In the summer of 1991 I was ten, and my father had bought a copy of American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis. He sat one Saturday afternoon in the living room in his armchair, reading it. I remember this vividly for two reasons: one was that I was both fascinated and terrified by the cover art, which depicted what looked like a man wearing a mask made of flesh; and the second was a typically understated warning from my father, who looked dourly at me over his glasses and the top of the book at once, saying, ‘You can never, ever read this book, okay?’
‘Do you promise?’ ‘Okay. But why?’
‘Because it’s definitely not suitable. For anyone.’ He said this as he turned back to the pages.
So this was a bind: I wanted to do what my father told me, but more than that I wanted to read American Psycho.
As a child I used to spend an inordinate amount of time in my father’s study. Because it was the late 1980s, everything in it was either metallic and black, or white, or made of glass. Everything was perfectly ordered, and it was quiet: a sharp, cool riposte to the rest of the house, which was shambolic and dark and things always seemed to be clattering somewhere or tripping you over. It was not like that in my father’s study, where during the day the sunlight came in filtered by the blinds, those white aluminum venetian blinds people used to be crazy for that made such a vicious, high-pitched sound when winched by the rip cord. The room smelled of two things: stale cigarettes and leather. There was his leather chair, which swamped me when I sat in it; the leather of his heavy appointment book with the year embossed in gold on the front, the thick red ribbon to bookmark the days sticking out the bottom; the leather of his briefcase, which was always locked, its combination of numbers a mystery to me (I learned later that it was just three zeroes, which he’d never bothered to reset). I would go in there in the evenings when my mother was downstairs, occupied, and my father was at the pub down the road, and I would sit in the still of that room, on the white carpeted floor under my father’s desk, and read.
In Australia, American Psycho was ‘Category 1 Restricted’ and it still comes in shrink-wrap today. You have to be over eighteen to buy it. Perhaps one of the last books to cause a stir when it had been banned was Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969, and when American Psycho was placed under restricted sale, it was a big deal. Everyone was talking about it. Opinion pages burned with it. People on television warned against it. Older kids at my school reckoned they’d read parts of it, or all of it, or at least had heard about the very worst passages (the rat in the plastic container scene got a lot of mileage being retold), but no copy of it ever materialised in anyone’s hands. There was a copy at my house! This naturally only fuelled the feelings of intense curiosity and repulsion I had for the book—which I’d seen my father place on the uppermost shelf in his study, a bookshelf that towered over his glass-topped desk. My father knew I liked to spend time in his room in the house, so he put the things he really didn’t want me to get at on that shelf: cigarettes, his lighter, magazines that weren’t ‘suitable’. If I’d stood on the glass desktop, I might have been able to reach the top shelf, but I never dared try it. Several experiments I’d undertaken, leaning my full weight on my hands on the glass while standing on the chair pulled up to the desk, had led to me believe that it would not with- stand me standing on it. I was less concerned with falling through a pane of glass than incurring my father’s wrath and never being allowed in the study again.
My obsession with reading the book waned until months later when my father in some momentary lapse left it on his desk within my reach. ‘ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE’, it famously begins,
is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First and is in print large enough to be seen from the backseat of the cab as it lurches forward in the traffic leaving Wall Street and just as Timothy Price notices the words a bus pulls up, the advertisement for Les Misérables on its side blocking his view, but Price who is with Pierce & Pierce and twenty-six doesn’t seem to care because he tells the driver he will give him five dollars to turn up the radio, ‘Be My Baby’ on WYNN, and the driver, black, not American, does so.
WYNN? Les Misérables? ‘Be My Baby’? None meant anything to me. I was equally disappointed and relieved not to have read a scene of unimaginable horror (the rat!). I skipped ahead to a random page, hoping, and read what was one of countless passages of mundane description. It could have been about which tie knot was less bulky than a Windsor or how to wear a pocket square, or a monologue about watermarked business cards, or a treatise on Huey Lewis and the News, or an argument about which was the best restaurant table in Manhattan. Whatever it was I was definitely not scandalised. I carefully replaced the book exactly as it had been on the desk and didn’t think about it again for several years.
I have read every Bret Easton Ellis novel except American Psycho, which I could never finish. Abandon all hope ye who enter here. I just can’t cope with the violence, even when I can read something like Blood Meridian, twice. When my father died I acquired all his books, but the copy of American Psycho was not among them. Just lots of esoteric stuff such as Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms by Stephen Jay Gould, The Penguin Book of Historic Speeches, The Philosophy Gym, loads of John Updike and Martin Amis, which all just makes me think of him whenever I read Bret Easton Ellis and wonder, Who were you?
I walk around the corner from my house one afternoon, to the book-shop where my father had bought his copy of American Psycho, and where, while at university after I’d left home, I used to work for extra money over the Christmas break, gift-wrapping books. The shop has remained unchanged in nineteen years, longer actually. It runs over three storeys: new books on the first floor, with the top two given over to thousands of second-hand ones, so many there isn’t a database to catalogue them. The new releases section is given over to rows of newly designed reprints of all Bret Easton Ellis’s books. I buy myself a copy of a new edition of American Psycho, and while the shrink-wrap remains the same, the cover does not. Its style, like all the others, is minimal, non-threatening. The author’s name is in spare modern type larger than the title, embossed over what looks like blood swirling in a glass of water—Patrick Bateman’s description of a vodka cranberry as ‘looking like thin watery blood’.
This will be the third time I’ve attempted the book. I lied precociously in high school about finding it ‘not so hardcore’ but was defeated less than halfway through, and I failed to get through it again at university where it had been a set text two years later.
I’m home in Sydney, alone in the winter, while my partner is away in New York. He writes me emails from the University Club and the Chelsea Hotel that arrive in the middle of the night, and I am alone with American Psycho, reading about that city’s streets of almost twenty years ago. Again I am repelled by the most violent, pornographic depictions throughout and try flying over those long passages, skimming them, but find that the true trick of the novel is the way it forces you to reread them, because in those pages, sidled in somewhere, might be the point, the reason for its being that I’m looking for, the reason why I’m persisting. In itself, that is the point. To emerge from its pages exhausted and numb. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing . . .
I’m struck, mainly, by the cadence of the prose, how similar the sentences often are structurally to Joan Didion’s, how the unrelenting tide of advancing consumerism it skewers has only grown more pronounced, more grotesque in the last two decades. I laugh at an early description of a ‘30 inch television’, which was at the time the peak of consumer technological decadence and now pales in comparison to a 70-inch wall-mounted plasma screen I’d seen recently in a shopping mall, and how prophetic it was in its repeated mentions of the fictitious Patty Winters Show (The Patty Winters Show this morning was about people with half their brains removed) when thinking about the current proliferation of talk shows and celebrity docudrama franchises.
American Psycho is about hearing the same vapid pop song wherever you go. It’s about people with interchangeable names who are indistinguishable from one another. No-one in the book has a face, their features are never described to the reader, as Norman Mailer noted in his lengthy essay ‘Children of the Pied Piper’ in Vanity Fair. It is not, Bret Easton Ellis always explicitly said whenever asked (which was often), about the author.
I don’t know exactly what I was hoping to find the book to be about. I try to imagine what my father would have made of it, why he didn’t hold on to his copy. It is not, clearly, anything about my failing to meet him at the bar where he died, waiting for me and wanting to tell me something.
Bret Easton Ellis is visiting Sydney on his first-ever Australian speaking tour. It’s to promote his new novel, Imperial Bedrooms. I’m covering the event for a magazine, so I’m reading a lot about him. There is a spate of new profiles and features in the wake of the new novel. One writer, Carolyn Kellogg of the Los Angeles Times, includes a piece on her website afterwards about how Bret Easton Ellis went through a routine with everyone who came to interview him for the pieces: how he made the same jokes, gave the same anecdotes and even took the same physical path through his apartment to his home office where they then spoke. It was like theatre to him, perhaps how he staved oh the boredom of being often asked the same questions.
Or perhaps his every utterance is a fiction. But there is no real me, only an entity, something illusionary. I simply am not there.
To find a copy of the Mailer essay, I go to the State Library in the city. One of the oldest buildings in Sydney, it’s in Macquarie Street at the top of the financial district. I like the library a lot. It’s where I spent endless hours as a student. Its logo is an interrobang and once in the early 1980s Duran Duran staged a photo shoot for a record there. In the Mitchell Wing reading room, visitors can find historical archives dating back to the colonisation of Australia and the maps charted to find the country, along with the personal papers of many great, dead writers that they can parse at leisure, seated in one of the heavy red leather chairs pulled up to a long wooden desk.
But I have little reason to go there these days, and even less so to navigate that part of the city at all, with its Reserve Bank building and law firms and dithering corporate headquarters housed in the neo-classical and art deco buildings lining the pedestrian mall of Martin Place. Whenever I go there now, I feel a chill of premonition and want to leave as quickly as possible.
I often went to that part of the city as a child, when my father had an office there. He traded futures on the stock exchange and was exceedingly good at making money for other people. He was never quite so good at making money for his own family, however, and in the stock market crash of 1987 he lost everything: our savings, most of his friends, his job. After a few years the bank repossessed the house, my father’s study with it, and so we moved to a smaller, rented house—a cycle that would repeat itself every two years or so for about the next decade whenever the money ran out and the lease got broken. We were perpetually shedding our possessions, but never my father’s books. He took them with him. Even when eventually my mother kicked him out and he moved into a single room in a boarding house he kept them with him. That is where he called me from one afternoon to arrange to have a drink at the bar, but for whatever reason I can’t remember, I said no. ‘I’ve been so busy,’ I think I said.
The place where Bret Easton Ellis came to talk about Imperial Bedrooms could best be described as Bret Easton Ellisian. It is a rock club on Oxford Street, called the Oxford Art Factory, that looks and feels like it was modelled on a party from the film version of Less than Zero. It’s split into two rooms divided by a huge floor-to-ceiling window of sound-proof glass. One room houses DJs and a giant wall given over to a rotation of street artists who paint it over every few months. The other room is the band room, with a stage and tiers. There’s a popcorn-vending machine and a black and white photobooth. Things are either neon or white, or black, and lit with red lights or strobes. The bathrooms are notable for how many surfaces are covered in mirrors.
Although ostensibly there to talk about his new novel, Ellis dedicated almost the entire evening to talking about American Psycho. In particular to divulge the fact that his novels are about him. This would seem to run counter to the last twenty-five years he’s dedicated to keeping private the details of his life, culminating in the meta-fictional non-memoir Lunar Park.
‘I was so defensive about American Psycho when it first came out because of all its controversy,’ he said from where he was seated onstage in a chair where the band had played earlier.
And I would make these grand, sweeping statements, like it was about Wall Street, and it was about misogyny and it was about yuppie culture and it was about consumerism. And it was really about me. And it was about my life. I had moved to Manhattan when I was about twenty-three, and I was roughly Patrick Bateman’s age when I was writing the book and I was going to all the places Patrick Bateman was going to, and I was trying to fit into the world of adults. And I think I was disgusted by what the values were of this particular world that I was moving into. Which was just basically the world of adults, you know. It wasn’t that it was such a contemptible society, it’s just that you have that movement from when you’re very young to having to accept the morals and the values of the adult world. And so I was really writing a lot about myself in the process of writing American Psycho. And it was also on a certain level about my father, and the kind of conflicted relationship I had with him, which I’ve since resolved. I had ‘daddy issues’, what can I say? Patrick Bateman was, in a lot of ways, me. And I only feel comfortable saying that now.
I stand in our living room looking at the bookshelves that line our house. Andy is still in America, due home tomorrow, and I want to make everything appear new and clean. I buy flowers and change the sheets on our bed. I put beer in the fridge and pick up the laundry. I plan a homecoming meal. I wash the dishes in the sink and straighten things on their surfaces.
I look at the bookshelves and the house feels suddenly too small. I am never going to read most of my father’s books, which I’ve carried with me from house to house for seven years. I list the reasons why I’m going to get rid of them (a house is not a mausoleum; there isn’t enough space; we could move to New York) and start packing them in boxes I plan to take around the corner to the bookshop and donate to the second-hand section. They are all that he left behind—no letters, no diaries, no photos, not a watch, nothing save for a leather wallet my younger brother uses now.
I decide to keep some, Tom Wolfe and John Updike and Modern Chess Openings. No to the ones about game theory and quantum mechanics but yes to a large hard cover of Hubble space photography. There are soon more books than room in the boxes I have to pack them in, dozens and dozens and dozens of books. Some of them, I realise when I crack open their yellowed, dusted pages, have probably not been looked at in more than fifteen years. I end up taking the milk crates from our yard that we have people sit on when they visit for a barbecue and filling them too with books, and then stack them up out the front of the house. It’s Saturday afternoon, so people are passing down our street on the way to a local flea market, and soon half a dozen people are rifling through the boxes and crates.
‘Do you mind?’ one guy asks me, when I return with the last box, ‘because my kids would really love these.’ I recognise him from the bunch of homeless people who often hang out at the little park at the end of our street, drinking in the afternoons. I can’t imagine the child who’d be interested in these obscure, difficult books I never read. I don’t believe that this child exists at all, but I smile and say, ‘No. Help yourself.’
He takes as many as he can bundle in his arms and disappears around the corner. In a few minutes he returns with a friend, a tall thin man who has a fresh cut above his left eye. They smile at me, try to make awkward small talk, and together they heave all the boxes away around the corner, in two trips. In about ten minutes they are gone, now armed with something new to barter with, for however long that lasts.
I turn back and walk across the threshold and into our house. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. Bret Easton Ellis did not write this, of course. It was Dante in Inferno. It is the last line of a poem inscribed on the gates of Hell, where he stands on the precipice with Virgil before journeying into the Underworld. My father and mother were atheists and so that is how we were raised. That didn’t free me, however, from flights of superstition, and I wonder for a brief moment if I’ve done the wrong thing.
Then I am alone in the house, which seems to settle quietly around me, and I am pleased at last that I have set it now in order.