Author comes off list of most reviled

Book: What a difference a decade can make as critical opinion of `American Psycho' by Bret Easton Ellis shifts away from outrage.

April 19, 2000|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Things change.

The film version of "American Psycho" opened Friday, becoming the weekend's No. 7 grossing movie at the box office and generating little outrage, although reviews were decidedly mixed.

Mixed, however, is a step up for "American Psycho," which was pilloried when Bret Easton Ellis published it in 1991. The story of an '80s era Wall Street type who indulges in homicidal sprees, "American Psycho" prompted much outrage for its violence.

Dropped by its original publisher, Simon & Schuster, the book sparked the National Organization for Women to call for a boycott and prompted a baker's dozen death threats against the author. "American Psycho" was easily the most reviled book of the 1990s -- not bad, when one considers the decade also saw the publication of "The Bridges of Madison County." Yet it never went out of print, and has gone into more than 30 printings.

The film version of "American Psycho," directed by Mary Harron ("I Shot Andy Warhol") has prompted some to revisit the novel, and even praise it. No one is more baffled by this change than the author himself.

"You have to realize my critical opinion has not shifted, so I don't know where these people are coming from," Ellis says by telephone, from his home in New York City. "The book hasn't changed, but the culture has. And I think feminism has changed a lot in the last 10 years. The women I know who are feminists and who are my age have a completely different view of feminism than an older generation."

"American Psycho" was Ellis' third book -- he has published five to date -- and he says he would "place it squarely [within his body of his work] as my third book. A book I simply wanted to write. I just can't be clearer than that."

Ellis was 26 when he finished the novel. Now 36, he can't imagine writing a similar book; he says his growing awareness of his own mortality has made him more squeamish about violence.

"I obsess over things I can control," says Ellis, who published his first novel, "Less Than Zero," while still a student at Bennington College in Vermont. "On the other hand, you don't have any control over public response to your work. So that's why I don't think about it, even with all the hubbub and the strange reassessment."

Here's a sampling of what people were saying about "American Psycho" in 1991 -- and 2000.

Then

"I personally can't think of any reason anybody would read all 399 pages of `American Psycho' unless they were paid to, which I hasten to add I was, although that's hardly an excuse." -- Carl Schoettler, The Evening Sun

"Its concluding 150 pages can only be described as repulsive, a bloodbath serving no purpose save that of morbidity, titillation and sensation; `American Psycho' is a loathsome book. It is also, and in the end this matters most, a bad book." -- Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post

"The trouble with `American Psycho' is, of course, that you can't create a meaningless world out of meaninglessness ... The idea that technique has meaning begins in the classroom. Only a student of modern literature could have conceived the idea that putting together what he saw as symbols of the Reagan 1980's would constitute an artistic statement about the 1980's. This is the true outrage of `American Psycho,' not its violence to women, men, blacks, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, homosexuals, homeless people, rats and dogs ... but its violence to an organic idea of art." -- Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, the New York Times

"This man Bret Easton Ellis is a very, very good writer ... `American Psycho' is a beautifully controlled, careful, important novel that revolves around its own nasty bits. Brilliant." -- Novelist Fay Weldon, the Washington Post

"Bret has written a novel depicting aspects of a society that he and the rest of us are living in. It's not a pretty picture." -- Sonny Mehta, president of Alfred A. Knopf, whose affiliated trade paperback division, Vintage, acquired the book after Simon & Schuster dropped it

"I guess you walk a very thin line when you write about a serial killer in a satirical way. There's this new sensitivity. You cannot risk offending anyone." -- Ellis, in a New York Times interview

Now

"Now, at a distance, the book reads better than it did; it feels lit with a cold hellfire, and Ellis has become our most assiduous tour guide -- more solid than the excitable Tom Wolfe -- to the netherworld of the nineteen-eighties." -- Anthony Lane, the New Yorker

"But I'm bound to say that on rereading `American Psycho,' I found myself grinning at its outlandishness ... There are still passages I can't bring myself to finish ... but the sense of purpose is unshakeable, and the prose boils over with a mixture of outrage and envy, a potent combination." -- David Edelstein, Slate

" `American Psycho' is one of those rare cases of a film improving upon a book. But then it would be almost impossible not to improve upon Bret Easton Ellis' trashy novel." -- Jay Carr, the Boston Globe

"But this is what 10 years can do to a book. ... It's weird that `American Psycho' in many ways is mainstream now ... We're long past the point of people believing this book was really written by the devil." -- Ellis, in a New Times piece published in a variety of alternative weeklies

"Were it not for the controversy ... it's likely the book would have disappeared, one more Ellis tome thrown upon the literary bonfire. It is simply boring, about as captivating as the dictionary." -- Robert Wilonsky, who interviewed Ellis for the New Times

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