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  • American Psycho:Neoliberal Fantasies and the Death of Downtown
  • Thomas Heise (bio)

Set within the blighted and economically polarized geography of 1980s New York City, Bret Easton Ellis's neo-liberal revenge satire, American Psycho (1991), greets its reader with a chilling smear of graffiti that conflates Dante's Inferno with Marx's guided tour in Capital with "Mr. Moneybags. . . . into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face 'No admittance except on business'" (279-80).1 "ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood-red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank," Ellis writes in the opening line as he begins to render in visceral detail what Marx called "the secret of profit making" (Ellis 3; Marx 280). The secret formula of profit in American Psycho is violence, exploitation, and reification, and what Ellis's novel palpably dramatizes through the handsome, Harvard-educated, Wall Street investment executive and serial killer Patrick Bateman is what it feels like to have one's labor forcibly expropriated through the reduction of oneself to human material. American Psycho translates for readers the massive social costs of neoliberal economics into a terrifyingly intimate experience of violence by a psychotic subject who embodies neoliberal theory and performs it through his repeated acts of disembowelment. The first assault in American Psycho, a confrontation that I will consider more fully in the pages that follow, makes this claim painfully clear. It is against a "bum, a black man" sleeping among "bags of garbage" in the East Village where Bateman is out on the prowl in "a silk-lined coat . . . by Luciano Soprani" that soon will be stained with flecks of blood (126). Before slicing the man's eyes and leaving him to bleed to death, Bateman [End Page 135] berates him: "Why don't you get a job? . . . If you're so hungry, why don't you get a job? . . . Do you think it's fair to take money from people who do have jobs? Who do work? . . . I don't have anything in common with you" (130-31). The question of fairness may seem out of place in the context of this brutal confrontation, but fairness—understood in American Psycho simply as receiving what one deserves—is essential to Ellis's nightmarish vision of the free market as the central apparatus for achieving social justice in a world where the flow and accumulation of capital is unfettered, I argue, by any artificial restraints, such as discrimination based on skin color, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. What American Psycho discloses through its late-1980s portrait of class hatred and power is, I will show, the violence that underwrites the utopian fantasy of neoliberal free market economics in which impoverishment is rewritten as a personal choice and a sign of personal failure and crimes against others (the poor, gays and lesbians, sex workers) are rewritten as punishment for the crime of being Other. In short, American Psycho chooses retribution for inequality rather than redistribution to end inequality. And in doing so, it simultaneously gives voice to and demystifies a body of popular and academic neoconservative discourse on urban poverty and crime that helped lead an assault on the poor by naturalizing surging class inequality that followed from the forceful implementation of neoliberal economic principles in the last decades of the twentieth century.

Published in 1991, Ellis's notorious third novel is sandwiched between George H. W. Bush's famous 1988 R.N.C. nomination pledge from the floor of the New Orleans Superdome for "a kinder, gentler nation" (fourteen years to the month before the levees broke and 30,000 evacuees gathered in the same spot with roughly 36 hours worth of food) and Rodney King's appeal for calm on the third day of the 1992 L.A. uprising, "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?" ("George Bush's Mission" 26; "Rodney King" 6). The publicity firestorm that made American Psycho one of most controversial English-language novels of the last third of the twentieth century, however, had nothing to do, curiously enough, with its satiric representation of the slash and...


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pp. 135-160
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