By Storey, Mark
[T]He traditional subject, particularly the masculine subject, is in the throes of an identity crisis. Moreover, this crisis is a particularly radical one. […] [I]t is not simply a matter of discovering or choosing for oneself a single, unified, coherent identity from a range of cultural possibilities. [. . .] Rather, the current crisis threatens to transform or even overthrow the whole concept of identity. This is the point of convergence of fears of late capitalism, fears of feminism, fears of any swerving from the path of “straight” sexuality: the fears that, together, constitute what I want to call “pomophobia.”
-Thomas B. Byers, “Terminating the Postmodern: Masculinity and Pomophobia” 7 (emphasis in original)
Thomas Byers is one critic whose approach to the crisis of masculinity seems to push the issue further than most: Whereas others have focused so often on the implications of the crisis for constructions of masculine identity, Byers sees it as such a radical event that even the concept of identity is in the process of redefinition. Contemporary life, what we might call “the postmodern era,” has witnessed so profound a shift in how we see ourselves that all the old frameworks of the self have come crashing down; some embrace this, but some, as Byers argues, see the change as a threat to the order in which they are safely established-this fear of things “falling apart” is what Byers means by pomophobia. His hope is that the old ideas of an essential masculinity may fall away and new constructions of sexuality and gender will replace them. Postmodernity’s relentless dismantling of established orders and its deconstruction of the old hegemonic discourses strikes fear into the normative masculinity that relies so heavily on them. From the rubble that remains after its destruction, a new sexual order can be established free of the previous era’s patriarchal hierarchy.
It is no big leap to see Byers’s pomophobia at work in much contemporary fiction written by and about men; indeed, that well may be where pomophobia achieves its most sophisticated expression. Few male-authored novels about men, in recent-or in any-times, have caused as much controversy as American Psycho. To call Bret Easton Ellis’s third novel difficult seems a desperate case of understatement: Its lingering, horribly detailed descriptions of torture and murder, as well as the explicit sexual content, caused a moral panic when the book first appeared, a furor now well documented elsewhere.1 One puzzle that has also fueled the novel’s cult status is whether the “action” actually takes place or is a sustained, nightmarish fantasy. Most critics either think of American Psycho as the stylish confession of a yuppie serial killer, a not-so-subtle satire of 1980s consumer greed, or a long, increasingly insane rant, a malign chimera conjured by the disturbed mind of Patrick Bateman.
Now that the notoriety has quietened, those approaches now seem strangely simplistic. It turns the novel into a 400-page puzzle, a kind of ontological whodunnit that one can “work out” by following the clues. Except Ellis is a better novelist than that, and American Psycho a vastly more complex novel. The question is not whether the “action” really takes place-a careful reading reveals that was never the point-but what the “action” tells us about the person who recounts it. The narrative is life through the prism of Patrick Bateman’s psyche, but closer inspection reveals his psyche is nonexistent. Instead, Ellis gives us a central identity created by external forces, a fictional world encased in the language of the society that created it and told through the voice of a man who in real terms is not actually there. The narrative is deeply mired in the “crisis of masculinity,” exploring the creation of an identity in a postmodern world in which the concept of identity has changed. In the impossibility of that postmodern creation, Ellis shows us the monstrous heart of masculinity at the outer limits, a frenzied pomophobia that, instead of re-establishing Bateman’s identity and sense of order, serves to draw him further into the realm of chaotic unreality.
It is important to establish from the beginning the “unreal” qualities of Patrick Bateman. Criticism of the novel has often allowed a curious and damaging contradiction to creep into analyses of Bateman’s account: In the same breath as they proclaim him to be an embodiment of pure evil, critics have credited the narrative-his narrative, remember-with a startling amount of reliability and coherence. We may reasonably conclude that literary critics are happy to place their trust in psychopaths. James Annesley, for example, claims that “in the terms laid down by Ellis, Patrick Bateman’s murders are crimes for which an increasingly commercial and materialistic society must take ultimate responsibility” (13); although with a more specific example in mind, Ruth Helyer discusses the scene in which Bateman returns to the apartment of Paul Owen (an early “victim”) and “finds the real estate agent there, intent on covering up the carnage, for the sake of reletting the property” (729). Both credit Bateman with a level of reliability that does not hold. To discuss his “crimes” in terms that make them real, or to attempt to understand his motivation in that way, places trust in the subjective nature of what we are told, crediting Bateman’s “I” with a stable sense of self. To believe the events are true, or even to react to them in ways that suggest that they are the product of our narrator’s imagination, creates a Patrick Bateman who is unmistakably there, who exists, lives, and breathes among us. Read beyond these rather trivial choices, however, and it is possible to see Bateman as not there at all, a representation of representations in which he is in the center as the negative space. Elizabeth Young recognizes the impossibility of analyzing Bateman:
Patrick is a cipher; a sign in language and it is in language that he disintegrates, slips out of our grasp [. . .]. He is a textual impossibility, written out, elided until there is no “Patrick” other than the sign or signifier that sets in motion the process that must destroy him and thus at the end of the book must go back to its beginnings and start again [. . .]. Patrick becomes, in effect, feminized, excluded from “existing” in language. (“The Beast in the Jungle” 119, emphasis in original)
When reading American Psycho, it becomes clear that the novel is as much about the dilemma of Patrick Bateman’s identity as it is a satire on 1980s consumerism. Ellis explores the dilemma through language, the system through which normative masculinity has traditionally located and perpetuated itself: By creating a male protagonist who exists only as an exemplar of traditionally male language systems (violence, pornography, the media, fashion, commerce) taken to their extremes, he undermines the stability of those language systems and shows the impossibility of their attempts to adapt to postmodernity. “Patrick Bateman” is not a single coherent identity that comes from within, but a pliable, artificial identity that is formed entirely by the culture that surrounds him. In almost all aspects of the novel, Ellis constantly undermines Bateman’s subjectivity by having his account of the world be an uneasy collage of the different spheres of masculine language that create him. Having said this, it is too easy to make out that there is no “reality” within American Psycho; to consign every word to the box marked “fantasy” is as overly simplistic as taking it at face value. Ellis increasingly blurs the line between reality and unreality as the novel progresses, to the point where neither Bateman nor the reader knows what is or is not “real.”
Young recognizes the range of voices that creates American Psycho, noting that the novel “is written largely in brochure- speak, ad-speak, in the mindless, soporific commentary of the catwalk or the soapy soft-sell of the market place” (“Beast” 101); we might add that these are all modes of patriarchal language, traditionally written or spoken by men. That Bateman should recount his story in exactly this language is no accident-he is, after all, the epitome of a certain type of masculinity. Physically perfect, financially successful, popular with women, and surrounded by every conceivable luxury, he is the ultimate clich of the 1980s male. But Ellis’s novel runs deeper: Bateman conceives of the world in a purely clichd, masculine way. The things he buys, the friends he keeps, the sex he has, and the violence he perpetrates are all told through a male vernacular particular to the 1980s that he inhabits. Rather than reinforcing our sense of Bateman’s reliability, the form of the novel suggests that the central character is merely an illustration of a particular identity type.
The most obvious starting point for realizing this is the violence, the source of the novel’s notoriety. Once our initial squirming is over, an almost too obvious question occurs to us: How can Bateman maintain so detailed a description of what he is doing when it is in the present tense? This cannot be a written confession; anything ot\her than past-tense narration makes no sense. This may seem a questionable point, even a facetious one, but as an unavoidable facet of the narrative it surely short-circuits any attempt to read Bateman too trustingly. We can reach only one conclusion: He got the details from elsewhere. When Bateman at one point mentions Ed Gein,2 one of his associates comments, “You’ve always been interested in stuff like that, Bateman” (92), and a conversation at the Yale Club turns once again to serial killers:
“But you [Patrick] always bring them up,” McDermott complains. “And always in this casual, educational sort of way. I mean, I don’t want to know anything about Son of Sam or the fucking hillside strangler or Ted Bundy or Featherhead, for god [sic] sake.”
[. . .] “He means Leatherface,” I say, teeth tightly clenched. “Leatherface. He was part of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” (153, emphasis in original)
Just as Ellis blurs the line between reality and unreality (and we may take this scene, tentatively, as one of the more “real”), so do Bateman and associates. Philip Simpson notes that “Bateman talks about notorious real-life serial killers and fictional ones with no apparent discernment between them” (150). Bateman’s viewing choices also seem extreme: He mentions watching The Toolbox Murders (278), a film notorious for its graphic scene of someone being murdered with a nail-gun; he has watched his favorite film, Body Double? thirty- seven times and tells the counter assistant at the video store that his favorite part is when “the woman . . . gets drilled by the . . . power driller” (113; ellipses in original). The scenes in which he is apparently committing “real” violence subsequently take on a different tone: They are so over the top, so filmic, even comic- book in the details that we are given (including one murder using a nail-gun and another using a power driller) that it seems like something he has taken from a book or a film. The state of Bateman’s apartment on the morning after a particularly horrific night (290- 91) is typical: The smell emanating from the mangled corpses (he opens Venetian blinds covered with the fat of electrocuted breasts), would be hard to cover up. As he seems never to do any cleaning, we can only presume that his maid, whom he mentions more than once, does it for him. Would she stay silent about finding a decapitated head wearing sunglasses on the kitchen work surface? Or were there no remains to find because the murders never took place? Or perhaps there is no maid? The evidence of the novel alerts us to Bateman’s unreliability, but the language that describes his atrocious acts sets off alarm bells on a deeper level; life for Bateman, it seems, is one long film.
This blurring between a coherent idea of Bateman’s interiority and the language in which his identity is immersed extends into every part of the novel. He cannot decide on a restaurant without consulting his trusty Zagat guide (310), and he cannot offer an opinion on something without first having read a review of it (he tries to remember a line from New York magazine to describe a painting by David Onica ). The constant listing of brands, makes, and models is unmistakably evocative of catalogue-speak or a consumer guide. Even his political comments are contradictory, nonsensical, and above all utterly trite; his assessment of the way forward for America ( 15) is a string of campaign sound bites.
His real-life sexual acts become intertwined with the pornography he freely admits to watching,4 to the extent that in his own narrative the line between the two is obliterated. Relatively early in the novel, he tells us he rented Inside Lydia ‘s Ass (97-98) and describes a scene from it in exactly the same uninflected, cool prose in which he later describes the “real” sex. As a result, the sex, like the violence, becomes less realistic; for the most pari, it reads like a certain type of male fantasy, and at one point Bateman even describes a threesome as a “hardcore montage” (303).
The chapters on music-Genesis, Whitney Houston, Huey Lewis and the News-are all analyzed in language so mind-numbingly banal that “one is tempted to read them as further evidence for the non- reality, the not-thereness of Patrick” (Young, “Beast” 112). The language is that of second-rate music journalism,5 not an independent intellectual process but a turgid conglomeration of other, male-authored, sources.
Each area of Bateman’s life may have an element of “truth” when he tells it, an aspect taken from his own lived experiences, but in the telling it mutates into something else. Ellis’s destabilizing Bateman’s identity comes when he injects the more frenzied moments and the “real” becomes unreal, or even surreal. Ellis creates a central character who represents a certain type of masculinity, and then he takes that identity to extremes. This is masculinity with the volume turned up, an identity created not from internal, subjective coherence but from an uneasy chorus of voices, each one representing elements of a dominant masculinity. John Sutherland, in a tireless piece of literary detective work, has worked out that Bateman’s fictional address,6 if it existed, would be “in the Impressionist Gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art” (142). When we consider how Ellis creates Bateman’s character, this seems an astonishing piece of coincidence if unintentional. Bateman’s identity, apparently coherent from afar, loses definition when examined close-up.
Rather than have Bateman unaware of his own nonexistence, Ellis offers us flashes of peculiar self-awareness. The novel is littered with such moments: To a doorman, Bateman feels he is a “ghost,””something not quite tangible” (71); while having lunch with Bethany, he admits that “I’m really dreaming all this” (231) and later says that “I am […] used to imagining everything happening the way it occurs in movies” (265). If we are still not convinced, Bateman gives it to us straight:
[T]here is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I am simply not there. (376-77, emphasis in original)
The narrative seems to be working on two levels: the unreal, fantasy world of male vernacular, and behind it a “real” Patrick Bateman living in a “real” New York City. The moments in which Bateman displays an astute, if paradoxical, self-awareness (awareness that there is no self) are the fissures in the narrative when one level slips into the other. At one level, the level Bateman wants to present, his identity is serf-fashioned out of clichd masculine language, but the inevitable cracks that appear in such an artificial identity allow us to peer into the void beneath.
This dual structuring may explain how Ellis creates his central character (if we can use such a term in this case), but it does not totally explain why. Again, we might usefully attempt to deal with form and content separately; on the level of form, as I have explained, the language that Bateman uses, language that belongs to a specific, male group of society, creates his subjectivity. Effectively, we are dealing with social constructionism: Vivien Burr, summarizing the influential theories of Harr, argues that “the structure of the language we are born into determines the kinds of beliefs about personhood we acquire” (126). Further explanation reveals the relevance of this theory to our reading of American Psycho:
“Beliefs” here […] refer to the fundamental structuring of our thinking that is achieved by our use of language. In other words, the structure of our language decrees (or at least very strongly suggests) that we adopt particular fundamental assumptions (i.e., beliefs) about human nature, and live them out in our daily interactions with each other. (Burr 126)
Bateman’s beliefs about life are totally determined by the structure of the language he adopts. In his fantasy world, he lives out those beliefs, actions determined not by an essential internal identity, but by the assumptions that his language structure makes about the world. If Ellis constructs Bateman out of deliberately clichd and extreme language, a particular language that belongs to the masculinity Bateman represents, then the novel exists to expose and satirize the beliefs that masculine language has about human nature: The murderous insanity of Bateman is merely the ultimate realization of normative masculinity’s internal logic.
We go back to Byers: Bateman is not a “single, unified, coherent identity [chosen] from a range of cultural possibilities,” but an artificially created persona. In Byers’s terms, overthrowing the concept of identity comes down to the challenges that postmodernity offers to “straight” masculinity. The question may be, In what way is Patrick Bateman possibly threatened? I have already mentioned that he becomes a representation of normative masculinity taken to its extremes, the ultimate (in the proper sense of the word) figure of 1980s commercial success.
Except, of course, we are reading Bateman with the reliability that has already been criticized in others. What must be acknowledged is that within this argument there are fundamental assumptions that actually pose problems for its own conveyance: Reading Bateman as a textual figure is an attempt to move away from the simplistic interpretations highlighted earlier, but in doing that, I have had to re-import a language of positivism that then seems self-contradictory. In an essay that argues against the reification of Bateman and sees him instead as a discursive formation, the argument must rely on the mimetic language it is trying to repudiate. In the end, this is a paradox that is unavoidable both here and in the novel itself: There can be discussion \of “him” and “his reactions” as long as one always bears in mind that Ellis has created his subjectivity as a way to explore the implications of masculine language.
Ellis himself seems consciously to recognize this difficulty and expresses it within the novel. Bateman’s narrative becomes an intense case of masculine self-fashioning, a narrative edited by the teller to give the impression of a certain type of man-editing that occasionally goes awry when dangerous levels of self-awareness creep in. The use of first-person narration extends the idea of social constructionism: “The simple existence of the word T allows us to foster the belief that we are autonomous individuals [… and] that this self contains mechanisms and processes [. . .] that are responsible for our actions” (Burr 126). The subjective narrative position, then, works two ways in the novel: For Bateman, imagining the world from the position of “I” allows him to unite the otherwise unconnected strains of masculine language in an attempt to create the impression of a unified self. Ellis, however, can undermine the reader’s expectation of a monological narration and emphasize how the chorus of masculine discourses that create Bateman lead to a chaotic and fractured sense of self.
The spatial figuration within the novel provides a framework in which the narrative voice can operate; yet, it alerts the astute reader to the impossibility of treating the narrative as a coherent structure. Bateman’s identity may be a case of masculine vernaculars piled on top of each other, but the reason that Ellis creates someone to represent these vernaculars-the motivation that drives the purpose of the novel-lies in Byers’s pomophobia. Bateman’s world is one in which his position is increasingly unstable, in which the form of masculinity he so desperately tries to portray as being his own is undergoing a swift and irreversible erosion.
In its most explicit form, Bateman’s fear of his own subjugation expresses itself through the violence he enacts on “others”; this loaded term is important here, as what Bateman sees as “other” is linked to the position of normative masculinity in the postmodern era. Women in particular, but also homosexuals, blacks, and other ethnic minorities, all suffer his wrath at some point; we have already established the unreality of these murders, so we can presume that Bateman singles these people out in his mind for a reason. From a quick glance at the list, it is obvious why: These are the groups who, in a postmodern society, find their place in the margins being brought into the center. To Bateman, the rise of the marginalized threatens his central position as hegemonic male; to protect that position, he lashes out, attempting to eliminate the threat. Zygmunt Bauman sees this kind of reaction as having a completely rational design: “Each order has its own disorders; each model of purity has its own dirt that needs to be swept away” (11). In Bateman’s order, that of normative masculinity, the people he hates are the “dirt” that threaten the “purity” of his own (albeit imagined) existence. His project becomes an extreme example of pomophobia, a reaction not built on irrationality, but something stemming from a deeply conservative mindset:
In the modern world, notoriously unstable and constant solely in its hostility to everything constant, the temptation […] to bring the perpetual change to a halt, to install an order secure against all further challenges, becomes overwhelming and very difficult to resist. (Bauman 11)
Bateman, in the face of “perpetual change,” imagines a world in which his masculine superiority can bring it to a halt. His wish, the wish of the language systems that created him, is to install an order that perpetuates their existence. As the threat to that existence increases, so, too, must the fight against it become more extreme: “[!Increased intensities of reaction in matters of the politics of gender and sexualities […] represent a set of deep and persistent fears on the part of a formerly dominant order that has begun to recognise that it is becoming residual” (Byers 6). There can be no more extreme and intense reaction to that change than the life imagined by Patrick Bateman.
Certain episodes that ElHs inserts into the narrative illustrate Bateman’s insecurity about his position in society. The novel’s opening chapter neatly compresses many of the themes that follow: In a taxi with Tim Price, Bateman observes a plethora of different people in the streets outside-beggars, transvestites, “some crazy fucking homeless nigger” (Ellis 6), and homosexuals. The casual racism, homophobia, and prejudice toward anyone who strays from the line of normative masculinity become a feature of the novel. Suzanne Hatty sees this distancing between the self and “other,” the viewer and the viewed, as a way for the self to project its own insecurities:
[T]he duality between self and Other reflects a hierarchical structure in which the self is valued over the Other [. . .] and in which the latter may be viewed as the repository of all that is negative, threatening, or devalued in modern Western society. (11)
Bateman’s world is one in which the “other” increasingly penetrates his sphere of existence; therefore, his reaction toward them needs to become increasingly hostile to maintain the distance. For Bateman to remain coherent, his unstable sense of self requires a particularly savage attack on the “other” and a clear idea of who they are. Everyone he “murders” presents some kind of challenge to his position of patriarchal supremacy.
The one group who presents the biggest threat to normative masculinity in the postmodern era, and the group toward whom Bateman concentrates much of his hostility, is women. Perhaps the defining aspect of the type of masculinity that Bateman represents is the subjugation of femininity, whether that femininity is embodied in women or, more disturbingly for those men, in themselves. Helyer has noted that Bateman’s carefully orchestrated grooming procedure “seems an incredibly ‘feminine’ pastime” (736), and on a more complex level, the relentless obsession with his own appearance reveals a deeply narcissistic side to him. A Freudian analysis of Bateman may be interesting in itself, and in terms of his narcissism, it poses a question often raised about the novel. Bateman’s relation to homosexuality is more complex than that-too complex, in fact, to elucidate in the confines of this essay. What these details perhaps show is Ellis’s desire to complicate Bateman’s misogyny by layering an unconscious femininity into his narrative.
Bateman’s relationships with women are all characterized by indifference, and at times hostility; he also assumes that all women are instantly attracted to him, even in love with him. When anything threatens to unsettle this prejudiced and arrogant view of women, his objectification of them is also shaken. Consider his reaction when he is shunned by an unimpressed barmaid with whom he attempts to flirt at a nightclub: “You are a fucking ugly bitch I want to stab to death and play around with your blood,” he says (or at least thinks) when her back is turned (59). At a dinner, Evelyn talks about marriage (123-26): The days when women were seen and not heard are gone, and Bateman once again threatens (actually or not) an outburst of violence. The presence of Bethany, an old girlfriend from university, and the news that not only is she extremely successful but she also has a platinum American Express card means “[v]iolent convulsions seem close at hand” (242). A couple of pages later, she becomes a “victim.” Moments in which his carefully groomed masculinity is ignored, or at least is made to take a passive, feminine position, fracture his deluded belief in the patriarchal ideology, and he lashes out. The self-fashioning of Bateman to which American Psycho is a testament is done in the unquestioning belief in hegemonic masculinity; its dismantling is also Patrick Bateman’s. His attempt to mold his secretary Jean into the image of cliched male fantasy (he tells her to wear a skirt and high heels [66-67]) reveals the extent to which he attempts to create his world to fit a masculine template.
Bateman’s associates also seem to hold a staggeringly chauvinistic opinion of women, obsessed with “hardbodies”-women with “blond hair and big tits”-and relating to them only in terms of their superficial attractiveness. Indeed, Bateman’s suggestion that a personality may matter is met with derision by Reeves: “A good personality [. . .] consists of a chick who has a little hardbody and who will satisfy all sexual demands without being too slutty about things and who will essentially keep her dumb fucking mouth shut” (91, emphasis in original). This attitude reveals a fundamental aspect of the way that the normative masculinity represented by Bateman and friends view women: a wish to objectify women in purely aesthetic terms and to deny them any interiority or autonomy that might threaten masculine superiority.
This denial of female interiority and insistence on their objedification leads to a consideration of the murky line that the novel treads between sex and death. Tim Price’s peculiar theory of sexually transmitted disease is particularly illuminating:
“Diseases!” he exclaims, his face tense with pain. “There’s this theory out now that if you can catch the AIDS virus through having sex with someone who is infected then you can catch anything, whether it’s a virus per se or not-Alzheimer’s, muscular dystrophy, hemophilia, leukemia, anorexia, diabetes, cancer, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, dyslexia, for Christ sakes-you can get dyslexia from pussy-” (5, emphasis in original)
Penetration, sex, compromises the integrity of the self, and in the modern era sex becomes the source of death-the biggest danger to the safety of men’s health become\s “pussy.” Women’s bodies are, therefore, the ultimate threat to men, the location of their downfall. For Bateman, the fear of sex equates women with death and legitimizes his destruction of women through violence. Women’s interiority in a metaphorical sense threatens men’s position as the dominant sex; their interiority in a literal sense, their bodies, threatens the existence of men. This explains Bateman’s determination to butcher their bodies; he does not simply murder women; he obliterates them, cuts them open, carves them up, eats their brains, makes nipples into necklaces, ties ribbons around vaginas. Normative masculinity’s objedification and fear of women’s bodies achieves its ultimate expression in Bateman’s fantasy of turning them into meat. In an analysis of the Marquis de Sade, Angela Carter expresses the primal reasoning that lies at the heart of this normative masculine instinct: “[T]he strong abuse, exploit and meatify the weak [. . .] the primal condition of man cannot be modified in any way; it is, eat or be eaten” (138).
We might usefully turn to another novel that deals with similar ground as American Psycho, albeit from a very different angle: Dennis Cooper’s Frisk. Like Ellis, who explores the challenges that postmodernity offers to the formation of normative masculine identity, Cooper, too, begins to explore the implications of the period for a different kind of male identity. The places to which he takes his fiction-to the forbidden boundaries of desire, death, and linguistic expression-probe the same territory as American Psycho.7 At first glance, however, Cooper’s work seems fundamentally different from Ellis’s: It deals exclusively with homosexual men, who, rather than being “victims” of postmodernity’s change, might feel emancipated by their mainstream acceptance and demarginalization. Except that presumes that Cooper’s primary concern is the politics of sexuality; in fact, he is more interested in maintaining an individuality that has nothing to do with any notion of a collective “gay identity.” The idea of becoming mainstream is exactly what Cooper seems to reject, and the lives that he portrays in his novels are as affected by pomophobia as are Ellis’s. Instead of a fear of becoming residual, they fear the assimilation of their often deviant individuality into the politically correct realm of postmodern society. Cooper has commented that he sees the traditional position of homosexual men as outsiders as a potentially positive thing: “[IJt’s stupid to think you’re ever going to be allowed into the main structure of anything. So there is a kind of freedom there” (qtd. in Nicolini). Completely unexpectedly and totally against the critical presumptions made about it, Cooper’s work becomes conservative: He resists the postmodern move toward normalizing all sexual practices and welcoming with open arms all previous outsiders into the happy new family of postmodern society. Cooper “does not feel the least bit ‘gay’ (in both senses of the word) [. . . his] emphasis is on being ‘queer'” (Nicolini); he wants to remain outside, on the periphery, a place in which his individuality can remain fundamentally “different.”
The plot is as fractured and blurred as one would expect from Cooper: We follow thirty years in the life of Dennis (who changes momentarily to Spit in his early twenties), from an impressionable thirteen-year-old coming to terms with his homosexuality and discovering the boundaries of his identity, through an explorative twenties, into an uncertain thirties. Throughout this time, a series of sexually violent photographs that he saw as a youngster haunt his actions and sexual proclivities and draw him farther and farther into the outer limits of society. A fascination with sexual death seems to manifest itself in a series of grizzly murders, recounted in a nineteen-page letter to his best friend Julian. It transpires, however, that the letter was fictitious, and we end where we began, with the photographs. Not so much a circle as a spiral; downward or upward is uncertain, but Cooper never flinches from showing us this murky world.
Thematically, the novel bears some remarkable similarities to American Psycho. As Bateman tore apart his female victims to reduce them to their constituent elements-blood and guts-so Frisk contains a similar element of male bodily fascination. The photographs that open the novel appear to show a young man stripped and tied to a bed, murdered, with his anus horribly mutilated. The narrator, Dennis we presume, finds the photos fascinating, not just for what they show, but for the tantalizing thing that they almost show. The obliterated anus seems to be a passage into an inner world: “At its center’s a pit, or a small tunnel entrance, too out-of-focus to actually explore with one’s eyes, but too mysterious not to want to try” (Frisk 4). Cooper captures the essence of his novel in one sentence: Life becomes “too out-of-focus” for Dennis, a spaced-out, semi-dream world in which reality and fantasy merge imperceptibly. In the places that this allows him to go, however, and the new areas of depravity that gradually open before him, he finds a freedom that no longer exists in his contemporary society. Cooper’s prose is awkward: full of et ceteras and ums and ers, sentences constantly drifting off into ellipses, a smudged and grubby style that reminds us that this new world is somehow incommunicable, existing outside of the capacity of language, and therefore requiring other ways of expressing its core truth. Elizabeth Young recognizes both the reasons for which and the place at which that core truth is sought:
It is as if stunned by years of postmodernism and all the endlessly circulating codes and signs and signifiers there is a sense of the body being the last frontier, an actuality that no amount of theory can disperse. (“Death in Disneyland” 238)
There is not the kicking out against the flow of change as there is for Ellis’s threatened males; the disaffected take flight for the margins and return to the only stable and constant source left to them, the human body. Byers’s belief that only the “traditional subject” is undergoing an identity crisis seems to be complicated by Cooper’s work: As gay men, Cooper’s characters already exist in contradistinction to the normative masculine subject-Bateman et al.- who are supposed to be the ones in crisis. Frisk shows that the cultural shift of postmodernity destabilizes all identities that oppose the changes that are taking place. The celebration of difference that we find at the center of postmodernity means that those who wish to remain different find then” place in the darkness being dragged into the light. When the center collapses (and collapse it does, as normative masculinity knows), the edges become the center. To deliberately exist outside the mainstream, one must cultivate new extremities of behavior. Cooper’s return to the body is the first step.
The response is not merely sexual exploration, however, but a need to understand the makeup of the body on a more profound level. Searching for something purer and more “real” than the flux of postmodern life, Dennis travels down the “small tunnel entrance” that he sees in the photograph into a world of such extremity that it ceases to be understandable through conventional logic. He claims to have “gotten totally removed from almost everyone now” (32); when explaining what his “type” is like, he reveals how and why that is:
My perfect type tends to be distant, like me. I don’t mean matter- of-fact, I mean shut tight. Like he’s protecting himself from other people or pain or both by excising himself from the world in every way, apart from obvius physical stuff you need to get by such as walk, talk, eat, etc. (36-37)
Dennis tries to be “shut tight” as a way of removing himself from the world-not the “physical stuff,” but the fear of postmodernity’s barrage of “codes and signs and signifiers.” The “etc.” in his list of physical stuff may well include sex and, therefore, the body; through them, Dennis tries to find his sense of the real. Cooper, however, realizes that although the expression of these “real” experiences can be made only through language, it is in language that their reality is lost. Expressing the truth of the body through language is impossible, making the body the source of something inexpressible. Dennis searches for a sense of individual identity in his obsession with the body, but ultimately the body cannot offer him that sense because its truths remain elusive. Explaining to another lover, Pierre, that he wants him to save his shit and piss in the toilet because “it’s [. . .] information” leads to a conversation about the photographs (69). Dennis tells of his reaction when he first saw them, saying he felt “enlightened”:
“Or maybe it wasn’t feeling at all, but shock or numbness or […]! don’t know. I think of it as religious. Like insane people say they’ve seen God. I saw God in those pictures, and when I imagine dissecting you, say, I begin to feel that way again.” (70)
The obsession with the body takes on pseudoreligious overtones, a search for the spiritual in the everyday. Dennis finds his desire to dissect and enter the human body almost impossible to articulate or understand, as if it exists in an otherworldly or spiritual dimension. Instead, Frisk suggests that those desires can be articulated only through fiction, that only in the unreal can the unspeakable be given a fixity that goes some way toward making it real. Bateman’s project is the same: His narrative has to be a fantasy to play out the extremities that he requires; only in the imagination can the project of normative masculinity achieve its ultimate realization-except it does not, because in these poststructuralist times the sign no longer equates with the signified. The meticulously crafted verisimilitude of the life that Bateman imagi\nes is the attempt to bring his fantasy into the realm of the real through language. It does not work, cannot work, and so causes Bateman to become trapped in the linguistic world of his own making-the famous “ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE/THIS IS NOT AN EXIT” opening and closing lines. Dennis’s narrative attempts the same thing: He admits that the third part of the novel (“Torn”) is interspersed with fragments of an “artsy murder-mystery novel” that he has written, motivated by his “interest in sexual death” (40). This detail never allows us to place our faith in the details, forcing a conscious fictionality into our reading and emphasizing the impossibility of gaining access to the truth. Later, Dennis’s long letter describing the rape, torture, and murder of several young boys takes this a step further; he seems to have lived out the ultimate expression of his inner desires, except none of it is real and it turns out to be pure fantasy. When asked why he wrote it, his answer gestures at the same perpetual elusiveness we see in American Psycho:
“[B]asically I realized at some point that I couldn’t and wouldn’t kill anyone, no matter how persuasive the fantasy. And theorizing about it, wondering why, never helped at all. Writing it down was and still is exciting in a pornographic way. But I couldn’t see how it would fit into anything as legitimate as a novel or whatever.” (Cooper 123)
“Theorizing about it” is dismissed because it would reduce the experience to the rational, seeking to understand it through an inadequate language; however, Dennis’s admission that “writing it down” is “exciting in a pornographic way” shows that through language he has come closest to capturing the essence of the experience. He realizes, however, that this is not quite enough, and in a neat metafictional twist, he rejects the idea that it could all cohere into a novel. Cooper forces us to see Frisk as a work of ostensible pornography, causing us to ponder on the gap that such representation places between depiction and reality. Pornography plays a significant role in the novel: Gypsy Pete’s shop at which the young Dennis’s sexual awakening takes place, Pierre the porn star, and, of course, the pornographic photographs that frame the narrative. Pornography not only throws us back again to American Psycho, but it also points to Cooper’s central theme of the incapacity of language. Angela Carter says that pornography “involves an abstraction of human intercourse in which the self is reduced to its formal elements” (4): Dennis’s fantasies of opening up people, of turning them inside out, of consuming them (coprophilia makes an appearance, as does cannibalism) take Carter’s pornographic aesthetic to the next level: It abstracts the humanity of the people and turns them into meat, as Bateman did to his female victims. Dennis admits that he hoped that the letter would provoke someone to visit him, which would give him the courage to “actually kill somebody” (123). But it doesn’t. Instead, when Julian and his brother visit Dennis after reading the letter, they have sex with a boy called Chretien; when Julian asks Dennis if he is “maintaining,” meaning holding back the urge to kill, he replies, “Sure. Absolutely. But in my fantasies. . .” (120). The ellipses run off into a world that is indescribable, the more-real-than-real of pornographic dreams, and the world Dennis tried to articulate in his letter. And that’s the closest he’ll get: Language places a gap between the actual experience and its expression, abstracts it, and reduces it to its formal elements-and so never allows Dennis to get any closer.
The final chapter confirms this. The photographs that open the novel reappear, only this time the images are obviously fake: The body is “too tensed to be dead”; the boy’s expression “suggests an inexperienced actor trying to communicate shock”; and finally, the wound is “actually a glop of paint, ink, makeup, tape, cotton, tissue and papier-mch” (127-28). Images that introduced Dennis to a world that seemed commensurate with his aberrant desires are ultimately fake, mere pornographic constructions, the falseness of which undermines the belief in them that is needed for their power to remain. “[Y]ou can see the fingerprints of the person or persons who made it,” the novel concludes (128). The truth of the body, the key to a deviance that would allow Dennis to remain in the margins, turns out to be a lie. Cooper seems to suggest that postmodern society is so pervasive, so final in its assimilation of individualism, even the body has lost its integrity. The body becomes another simulacrom, untrustworthy and untenable as a location of reality. Dennis remains trapped (both the opening and closing chapters are titled “The symbol for Eternity”), spiraling in a world in which the signs of deviance point ever increasingly to the signifieds of normality. As individual masculinity seeks the unspoken areas outside the mainstream, the old reliable locations slip increasingly into a postmodern mainstream in which those margins are becoming narrower. Perhaps the only place left is the realm beyond expression, those margins in which language cannot hope to capture the experience-the darkness after the ellipses. Postmodernism leaves only those areas for deviance to exist, and yet individuals who wish to reside there are faced with the dilemma that their existence is incommunicable within our humanist world of reliable language.
We return full circle to Byers’s central point: The crisis of masculinity is so radical that our conventional ways of constructing identity are no longer relevant, and we arrive at a place in which gender and sexuality have to find new ways to conceptualize themselves. Ellis shows how traditional masculinity is as utterly constructed, as “pumped up by ideological steroids,” as Byers claims (27). In the nightmare world of American Psycho, Ellis critiques traditional masculinity in the most intense way possible, creating a character who, in his chaotic, hysterical perception of the world, lives out the final expression of a masculinity in its death throes.
Cooper offers us something a little less straightforward. As a gay writer writing about gay men, we might think that he would celebrate postmodernity; what we must always remember is that Cooper is a transgressive artist. Through his complex exploration of language, he takes us to the outer circle, the taboo, the hinterlands at the edge of the city; and there he wrestles with the difficulties of his transgression in the postmodern era. The postmodern move to fragmentation and instability means the redefinition of previous binary terms: abnormal becomes normal; disobedience becomes obedience. It destabilizes language and creates the paradox of Cooper needing to be conservative to remain transgressive; he expresses those dilemmas in his fiction.
Ellis opens his novel with an epigraph that comes, by way of W. B. Yeats, from a Talking Heads song: “And as things fell apart / Nobody paid much attention.” How apt that now seems to what Ellis and Cooper are attempting to do. They have written novels that pay attention to the difficulty of male identity formation at the end of the twentieth century, showing how the instabilities of language and the fear of things “falling apart”-pomophobia-both affect and redefine different types of masculine identity, whether those who represent an old order or those who are presumed to represent the new. Both see that new constructions of gender and sexuality are inherent in the changes that postmodernity brings and that men found (and are still finding) that the center can no longer hold. It becomes clear that in any “crisis of masculinity” that emerges because of these changes, fiction may still be the only arena in which the new complexities and ambiguities can most thoroughly be played out.
UNIVERSITY OF MANCHESTER
1. Customarily, any discussion of American Psycho seems to open with an account of the novel’s troubled publication. A good summation of those events can be found in Murphet.
2. Ed Gein was a notorious serial killer and cannibal discovered in Plainfield, Wisconsin, in 1957. The story has served as the loose basis for such films as Psycho (1960) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and inspired Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs (1989).
3. Directed by Brian De Palma (1984), the film is partly an homage to Alfred Hitchcock, as is American Psycho. Even Bateman’s name evokes the Norman Bates of Psycho.
4. Bateman mentions the titles of at least half a dozen porn films and admits to phoning a sex line (219).
5. Ellis knew about the clichs of music journalism; at Bennington, he wrote a regular music review column for the college magazine.
6. Bateman reveals his address to Detective Kimball as “Fifty- five West Eighty-first Street” (270).
7. Despite being as, if not more, disturbingly violent than American Psycho, Frisk barely raised an eyebrow on publication. Both authors have pointed out that violence by men against men seems more acceptable than violence by men against women.
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Bauman, Zygmunt. “The Dream of Purity.” Postmodernity and its Discontents. Cambridge: Polity, 1997. 5-16.
Burr, Vivien. An Introduction to Social Constructionism. London: Routledge, 1995.
Byers, Thomas B. ‘Terminating the Postmodern: Masculinity and Pomophobia.” Modem Fiction Studies 41.1 (1995): 5-33.
Carter, Angela. The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History. 1979. London: Virago, 2000.
Caveney, Graham, and Elizabeth Young, eds. Shopping in Space: Essays on “Blank Generation ” American Fiction. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1992.
Cooper, Dennis. Frisk. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1991.
Ellis, Bret Easton. American Psycho. London: Picador, 1991.
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Murphet, Julian. Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. London: Continuum, 2002.
Nicolini, Kirn. “Dennis Cooper’s Monster in the Margins.” Bad Subjects: Political Education in Everyday Life. 7 Apr. 2004. <>. >
Simpson, Philip L. Psycho Paths: Tracing the Serial Killer Through Contemporary American Film and Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2000.
Sutherland, John. “Why Does Patrick Bateman Wear Two Ties?” Where Was Rebecca Shot? Puzzles, Curiosities and Conundrums in Modern Fiction. London: Phoenix, 1998. 138-44.
Young, Elizabeth. “The Beast in the Jungle, the Figure in the Carpet.” Caveney and Young 85-122.
_____. “Death in Disneyland.” Caveney and Young 235-63.
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