over our table? We dont want pepper. We havent ordered anything that needs pepper. No pepper. Tell him to get lost." (Page 335)
In American Psycho, all of the characters, not only Bateman, act in a contemptuous, and often insulting way. They feel superior, and thus they consider that they do not have to show any respect for "mediocre" people, such as the ones that "serve" them. They show absolutely no patience and no consideration for other characters, on which they look down. This is why, in some way, they have lost their humanity, since we can say that they have become too selfish and individualistic to care about the others. We can say that they are monstrously self-centered, although they pretend to be in favor of social progress.
"We have to provide food and shelter for the homeless and oppose racial discrimination and promote civil rights while also promoting equal rights for women." (American Psycho, page 16)
They are only interested in what concerns them directly, and they are awfully reactionary and racist. This was somewhat announced right from the beginning of the novel, knowing that the opening sentence of American Psycho is "Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here". This sentence announces the tone of the novel. American Psycho can be seen as a very pessimistic literary representation of mankind, since no character evolves in any positive way. This may hint at the fact that society transforms individuals into selfish monsters, without any consideration for others, although they hypocritically pretend to. This is what Ellis wants to criticize in his novel: people have become too narcissic and too selfish to have an interest in "local" misery, in opposition to what supporting great causes could add to your image. This is illustrated by this quotation:
Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief were things, emotions that no one really felt anymore. (Page 375).
Everything that attached the characters to humanity, that is to say their emotions are suppressed by the characters, as if they did not need them anymore
On the contrary, in Glamorama, the terrorists assume their lack of humanity. If in American Psycho monstrosity and cruelty mostly rest on a verbal point of view, in Glamorama, the terrorists are monsters and know it. They seem to have abandoned their humanity to their "cause", which remains ironically untold to the reader. They seem to despise mankind in its whole. Bobby Hughes, the leader of the faction, chose his accomplice in a very careful way, as witnesses his girlfriend Jamie Fields:
"I cant tell you exactly what I was motivated by I cant really go into detail it had been an unhappy period in my life I hated my body the way I looked I was taking pills, I was seeing shrinks, I went to the gym because I knew nobody would like me otherwise. [ ] There were things I wanted I wanted to be on the cover of more magazines I wanted to be beautiful I wanted to be rich I wanted to be famous." (Page 309)
This particular passage seems to highlight the fact that desires for more can only lead to madness. The fact that there is a kind of dictatorship of beauty, and that this very absolutism seems to lead the world and to command human relationships is seen as damageable in Glamorama ("I went to the gym because I knew nobody would like me otherwise"). In this case, it is all the more surprising because Jamie is a model, a genuine beauty ("[Bobby] told me I was physically perfect" (Page 309)), and in this passage she adopts the discourse of a frustrated teenager. In some way, in Ellis novels, we can say that the hatred felt for mankind begins with self-hate. This is true not only for Jamie, but also for Muriel in Less than Zero (although she does not seem to feel a particular animosity towards the world in its whole), and for Bateman and his colleagues. Although the latter are very narcissic and egoistic, they all want to be more beautiful, more fashionable, in other words to come as close as possible to a certain perfection, according to their standards. This quest for perfection adds to the process of dehumanization that is being engaged, since this search to become flawless is done to the detriment of moral qualities, and by extension to the detriment of what makes them human. Then, Jamies fame was built up in exchange of the terrible acts she has to commit, like Faust gained an eternal youth in exchange of his soul. Figuratively, Bobby Hughes can be seen as the Devil: he is tempting other characters because he is handsome and charming, but he is also very dangerous, and he is a traitor (after manipulating other models and turning them into terrorists, he slaughters them for no particular reason) and in some way he is immortal (although Victor kills him, he manages to cause some more victims in a final bomb attempt). Bobby is terminally evil, unable of any good deed, devoid of any positive feeling (his love for Jamie is fake, he betrays all of his so-called friends and feels no remorse for the deaths he causes). If we can say that most of the characters created by Ellis are evil, Bobby is undeniably the worst of all. Bateman is a monster, he acknowledges that he has only the appearance of a human being, still is stupidity tends to decredibilize him, and he seems able of good deeds: he is slightly in love with Jean, and in a chapter entitled "Summer", he tries to be nice to Evelyn, however cruel he can be.
I tried to make things work the weeks we were out there. Evelyn and I rode bicycles and jogged and played tennis. [ ] I bought her a puppy, a small black chow, which she named NutraSweet and fed dietetic chocolate truffles to. (American Psycho, page 280)
On the other hand, Bobby really is inhuman, and seems to like to cause harm for no reason. His reactions to the murders show no trace of remorse.
"Look", Bobby says. "I understand where youre coming from, Victor. We plant bombs. The government disappears suspects."
"The CIA has more blood soaked into his hands than the PLO and the IRA combined. [ ] My god, Victor, you of all people should know that."
"Were killing civilians," I whisper.
"Twenty five thousand homicides were committed in our country last year Victor. [ ] Is it so much better to be uninvolved, Victor? [ ] Everyones involved. [ ] Thats something you need to know." (Glamorama, Pages 314-315)
To justify himself, Bobby uses a worn-out rhetoric used by terrorist groups to justify their action, in fact to hide the fact that the deaths he caused were only emanating from his own will. The other terrorists (Bruce Rhinebeck and Bentley Harrods in particular) appear to be doubles of their leader, sharing his fanaticism and his lack of remorse. In this case, it is their misdeeds that erased the human side of their personality, when they became cold-blooded assassins. Still, unlike Bateman, they are all punished in the end of the novel, but even this punishment seems to be vain, since the harm they did cannot be undone.
This tendency to try to avoid feeling any kind of emotion tends to transform the characters into zombies, since the world seems to revolve around them but they seem insensitive to this motion. Moreover, there always seems to be a gap between them and the characters they are talking to, and the fact that they always seem to repeat programmed sentence that they slip into the conversation transforms them into robots. Finally, it seems as if they faced a lot of difficulties to express their emotions, and when they do, what they show does not represent their real feelings.
"Clay, did you ever love me?" [ ]
"No", I almost shout. "I never did", I almost start to laugh. (Less than Zero, page 191)
In this very case, Clays reaction comes almost in counterpoint to the response he was expected to give. While Clay was supposed to show a discreet reaction and to feel sad to have to answer such a question, Clay "shout[s]" and "almost start[s] to laugh". This is a completely contradictory reaction, which shows the inner chaos inside Clays mind. The only time Clay has to express his feelings, he does it the wrong way round, and shows exactly the contrary of what he should show. Clay is almost like a robot, unable to show any proper feeling, and programmed to repeat the same empty and stereotypical sentences. He only has the appearances of a human being, but he is empty inside, psychologically and emotionally.
Elliss characters seem to have sacrificed their humanity to their social life. To "become somebody", they had to give up their souls. This can explain, in some way, the dryness of tone of the novels, and the general coldness of the narrators towards the terrible subjects they deal with. In some way, Ellis tends to show that modern societies tend to annihilate humanity and finer feelings to replace them with greed, envy and jealousy. Finally, like in Pandoras myth, hope seems to be trapped somewhere, and does not exist anymore.
The characters social lives appear to have become less important than their personal lives, since the latter are often sacrificed. Still, since the characters seem to have lost their benevolence, we can wonder if mutual relationships such as love and friendship have survived in this selfish world. It quickly appears that, like every "positive" feeling, they are eliminated to be replaced by greed and self-love. We will try to see how love and friendship remain very superficial and only serve the characters ambitions
Friendship seems to be at the very basis of Elliss novels, since all of the characters are supposed to be friends. In Less than Zero, the characters have been know each other from school, and are supposed to be "real" friends. In American Psycho, they are supposed to be "only" colleagues, but, judging by the time they spend together, they can be seen as friends. In Glamorama, Victor seems to be friends with a lot of celebrities. Still, when we look closer, we quickly remark that "friendship" is an unknown concept to Elliss characters. Characters that are supposed to be friends are in fact jealous of each other, they have no compassion or sympathy for one another. For example, in Less than Zero, Clay and Rip share a relationship of dependence, since Rip is Clays drug dealer, but they cannot be called friends.
Rip is getting restless and I get the feeling that it doesnt matter a whole lot to Rip whether I stay or go. (Page 25)
The characters from Less than Zero are friends mostly because they go to the same places, because they know the same people, organize parties to which they invite each other, and are roughly from the same environments, but they have nothing in common. The proof for this is that, when Muriel faces her problems of anorexia and of drug addiction, none of her so-called friends really wants to do something to help her, which is shown by Clays behavior when he visits her at the hospital.
The curtains are closed and she asks me to open them. After I do, she puts her sunglasses on and tells me that shes having a nicotine fit and tells me that shes having a nicotine fit and that shes "absolutely dying" for a cigarette. I tell her I dont have any. She shrugs and turns the volume up on the television and laughs at the people doing the exercises. She doesnt say that much, which is just as well since I dont say much either. (Page 37)
In this passage, Clay satisfies his conscience when he visits Muriel, but he does not really show some sympathy for her. He went there to try and cheer her up, which can be seen as an act of friendship and of compassion, but his behavior there is not really compassionate. He does not talk and feels more sorry for himself than he does for Muriel.
In American Psycho, in a very strange way, characters that are supposed to be friends always tend to betray each other. Either they steal each others girlfriend, or they want to steal the others job or possessions, or, in any way, to assert some sort of superiority on the other. They all want to impress their peers, in order to serve their ambitions. The society they live in favors individualism, and in such conditions, friendship is not thinkable. In American Psycho, characters stab each other in the back whenever they can (in the metaphorical sense for most of them and in the literal sense for Bateman). This can be seen in Batemans attempts to obtain some information from Paul Owen by befriending him:
When I press for information about the Fisher account he offers useless statistical data that I already knew about: how Rotschild was originally handling the account, how Owen came to acquire it. (Page 216)
Bateman pretends to be friendly to Owen in order to gather some information he needs, and to trap and to kill him. His thoughts reveal the contempt he feels for his rival:
Hes so drunk by the time dinners over that I (1) make him pay the check, which comes to two hundred and fifty dollars (2) make him admit what a dumb son-of-a-bitch he really is and (3) get him back to my place. (Page 216)
The fact that Bateman hates Owen (who hates him equally), but he needs to stay friendly to him, in order to get the information he needs, while the other likes to boast. In other words, in American Psycho, characters need other characters to get some data they might be needing, to have some ears to listen to what they say and to try and impress them, for their own self-pride. The characters do not care about their peers otherwise, and they try to ridicule them whenever they can.
"No", he says. "I have a touch-tone hooked up to program a Videonics VCR I bought at Hammacher Schlemmer." He walks away pulling his suspenders.
"How hip", I say tonelessly. (Page 50)
"Youll look like you consciously worked for this look", I say, then, suddenly upset, turn to McDermott. "Featherhead? How the hell did you get Featherhead from Leatherface?"
"Ah, cheer up, Bateman", he says, slapping me on the back, then massaging my neck. "Whats the matter? No shiatsu this morning?" (Page 155)
These two quoted sentences tend to reveal the artificial side of the characters "friendship". They are dependent on the others to exist, but all they look for is to show their superiority on their colleagues, to impress them, and at the same time to find other characters to compete with, as if to find examples of reflections, of models they want to conform to. In Glamorama, the problem appears to be very different: "positive" friendships seem to exist, but it remains mostly on the surface, at least in the first part of the novel. Victor seems to be friends with many characters. He has genuinely nice conversations with them, and he seems to be rather true to them. Still, some of the conversations appear very superficial:
"Hey man, youve got it made", Skeet says, relighting the cigar. "Youve got it made. Youre a pretty good model."
"Yeah? How come, Skeet?"
"Because youve got that semi-long thick hair thing going and those full lips and like a great physique." [ ]
"Hey, thanks, man." I say, looking both ways. "Far out". (Page 136)
In this precise passage, the character congratulates (and flatters) Victor for his success. The fact is that, although it is a nice conversation, it seems very superficial, and Victor seems to be absorbed by something else ("Im staring past Skeet "). Moreover, the character does not appear again after this scene, and the character only flatters Victor, and tells him what he wants to hear, and we can say that he is not really honest to him. Victor has a lot of acquaintances, but he has no "real" friend, not even his girlfriend, for whom he does not show any respect and on whom he cheats shamelessly. This is why he is not rescued when the terrorist group traps him. Finally, even inside the faction, there is no friendship between the members. The ones that die are not regretted, and are replaced soon after by a double:
[Tammy] is told to forget Bruce Rhinebeck immediately, shes told that he murdered the French premiers son, shes told that she should be grateful that shes unharmed. (Page 368)
Friendship does not exist at all inside the terrorist group, since they are all manipulated by their leader, and end up slaughtered by the latter in a final act of sheer savagery. The characters belonging to that group do not hide their aversion from each other, and they do not even try to pretend that they are friends, something we can remark in both of these quotations. Bruce, for example, is made responsible of all the crimes committed by Bobby, who is supposed to be his best friend. In the same way, artificial friendly relationships are made up between members of the faction, in order to follow the "script". The characters are instructed to act as if they were good friends:
"You both like Bruce. You dont want to hurt his feelings. [ ] Bruce is your best friend, Victor." (Page 326)
In Glamorama, Ellis depicts human relationships as artificial and vapid, since none of the characters can feel something positive towards another, not even love
We have just said that there could be no friendly relationships in Elliss novels. We can add that genuine love cannot be found in the novels in question either. All of the couples appear dysfunctional, and this is one of the causes for their unhappiness. First of all, some couples may not be "working" properly because of one of the characters involved in it does not feel any love for his or her partner. The first example for this is to be found in Less than Zero, with the less than happy couple formed by Blair and Clay. They seem to be together for quite a long time, although Clay does not seem to be attached in any way to her, although he seems to have kept some nice memories of his time with her:
Blair got tan and so did I, and by the end of the week, all we did was watch television, even though the reception wasnt too good, and drink bourbon, and Blair would arrange shells into circular patterns on the floor of the living room. (Page 52)
Clay seems to really have a good opinion of what his relationship with Blair was before. Still, some signs already foreshadowed the fact that their relationship was to fail:
When Blair muttered one night, while we sat on opposite sides of the living room "we should have gone to Palm Springs", I knew then it was time to leave. (Page 52)
Clays lack of interest in his couple shows that their affair is doomed, especially when it is put in contrast with Blairs infatuation with him. It is something that Blair tries to prove him in one of the final chapters of the novel:
"Did you ever love me?" I ask her back, though by know I cant even care.
"I thought about it and yeah, I did once. I mean I really did. Everything was all right for a while. You were kind." She looks down and then goes on. "But it was like you werent there. [ ] You never [tried]. Other people made an effort and you just It was just beyond you." (Page 192)
They stay together for no particular reason, especially on Clays side, since he does not even seem to be attracted to her anymore. Still, although Blair knows that Clay will never return her love, she is still infatuated with him, as she wants to hold him back at the very end of the novel.
In the same way, in American Psycho, the relationship between Bateman and Jean is only unilateral. Jean is deeply in love, almost devoted (in the religious sense of the word) to Bateman, her boss, and later, her lover. To say that Bateman is completely insensitive to her would be exaggerated, since he often says that she is his "secretary, who [he]ll probably end up marrying." Jean seems ready to everything to please him, while Bateman loathes her naiveté and her "lack of taste" (culturally and for the choice of the clothes). Still, she manages to impress him, in some way, and to appear superior to most of the women he dates:
When I find the strength to look back at her, it strikes me how useless, boring, physically beautiful she really is, and the question why not end up with her? Floats into my line of vision. An answer: she has a better body than most other girls I know. Another one: everyone is interchangeable anyway. One more: it does not really matter. (Page 379)
However, Bateman already states that he will not be able to give her back the love she feels for him:
I can admit to feeling a pang, something tightening inside, and before I can stop it, I find myself almost dazzled and moved that I might have the capacity to accept, though not return, her love. [ ] This relationship will probably lead to nothing This didnt change anything. I imagine her smelling clean, like tea (Page 379)
Once again, their relationship appears flawed right from the start, since only one of the two "lovers" has a genuine feeling for the other. Still, we can think that Bateman can find some stability and an uncomplicated relationship, contrary to the ones he had before. Still, their affair is bound to be unsatisfactory, and neither Jean nor Bateman are going to find happiness in their couple. It is also true for Jamie and Bobby Hughes in Glamorama (Jamie is completely in love with him, and he does not return her attentions). Still, these couples are the closest to share real love, since many characters just stay together to save appearances, or to serve their ambitions.
There are indeed some characters whose couples are built upon no genuine affection. A couple can, for example, be formed to try and satisfy the sexual lust of each other. For example, in Glamorama, the couple formed by Alison Poole and Victor is only built on a common crave for sex. They do not seem to care about each other, and their relationship seems to be completely hollow, since they do not seem to get on at all:
She clamps her mouth onto mine as I stumble with her toward the bedroom. Once there, she falls to her knees, rips open my jeans and proceeds to expertly give me head, deep throating in an unfortunately practised way, grabbing my ass so hard I have to pry one of her hands loose. [ ]
"Slow down, Alison, youre moving too fast", Im mumbling.
She pulls my dick out of her mouth and, looking up at me, says in a low, "sexy" voice.
"Urgency is my speciality, baby". (Page 21)
The trouble is that they are not together for good reasons, and the basis to their affair is futile: Alison seems to desire Victor genuinely, on a sexual point of view, at least. It is something we are made aware of because of the sexual appetite she displays, but she is dependent on her boyfriend Damien, Victors boss, for material reasons. On the other hand, Victor only serves his own ambition with his relationship with Alison: when he dates her, he has the hope to get what he wants from his boss through her, but seems to be somehow "trapped" by her.
"Why do I always need to remind you that Im basically still, with, yknow, Chloe and youre still with Damien?"
She turns away from the mirror and leans against the sink.
"If you dump me, baby, youll be in a lot more trouble." (Page 26)
Victors career seems to be hanging to their affair, and this is why nothing positive or sincere can derive from it. In all of Elliss novels, sex and success seem to be very closely linked, and the failure of a relationship can cause the fall of the "lovers". This is what actually happens to Victor when his affair with a third woman, Lauren, is discovered. In American Psycho, the relationship between Pat Bateman and Courtney is also based on sex only, although Bateman is more led by lust and also by a will to make a fool of his colleague Luis. Ironically, it is this particular relationship that is the more satisfactory for Bateman, since sex is the only thing he wants to obtain from women, and also because he knows that their affair will not lead him to any commitment.
Finally, some other couples are built in order to match the "lovers" ambitions. The best example for this seems to be the meaningless liaison between Bateman and Evelyn, in American Psycho. Evelyn gives the explanation for the fact that they were staying together in the passage where they break up:
"Your friends are my friends." (Page 339)
Their couple was based on the fact that they know the same people, because they worked in the same kind of places, and roughly belong to the same environments. The fact is that, being with Bateman, Evelyn thinks she can get whatever she wants: a beautiful wedding, material comfort, which would be assured forever, and the money necessary to satisfy her material needs:
"Weddings are so romantic. She had a diamond engagement ring. You know, Patrick, I wont settle for less." She says coyly. "It has to be diamond." (Page 124)
Evelyn appears to be completely vain, thinking only about her own self. The reasons for Bateman to stay with her are less clear. She is the most annoying character he knows, and she refuses to have sex with him whenever he tries, although her beauty is not to be put in doubt.
I keep studying her face, bored by how beautiful it is, flawless really. (Page 123)
Still, she does not correspond at all to what he seems to expect from a woman, since she is more vain and vacuous than he is, and she is annoyingly vain and stupid. The fact is that, although Bateman does not need an official girlfriend, as he has some mistresses, being engaged seems to be required to progress in society. If possible, they also have to find somebody physically beautiful and also somebody who can reinforce the position they already have reached, and not because of the attraction exerted by the partner in question. They rather look for a partner that will serve their ambition, and also somebody that will reflect their status (wives and girlfriends are often considered as mere trophies, the greater the success reached by the character, the more beautiful his wife will be, we will tell more on this point in the next chapter).
In the same way, some couples are also artificial because the characters in question also stay together to flatter their ego, or to use the other member of the couple to serve their own career. For example, in Glamorama, Victor uses his girlfriend Chloes fame to try and become a celebrity himself.
"Its me. Victor Ward. Im opening like the biggest club in New York tomorrow night."
Pause, then "No".
"I modelled for Paul Smith. I did a Calvin Klein ad."
Pause, then "No". I can hear him slouching, repositioning himself.
"Im the guy who everyone thought David Geffen was dating but wasnt."
"Thats really not enough."
"I date Chloe Byrnes." Im shouting. "Chloe Byrnes, like, the supermodel." (Page 30)
Victor shamefully uses Chloes fame to try and assert his position as a celebrity (which, ironically, does not work at all). Moreover, and not without irony, Victor hardly feels any desire for her, although she is supposed to be one of the most beautiful women in the world, and he prefers to date other women, especially her friends. Finally, even if no explicit hint of this is given, the couple formed by Courtney and Luis in American Psycho cannot be based on genuine feelings, since Luis is actually homosexual. Once again, their couple exists in order to respect social conventions tacitly imposed by the world they evolve in (something we can guess thanks to the way Bateman and his colleagues consider gay people). Once again, we can remark that finer feelings are replaced by artificiality, and it is no wonder that most of Elliss characters all become mad, since they cannot even find peace in their own couple.
No friendship, no love, in the pure meanings of these terms can exist between the characters created by Ellis, since they are too empty, too dehumanized, too self-centered to share something completely with any other character. Once again, Ellis paints a pessimistic portrait of mankind, since nothing good can be expected from his characters, but in some ways, it is also what he wants to criticize: authenticity and true feelings are sacrificed to a pose, to an attitude one has to adopt, in order to be accepted in an artificial society and to succeed in life. Then, in such conditions, friendship and love are considered to be good for the weak only, and have to be eradicated completely from the characters mentalities. It is something that they do without thinking twice
At first sight, every trace of humanity seems to have disappeared from the world created by Ellis. Characters are cold, cynical zombies, devoid of any feeling, perpetually bored, and not able to do anything good. Still, in spite of this ultra pessimistic representation of a society frighteningly similar to ours, there are still some "good", human characters to be found in Elliss novels. They are not perfect (this is why we can say that they are human), but they seem to have a better nature than other characters. Still, such characters only appear in filigree, and their humanity is mostly reflected in contrast to other characters.
As we have just said, the characters that can appear human to the reader only do so when they are in contact with particularly evil characters. For instance, most of Batemans victims appear to be completely innocent, even if they were prostitutes. Bateman does not claim to have a mission to eradicate "sinful" characters. Then, most of his victims just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. For example, the young prostitute that Bateman nicknames Christie seems more innocent and harmless than her condition would let us suppose. First of all, she has to endure the humiliations he imposes to her.
"You have a really nice place here Paul", and then, looking through the compact discs, hundreds upon hundreds of them, stacked and lined up in a large white-oak shelf, all of them alphabetically listed. "How much did you pay for it?"
Im standing to pour myself another glass of the Acacia.
"Actually, none of your business, Christie, but I can assure you it certainly wasnt cheap." (Page 172)
Although she is a prostitute, Christie does not seem to deserve all of these humiliations: being forced to satisfy the obsessions of a lunatic, having her hygiene put in question, and being treated like a slave. Worst of all, Christie is tortured but can go away the first time she spends the night with Bateman, but on their second meeting, she is tortured, almost burnt and electrified alive, finally dies and ends up beheaded and dismembered. Still, Christie appears as a down-to-earth, natural character, much less pretentious and empty than the rest of female characters are. Not without irony, although she belongs to the "underclass" loathed by Bateman and his peers, she appears more human and likeable than they are. Moreover, the reader is more sympathetic towards her because of her tragic death. In the same way, most of Batemans victims are made more human, in comparison to the psychopath: the homeless man Bateman executes in a dead end street, and who makes the mistake to trust in him; the gay man with his sharpei, who appears kinder than most of the male characters designed by Ellis; or even Bethany, Batemans ex-girlfriend, who seems more sensitive and less vain than most of the female characters we encounter in the novel. The fact is that the characters that seem to have a better nature than the others seem so when they are compared to the other protagonists of the novel. Batemans victims are human and appear to be good when they are compared to the sheer madness of the murderer, or when they are put in parallel with the other characters, to their vacuity and to their cynical coldness. Still, the roles played by these " good" characters are very limited (they only appear for some very short sequences), and the fact that they quickly disappear adds to the general climate of pessimism that rules in Elliss novels. Once again, no hope is permitted, and these characters cannot change anything to the madness surrounding them.
Some characters still seem able of goodness. There are still from time to time some of them that seem to be untouched by the general dementia. They appear completely harmless, unable to do dirty deeds, and, in some ways, seem to have more human reactions than the other characters. They represent innocence when corruption seems to have taken over everything. For example, in Less than Zero, Blair seems to have been able to have genuine feelings. She is one of the only characters to have sympathy for Clay, although she is often discouraged, as she explains in the end of the novel:
She takes another sip of her wine.
"You were never there. I felt sorry for you for a little while, but then I found it hard to. Youre a beautiful boy, Clay, but thats about it. [ ] Its hard to feel sorry for someone who doesnt care". (Page 192)
Although she knows that Clay would not feel anything for her, she tries to change him, at least by staying by his side, something she also shows when she tries to hold him back at the end of the novel. This attitude from Blairs part is very different from most of the other characters attitude, who do not care about the others, and just push away characters which would contradict them. In comparison to the male characters of Less than Zero, Blair appears compassionate, innocent and seems to be able to have genuine feelings for her peers. Still, she is not a perfect character, as she shows no compassion for Muriel, and likes to gossip about her friends.
I spot the needle tracks, look over at Blair, whos just staring at the arm. [ ] Blair gets up and says, "Im leaving" and walks out of the room. (Page 77)
In this case, she does not really want to help Muriel, or does not feel any sympathy for her, now that Muriel is a heroin addict. In the same way, like Clay, Blair tends to anesthetize her pain by using drugs.
Blair dances over to me, singing the words to Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?, probably stoned out of her mind, and says that I look happy and I look good. (Page 22)
Still, Blair is not fully dehumanized, like the other protagonists of the novel can be, and she appears rather likeable and much less cynical than her friends. In American Psycho, the same phenomenon appears with the character of Courtney. Courtney is much like her friend Evelyn, they have the same backgrounds, they almost do the same activities, both of them have a boyfriend and cheat on him, but Courtney is likeable, while Evelyn is utterly annoying. We can find several explanations to this: first of all, as the tone of the novel is directed by the narrators voice, we can think that Bateman actually prefers Courtney to Evelyn, as he actually manages to have sex with her, and even imagines to kill Luis, Courtneys boyfriend, to keep her for himself. Anyway, he never misses an occasion to depreciate Luis in Courtneys presence.
"Luis is a despicable twit", she gasps, trying to push me out of her.
"Yes", I say, leaning on top of her, tonguing her ear. "Luis is a despicable twit, I hate him too." And now, spurred on by her disgust for her wimp boyfriend, I start moving faster, my climax approaching.
"No, you idiot", she groans. "I said is it a receptacle tip? Not "Is Luis a despicable twit?" Is it a receptacle tip? Get off me." (Page 103)
Although Bateman supposes that she despises her boyfriend as much as he does Courtney is not that radical, and we are made to think that although she cheats on Luis, she stays true to him. Still, Bateman seems to prefer her to Evelyn, and although he does some derogative comments about Courtney, his general opinion on her is rather positive.
"Its good to see you", I tell Courtney. "You look very pretty tonight. Your face has a youthful glow." (Page 8)
"You look marvellous", I sigh, turning my head, offering an airkiss. "Theres nothing to say. Youre going to marry Luis. Next week, no less." (Page 361)
Then, Courtney gains some compassion from the reader, because we know that she will not find happiness in her marriage with Luis, since the latter is gay, something Courtney herself does not seem to be aware of. The reader is made aware of this, because Luis has declared his love to Bateman. We also know that her relationship with Bateman will not lead her anywhere. In a way, Ellis foretells Courtneys fate, and the reader is also warned in advance, in a kind of tragic irony. Ellis seems to have a certain fondness for such characters, which remain true to the others, and receive nothing but contempt in exchange. We have talked about Blair in Less than Zero and about Courtney in American Psycho. In Glamorama, two characters belong to that category: Jamie Fields, who shows a complete devotion to her boyfriend Bobby Hughes, who finally kills he; and Chloe Byrnes, Victors girlfriend, who remains faithful to him, although he treated her very badly. We can also add to this list two more characters from American Psycho: Jean, Batemans secretary and wife-to-be, and Luis Carruthers, Batemans colleague. Jean appears to be the more "human" character from the novel. Unlike most of Elliss female characters, Jean does not show any sign of ambition or of greed. Moreover, she shows a lot of patience and of devotion towards her boss, who does not return her attentions. Later in the novel, she confesses the love she feels for him in a rather naïve way, but which disconcerts Bateman, because she is uncomplicated compared to Batemans other dates.
"A lot of people seem to have " She stops, continues hesitantly. "lost touch with life and I dont want to be among them. [ ] Ive learned what its like to be alone and I think Im in love with you." She says this last part quickly, forcing it out. (Page 375)
This is the first (and only) time in American Psycho that one character confesses her love to another character, and this is done in a rather pure and innocent way, almost like a schoolgirl would have done it. Finally, Luis is one of the only male characters not to appear completely odious. Although he works in the same company as Bateman and his friends, his homosexuality makes him very different from them, as he appears able to love, or at least of genuine desire. Ironically, he expresses his love to an unwilling Bateman, who not only does not return Luiss attentions, but also despises homosexuals! In a rather comic manner, Luis also acts like a schoolgirl in love.
"Patrick, why wont you look at me?" Luis asks, sounding anguished. "Look at me." (Page 222)
"You are sick", I tell him.
"If Im sick its because of you", he says too casually, checking his nails. "Because of you I am sick and I will not get better." (Page 293)
At the same time I ask Luis to "go away", he sobs.
"Oh god, Patrick, why dont you like me?" And then, unfortunately, he falls to the floor at my feet [ ] "Why cant we be together?" He sobs, pounding his fist on the floor.
"Because I dont " I look around the store quickly to make sure no one is listening; he reaches for my knee, I brush his hand away "find you sexually attractive." [ ] I tell Luis "Leave me alone, please", and start to walk away. (Page 294)
Luis causes a scene in these passages, but his cause is nobler than the kind of subjects Bateman and his colleagues usually fuss about. Luis appears indeed less cynical than his colleagues, although he seems to be as materialistic as them. What makes him less monstrous than his colleagues is that he can feel some genuine love for somebody, although he does not reserve this feeling for his girlfriend. In some way, we can say that it is his homosexuality that makes him different from his colleagues and reveals the "weak side" of his personality. More than being just a comic sidekick inside the novel, Luis brings freshness and purity in a world that seems completely devoid of authenticity.
It is these characters honesty and their sincerity that makes them human, in a society that is led by appearances, and where feelings are considered to be weaknesses. In some ways, we can say that all of these "natural" characters are weak, since most of them are quickly erased (although it is not the case for Blair, Courtney or Jean), but they can hint at the fact that not all hope is lost, and that Ellis does not have a completely negative vision of the world, and is not completely cynical misanthrope we can think he is if we read his novel in the literal way. Still, if such characters exist, it is mostly to make the other characters cynicism and abjectness stand out, and try and prove that "human" characters cannot find happiness in such a ruthless society
The emptiness of the characters lives, and the frustration that results from the unfulfilment of their desires, tends to endanger their mental health, and to transform them into insensitive beasts, only interested in destruction and in seeing other characters suffer. In some way, Ellis vision of emptiness is that it is not neutral, but rather that it is corruptive, and tends to push the characters towards evil. It is not completely false to say that the characters are morally corrupted because their lives bring them no satisfaction, and that the ruthless society they live in forces them to live according to a model they want to follow, but which is empty, frustrating, and thus causing boredom. The characters evil behaviors find their sources in the lack of solid moral values, of real goals in life, and in their perpetual dissatisfaction.
OF THE READER
IN ELLISS NOVELS
After having concentrated on the narrative in itself, and what the general themes of the novels are, we will deal in this part with what makes Elliss style so peculiar, but also how he manages to convey his satire, but also the effects provoked by the narrative on the reader. If the subjects of Elliss novels are all rather different, what unites them is the authors style: he always writes in the first person, mostly uses the present tense and the language used is often coarse. Moreover, the narrative often slips from a rather conventional beginning to total mayhem, and are often tainted with ultra violence and sordid sex. We will then deal with what writing a novel in the first person implies for the author and for his readers, what are the limits of this use of "I" in a literary text, the constraints implied for the author and the effects it has on the reader. Dialogues are also rather peculiar: they are characterized by their minimalism and appear at the same time artificial and reproducing accurately reality. Dialogues represent two thirds of Ellis novels, and we will see that if their content is not essential, the way they are written can tell us a lot about the characters psychology. Then, we will try to find out what Elliss intentions are when he writes the very crude and almost unbearable scenes of sex and/or violence that we can find in Glamorama and in American Psycho. Finally, we will deal with how Ellis manages to convey his satire, as the author never explicitly states his real intentions in his novels: through irony and black humor, Ellis manages to put some distance between the harshness of his words and what his actual aims are.
Ellis is very often described as a "stylist" more than as a satirist. This can be rather surprising except when we think that the author kept the same elements in all of his novels. Ellis novels are characterized by their coldness of tone and by the bluntness of the treatment of the subjects they deal with. Ellis also mainly writes in the present tense, which is rather rare in a literary work (the conventional tense of the narrative being the preterit). Flashbacks are not numerous, and the characters never imagine their future either (it is mainly because there is no external narrator in Elliss novels). We will try to tell which effects it has on the narrative and what are the reasons for Ellis to do so. Then, Ellis uses a very modern language, as his characters are all young and modish, the risk being that what is said cannot be understood by all the readers. More than the use of slang, Ellis makes his characters use a rather coarse language, the violence of which can shock the reader. We can also note an evolution of the plots inside the novels. In all of Ellis novels, there is also a gradation into sordidness and violence that can cause a certain shock to the reader, who is not prepared to face the horrors that happen from the middle of the novels in question. Finally, dialogues play a preponderant part in Ellis novels, and we shall try to study what role they play inside the novels in question.
In all of his novels, Ellis chose to use the present tense rather than the past, which is usually chosen in literary works. His narrators tell about what happens to them day by day, as if we were reading their diary. They mostly tell about what happens to them in the moment during which the narrative is supposed to take place. They barely tell about their past, or only about their recent past, as if they wanted to forget about their childhood or about their teenage years for some reasons which are not explicitly stated. In the same way, Elliss characters never seem to imagine their future, and seem unable to plan anything. It is almost as if they were not conscious that they do have a future, or as if they thought that they are doomed. In the same way, although tragic irony appears essential to the novel (for example, in American Psycho, the reader knows what is going to happen to the characters that meet Bateman), no external narrator interrupts the narrative to tell about what is going to happen to the narrator, and our questions are never answered in the end of the novel, since no definitive solution is offered to the reader. The reason for choosing to use the present tense exclusively is that the novel is supposed to be composed with the narrators thoughts, and they mostly expose their opinions and describe what is happening around them.
Owen pulls out a cigar, then asks for a light. Im bored so I go to the bar without excusing myself to ask the hardbody I want to cut up for matches. The Chandelier
Room is packed and everyone looks familiar, everyone looks the same. Cigar smoke hangs heavy, floating in mid-air, and the music, INXS again, is louder than ever, but building towards what? I touch my brow by mistake and my fingers come back wet. (American Psycho, page 61)
For example, in this passage, which is purely descriptive, Bateman exposes all of his thoughts and tells about everything he does. This is written in the present tense, probably because we have to consider that it is coming straight out of his mind. This can also explain why these sentences only seem to be juxtaposed without any coherence with one another. This use of the present tense may reflect the fact that these actions are very short, and we can feel a certain impression of naturalness (the sentences follow each other as if an idea was replacing another), and of vividness. When he uses the present tense, Ellis wants to remain neutral, and tries to make his reader forget that he is reading a work of fiction. Ellis seems not to want to recreate the literary illusion, his words remain rather descriptive, at least on the surface. In Ecriture et Revolution, Roland Barthes told about what were the implications caused by the use of the present tense in a literary work:
Lécriture réaliste, elle, ne peut jamais convaincre, elle est condamnée à seulement dépeindre, en vertu de ce dogme dualiste qui veut quil ny ait jamais quune seule forme optimale [the past tense] pour exprimer une réalité inerte comme un objet, sur laquelle lécrivain naurait de pouvoir que par son art daccommoder les signes.
When Ellis uses the present tense in his novels, he can only describe a certain reality, based on the perceptions that his characters have, as opposed to the past tense, which has as a side effect to impose an absolute truth. The present tense allows his narrative to stay neutral ("lécriture réaliste ne peut jamais convaincre"). Ellis gives no clues about the meaning to give to his novels, he bluntly describes some facts, without voicing any judgement. His narrative, thanks to the use of the present tense, remains (at least it seems so) a report of the narrators thoughts without the authors intervention. Elliss novels seem to be meant to reflect what his narrators think in the more authentic way as possible, however violent, rude and sometimes even incoherent they can be. Moreover, as Elliss novels are supposed to be the written transcription of their thoughts, it seems logical that the present tense is used rather than the past tense which would imply that what is written comes as an afterthought to what happened to them at
that time. Elliss novels are a glorification of the present time in its very ephemeral character, however imperfect it can be. Moreover, knowing that all of his characters are young, they do not have enough distance towards their past existence, and seem to want to concentrate on the present time only.
On the other hand, we can wonder why there are no flashbacks in Elliss novels, or very rarely. In Glamorama for example, Victor almost never refers to the past, and even seems to have difficulties to remember past events.
"Did you know a Jamie Fields while attending Camden College?"
I sigh, slap my hands on the table. "Listen, unless you have a photo, no dice, my man" [ ]
The first set of shots are of a girl who looks like a cross between Patricia Hartman and Leilani Bishop and shes walking down a runway. [ ]
"Does this help your memory?" Palakon says. [ ]
I open the folder again "Is this the girl I met at Spiros Niarchoss fortieth birthday?"
"No, Mr Ward", Palakon says, his patience snapping. "Supposedly you dated this girl."
"I dated Ashley Fields?" I ask.
"Her name is Jamie Fields and at one point somewhere in your past, yes, you did." (Pages 115 to 117)
On various occasions in the novel, Victor is asked to remember some events from his past, and seems unable to do so. This may explain why he only tells about the present and not about the past, with which he seems to have completely lost touch. Moreover, in the first part of the novel, Victor is so arrogant and selfish that remembering past memories is a waste of time for him. In the same way, when Victor is dating Alison Poole, or when he tries to seduce Lauren Hynde, he does not think about the possible consequences on his future, which may be endangered by these liaisons. In the same way, in American Psycho, Bateman only remember events from his recent past in order to fill in the blanks left inside the novel. He will not tell about his distant past that could tell the reader more about his education, or could explain his behavior, or when he does so, it is to recall sordid memories.
A young girl, a freshman I met in a bar in Cambridge my junior year at Harvard told me early one fall that "life is full of endless possibilities. I tried valiantly not to choke on the beer nuts I was chewing while she gushed this kidney stone of wisdom. [ ] Needless to say, she did not live to see her sophomore year. That winter, her body was found floating in the Charles River, decapitated, her head hung from a tree on the bank, her hair knotted around a low-hanging branch, three miles away. My rages at Harvard were less violent than the ones now and its useless to hope that my disgust will vanish there is just no way. (Page 241)
Flashbacks are only used to remember memories of violence, not memories of happiness, of better times. Moreover, in this case, the flashback does not explain anything about Batemans behavior. We only learn that his murderous urges already existed when he was at university. There is only one of the three novels in question where flashbacks are rather frequent. In Less than Zero, Clay has numerous memories from his past, but what he remembers seems to be completely disconnected from the rest of the novel, having no obvious link with the rest of it. They are isolated in some individual chapters, and are written in italics, to underline some more the fact that they are not exactly part of the narrative. Clay remembers his younger days, the time he spent with his grandparents, and he also thinks of the summer before his departure to New Hampshire, during which he spent some time with Blair. Still, these passages have no influence on the rest of the novel.
When I woke up in the afternoon, Id come downstairs and my grandfather would tell me that he heard strange things at night and when I asked him what strange things, he said that he couldnt put his finger on it and so hed shrug and finally say that it must have been his imagination. (Less than Zero, page 61)
What is peculiar in this passage is that Ellis keeps the same kind of language as his narrators as the one he uses throughout the novel. This transcription of Clays memories does not help to understand the rest of the novel better, it does not learn us anything new about the characters, and add more mystery and strangeness to the novel. Then, even the few passages in the past tense do not transform the novel into a literary work in the classic meaning of the term, since no commentary in retrospect is added, the narrator, Clay in this case, continues to expose the facts in a blunt way. Such passages appear superfluous inside the narrative, since they play no obvious role (which may be why Ellis did not insert any flashback in the following novels).
Finally, the use of the present tense in the narrative creates the impression that the text is written in an oralized way. The reader has the feeling that what is written is the exact retranscription of what is said, and allows the text to become closer to the reader. When the simple past is used, a certain distance is placed between the narrator and the reader, and already creates an artificial barrier. When the present tense is used, there is a certain connivance between the narrator and the reader. It is almost as if the narrator was talking directly to the reader without using "artificial" means. The monologues that Ellis novels are made of can be seen as addressed to the reader. This may also be why slang expressions are used, to give a natural aspect to the narrative.
Ellis novels were not meant to be perceived as literary works as such, but the satire wanted by Ellis needs to be built upon a plausible narrative. If American Psycho had been created as a work of fiction only and had been understood as such, it would not have caused such a controversy. It is thanks to the fact that Ellis novels can be seen as a kind of diary, or as a documentary, as something plausible anyway. Elliss style creates an impression of authenticity, as if the author wanted to disappear behind his characters and to be as discreet as possible. This is partly conveyed by the use of the present tense, which creates a certain complicity with the reader. We have an impression of immediacy, of an ephemeral moment, which is why the present tense is preferred to the past tense. It seems important for Ellis to underline that his novels are a satire of the present times, and not a nostalgic story about a time which is already gone.
In Elliss novels, characters talk in a rather substandard English. Their language is full of slang expressions, and they also use some offensive rude language. This can seem paradoxical since the novels are set in some rather wealthy environments, and the characters are supposed to be clever and to have received the best education (for example, Bateman went to Harvard, Victor went to Camden University and so on ). Still, they show a lot contempt towards each other and their hatred is expressed in an extremely rude way.
"Listen, you want to die? Ill do it, Luis. Ive done it before, and I will fucking gut you, rip your fucking stomach open and cram your intestines down your fucking faggot throat until you choke on them." (American Psycho, page 295)
"Fuck you, you retarded cocksucking kike." (American Psycho, page 152)
The offensive language used by Ellis reveals the characters anti-Semitism ("cocksucking kike"), or their racism in general, or in this case, their homophobia ("fucking faggot throat") and this is one of the subjects of controversy around Ellis novels. These novels are the contrary of political correctness, since the novels deal with morally corrupted and intolerant characters. This verbal violence goes hand in hand with the physical violence that is already present in Elliss novels.
Still, slang expressions are not always used to insult or to hurt. In Glamorama, for example, Victor uses a kind of meta-language, which is very hard to understand, since it does not make any sense literally.
"I think you need committed people to form a union, Victor?"
"Hey, no dark sarcasm in the classroom." (Page 25)
"Hey Anjanette, whats up pussycat? Youre looking very Uma-ish. Love the outfit. (Page 18)
Victor is so keen on following fashion, and thinks that he has to stay modish, that he feels that he has to adopt a modern language, in order to be "in". This meta-language refers to some cultural notes. For example, Victors sentence "no dark sarcasm in the classroom" is taken from a song by Pink Floyd, "Another brick in the wall (Part 2)". Victors answer makes literally no sense (why "in the classroom"), and his next sentence is even harder to understand. "Youre looking very Uma-ish" actually means "you look like (the actress) Uma Thurman dressed like this". This reference is not obvious for all the readers, and Ellis often plays on cultural references to create a language of his own, which explains why it is sometimes difficult for a non-American reader to understand his novels fully. Ellis uses a motif of imitation in his novels: he probably used bits of language he heard in the street to use in his novels, in order to add some more authenticity to his narrative. Still, it is a point that American writers from the twentieth century, and even their predecessors, tried to defend. Ellis followed the steps of such writers, and chose linguistic authenticity rather than grammatical correctness. This use of slang allows introducing more humor and more irreverence in the novels. It can also help to locate the text in the period piece during which it was written, although he also takes the risk that meaning may be altered because familiar languages evolve everyday, are not the same everywhere. In LEcriture et la Parole, Roland Barthes recalls the origins of the introduction of spoken languages in literature.
"Vers 1830, au moment où la bourgeoisie, bonne enfant, se divertit de tout ce qui se trouve en limite de sa propre surface, cest à dire dans la portion exigue de la société quelle donne à partager aux bohèmes, aux concierges et aux voleurs, on commença à insérer dans le langage littéraire proprement dit quelques pièces rapportées, empruntées aux langages inférieurs, pourvu quils fussent bien excentriques (sans quoi ils auraient été menaçants). Ces jargons pittoresques décoraient la Littérature sans menacer sa structure."
The insertion of such forms was not, at that time, considered as something normal. They were only used to mock "inferior" classes and their lack of knowledge of the standard language. In Ellis novels, this use of substandard English is essential to the narrative, as Ellis belongs to the category of naturalist authors, for whom a literary work had to come as close as possible to reality. This is why the author reproduces such forms, to try and make dialogues as realistic as possible. Ellis needs to find the correct level of language, as he describes the life of certain categories of society, in order not to embellish or to damage the portrait he draws. As Barthes puts it, the essence of some characters language can tell about their social status (or, in Ellis case, about their feelings or about their psychology).
[Lorsque la parole est reproduite], lécriture prend pour lieu de ses réflexes la parole réelle des hommes, la littérature nest pas un orgueil ou un refuge, elle commence à devenir un acte lucide dinformation, comme sil lui fallait dabord apprendre en le reproduisant le détail de la disparité sociale; elle sassigne de rendre un compte immédiat, préalable à tout autre message, de la situation des hommes murés dans la langue de leur classe, de leur région, de leur hérédité, ou de leur histoire.
If Elliss characters language does not reveal about their social or geographical origin, it can tell about their personality, about their culture, about their age too When some characters insult other characters, it shows that they are morally corrupt, under an appearance of style and respectability and that they do not have any respect whatsoever for their peers. The characters lack of will to talk is also primordial. Reproducing a characters language is not only reproducing the eventual colloquial words he can use, but also to recreate his hesitations, his doubts, his silences.
"Whos this guy?" I ask him.
"This guy is " Julian waits and blows away an entire row of Space Invaders. "This guy is some guy I know. Hell give you some money." (Less than Zero, page 154)
I stare at her, a cold, distant wave of fright washes over me, dousing something. I clear my throat again, trying to speak with great purposefulness, tell her:
"I was at Sugar Reef the other night that Caribbean place on the Lower East Side you know it [ ] Anyway " I sigh, continuing. "I saw some guy in the mens room a total Wall Street guy wearing a one-button viscose, wool and nylon suit by Luciano Soprani a cotton shirt by Gitman brothers a silk tie by Ermenegildo Zegna, and, I mean, I recognised the guy, a broker, named Elridge " (American Psycho, page 374)
In the second passage quoted, Batemans silence and hesitations appear as important as his words. Thanks to the syntax, we remark that Bateman has some genuine trouble to express himself, because he appears completely overwhelmed by Jeans good intentions towards him. In this case, his hesitations are caused by the shock of Jeans behavior and of what he saw, which prevents him from speaking properly. For once, Bateman shows an emotion. His way of talking becomes so painful that it becomes almost mechanical. On the other hand, in the first passage quoted, there seems to be a hidden intention behind Julians silence. The suspension points reveal that hes about to say something, but he stops, because he does not want Clay to know about the (criminal) origin of the money that he is going to give him, and about the fact that he has to become a prostitute to reimburse his debts. In Elliss novels, since what is said is often very superficial and do not tell about the characters personality, what is unspoken becomes actually more important than what is said. We will come back on this point in the chapter dealing with dialogues, but, for example, such silences can betray the fact that some characters do not want to talk to each other, or to hide something from the person they are talking to. Ellis will seems to be to reproduce as naturally as possible situations of dialogue, in order to create what Barthes calls:
[Un] rêve: un langage littéraire qui aurait rejoint la naturalité des langages sociaux.
Still, Ellis novels stay within the scope of a work of fiction. Ellis works are only reproductions, reflections of what reality can be, similar to it and distorted at the same time.
Finally, we shall deal with the strength and weaknesses of using an oralized writing and slang expressions in a work of fiction. First of all, it adds more vivacity to the narrative. The dialogues are composed with some rather short sentences (generally not longer than a line. Then, the exchanges between the characters become very lively although the characters themselves sometimes do not show a lot of enthusiasm. Then, as we said before, slang expressions add some authenticity to the narrative, because it is the way some people talk today. If Ellis made his characters talk according to all of the grammatical rules, the narrative would appear completely artificial, and then Elliss will to come as close as possible to reality would be wronged. Even if the familiar language of some characters may seem exaggerated (for example, Victor from Glamorama, who overuses slang expressions until they do not make any sense at all), it reflects a certain genuineness and it is very likely that the author researched on slang expressions, in order to write his dialogues in a rather authentic way. Firstly, just because some expressions the characters use are funny.
"You know what Im trying to say, Victor." JD says. "Something like Dont Bungle the Jungle or-"
"Hey, dont bungle my jungle, you little mo." (Glamorama, page 10)
The fact that Ellis writes in an oralized way causes a lot of repetitions, and also of misunderstandings, of quiproquos, which are understood by the reader, but not by the characters.
An old woman emerges behind a Threepenny Opera poster at a deserted bus stop, and shes homeless and begging, hobbling over, her face covered with sores that look like bugs, holding out a shaking red hand. "Oh will you please go away?" I sigh. She tells me to get a haircut. (American Psycho, page 394)
In this sentence, the reader is made to understand that the homeless woman did not actually tell him to "get a haircut", but probably that she said something more rude. This is genuinely funny, and the naiveté caused by the oralized writing adds to the irony that makes the success of a good satire.
On the other hand, this tendency to turn the literary language into an oralized language can also have some weaknesses. First of all, we can wonder if using such a foul language was truly necessary, even to illustrate the characters intolerance and their verbal violence, especially in some situations that did not deserve to use such a crude language. This verbal violence can shock the reader (this was probably what it was intended for), but can also weaken Ellis message, since such an offensive language is used in such a profusion, and it can also break the realism of the narrative. We can think that this display of foul language follows Elliss logic of exaggeration. Ellis shows some unbearable violence, some sex scenes where the vocabulary used is very straightforward, and we can say that it goes along with what was already shocking and insufferable in Ellis novels. Apart from the use of bad language, the use of familiar expressions can also be problematic. First of all, because slang is not the same from one region to another, and even sometimes from one city to another and then some sentences appear completely hermetic to us non-American readers.
"And youre all so lost in the past, man", I say wearily. "Captain Beefheart records? Yoghurt? What the fuck is like going in here, huh?" I exclaim. "And Jesus, Aztec cut your toenails! Where are your fucking morals? What do you even do besides going to fucking poetry reading at Fez? Why dont you go to a fucking gym or something?" (Glamorama, page 93)
In this passage, Victors language is so full of cultural references that the meaning of his sentence becomes completely obscure. The essence of the text is denatured because we cannot understand everything that is said in it. Probably the author did this on purpose, in order to create a certain elitism, so that only some selected readers can fully understand the meaning of his texts. Probably he also made up this incomprehensible language to mock people that constantly use a "cool" way of talking, even if they are not sure themselves of what they say actually means
Elliss novels are composed mostly with sequences in direct speech. Still, the author even uses an oralized language in some sequences that do not involve dialogues. This is probably because he wants us to consider his novels as internal monologues, and wants to reproduce as genuinely as possible the way the narrators talk. When he does so, Ellis creates a literary language halfway between written and oral English, in order to make his representation of society through they eyes of one of its members more truthful, but also to provide his generation with a book that resembles them.
Elliss novels are not literary works in the traditional meaning: they present a kind of internal monologue, and are left untouched, in an illusory raw form. This can explain why the novel is arranged in a particular manner. They are not plot-driven narratives, the beginnings of these novels throw the reader in medias res, the action beginning long before the opening of the novel, and endings that generally leave the reader unsatisfied. In the same way, the way chapters are divided in is very confusing for the reader and the way they are arranged is often surprising and not meeting the readers expectations. Finally, the themes to Elliss novels change gradually throughout the novel, starting from a rather traditional, or even banal, beginning, to gradually go deeper and deeper into violence and sordidness. We will see how the form of Elliss novels can reflect the characters state of mind and can also add to his satire.
The plots to Elliss novels are rather minimalist, and moreover they seem not to be complete, since the story is not told from a definite beginning to a definite end. In some way, they can be seen as a collection of snapshots of the narrators lives, which can explain the lack of time markers (especially in American Psycho). This is also why the opening scenes of Ellis novels do not give all the information we would expect from a traditional incipit; for example to introduce the main characters, the narrator, the setting, and so on The beginning of Elliss novels throw the readers in medias res, starting with scenes which are not a traditional way to begin a novel. In Less than Zero, for instance, Clays arrival at the airport could have been a good way to begin the novel, but Clay is already lost in his thoughts, and his arrival is put on a secondary plan. In American Psycho, the dinner at Evelyns, preceded by Tim Prices rant about the evils threatening America, seems to be a good way to introduce the reader into a world of madness and of moral bankruptcy. Tim Prices discourse already foretells the personality of Bateman and his colleagues, since Price already appears racist and intolerant. Still, his comments help to create an atmosphere of insanity and of violence:
He stops suddenly, as if exhausted and, turning away from another advertisement for Les Misérables, remembering something important, asks "Did you read about the host from that game show on TV? He killed two teenage boys? Depraved faggot. Droll, really droll." Price waits for a reaction. There is none. (Page 6)
Elliss novels are full of sordid anecdotes like this one, and this contributes to make the atmosphere heavier. Still, in this first chapter of American Psycho, Bateman stands back, not showing his second nature as a psychopath, letting Price talk during three-quarters of this first chapter. Finally, in Glamorama, the reader arrives in the middle of the preparations for the opening party of the club Victor manages (although we are not told so immediately, we have to gather some information in order to guess this). The characters are not introduced, we are not told where the novel takes place. In the same way, this chapter is filled with cultural references, with familiar expressions, and the reader tends to be left behind because of all of this. Ellis wants to make us aware of the fact that we actually missed something, since the novel starts a few days only before the opening of the club, and we have to reconstruct what happened before that.
In the same way, the endings to Elliss novels do not actually conclude anything, since no explicit and definite conclusion is given to Elliss novels. There are indeed different endings to Elliss novels before the real one. In Less than Zero, Clay seems to want to delay his departure, with the anaphoric repetition of "before I leave", in the beginning of the last four chapters of the novel:
Before I leave I meet Blair for lunch. (Page 189)
Blair calls me the night before I leave. (Page 193)
And before I left, I read an article in Los Angeles Magazine about a street called Sierra Bonita in Hollywood. (Page 193)
When I left there was nothing much in my room except a couple of books [ ]. (Page 194)
These last chapters can be considered as endings before the real one. We can then foresee the ending, which was actually announced right from the start of the novel. In American Psycho, the last but one chapter is the one entitled Taxi Driver, in which Bateman is kidnapped and robbed by an Armenian cab driver. In this chapter, we think that Bateman is going to be stopped at last. But the taxi driver, who wants to avenge the death of one of his colleagues that Bateman killed, contents himself with stealing a few personal objects and his wallet from him (which appear to Bateman as damageable as if he had been killed). When the reader thinks that the psychopath is going to be stopped at last, the author saves his narrator and lets him run free, which leaves the reader furious and feeling betrayed, since there is no actual ending, and there is no happy end either, as the murderer is not punished. In Glamorama, the reader is also trapped by an illusory "first ending", which can be considered as a happy end, as Victor seems to have gone back to his normal life, but when the treachery is revealed, the reader feels furious because he had been duped by the author (Ellis plays on the motif of doubles again, since even the reader mistakes Victors double for the real Victor). The real ending to Glamorama brings no conclusion to the novel either, as it is a very open ending, although it is rather positive for Victor. All of Ellis novels are open-ended, as if sequels to the novels in question were planned (they are actually not). This is something that is done in certain films, and this adds to the impression that Ellis writing is "cinematographic", since some of passages of his novels look more like a scenario than like literature in the conventional sense of the word.
The way chapters are divided also tells about the characters state of mind. Their length is very variable, according to the context of the scene they describe. For example, the thirteenth chapter of the last part of Glamorama is composed of one sentence only.
In the nearby room in the Principe de Savoia a propmaster is loading a 9mm mini Uzi. (Page 478)
On the other hand, the first chapter of the same novel is sixteen pages long. In the same way, the lapse of time between chapters seems dubious. There can be long ellipses between two chapters or two chapters dealing with events happening at a five-minute interval. Still, it is very difficult for the reader to locate precisely the events in time, as there are not many time markers. This can be remarked in American Psycho and in Glamorama mainly, as in Less than Zero, the action lasts three weeks, this is announced right from the beginning of the novel. In Glamorama, Victor loses touch with time because he is preoccupied with his situation. In American Psycho, when we are made aware of the time of the year the action takes place in, we notice that the action is stretched out on a rather long period, as there are two chapters at each end of the novel which take place at Christmas, and there is a chapter entitled "Summer" in between. For example, on page 365, Batemans mother asks him what he wants for Christmas, and on page 371, the narrator says that
All summer long Madonna cries out to us, "life is a mystery, everyone must stand alone "
This shows that the novel is composed of snippets of Batemans life that seem to be in chronological order (they actually are, because sub plots are continued in a logical order). Still, Bateman seems to select what he tells us, which explains that there can be a long lapse of time between two chapters. Finally, the way in which some chapters are written can tell us about the characters mood. For example, the chapter "A Glimpse of a Thursday afternoon" is cut in such a way that it illustrates the fact that Bateman is mentally disturbed for a while. The chapters begins that way
and its midafternoon and I find myself standing at a phone booth on a corner somewhere downtown, I dont know where [ ] (Page 148)
and closes on this sentence.
She walks away to get the manager and when I see him approaching, a bald carbon copy of the waitress, I get up and scream [ ] and I run out of the delicatessen and onto the street where this (Page 152)
This chapter has neither beginning nor end, since Bateman starts and stops mid-sentence. It is also composed of very long sentences, and there is hardly any punctuation. In this chapter, the narrator does not even respect the conventions established to show that direct speech is used in a written text.
"Jean?" I cry out. "Hello? Jean?" "Patrick? Is that you?" she calls back. (Page 149)
In this chapter, Bateman appears so confused that the structure of the chapter itself seems to be turned inside out. The way this chapter is organized can make us understand that Bateman is deeply distraught, even before having read the content of the chapter.
Finally, the plots to Ellis novels tend to change between the beginning and the end of the novel. If the opening scenes are rather conventional, the narrative gradually turns into something much more bizarre and completely sordid or even sickening. When the beginnings of Ellis novels let us think that it is going a social comedy (in the case of American Psycho and in Glamorama) or a teenage drama dealing with the problems of a group of young people (in the case of Less than Zero), they quickly turn into journeys into hell, where drugs, hardcore sex and ultra-violence are omnipresent. This shift in the intrigue is very sudden and takes the reader by surprise. For example, in the first part of Glamorama, nothing can foretell the brutality that will reign in the second half of the novel. The reader is supposed to feel a shock equal to the one Victor experiences when he discovers how violent his companions really are. To reinforce this impression, Ellis tends to overdo some scenes, describing mutilations and injuries in length and adding some disgusting details that were not required. In the same way, in the beginning of American Psycho, violence is only verbal, although we already have hints about Batemans second nature as an assassin:
"Hes the boy next door, arent you honey?"
"No, Im not", I whisper to myself. "Im a fucking evil psychopath." (Page 20)
"Did I ever tell you that I want to wear a big yellow smiley-face mask and then put on the CD version of Bobby McFerrins Dont Worry, Be Happy, and then take a girl and a dog, a collie, a chow, a sharpei, it doesnt really matter and then hook up this transfusion pump, this IV set, and switch their blood, you know, pump the dogs blood into the hardbody and vice versa, did I ever tell you this?" (Page 116)
At this time, it is only words, and it can be seen as a strange kind of humor, or as a way to evacuate pressure. But when we witness Bateman killing for the first time, his sadism (he lets Al, the homeless man, hope that he is going to help him before killing him viciously) and his remorselessness are completely traumatizing, and leave the reader completely stunned. The more we come towards the end of the novel, the more violent the narrative becomes.
In fact, in all of Ellis novels, there is a gradation in brutality. When the reader thinks that what he has just read was intolerable, and that nothing can be more horrible, he finds an even more insupportable scene a few pages later. This may be why we cannot classify Ellis novels according to the usual genres, as it is the case for many modern writers. We have already compared Ellis novels to novels by Michel Houellebecq, but we can also think of Scottish writer Irvine Welsh, who shares Ellis taste for slipping linguistic forms into his narrative, and also to deal with sordid stories of drug abuse (especially in his most famous novel, Trainspotting). We can also think of French author Maurice G Dantec who writes some almost surrealistic detective stories that are also characterized by an extreme violence, notably La Sirène Rouge, which deals with the commerce of snuff movies. Ellis also finds a British counterpart in Will Self, whose novel My Idea of Fun is very close in its theme to American Psycho. We can also add to this list, Ellis closest friend, the American writer Jay McInerney, who shares the same concerns as his friend (Model Behavior, his latest novel, is strangely similar in its subject to Glamorama). All of these writers are often considered as satirists, but the fact that they write, in the first person and with a lot of irony, about some "difficult" subjects (drugs, violence and madness) cause a controversy around their works. Anyway, the tone used by Ellis leaves the reader confused, not knowing what the authors goals are when he writes such sordid stories. Still, one should not mix up the authors and the narrators words, because there is a great deal of irony involved in Ellis novels.
Ellis style may appear rather talkative, since his novels consist mostly with pieces of dialogue. Still, when we look closer at these sections where direct speech is uses, we quickly remark that they are not "conventional" conversations in the way we can find some in traditional literary works. Ellis dialogues do not only reflect the characters boredom and psychological vacuity. We can find two sorts of conversations in Ellis dialogues: the "silent" ones and the "talkative" ones. The "silent" ones are to be found in Less than Zero mostly, and more generally, when the characters do not want to talk or to avoid a subject. To better understand what "silent" dialogues are, here is an example quoted from Less than Zero:
"Julian wants to see you", Rip says over the phone.
"Did he say what for?" I ask.
"No. He didnt have your number and he wanted it and so I gave it to him."
"He didnt have my number?"
"Thats what he said."
"I dont think hes called me."
"Said he needed to talk to you. Listen, I dont like to relay phone messages, dude, do be grateful."
"He said hell be at the Chinese Theater today at three thirty. You could meet him there, I guess."
"Whats he doing there?" I ask.
"What do you think?" (Page 79)
This piece of dialogue constitutes in itself a sequence from the novel (there are no chapters as such in Less than Zero). What we can say is that this passage in direct speech is very clipped, as the characters only utter short sentences, sometimes made of one word only ("Me?", "Yeah", "Thanks"). Most of the characters sentences are questions, which tends to reveal the characters uncertainty, and so do certain expressions ("I guess", "Thats what he said"). What is also peculiar in this passage in direct speech is that some questions do not find their answers, since the text closes on Rips question ("what do you think?"). Still, if this passage in direct speech is rather long, a very limited amount of information is given. In another novel, probably that such a conversation would have been summed up to "Rip calls me, he says that Julian wants to see me at three thirty at the Chinese theater. I dont know why and why me." Still, such a passage suits Ellis will to explicitly transcribe what is unimportant, while nothing essential is said. Such conversations betray the characters boredom, and also their lack of certainty. Once again, Clay utters nothing positive. He asks questions, contradicts Rip, but says nothing constructive. This passage appears completely superfluous, since no new information appears, no decision is taken, and finally, in the next paragraph, Julian does not come to the appointment. What is striking in passages like this one is that only to see the way in which the text is presented on the page can tell about the characters feelings. We can guess that none of them really wants to talk and that Rip is slightly more talkative than Clay is, but not much more. Moreover, inside the text itself, Rip says "listen, I dont like to relay phone messages, so, be grateful", which shows that he does not want to talk to Clay, or not in this context. In Ellis novels, the sequences in which his characters do not want to talk are more important than the ones in which they are really communicative. Such conversations are not satisfying, the characters never manage to know what they want to know, or they are uncertain about it. Such dialogues are preferred when the characters feel bored or in deep trouble, or when they feel sick and do on It also reveals the lack of self-confidence the characters feel now and then.
On the other hand, if "talkative" dialogues show more goodwill from the characters, what they say does not make much more sense.
"Its called California classic cuisine", Anne tells me, leaning in close, after we ordered. This statement deserves a reaction, I suppose, and since Scott and Courtney are discussing the merits of the Posts gossip column, its up to me to reply.
"You mean compared to, say, California cuisine?" I ask carefully, measuring each word, then lamely add "Or post-California cuisine?"
"I mean I know it sounds so trendy but there is a world of difference. Its subtle", she says, "but its there."
"Ive heard of post-California cuisine", I say, acutely aware of the design of the restaurant: the exposed pipe and the columns and the open pizza kitchen and the... deck chairs. "In fact, Ive even eaten it. No baby vegetables? Scallops in burritos? Wasabi crackers? Am I on the right track? And, by the way, did anyone ever tell you that you look exactly like Garfield but run over and skinned and then someone threw an ugly Ferragamo sweater over you before they rushed you to the vet? Fusilli? Olive oil on Brie?"
"Exactly", Anne says, impressed. "Oh Courtney, where did you find Patrick? Hes so knowledge about things. I mean Luiss idea of California cuisine is half an orange and some gelati", she gushes, then laughs, encouraging me to laugh with her, which I do, hesitantly." (American Psycho, page 95)
If this conversation seems to be a traditional one, with a rather natural style, we can quickly remark that the characters barely listen to each other. First of all, because what they say is completely devoid of meaning: they discuss the differences between "California classic cuisine", "California cuisine" and "post-California cuisine", in which neither of them actually has a interest. The only thing they really aim at is to impress each other, and to parade their standard of living (in the same chapter, Bateman tries to demonstrate that his stereo system is much better than the one the character hes talking to owns. If they debated about worthy subjects, we would not find it strange or annoying, but here, their conversation does not make any sense, which makes it completely useless and even absurd. They are so absorbed with what they are saying that they do not pay attention to what the person they talk to says. This allows Bateman to insult the character hes talking to without being remarked, although she pretends to listen to him very carefully ("Did any one ever tell you that you look exactly like [cartoon character] Garfield but run over and skinned and then someone threw an ugly Ferragamo sweater over you before they rushed you to the vet"). This is rather funny, since the answer he receives is "Exactly". To appear casual, the characters just pretend to enjoy each others conversation, just to let the other think that they are interested in what they say, although they do not listen at all. In Ellis novels, it is the way the characters express their contempt, rather than to say nothing, which is reserved for some more personal and more "difficult" moments, for example when they have to express their feelings. Ellis characters are experts in chattering: they like to gossip, they also love to start some never-ending debates about senseless subjects, and they like to compare their belongings to other characters. On the other hand, when they stay rather true to the character they are talking to, they have some real difficulties to express what their opinions are, which can explain why we find the dialogues we nicknamed "silent" dialogues.
The characters tendency to prattle is also to be found in the novel in its whole, even in the sequences that do not comport direct speech. Then, we can wonder if the whole novel could not be considered as a long monologue in itself. Judging by excerpts such as this one, this interpretation seems very likely:
Shes right, but Im not saying anything just staring across the office at the George Stubbs painting that hangs on the wall, wondering if I should move it, thinking maybe its too close to the Aiwa AM/FM stereo receiver and the dual cassette recorder and the semiautomatic belt-drive turntable, the graphic equalizer, the matching bookshelf speakers, all in twilight blue to match the color scheme of the office. The Stubbs painting should probably go over the life-size Doberman thats in the corner ($700 at Beauty and the Beast in Trump Tower) or maybe it would look better over the Pacrizimi antique table that sits next to the Doberman. (American Psycho, page 65).
Batemans thoughts, written in an oralized way, make us think of a dialogue with a potential speaker (which is actually absent, maybe it is aimed at the reader, but it is not explicitly said). Such a sequence would seem natural in a genuine dialogue, but seems very artificial in a monologue, especially some elements of his passage, for instance, "the life-size Doberman in the corner ($700 at Beauty and the Beast in Trump Tower". In such an occasion, Bateman seems to want to impress himself, just thinking how expensive it was, and how modish the shop he bought it in is. It reveals his madness, as he is talking to himself, but it mostly reveals how selfish and artificial he really is. In any way, even narrative passages are written in an oralized way, and as the narrator gives us a very subjective account of what he sees, using the first person, Ellis novels actually form a kind of confession, or at least they seem to be, although they are only works of fiction. This is where the confusion lies between the authors words and what he makes his characters say. Still, even in narrative sequences, the narrators do not manage to stay true and natural to the reader. They continue to boast about themselves, to be completely odious (even more in words, actually), and to express their hate towards everything and their contempt towards everybody. Still, whether the narrative parts Ellis writes can be considered as a monologue or as a dialogue with the reader, it is implicitly meant that the reader cannot defend his own opinions. The reader is forced to hear the narrators thoughts, which are sometimes revolting, in Batemans case especially. The reader has to stay passive, and at the same time, Ellis novels try to make the readers think. This way, Ellis satire can become efficient.
Finally, the passages in direct speech written by Ellis have some very definite functions. As we have said earlier, they are not really informative, and they do not tell anything about the speakers personality. Then, in Ellis dialogues, we mostly find questions, along with their (sometimes) short answers (or not)., very few affirmative sentences and quite a lot of negative sentences.
"Can I ask you a question?" I start, feeling daring.
"What is it?"
"Where did you guys meet? I mean, you and Lauren."
He downs the tequila, gently places the glass back on the bar and frowns.
"I met her while we were both having dinner with the worlds richest people."
"Were not allowed to give out these names."
"But youd know them", Damien says. "You wouldnt be surprised."
"Hint: they just spent the weekend at Neverland Ranch."
"Would you like a Mentos?" I ask.
"I need a favor, Victor."
"Id do anything for you, man."
"Please dont grovel."
"Will you take Lauren with you to the opening tonight?" Damien asks. "She wont come otherwise. Or if she does shes threatening to come with fucking Skeet Ulrich or Olivier Martinez or Mickey Hardt or Daniel Day-fucking-Lewis."
"That would be cool", I consider. "I mean if we could get Daniel Day-Lewis -"
"Hey", he snaps. "Watch it."
"Oh yeah. My apologies." (Glamorama, page 130)
In this passage, as we have said, we mostly find questions (six in total), but most of them are rhetorical and are not supposed to be answered (for instance, "what is it?" or "would you like a Mentos?"), some of them are never answered ("who" or "would you like a Mentos). We can also find a few negative sentences ("were not allowed to give those names", "you wouldnt be surprised"), which highlight the fact that what is essential is muted or untold. This is what is striking in Ellis novels: what is said in the affirmative form does not teach us anything new and can be considered as banalities and/or stereotypes, cliched sentences. "Id do anything for you" is for instance addressed to Damien, Victors boss, and this is an absolutely hypocritical sentence, as Victor betrays him in many ways, when he dates at the same time Alison Poole and Lauren Hynde (both of them being Damiens girlfriends). Then, it really sounds out of tune, and this sentence really appears stereotypical, as if Damien was actually Victors best friend, something that he is not. In the same way, Victors question "Would you like a Mentos" is purely rhetorical, and we can imagine that he asks this question one million times a day. Thats the trouble with dialogues in Ellis novels: if the authors aim is to come as close as possible to naturalness, he writes some stereotyped and almost artificial dialogues, hollow and devoid of any sense. Still, what he wants to criticize in this precise part is the emptiness and the superficiality of human relationships. If the characters seem to be friends, the fact that they cannot be true to each other and the fact that they are only questioning and denying rather than to build a constructive dialogue thanks to some sentences in the affirmative form. They always seem to use the person they are talking to, in order to get a favor or some information (something which is illustrated in this passage). Honesty and authenticity are two values that have definitely disappeared from the society pictured by Ellis.
Once again, dialogues in Ellis novels are rather unconventional and do not play the role we would expect them to play. Ellis seems to continue to use his strategy of misinformation and even treachery in a way that can cause either admiration or exasperation from the readers part, as this is done with talent but repetitions also tend to irritate. Dialogues do not fulfil their conventional role, and they reveal nothing but the emptiness of the society, in which the characters live, since they concentrate mostly on appearances, forgetting about what is essential.
The tone used by Ellis tends to make his novels different from what conventional literature is. His novels are so realistic that it is halfway between a work of fiction and a documentary. The reader is often disoriented by the way Ellis writes in his novels, and often feels lost in the narrative. Still, Ellis goal is to make the context of his novels as truthful as possible, although some scenes are surrealistic. Still, it has a great weakness: the meaning of his text may be blurred because of the language used or because the readers may not have the same cultural references as the author. Ellis takes this risk, as he has to make his characters talk as authentically as possible.
2) The effects linked to the use of the first person
At the time he wrote Less than Zero, Ellis chose to make his narrators express themselves in a personal manner rather than to use the external, "third person" view, which is used in most of the novels. This allows the narrator to express opinions that would not be thinkable in a traditional literary work through his narrators. Still, as Ellis novels are neither pamphlets nor autobiographical novels, the narrators words should not always be mixed up with the authors words. First of all, we will deal with the strengths and weaknesses of focusing on the narrators view only, for the narrator and for the reader. Moreover, the first person adds a side effect which is essential to Ellis novels: the impression of voyeurism, which is rather uncomfortable for the reader, and we will try to say how Ellis manages to create this impression, and why it is used. Finally, we will also deal with the confusion that the internal focalization creates, as the reader is not always too sure about who is talking, and we will also state what are the consequences on the narrative not to have an external narrator.
Writing in the first person tends to create a more "natural", more realistic narrative, but it also tends to transform the narrative into a text that is not purely literary anymore. The absence of an extradiegetic narrator tends to suppress the distance that can result in an external narrators comments. This effect of distance is also negated because of the fact that Ellis also writes his novels in the present tense only, and then there are no additional comments in retrospect on the events exposed. On the other hand, if writing in the first person adds more authenticity to the facts related in the novels it also tends to narrow the readers field of view, and we have to rely on what the narrator says of what he sees, which is necessarily biased, however vapid and empty Ellis characters can be. Their temperament also tends to alter the narrative (although Ellis does not manage to render this in a satisfying manner, judging by some scenes, which are just repeated from one novel to another), and their narrow-mindedness tends to impoverish the narrative. We will try to say how.
Writing a novel in the first person serves Ellis novels in an undeniable manner. More than just adding some authenticity to the text, writing in the first person also implies the writers commitment, although he wants to remain as discreet as possible. The first person seems to be a logical choice when we know that we have an intradiegetic narrator, that the novels are centered around him and that they are mostly composed with sequences in direct speech, it seems natural that the narrator uses "I" to talk about himself, rather than "he" which is usually used in literary works. As Barthes puts it,
Le "Il" est une convention-type du roman; à légard du temps narratif, il signale et accomplit le fait romanesque; sans la troisième personne, il y a impuissance à atteindre au roman, ou volonté de le détruire. Le "Il" manifeste formellement le mythe. [ ] La troisième personne, comme le passé simple, [ ] fournit à ses consommateurs la sécurité dune fabulation crédible et pourtant sans cesse manifestée comme fausse.
According to Barthes, " he " represents an untouchable rule without which there can be no literature in the noble meaning of the word. It is paradoxical because it creates at the same time an impression of realism, thanks to the literary illusion, but at the same time, this authenticity is negated because of the external intervention implied by the use of the third person. This paradox tends to protect the reader, as he knows that what he reads is fictional, and that it is imaginary and fabricated. In his novels, Ellis tends to withdraw this impression of security, and the truthfulness of his narrative is shocking. In some way, thanks to the first person, the author holds out a mirror to his readers, "I" becomes "You", and the readers become frightened by what they can see in the
reflection in the mirror held out by Ellis. In Ellis novels, there is no external narrator to reassure us on the imaginary essence of the novel, or to try and embellish the narrative. We find instead a blunt, "hyper-realistic" image, the violence of which being unbearable to the reader, from which, to paraphrase the last sentence of American Psycho "there is no exit". As Roland Barthes explains it:
Moins ambigu, le "je" est par là même moins romanesque: il est donc à la fois la solution la plus immédiate, lorsque le récit reste en deçà de la convention (loeuvre de Proust par exemple ne veut être quune introduction à la littérature), et la plus élaborée, lorsque le "je" se place au-delà de la convention et tente de la détruire en renvoyant le récit au faux naturel dune confidence.
This is the case in Ellis novels: the reader tends to forget that he is reading a fictional work (which was in fact the authors aim). The use of the third person is both natural and treacherous, since, in American Psycho for example, we tend to forget that Bateman is an imaginary character and thus the reader is tempted to revolt against the narrator and/or against the author. Ellis novels are indeed "falsely natural confessions". We have an access to the narrators thoughts, to his secrets, sometimes to his past (mainly in Less than Zero) and in any way to his conception of the world. The narrators beliefs then become an essential filter, a lens through which we see the evils of society. This use of the first person also helps the author to impose his views to his readers. The narrators comments are our only reference point, and then no interpretation apart from what the narrator says is possible for the reader. Then, it becomes easier for Ellis to precisely indicate the aims of his satire, since he does not make long discourses about them (although he takes the risk to be misunderstood), and without using the comments of an external narrator which could be exasperating and sometimes moralizing, and which would break the realism of the narrative however artificial it can be. Finally, when he does so, and however cold and impersonal the tone of his novels can be, Ellis takes the risk not to express any feeling about his characters, and he does not condemn them either. He somehow stands with his narrators, and somehow forces the reader to do the same. We accompany the narrator, and we are forced to trust in him, even though honesty does not characterize any of Ellis characters. They are not true to themselves and they are hypocritical towards their peers. Although we cannot agree with the narrators deeds, the reader is unwillingly turned into a voyeur and even into an accomplice to Elliss narrators. The narrators also utter some statements that are contrary to the readers morals and beliefs that the reader has to accept and to understand that there is some underlying irony in these sentences. Still, as the author does not comment on the narrators words and deeds, and lets his readers make their own mind on the facts related in the novels, however the vision offered by the novel can be. As opposed to some ancient satirical texts, such as Swifts Gullivers Travels, or Voltaires Candide, the narrator imposes no didactic discourse, which tend to voice the intepretation. Then, if we do not have a broad vision of the society designed by Ellis, we can make our mind freely about what is written, without offering a readymade answer. As all of Ellis novels are open-ended, the reader can find many different interpretations on what to think about what he has just read.
On the other hand, if writing in the first person allows the interpretation to be broader and the narrative to be more realistic, the fact that our vision of the situation exposed in the novel is narrowed can be highly disturbing for the reader. First of all, it is disconcerting because the reader has to trust a narrator that inspires him with more disgust than he inspires him with confidence. Bateman, for example, is permanently criticizing his peers and the society he lives in. Still, he himself is a threat and, worst of all, he appears to be such a misanthrope (and a lunatic) that we cannot believe in what he says. Still, we have to follow him blindly, since he is the one that shapes the narrative. Instead of having a neutral external narrator, we have to follow a madman that gives way to his insanity and to his misanthropy. In the same way, in Glamorama, we have to stand Victors idiotic comments, as he is utterly stupid and thinks that he is very important. Ellis narrators are all very talkative (except maybe Clay in Less than Zero), but what they say is devoid of meaning, and they do not give an objective vision of the world at all. The narrative is infected with the characters narrow mindedness, by their misanthropy and/or their racism and by their heartlessness (something we can see in the cold descriptions Bateman does of the murders he commits, mostly because he is delighted with what he has done, contrary to the neutral, almost clinical descriptions of the destruction caused by the bomb attempts in Glamorama). These perpetual comments can be utterly annoying, and add to the unhealthy climate that already reigned in Ellis novels. The comments Ellis narrators do can only infuriate the reader, as what they say is shocking, and their self-pride is truly irritating, still, as we cannot stop them, we are forced to bear their comments. If Ellis goal was to disgust his readers, we can say that it worked. Still, if no explicit didactic discourse is given about what to think about the novel, the author gives us some hints when he insists heavily on some subjects, for example, when Ellis overdoes some violent parts when suggesting them is already enough. We can even say that Ellis takes a sadistic delight to write such scenes, as if it was meant to attract some readers rather than to criticize gratuitous violence. In the same way, when he writes some sex scenes, he insists heavily on them, as if he was sexually aroused himself just to imagine them. Such exaggerations go against his purposes rather than to serve them. In the same way, the reader can feel ill at ease as he is forced to rely on the narrators point of view, rather than to find his personal opinion. The fact that the reader is turned into a voyeur is also disturbing for him. Finally, the fact that the reader has no possibility to take some distance from the narrator, since he is forced to believe in the narrators opinions about the characters, even if they are misogynist, racist or generally intolerant. The narrators see the world with blinkers, because of their limited personality and of their lack of psychology, and we have to confide in their vision of society. Finally, if Ellis tried to make his narrators talk in an individual, personal manner, we have the feeling that all of his narrators express themselves in the same way. To make them talk in a personal manner, Ellis would have had to imitate the characters language, or to respect the limitations imposed by the fact of writing in the first person (the author would have had to think about how they would react towards such or such situation, and so on ). We quickly get the feeling that Ellis uses the same narrator in all of his novels. It is even more striking in the Rules of Attraction, the other "proper" novel by Ellis, in which the narrator changes in every chapter, but where the same tone and the same way of talking is kept throughout the novel. If there is no incoherence in the narrative because of this, we can say that Ellis ambition to disappear behind his characters was not fulfilled properly. If Victor appears stupid when he speaks, his thoughts are not as silly as we would have expected them to be. This is one of the weaknesses of Elliss style, as Ellis wants to keep a cold, neutral tone, while the narrative, written in the first person, can only be personal. Maybe Ellis wanted to transcribe the characters disillusionment and boredom, but it may be rather narrow-minded to think that everybody would react in the same manner towards such or such situation, especially when we deal with characters as different as Clay, Bateman and Victor can be. In the same way, Ellis sometimes relies too heavily on the efficiency of his style, and this can cause some repetitions. Tina Jordan in her article Bad Bret: Less than Original points out that some passages were copied out from Less than Zero to American Psycho, in a practically unchanged manner:
After Ive towelled my hair dry, I wrap the towel around my waist and walk back into her room, start to dress. Blairs smoking a cigarette, and watching MTV, the sound turned down low.
"Will you call me before Christmas?" She asks.
"Maybe", I pull on my vest, wondering why I even came here in the first place. (Less than Zero, page 49)
After towelling my hair dry I put on a Ralph Lauren robe and walk back into the bedroom, start to dress. Courtney is smoking a cigarette, watching Late Night with David Letterman, the sound turned down low.
"Will you call me before Thanksgiving?" She asks.
"Maybe", I button up the front of my shirt, wondering why I even came here in the first place (American Psycho, page 360)
Ellis has a certain tendency to self-parody, and more generally, to repeat himself. This example is not isolated, between the same two novels, another scene is repeated, almost word for word:
She tries to smile when she asks me what I want for Christmas.
"Nothing", I say.
Theres a pause and then I ask her "What do you want?"
She says nothing for a long time, and I look back at my hands and she sips her wine.
"I dont know. I just want to have a nice Christmas."
I dont say anything. (Less than Zero, page 10-11)
She tries to smile when she asks what I want for Christmas.
"Nothing", I say, smiling reassuringly.
Theres a pause. I break it by asking, "What do you want?"
She says nothing for a long time, and I look back at my hand, at dried blood, probably from a girl named Suki, beneath the thumbnail.
My mother licks her lips tiredly and says, "I dont know. I just want to have a nice Christmas."
I dont say anything. (American Psycho, page 365)
To represent the characters boredom and their lack of feelings, Ellis tends to repeat himself. While his narrators are supposed to keep a certain individuality, they both react in exactly the same way in two roughly similar situations. Such chapters do not have a capital importance in the novel, but they reveal Ellis tendency to self-compliance, and to write some hollow chapters as if he did not know what to write to enrich his novels, or as if he himself was getting bored.
Ellis style is based upon this use of the first person rather than on the more conventional third person, because it helps to make his satire shaper and to give his texts some more authenticity. But, on the other hand, the narrator (and by the way the author) tends to impose to the reader his vision of things, a vision which is narrowed by the narrators own limitations, and by the fact that we have to focus on one chapter only. In the same way, Ellis novels are somehow weakened by this choice, especially when we put his novels in parallel, and that we acknowledge that there are a lot of similarities between them.
Voyeurism is very present in Ellis novels. First of all, it is important within the narrative itself, since all of the three narrators turn out to be voyeurs themselves. On the other hand, the reader too is turned into a peeping Tom. He is generally a voyeur, since he attends to the narrators life, even to the most intimate moments, but the author tried to attract the reader, appealing to his lust or to his morbid sexuality (thanks to the description of sexually explicit or violent scenes). This is not a comfortable position for the reader, and we will try to say in which way.
First of all, voyeurism is inherent to the narrative. The narrators of the three novels in question, namely Clay, Bateman and Victor seem to like (or at least are curious) to see other characters suffer and/or having sexual relationships. In some scenes, it can only be some morbid curiosity. For instance, in Less than Zero, Clay appears completely attracted and even hypnotized by death and by everything sordid. For example, he cannot take his eyes off the dead coyote he crashed into with his car, or when he is fascinated by the vision of the dead boy that is lying in one of his friends alley.
I cannot take my eyes off the dead boy. There are moths flying above his head, twirling around the light bulb that hangs over him, illuminating the scene. (Pages 174-175)
Clay is not a criminal, he would not kill on purpose, but he is captivated by the others pain and by death. In his description of the dead boy, he mostly underlines the sordidness of the situation. In the same way, in Less than Zero still, when the characters look at Muriel injecting some heroin without reacting, it is because of their curiosity more than actual nastiness.
She pulls up her sleeve, reaches for a belt in the darkness, finds it and wraps it around her upper arm. I spot the needle tracks, look over at Blair, whos just staring at the arm. [ ] Muriel doesnt say anything, just slaps her arm to find a vein and I look at my vest and it freaks me out to see that it does look like someone got stabbed, or something. (Pages 76-77)
The characters are so absorbed by what Muriel is doing that none of them seems to think to go and stop her. They are all so curious to see what they are going to do that nobody would take the syringe from her. The same phenomenon appears in American Psycho, in which Bateman, after having captured and neutralized his victims, likes to see them suffer and finally die.
Tiffany is tied up with six pairs of Pauls suspenders on the other side of the bed, moaning with fear, totally immobilised by the monster of reality. I want her to watch what Im going to do to Torri and shes propped up in a way that makes this unavoidable. As usual, in an attempt to understand these girls Im filming their deaths. With Torri and Tiffany I use a Minor LX ultra-miniature camera that takes 9,5mm film, has a 15 mm f/ 3,5 lens, an exposure meter and a built-in neutral density filter and sits on a tripod. (Page 304)
Through Id like to watch this child die, I push him down behind the garbage can, then casually mingle in with the rest of the crowd. [ ] When the mother finally notices him she doesnt scream because she can see only his feet and assumes that hes playfully hiding from her. [ ] I can see the exact moment when the expression on the mothers face changes into fear, and slinging her purse over her shoulder she pulls the trash can away, revealing a face completely covered in red blood and the childs having trouble blinking its eyes because of this, grabbing at his throat, now kicking weakly. The mother makes a sound that I cannot describe something high-pitched that turns into screaming" (Pages 298-299)
Not only Bateman likes to make other character suffer, he also likes to torture them mentally through an extremely violent and gratuitous act. In the first passage quoted, he tortures and violently kills a prostitute, and forces her colleague, that he also rented to watch the first one die. In the second excerpt, he kills a child only to see how badly his mother would react, causing an immense turmoil (and attracting a lot of passers-by). As he is a psychopath, Bateman takes an equal pleasure to kill his victims, or to watch them die, or to watch other characters suffer. Bateman is a voyeur, something that is confirmed when he watches some very violent movies (his cult film being Brian de Palmas Body Double) or some pornographic films, in order to fuel his sick fantasies. Bateman is not only fascinated by violence, his tendency to voyeurism can also be remarked when it comes to sex. Bateman likes to watch other characters make love, especially women having sex together, and also likes to stage some sexual threesomes.
Idly, I wonder if Evelyn would sleep with another woman if I brought one over to her brownstone and, if I insisted, whether theyd let me direct, tell them what to do, position them under hot halogen lamps. Probably not; the odds dont look good. (Page 120)
"I want you to clean your vagina. [ ] No. [ ] From behind. Get on your knees. I want to watch", I explain. "You have a very nice body" (Page 170)
"Listen, I would like to see the two of you get it on", I say innocently. "Whats wrong with that? Its totally disease-free".
"Patrick", she laughs. "Youre a lunatic."
"Come on", I urge. Dont you find Christie attractive?" (Page 287)
Bateman is so infatuated with himself that he cannot imagine a "good", satisfying sexual relationship without having two partners at the same time. He likes not only to take part in such liaisons, but also to watch two girls having a sexual relationship together. If we can judge that Batemans sexual life is already rather fulfilling, his permanent lust and his depraved sexual wants shows us that he always needs more, which is the reason why he also likes to watch some pornographic films, once again, in order to fuel his desires and his fantasies. Bateman is ultimately a voyeur, he needs his dose of sex and of violence every day, no matter if he is taking part in it. In Glamorama, Victors voyeurism is expressed in a less obvious manner. Contrary to the other narrators in question, Victor does not feel attracted at all by violence, and all of the brutality displayed by the terrorists only manages to disgust him. Then, he does not show any particular morbid curiosity. On the other hand, as he is directed by his lust, he likes to seduce other girls, although he already has a girlfriend.
She keeps walking and I hang back, taking my sunglasses off to check the body beneath the open coat: thin with full breasts, long and shapely legs, short blond hair, everything else eyes, teeth, lips, whatever equally nice. (Glamorama, page 84)
Victor is "only" attracted by women, without showing any particular "degrading" voyeurism, and, moreover, the violence caused by the terrorists disgusts him completely. Still, he is one of the only characters created by Ellis that does not show a particular attraction to sordid things.
On the other hand, Ellis also turns the reader into a voyeur. Since the only two kinds of scenes Ellis accepts to describe, the reader is forced to watch what the author shows him, even if he does not really want to see what is shown to him. The reader than attends the narrators sexual adventures, and also has to stand the unbearable descriptions of brutal acts. The worse fact about this is that Ellis writes such descriptions in length, with plenty of details. Doing so, he is at the same time attracting the reader, as he stimulates his curiosity, and he is repulsing him, since what is described becomes too much to accept. For instance, we can quote from Glamorama, in which the terrible effects of a bomb attempt are widely detailed:
I pass a girl whose face is cut in half, the lower part of her body torn away, and the leg lying nearby is completely embedded with screws and nails, and another woman, blackened and writhing, one hand blown off, is screaming, dying and a Japanese woman in the bloody tatters of a Chanel suit collapses in front of me, both her jugular vein and her carotid artery sliced open by flying glass, causing every breath she takes to gurgle blood. (Page 354)
In this passage, Victor, contrary to Bateman in American Psycho, takes no delight in explaining what he sees, he does a rather cold, almost clinical description of what he sees. This description suits Ellis will to write a realistic text (in this case, we can even talk about hyperrealism). The images evoked by this description are raw and crude. Such images could be shown in a news bulletin, or could have been found in a newsmagazine. Ellis tried to depict the destruction caused by the bomb attempt without exaggerating, or without trying to embellish the truth, however ugly it is. When he does so, Ellis appeals to his readers morbid curiosity, this time, but then, the description which is done is shockingly harsh and it is unbearable because of all the sordid details mentioned in the passage quoted. Still, like Victor, the reader is turned into an unwilling spectator, and is forced to watch the "show" without being personally implicated in the bomb attempt, and the same phenomenon happens in Less than Zero where the reader is only an powerless observer, and does not feel as if he was taking personally part to the destruction caused. In Less than Zero and in Glamorama, neither Clay nor Victor willingly take part to the sordid events, and both of them are disgusting with what is happening. In American Psycho, the problem appears to be very different indeed: Bateman is conscious of all the pain he causes, likes to make his peers suffer, and thus the reader is also turned into an accomplice. We are turned into Batemans confident, and we somehow feel as guilty as he is, because we have no other choice than to let him do, since he is only a fictional character, but we feel responsible for his acts. Still, we have witnessed Batemans crimes, and the impression of sickness we feel is partly caused by the fact that we receive the confession of unbearable facts, and we become Batemans partners in crime. We are warned when he is about to strike, but we cannot do anything to prevent this.
On a Wednesday night another girl, who I meet at M.K. and I plan to torture and film. (Page 326)
We know what is going to happen, and we are taken with Bateman in his journey through madness. The fact that the novel is written in the first person serves this purpose very well. If the third person could have put a distance between the narrator and the reader, freeing the reader from feeling implicated directly in the narrators deeds. When "he" is used, the reader has the certainty that the facts reported are not real and then avoids facing a shock too brutal as the one we feel when we read American Psycho as it is. In some way, we attended to Batemans crimes, in our imagination at least, in their blunt horror.
Finally, in all of his novels, but especially in American Psycho and in Glamorama, there are a lot of "explicit" sexual scenes. These scenes are also developed in length, and are written in a rather crude, blunt language, as they are described very precisely, with the matching vocabulary. Still, the facts are presented in a rather straightforward way, without using or metaphors that could have embellished the descriptions.
In front of me Jamie steps into Bobbys arms and he places a huge hand under her chin and tilts her face upward and he kisses her deeply, their pink tongues entwined and Jamies hand falls onto Bobbys cock and she squeezes it and then she eases Bobby down onto the bed next to where Im lying, his hand at my feet, his dick at my face, and Jamie drops to her knees beside the bed and starts licking the sides of Bobbys prick while shes staring at me and Bobbys moaning and hes tonguing my feet and Jamie raises then lowers her mouth, taking in as much of the cock as she can while Bobbys hips keep thrusting upward. (Glamorama, pages 336-337)
This scene is written into such a straightforward, emotionless way that it is actually very hard to read, and is rather repulsive, while the reader might have been appealed at first by such a scene. It is the brutality and the mechanical character of the sexual act that makes such descriptions sickening, but also because in Ellis novels sexual relationships are not combined with some genuine feelings. This lack of emotions in the sexual acts explains that the description is so cold and direct. This is why the reader feels that he is turned into a voyeur. Such descriptions are similar to the ones we find in some pornographic novels, and it is not really the facts described that disturb, but rather in the way such descriptions are written. Still, the author appeals to the readers worst instincts, including the curiosity to know how their neighbors live their sexual life. He appeals to this (finally rather human) inclination, satisfies it, and does it so well that the reader ends up being completely disgusted with what he has read. This may be why the author exaggerates the violence of the words used in his descriptions, in order to push his reader away from the text.
Writing in the first person contributes to turn the reader into a voyeur. If the narrator uses "I", to express himself, the text then implicitly implies a "you", addressed to the reader, since the latter is more or less turned into the narrators confident. When he does so, the author appeals to the readers curiosity and satisfies it, until the reader himself feels that it is better not to see anything rather than to face the facts in such a blunt way. Once again, this is part of Ellis satire: he wants to criticize the glorification of violence by our modern societies, and also the fact that people are hypocritical about sex. Ellis tries to shock his reader in order to make him understand his message (even if the authors intention can be completely misunderstood by the reader).
Ellis works begin in medias res. We are propelled into the universe he has created, and we are assaulted with a lot of information that we do not understand fully. Still, we are not given any detail about the narrator (we even learn their names rather late in the text), and the novel often open on a sequence in direct speech: "ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE" followed by Tim Prices monologue in American Psycho; "People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles" in Less than Zero; and "Specks specks all over the third panel, see? no, that one, the second one up from the floor and I wanted to point this out to someone yesterday [ ]" in Glamorama. The opening scenes of Ellis novels already foretell the fact that the novels will be composed mostly by sequences in direct speech. Still, we are not informed about the identity of the characters that talk and the subjects of their conversation remains rather obscure (especially the one in the beginning of Glamorama). We quickly get the feeling to have missed some events. This is highly confusing for the reader: he loses all the "security" that is offered in the opening scenes of some more traditional novels, since he is not told who these characters are, what to think of them and so on This impression of rawness may make us think that the novel is not finished, since it is composed with fragments of the narrators lives, not having any coherence with one another. This is highly troubling, since no chapter seems to be complete and has no connection with the previous one, and the following chapter is not its logic continuation.
Still, what we can remark is that, apart from once in Glamorama (when Victors double becomes the narrator), the narrator is the same throughout the three novels in question, which is not the case with the authors other works, The Rules of Attraction and The Informers (in which we never even learn the narrators names), in which the narrator changes in every chapter. Still, it is sometimes hard to know who is really talking. Is it the author or his characters? If the characters thoughts and words reflect the authors opinions, then Ellis is a misanthrope, a racist, a psychopath and a narcissist. The fact that the author does not explicitly take a stand on what his narrators think, say and do, explains that there is a lot of controversy around his works. If we take these words in their literal sense, American Psycho is a sordid novel glorifying the "exploits" of a cruel serial killer, and which shows how easy it is to murder without being caught, and eventually giving a few tips on how to torture women. Still, if the narrative is not interrupted in any way by an external narrator, the author leaves some clues indicating that he is not his characters. In the case of American Psycho, Ellis designed Bateman as an utterly stupid and ridiculous character. He does not make of him a demi-god, and Bateman only escapes to be caught because of his luck and because of the general indifference that reigns in the society he lives in. Bateman is not turned into a "romantic" murderer à la Hannibal Lecter, and he cannot become the inspiration for a cult such as the one devoted to Ed Gein or Charles Manson. If Ellis intentions are not explicitly stated, they are rather clearly formulated in the way the novel was written. The author feigns to stand with his narrators, while he despises everything they represent.
The absence of an external narrator, even if it helps to reinforce the impression of realism, tends to create an impression of neutrality from the author towards what is said. It implies at the same time some neutrality towards what is said, and some commitment from him too, as he uses "I". The problem with using the first person instead of the third is that the narrator is more implicated into what is said by the author, either because he actually agrees with it, or just wants to prove the contrary. On the other hand, if the characters personalities are not very developed, using the first person allows to draw a
more in-depth psychological study of the characters in Ellis novels, although it may be meant to show that they are completely hollow and devoid of human feelings. It also allows the readers to formulate a personal opinion about the narrators rather than to accept the comment an eventual external narrator could deliver. On the other hand, the alternation of conventional scenes and of ultra-violent ones tends to make the reader even more confused. When he thinks he has understood the characters, something happens and just ruins his theories about them. What we can say about the use of the first person inside the narrative is that on the one hand, it adds a lot of realism to the narrative (as Barthes says, we have the feeling to read a confession),
and allows a broader psychological analysis, but on the other hand, what we can grasp from the events is rather limited. Since what we know from the context is limited to the narrators view, we have to trust him, which is often confusing and misleading. Moreover, as Ellis did not manage to create some strong individual personalities, this is even more confusing, since we can hardly differentiate between the three narrators of
the three novels on question. Still, to write a satire the way Ellis wanted it, using the first person was the best solution he had. The trouble with using this technique is that it can be misleading, and he takes the risk that his satire (which is the critique of everything that is exposed in the novel) may not be understood by his readers. On the other hand, in American Psycho and in Glamorama (and in a lesser way, in Less than Zero), Ellis pretends to build a traditional detective story or a traditional social comedy or a traditional spy novel, to completely subvert these genres, and to turn them into something completely different (who can guess from the first part of Glamorama, which mostly deals with the opening of the club that it will quickly become a kind of spy novel, but not exactly so). This can be surprising and confusing for the reader. In any way, the brutal shift in the narrative between a "conventional" novel and what they quickly become causes a shock to the reader, because of the violence displayed, but also because of the complete change in tone of the novel: what was trivial in the beginning becomes dramatically serious from the middle of the novel. This confusion felt by the reader is voluntary from Ellis part, because, for the sake of the satire he wants to write, he needs to leave his reader perplexed, or even angry. If his novels leave the reader indifferent, the authors goal is not reached. This is why we can say that writing in the first person serves the novels more than it damages them. It is the authors choice, and it seems fair to say that in spite of the weaknesses it implies, writing in the first person was the best way to shock his reader, because of the "personal" character of the narrative. Moreover, the uncertainty generated by the beginning of the novel quickly disappears, since the context of the novel helps the reader to know what happened before, and the narrator explains what is essential to know to understand the novel. We can suppose that Ellis does not want his readers too feel too comfortable when reading his novels, and this climate of hostility is instituted by the narrator himself and adds to the uneasiness that we can feel when we read his novels.
To finish with this part, we will quote from the author. In an interview to Jamie Clarke, the author defends his choice to use the first person:
Theres many more chances for ambiguity, for leaving stuff out, which to me can be as great as stuff thats kept in, stuff youre wondering about, where youre constantly kept in question, where youre constantly turning the pages, wondering if this persons going to notice these things, or if hes going to make a connection, or if hes going to say this, or do that. You know everything when youre reading a novel in the first person. Everythings going to be worked out because the writer oversees the entire canvas. Theres a lot more suspense, I think, in first-person novels.
As we have said earlier, Ellis novels do not require an external vision, since it seems primordial that some suspense is kept in Ellis novels, although what is surprising does not reside in the endings of the novel (which are very often open-ended) but rather in the unraveling of the plot
3) Pornography and Satire
Ellis novels, apart maybe from Less than Zero, were criticized even before their release. The author himself is the object of a great controversy. He is the author of three international best sellers, and still the subjects he deals with are "difficult" ones: sex, violence, rape, madness, terrorism, drug addiction and so on In the same way, the crudeness of his writing and his coldness of tone leave a certain doubt on the authors intentions, and we can wonder what he really aims at when he writes on these subjects. We shall also ask ourselves whether the satire the author wants to draw needs this display of sex and of violence, or if it can be an obstacle to the understanding of the message he wants to convey through his novels. Finally, irony and plain humor play an important role in Ellis novels, and this tends to contrast the gravity of the terms of the literal meaning of his novels.
First of all, we have to remind what we will mean by "pornography" in this chapter. According to the Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary, pornography is "the describing or showing of naked people or sexual acts in order to cause sexual excitement". This definition only encompasses representations of sexual scenes. In this chapter, we will also consider as pornographic the representation of violence, the "glorification" of drug use and finally the use of foul and (most of the time) offensive language, which means the subjects that tend to make a work of art "reserved to adults". We will wonder in this chapter why we can say that Ellis writes "adult" books, and we will try to say what are the effects on his reputation and if the controversy around his name is really justified.
We cannot deny that Ellis writes some lengthy sex scenes, and that he has a certain fondness for them. He writes some "hardcore" sexually explicit scenes, in the same way as the same kind of scenes would be written in a "real" pornographic novel or in the same way as it would be filmed in an X-rated film. The descriptions of sexual relationships shock because of the crudeness of the words used, and also because the fact that what is described in such passages is not "normal" sexual relationships. Ellis deals with polygamous sex, anal sex, oral sex and more Ellis is not the first author to include sexually explicit scenes to his narrative, but the bluntness of the description he does of the sexual intercourse, and the general lack of emotion characterizing it can indeed shock.
Carefully Jamie settles back down on Bobbys cock while I bounce gently up and down, Bobbys cock going all the way in while my dick slides half way out, and we can both feel Jamies vaginal muscles contracting powerfully during her orgasm as she convulses between us "Here, lift up", Bobbys saying as I raise my hips, and he quickly slides a towel under my ass, and Im touching the contours of his chest, tracing the line bisecting his body, and hes spreading my legs while leaning over and kissing me hard on the mouth, his lips thick and wet, and one fingers, then two fingers start moving in and out of my asshole and both of us are glistening with sweat and my heads in Jamies lap, and shes holding me, whispering things in my ear, leaning over and stroking my erection. (Glamorama, page 339).
What is striking in this passage is the cold, straightforward way in which it was written. Ellis, like in the rest of his texts, did not use metaphors to try and embellish the scenes in question. The vocabulary used is rather crude ("cock", "dick", "erection"), and Ellis calls a spade a spade. The fact that his descriptions do not take a lyrical dimension also helps to underline the fact that sex does not go hand in hand with feelings. In this precise passage, Victor voluntarily has sex with Bobby Hughes and Jamie Fields. Victor knows that Bobby is a terrorist, and that he is Bobbys prisoner, and he hates him because of this, and, in the same way, Jamie does not feel attracted at all by Victor. The fact that sex and feelings are dissociated can remind the fact that most of the characters are designed as morally bankrupt, but it is not likely that Ellis truly aims at blaming them. Still, such scenes seem to have been overdone: it is almost as if Ellis tried to satisfy his readers lust when he writes such scenes, but at the same time, the author gives his readers much more than what they would have asked for, and causes disgust as well as the satisfaction of his readers curiosity. Still, we can wonder if such a passage can be part of a literary work in the proper meaning of the word, or is it only a way to appeal to a greater number of readers that would be interested to read some crude sex scenes. We will try to answer this question in the last paragraph of this chapter.
In the same way, Ellis displays the same crudeness of tone when he describes the murders committed by Bateman through the assassins eyes, in American Psycho. The words he uses are as straightforward as the ones used to describe sex scenes, and Bateman is equally emotionless when he kills and when he has sex.
I try using the power drill on her, forcing it into her mouth but shes conscious enough, has strength to close her teeth, clamping them down, and even though the drill goes through the teeth quickly, it fails to interest me. [ ] I use a chainsaw and in a matter of seconds cut the girl in two with it. The whirring teeth go through skin and muscle and sinew and bone so fast that she stays alive long enough to watch me pull her legs away from her body her actual thighs, whats left of her mutilated vagina and hold them up in front of me, spouting blood, like trophies almost. Her eyes stay open for a minute, desperate and unfocused, then close, and finally, before she dies, I force a knife uselessly up her nose until it slides out of the flesh on her forehead, and then I hack the bone off her chin. She has only half a mouth left and I fuck it once, then twice, three times in all. (American Psycho, Pages 328-329)
What is shocking in this passage is not only the bluntness of the words (the description of this girls murder is done in a very crude and "visual" manner). Once again, Ellis does not try to hide the horror of Batemans murder. We face a repugnant truth, since Ellis does not spare us any detail. The description he offers even insists on sordid facts that the reader could have done without. Once again, the author tries to appeal to certain readers, since stories that deal with murderers or documentaries dealing with the lives of real serial killers have a huge success. Here, he gives the reader what he is looking for, as the reader wants to satisfy his own curiosity. But then, Bateman distorts the genre, as the "villain" is the narrator, and that we see the murders he commits through his own eyes. The reader can only be disgusted by what is shown to him, since what is described here is unbearable. Still, although Ellis affirms that his descriptions were inspired to him by the reading of coroner reports, we can think that the author voluntarily exaggerated these scenes to shock his readers, but also to add a dose of sensationalism to his novel. This is why we can suppose that he sent advance copies of the most violent scenes on purpose, in order to create a "buzz" around his novel. If Ellis is a genuinely talented author, the ambiguity inherent to his novels and his taste for provocation may irritate both critics and readers. Still, it would be rather easy to limit the author to the "adult" scenes he writes, since they only are a minor part of the novels written by the author.
As we have just said, Ellis novels can exasperate or fascinate. First of all, we can say that such scenes are useful to Ellis novels because it is what Ellis narrators are interested in: they are guided by their lust and by their sexual urges, they want to fulfil their sexual fantasies at any price, and sex is one of the only things they really like. In Batemans case, he is mainly led by his violent impulses, and he only feels pleasure when he kills. As we know that the narrators thoughts are supposed to be untouched, as if we readers received their conversation straight out of their mouths. Then, we can say that Ellis choice to write his descriptions in a rather raw manner comes from a literary logic, which goes along with the choice of writing in the first person. Moreover, the scenes in question, although they are supposed to appeal to the reader, are so gross and disgusting that he is repulsed, either because the scene in question is too violent or because they are offended by the coarseness of the sex scene described. For example, a reader who would expect from American Psycho to be the diary of a serial killer can only be disgusted by the way Bateman kills, and by the delight he takes when he does so. Moreover, the fact that the novel was written in the first person, puts the reader in a very uncomfortable position: the reader attends Batemans murder in their sheer horror, without the "filter" that is brought by the intervention of an external narrator. In some way, the intervention of an external narrator could have "protected" the reader from seeing all of the abominations Bateman does to torture his victims. If Ellis appeals to the voyeuristic side of his readers personality, he satisfies his curiosity more than the reader himself would have wanted to. This is where Ellis style becomes efficient, and that we can understand why he chose to include these violent scenes and these sexually implicit passages. Ellis shows the reader what the reader wants to see: sex and violence, but he presents these subjects in such a way, without embellishing them, that the reader can only be shocked and/or disgusted by what he reads. When he does so, Ellis criticizes the cult that is built around sex and violence in our modern societies (we will come in detail on this point in the next chapter). Here, Ellis pretends to use sex and violence to glorify them, while he criticizes this very glorification. This is where the ambiguity in Ellis works lie. Since there is no external comment from an omniscient narrator, the fact that Ellis uses sex and violence in an ironic way in order to denounce this system is not explicitly announced. Then, we can rightfully think that Ellis does not genuinely accuse this praise of beauty and of destructiveness, and also benefits from it. We can say that if Ellis sold so many books, he did not only sell them to people that did understand what the aim of the author is, but also to people that were attracted by the "buzz" and by the scandals around the novels at the time of their publication, mainly in the case of American Psycho. In the same way, some readers were probably attracted by the general subject of the novel, dealing with the sordid deeds of a serial killer, and probably thought that the novel was an ordinary detective story, and were probably disappointed by the fact that there is no definite ending to it, and that there is actually no police investigation on the murders he commits. On the other hand, some readers that would be appealed because of the sex scenes and because of the violence contained in the novel were probably bored because of what constitutes the rest of the novel. For example the lengthy descriptions of the characters clothes or the inane discussions about what the characters own or do can seem superfluous if we consider that American Psycho is only a thriller. Ellis is at the same time taking advantage of his position as a fashionable writer, since he can shift more units, but, at the same time, he is not understood by half of his readers, and his message cannot be clearly perceived, and his satire is neutralized if there is no connivance between him and the reader. Ellis novels are then just products, what they were not meant to be in the beginning. This is why Ellis novels are often considered as low-quality sensationalist books, commercially orientated and with dubious morals, rather than to also take in consideration the humor that is obviously present in Ellis novels and what the real content of the message is. We shall not continue the debate on whether Ellis intentions are really to draw a satirical portrait of todays America or rather to sell as many books as he can, but we can think that the study we are realizing here shows that Ellis novels contain a great deal of irony, and we can say that his intentions are rather to criticize the excesses of modern societies rather than to gain as much money as he can Ellis is not a careerist writer, like Stephen King, for instance, can be, when we consider the rhythm of his publications (five novels in fifteen years), the research and the time it takes him to research (American Psycho took four years to complete, the writing of Glamorama took five years), and the strength of his style (although we can argue that he relies sometimes too heavily on it).
Ellis taste for sensationalism causes his bad reputation and somewhat damages the understanding of his novels. Still, we can wonder if all of the "adult" scenes he included were truly necessary and if it was worth to detail them so much. If we think that Ellis only wants to shock his readers, we can say that he is indeed a pornographic author, but then we would have to leave aside the irony inherent to his novels. Ellis uses a method that many satirists used before him: to ironically pretend that he agrees fully with what he actually wants to criticize. When he does so, and when he exaggerates these scenes, Ellis tries to show how ridiculous and vain it is to glorify violence like the media do, and also tries to denounce the tyranny of beauty and also the general hypocrisy around sex. Still, when we consider that our society is already very violent and oversexed, we can wonder why Ellis choice to insist some more on those subjects
In his novels, Ellis criticizes our societys attitude about sex and violence. For this, he chose to insert some very violent scenes and some very detailed and blunt descriptions of sexual relationships. The fact that he uses the same weapons as the ones the targets of his satire use creates a certain ambiguity, and the reader is left confused about the authors genuine intentions. Still, as we live in a world that already suffers from violence, it is hard to understand for the reader why Ellis chose to represent some more violence in his novels. We will also wonder how efficient Elliss message can be in such conditions.
We have already said that the authors intentions were not clearly exposed in his novels. Ellis took the risk not to comment explicitly on what is happening. Moreover, the fact that Ellis systematically writes his novels in the first person may induce the reader into thinking that the narrator is the author, which can also explain the controversy around his novels. Then, the author can be accused of being an insensitive misanthrope, and the fact that feminist associations tried to ban the novel can also be explained because of this, if you took the novels in question in their literal sense anyway. For example, if you take Less than Zero in its literal sense, you face a sordid story of drug abuse and of self-destruction (it is partly, but then the social satire included in the novel would be obscured). If you consider American Psycho without understanding the irony that is inherent to it, it is indeed a very violent story about the life of a mad serial killer. Without looking closer, Glamorama can be seen as a spy novel, taking place in the world of fashion. Still, it would mean that the reader did not understand the irony. If Ellis does not communicate his message explicitly, some elements are there to make us understand what the real nature of the novel is. Still, we can wonder if to criticize our societys fascination with sex and violence, it was really necessary to deal explicitly with them, especially in such an extreme way. The fact is that nowadays television, literature, cinema and art are so filled with them that Ellis had to write something that would really provoke a strong reaction from his readers part to make his satire efficient. It would be exaggerated to say that the readers have seen so much violence and sex that they are already blasés with it, but, as the media as always looking for a scoop, there had been a gradation in crudeness in what can be shown on television or in the magazines in the last twenty years. To quote from recent examples, we can think of European television crews filming mass graves in ex-Yugoslavia. Horror has become almost banal, because the media are going further and further in the name of the right of the public to be informed, and we are only talking here about official "quality" media. Still, although the public appears to be horrified by the violence that surrounds us, people seem to be more and more curious and insensitive. Television for example is becoming increasingly voyeuristic. Knowing this, Ellis novels only seem to follow the same logic: the author satisfies his readers curiosity, he shows them what they want to see, in a very extreme way, until they become disgusted with what they have seen. Moreover, as there is a gradation into sordidness inside Ellis novels, the reader faces scenes that are more and more unbearable. When the reader thinks that he has read something truly horrible, the next chapter is even worse. We can think of American Psycho, in which Bateman becomes more and more violent and cruel throughout the novel, and the means he uses to torture become more and more horrendous, and reach a climax when Bateman tries to cook and eat a girl he previously killed. This comes within the logic of accumulation that Ellis applies in all of his novels. We could think that once that Ellis had showed us that he knows how to write some violent scenes, he could have only suggested some of them and spare us the details. Still, as Ellis wants to reproduce Batemans voice, and that the latter prides himself with the ways he kills and torture explains that we find details descriptions each time. In her film adaptation of American Psycho, Mary Harron chose to suggest what Bateman does to his victims rather than to actually show it. In the same way, sex scenes are described in detail, because our society is very hypocritical about sex. It is one of the only subjects almost everybody is interested in, but nobody would ever admit this, especially in the United States, where mentalities are still very influenced by the Puritan way of thinking. In his novels, Ellis shows sex in a very raw way, almost in the same way as it is shown in pornographic movies, but the length of these scenes and the minute description of what the characters do inspires more disgust than interest. Ellis seems to tell his readers to be more honest in their approach to sex and criticizes the quest for better sex and for better looks. Although Ellis characters seem to have a fantastic love life, they cannot find satisfaction, as their desires seem unlimited since they look for something they can never get as they are all deprived of feelings. Of course, Ellis could have done without these violent or sexually explicit scenes, and he could have found other ways to make his satire efficient. Still, in all of his novels, Ellis also appeals to his readers critical mind, since he gives him no readymade conclusion to his novels, and implicitly asks him to make up his own opinions about what he has just read. The purpose of such scenes is to shock his readers. If this worked, the reader should start thinking about what is said. Contrary to some other writers, we can affirm that Ellis tries to shock his reader in order to transmit his message, not to entertain him (once again, Ellis does not write horror novels) For instance, he does not write any of such scenes until page 131 of American Psycho. If he wanted to please his audience, he would have introduced violent scenes much earlier in the novel (the same remark is also worth for the violence contained in Glamorama, which becomes truly violent on page 282 "only"). In his article "American Psycho more than it seems", Bill Jackson compares the novel to the film The Silence of the Lambs, which was as violent as American Psycho is, although the film was critically acclaimed.
So there are literary merits to the book, it does have a certain black humor about it. Should it be banned? Is it pornographic? Well, [last night] I saw The Silence of the Lambs, an extremely popular film which has been critically acclaimed. During the course of this film, I watched a cannibalistic man take a bite out of another (live) mans face, and saw another man who starved women to "loosen their skins" so that he could skin them and sew together a suit of female flesh.
This sentence shows that todays entertainment industry is showing violence in a more and more explicit and crude way. American Psycho is the logic sequel to the wave of violence that is more and more common in todays art and to the (involuntary) glorification of criminals and murderers by the media. We can for example tell about Charles Manson, Sharon Tates murderer, who is still alive and has almost become an American icon (his autobiography was a best seller, T-shirts are printed with his picture on it and so on ). In a rather funny process, Bateman fuels his own murderous obsessions by reading biographies of serial killers. Still, American Psycho does not turn murderers into heroes. It aims at doing the criticism of this precise process: the readers can only be disgusted by Batemans behavior, he is a ridiculous character, and he is not turned at any moment in the novel into a hero. In the same way, Glamorama does not glorify terrorism, and Less than Zero does not encourage kidnapping and raping underage girl. This is what is often misunderstood in Ellis novels. The American film director Stanley Kubrick encountered the same kind of problems when his film adaptation of Anthony Burgess A Clockwork Orange was released. This is what he said about the film, shortly before his death in 1999:
The assumption being that erotic art will eventually become popular art, and just as now you buy African wildlife paintings in Woolworths, you may one day buy erotica. [ ] There has always been violence in art. There is violence in the Bible, violence in Homer, violence in Shakespeare, and many psychiatrists believe that it serves as a catharsis rather than a model. [ ] I know there are well-intentioned people who sincerely believe that films and TV contribute to violence, but almost all of the official studies of this question have conducted that there is no evidence to support this view. [ ] The violent people who commit violent crimes are not ordinary people who are transformed into vicious thugs by the wrong diets of films or TV. [ ] I am also surprised at the extremely illogical distinction that is often drawn between harmful violence and the so-called harmless violence of, say, "Tom and Jerry" cartoons or James Bond movies, where often sadistic violence is presented as unadulterated fun.
Kubricks opinion on the scandal caused by the release of his film can also be applied to American Psycho. Ellis novels can be accused of fuelling murderers fantasies and of perverting its readers. Still, and as Kubrick rightfully puts it, explicitly violent novels or films are not much more dangerous than the ones containing "harmless" violence and that are aimed at a wider audience than Ellis books will ever attract. It is indeed very hypocritical to accuse a novel targeting a certain audience (it is addressed mostly to some readers that were supposed to understand irony, and to an adult audience, as a child will not go and read American Psycho, or Glamorama. He will rather turn the TV on, and he will watch TV shows that are filled with violence, even the ones that are supposed to be created especially for them). Ellis also wrote a rather funny text, entitled Why Teletubbies are Evil, in which the author denounces the fact that this famous TV show destined to children tends to make children stupid, because of its sickening harmlessness and the lack of wit that reigns in it. The fact that Ellis novels deal with sex and violence makes of the author a scapegoat for right-thinking America, who only stick to the literal meaning of the texts, and do not consider that there is some underlying irony in them.
c) Humor and Irony
The reader may think that Ellis novels are very dark and would not be wrong. The subjects dealt with are indeed very serious, and we can even wonder how we can laugh after having read the abominations presented in his novels without being monsters ourselves. Still, if we consider that Ellis considerably exaggerated the descriptions he does inside his novels, there is a great deal of black humor that is involved, and which tends to counterbalance the gravity of the themes. We can find humor firstly in the way the author designed his characters to turn them into gross caricatures of what humans really are. We laugh at their expense, and they are discredited. Ellis not only mocks his characters but he can also make us laugh thanks to situational humor. Some scenes are just funny, because the situation described is just absurd, but also because they caricature everyday life. This is how Ellis partly conveys his social satire, his weapons being not only his will to shock.
We have already said that Ellis characters were cold, heartless, and devoid of feelings. Ellis also turns them into ridiculous characters: they are so vain, so attached to superficial things that their conversations and their behavior become completely meaningless. Ellis discredits his characters, even if they are dangerous ones (for example, Bateman or Bobby Hughes in Glamorama), in order to lighten the weight of their words. For example, in American Psycho, the fact that Bateman is turned into a worthless, pretentious character makes the reader understand that his racist and his reactionary comments should not be taken literally. Of course, Ellis does not caution his narrators words and it is through irony that he shows that characters like his narrators actually are the ones he wants to criticize. Then, all of his narrators are laughable in their own way. Clays perpetual negativity may make him appear as an unidimensional character and this discredits him. In this case, it is repetition that makes him ridiculous. The reader can mock him because he never wants to go anywhere, but then is forced by other characters to go with him. It is his lack of personality that makes him ridiculous.
"What did you want? Whats going on?"
Julian looks down and then up at me, squinting at the setting sun and says "Money". [ ] He looks at the ground, touches the back of his neck and says, "Hey lets go to the Galleria, okay? Come on."
I dont want to go to the Galleria and I dont want to give Julian any money either, but its a sunny afternoon and I dont have too much else to do and so I follow Julian into Sherman Oaks." (Less than Zero, page 82)
Later in the text, we learn that Clay lent Julian some money and that finally he followed him to the Galleria. What is funny is the discrepancy between Clays thoughts and what he actually does. Clay resolves himself not to do what his friends want him to, and he is invariably led by them without showing any opposing them any objection. His negativity is the main feature of his personality, and the fact that he is being perpetually unenthusiastic turns him into a caricature of a rebellious teenager, always opposed to what is offered to him, but finally he accepts everything. Still, in general rule, Less than Zero lacks humor and is Ellis most serious novel, but also the one in which satire is the most obvious. On the contrary, in American Psycho, Bateman is a completely shallow character. His remarks, which he thinks to be witty, just show how ridiculous he is. He wants so dearly to be modish and to show how cultured he is that what he says ends up making no sense.
"You must also remember that one should always buy mineral water in glass bottles. You shouldnt buy it in plastic ones [ ] because it oxidises", I explain. "You want it to be crisp, with no aftertaste." (American Psycho, page 248)
Bateman delivers this sentence as if it was essential or if it was an absolute truth, and the content of this sentence is so futile that it makes it completely meaningless. The same phenomenon happens when Bateman details his musical tastes and his recent material purchases. Bateman thinks that what he says makes sense, but actually does not. This is what makes Bateman ridiculous: he thinks hes so knowledgeable about things, while he is absolutely not. The most obviously ridiculous character Ellis ever designed is Victor from Glamorama. Ward is utterly stupid and never misses an occasion to make a fool of himself. His statements are inane, and like Bateman, he thinks that he is really clever.
"Sorry, Im late I got lost."
"In your own neighborhood?"
"The neighborhood is going through what is known as gent-rah-fah-cay-shun so its getting, um, complicated." (Glamorama, page 138)
MTV (after polite laughter): "No. What really makes you mad? What really gets you angry?"
ME (long pause thinking): "Well, recently, missing DJs, badly behaved bartenders, certain gossipy male models, the medias treatment of celebs um "
MTV: "We were thinking more along the lines of the war in Bosnia or the AIDS epidemic or domestic terrorism. How about the current political situation?"
ME (long pause, tiny voice): "Sloppy Rollerbladers? The words "dot com"? "
MTV (long pause): "Anything else?"
ME (realizing something, relieved): "A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido."
MTV (long pause): "Did you understand the question?"
ME: "What do you mean by that."
MTV: "Arent there things going on- "
ME (pissed): "Maybe youve misunderstood my answers." (Glamorama, page 142)
Victors behavior in the passages quoted is just hilarious. He is so pretentious and vain that he does not even notice that what he says does not make any sense. Once again, his discourse appears stereotyped. Victors idiotic remarks have no other purpose than to be funny. Ellis has created in Victor a caricature of how stupid machistic men are. He exaggerated his features until his character became really laughable. Yet, his narrators are not the only characters designed by Ellis to be ridiculous. As their peers are exactly the same as them, we find some characters that can be considered as comic counterparts for Ellis narrators. The best example for this is the insufferable Evelyn, Batemans girlfriend. She is very talkative and never listens to what her boyfriend says. Their conversations sometimes offer some surrealistic moments like this one.
"My my need to engage in homicidal behavior on a massive scale cannot be, um, corrected", I tell her, measuring each word carefully. "But I have no other way to express my blocked needs." [ ] She puts her empty glass water down and stares at me. "Patrick", she begins. "If youre going to start in again on why I should have breast implants, Im leaving", she warns. (American Psycho, page 338)
During this conversation, Bateman wants to tell Evelyn that hes leaving her. He clearly tells her that he is a serial killer, but she does not pay attention to him, and delivers an unwillingly hilarious answer. Dialogues in Ellis novels are funny because the characters do not listen to what the others says, or they do not understand what the others message is. Misunderstandings are very frequent and are rather funny, in an ironic way (it seems rather tragic that the characters cannot understand each other). This is where Ellis humor is the most efficient, as his humor is mainly conveyed through dialogues, but also in the discrepancy between the narrators thoughts and what they really say or do. Ellis humor plays on distance effects. Something which was meant to be serious becomes incongruous or ridiculous because there has been a misunderstanding or because one of the characters answered something absurd to a sensible question. His humor is rather accessible, even the readers that could have understood the text in a literal way only can understand that these passages are just funny. For once, Ellis style is not elitist and does not appeal to people having a certain culture or being able to understand irony.
Ellis humor can also be conveyed through a situation, which becomes absurd, because it is actually a strange situation, or because of the comments the narrator utters on what he sees. A humoristic situation can for example be caused by the difference between two very different kinds of characters (in this case, such passages help to draw a social satire.) For instance, we can quote from the first chapter of American Psycho the scene in which Evelyn invites two East Village artists to a dinner with Bateman, Price and Courtney.
Stash doesnt speak. Even though he is probably uncomfortable at the table with us since she looks nothing like the other men in the room his hair isnt slicked back, no suspenders, no horn-rimmed glasses, the clothes black and ill-fitting, no urge to light and suck on a cigar, probably unable to secure a table at Camols, his net worth a pittance still, his behavior lacks warrant and he sits there as if hypnotized by the glistening piece of sushi and just as the table is about to finally ignore him, to look away and start eating, he sits up and loudly says, pointing an accusing finger at his plate: "It moved!"
Timothy glares at him with a contempt so total that I cant fully equal it but I muster enough energy to come close. Vanden seems amused, and so now, unfortunately, does Courtney, who Im beginning to think finds this monkey attractive but I suppose if I were dating Luis Carruthers I might too. Evelyn laughs good-naturedly and says "Oh Stash, you are a riot", and then asks worriedly "Tempura?" (American Psycho, page 13)
This scene is funny for two reasons: first of all, because there is a humorous situation: Stash thinks that he has seen one of his sushi moving, and because he adopts a frankly rather strange attitude ("he sits there as if hypnotized by the glistening piece of sushi"). This is a very simple form of humor, that everybody can understand. The second reason why this scene is funny rests in the difference between Bateman and Evelyns guest, which is summed up in this sentence: "he looks nothing like the other men in the room his hair isnt slicked back, no suspenders, no horn-rimmed glasses, [ ] no urge to light and suck on a cigar, probably unable to secure a table at Camols, his net worth a pittance." This sentence sums up rather well and in a very humorous way why he does not like Stash, because he is not as appearance-oriented, as vain (Bateman thinks that going to expensive restaurants and smoking cigars is something normal), and as snob as Bateman and his friends can be. This passage is funny because it reflects all the contempt that Bateman has for him, and defines Batemans biased notion of "normality". This passage, more than just being humoristic is also an ironic piece of social satire. It shows how Bateman is attached to superficial things, and how he despises people that are different from him. The meeting between Stash and Bateman and his friends is the clash of two worlds, which are very different indeed, neither of them being much better than the other (Stash does not appear to be very sane either, and he does not make any effort to be accepted). This shows how hermetic human relationships can be, as people stay with people that are like them, and are not keen on forgetting about their differences. We can also remind that Stash and his friend Vanden were invited to entertain guests, almost as clowns, or as freaks, to mock the fact that these characters are different from the others.
Finally, to finish with the absurd humor Ellis slips inside his novel, we have to talk about the recurring gag contained in American Psycho concerning the subjects of Batemans favorite television show, the Patty Winters Show. It is a fictional low-quality talk show, which deals with sensationalist subjects. Its topics are both hilarious (judging by their stupidity, and also by Batemans comments on them) and frightening (we can wonder if the society designed by Ellis is not as mad in its whole as Bateman can be). Here are a few of the topics quoted in American Psycho:
The Patty Winters Show was about Real-life Rambos. (Page 87)
The Patty Winters Show this morning was about Nazis and, inexplicably, I get a real charge out of watching it. Though I wasnt exactly charmed by their deeds, I didnt find them unsympathetic either, nor I might add did most of the members of the audience. One of the Nazis, in a rare display of humor, even juggled grapefruits and, delighted, I sat up in bed and clapped. (Page 156)
The Patty Winters Show was about Home Abortion Kits. (Page 330)
Bigfoot was interviewed on The Patty Winters Show this morning and to my shock I found him surprisingly articulate and charming. (Page 381)
Todays guests are women with multiple personalities. A nondescript overweight older woman is on the screen and Pattys voice is heard asking, "well, is it schizophrenia or whats the deal? Tell us."
"No, oh no. Multiple personalities are not schizophrenics", the woman says, shaking her head. "We are not dangerous."
"Well", Patty starts, standing in the middle of the audience, microphone in hand. "Who were you last month?"
"Last month it seemed to be mostly Polly", the woman says. [ ] "Well", Patty continues "now who are you?"
"Well ", the woman begins tiredly, as if she was sick of being asked this question, as if she had answered it over and over again, and still no one believed it. "Well, this month Im Lambchop. Mostly Lambchop." (Pages 29-30)
The subjects of that television show, although it deals with sensationalist topics, reflect a certain reality. The fact that Ellis invents inane subjects for that imaginary show has first of all comical purposes, as the topics dealt with in the show are completely absurd and sometimes even surrealistic ("Bigfoot was interviewed "). Then it is a proof of Ellis good humor, but at the same time, it also adds to the general climate of madness and of violence that could already be found in the novel ("real-life Rambos", "Home abortion kits"). It is no wonder that Bateman and his peers are all turned mad by the world they live in, judging by the reflection of society that is shown on television. At the same time, it is a sharp criticism of the media, which seem able to make the viewers believe just anything, which can explain the surrealistic topics. Television even seems
to be able to make his viewers accept revolting ideas ("Though I was not charmed by
[the Nazis] deeds, I didnt find them unsympathetic either, nor I might add did most of the members of the audience"). Still, this very black and sarcastic humor is part of Ellis style, and whether we like it or not, we have to admit that Ellis has a very funny humor, and that he is not the heartless misanthrope we could think he is.
What we have just dealt with is just a few examples of humorous scenes in Ellis novels, we could also have talked about Clays meeting with his psychiatrist in Less than Zero, in which the doctor seems more interested in the book hes writing than in Clays problems, or the relationship between Victor and the women he tries to seduce in Glamorama. Through humor, Ellis tries to entertain his readers and to relieve the tension that is inherent to his works. Moreover, humor and irony are used in order to show that a second interpretation is possible and that the reader should not stick to the literal meaning of his texts. Ellis mocks his characters and puts them in some absurd conversations in order to discredit them and to show that they are not models to be followed.
Ellis transforms his texts into something that is not literature in the proper meaning of the word anymore. We can think that it is the way his novels are written in, and not their plot that makes them singular, otherwise they would be rather banal. Still, if Ellis novels are not yet "classic" literature and if the unusual character of his writing can still shock, disconcert or even displease, his style can offer a preview of what the literature of the new century may become, because of the tone used, or because of the use of the first person or of the subject dealt with. Writers are looking more and more for "alternative" forms of writing, in order to break the conventions of traditional literature, and to break the belief that a novel has to be a work of art, well polished, and keeping a universal value. Undercover of populism, these writers claim their independence in their stylistic choices as well as in the topics dealt with
On a theoretical point of view, Ellis literary project is a success. If the reader was to stay perfectly neutral and was told right from the start that this is irony, Elliss satire would be very sharp. The societies and the characters he designs are both laughable and horrendous. His characters are at the same time ridiculous, as the reader is induced into thinking that he cannot be like them, because their behavior is inhuman and risible. At the same time, the characters can frighten us, because of their lack of emotions, of their violence, because they are all morally corrupt and at the same time very similar to us. The reader is shocked because although Ellis characters are distorted pictures of what mankind is, the author holds out a mirror to him, and is shocked to recognize himself in it. In the same way, the satire he draws from our society is accurate, although it is very caricatural. Ellis paints a portrait of a society which has gone too far into emptiness and has devoted such a cult to artificiality that the people belonging to it are not humans anymore, and are sliding into evil. Emptiness always takes a negative sense in Ellis novels: they cannot find peace, they tend to destruction and even to self-destruction. Emptiness equals to despair for Ellis, and if he mocks his characters vacuity, it is to try and warn his readers about the danger of such a behavior. In the same way, Ellis use of emptiness to create a work of art was a success: he managed to write some very meaningful and worthy novels out of valueless material. Ellis uses emptiness as the main material to his novels, without letting it contaminate his narrative. Although Ellis writing has some undeniable weaknesses, the reader never gets the impression that his novels are empty, or do not make sense. In this, Ellis novels are efficient satirical works, his style can thus only add to the message he wants to convey, forcing his reader to start a reflection on what he has just read.
On the other hand, Ellis novels can be seen as nothing more than a product of the society they aim at criticizing. While pretending to criticize the system, Ellis has become a part of this system, after the controversy caused by the release of American Psycho helped him to become a famous writer, and that all of his novels were instant best-sellers, which is not undeserved, but they probably sold too much. American Psycho and Glamorama were both best sellers, shifting millions of units. They sold mostly because of the controversy around these novels, and also because of Ellis status as a fashionable writer, praised by magazines (mainly in Europe, slightly less in America, where traditional media usually criticize him), and probably these articles had an influence on the sales of his novels because of the seasonal support of the press. We can think probably that many of his readers did not understand the whole extent of the novel, and just thought that it was a good thriller, or just did not get the point of his novels. Ellis use of pornography and of violence may let the reader think that the author praises violence, and maybe he does in spite of what he claims in interviews. In some way, we can say that Less than Zero was a pure representation of his style, was a sharp satire of Americas youth, and that it did not contain yet the excesses of violence and of sex that can be found in American Psycho or in Glamorama, since Ellis wrote it as a traditional novel, without relying on "difficult" subjects to make sales. Glamorama and American Psycho bear very strong messages too, but the way in which Ellis conveys them is far more sensationalist, and the reader can quickly be confused about the authors actual aims.
We can say that after everything that we have stated, Ellis novels do make sense, and are not only products (although they were intended to be sold, and his success seems perfectly deserved). They were produced by the society we evolve in. The form and the topics of these novels are problems everybody meets everyday, although nobody would want to confess it: sex, drugs, violence, and ambition. The issue with Ellis novels rests in the extreme ways these topics are dealt with, and this is why they caused so much controversy. Still, when we consider other forms of art (cinema, music and art), and even other literary works, we can notice that violence and sex are more and more explicitly represented and dealt with, following the quest for liberties that was started in the late 1960s. Artists tend to think more and more that, to convey a message, they have to shock the public, and to make themselves known. We can for example quote the examples of Michel Houellebecq for literature, who speaks like a writer should not, leaving ambiguity exist between what he writes and what he says, David Lynch or Paul Verhoeven that represent sex and violence in a very explicit manner in their films, in order to stigmatize what the evils of America are, or in music, Marilyn Manson, who claims to be an androgynic Satanist in order to appear as his worst nightmare of Puritan America. Ellis is not much different of these artists, and his novels are more than publicity stunts. We cannot put the authors sincerity in question, judging that the author leaves enough hints in his narrative showing that his novels are filled with irony and should not be taken in the literal sense.
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List of films:
Je tiens tout particulièrement à remercier:
Sans ces personnes, ce travail ne serait rien.
Je les remercie du plus profond de mon coeur.