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SLAYGROUND : AMERICAN PSYCHO By Bret Easton Ellis (Vintage: $11, paper; 399 pp.)

March 17, 1991|Henry Bean | Bean is the author of the novel "False Match" and the screenplay for the movie "Internal Affairs."

Here it is at last, the unspeakable thing. Is there anyone in America who does not yet have an opinion about this book (whether they've read it or not)--the novel Simon & Schuster refused to publish, that inspired the National Organization of Women to boycott not merely this title but everything to be issued in 1991 by Alfred A. Knopf (parent of Vintage, its new publisher), that was excoriated in reviews and "think pieces" before it was even in the bookstores to defend itself?

Now's your chance. Despite rumors of heavy editing, Vintage has brought out the Simon & Schuster text virtually unchanged; all the infamy remains.

It is the mid-1980s, the boom years for young traders and investment bankers. Our narrator is Patrick Bateman, 26, handsome, Harvard BA, MBA, a Wall Street scion who wears (a limitless wardrobe of designer fashions), eats ("pilot fish with tulips and cinnamon"), buys (quantities of top-end audio/visual equipment) and boffs ("blond, big . . . ," every one of them). In short, he has, does and is everything the children of Reagan were promised they could have, do and be. True, he's sort of alienated and also commits serial murders, some of which he describes in disturbing detail, but, hey, in deregulation you live with the bumps. Let the marketplace take care of it.

What's rarely said in all the furor over this novel is that it's a satire, a hilarious, repulsive, boring, seductive, deadpan satire of what we now call--as if it were something in the past--the Age of Reagan.

The miracle of Bret Easton Ellis is that without a plot, without much in the way of characters and with a throwaway nonstyle that renders the luxurious, the erotic and the grotesque in the same uninflected drone, a prose that is pure exchange value, he nevertheless makes it virtually impossible to stop reading.

He's able to do this, in part, because he knows so well what we want. His endless lists of brand names, chic restaurants and thoroughly accessible hardbodies is the stuff of our fantasy life--the lower floors, perhaps, but we spend a lot of time there. The book satisfies those desires, in fantasy, at least, and keeps satisfying them until our cup runneth over and we're sickened by what we want and we go on wanting it anyway.

Balanced against this seductiveness is the fact that Ellis is, first and last, a moralist. Under cover of his laconic voice, every word in his three novels to date springs from grieving outrage at our spiritual condition. That impulse is more measured here, more withheld than in "Less Than Zero" (1985) or "The Rules of Attraction" (1987), and the restraint turns the adolescent complaint of the earlier books into the maturer satire of this one. But in all of Ellis' work, the force comes from this pairing of seduction and disgust, pandering and judgment.

Which makes it hard to understand how this book has become such a scandal. Compared to other literary renegades, from Sade on, who by now occupy an accepted place in the modernist canon, Ellis seems almost a choir boy.

Maybe that's his problem. Ferocious monsters, gore dripping from their grinning jaws, amuse us. They tickle our own too-bridled lusts, and we're flattered when they ask us, in William Burroughs' famous line, "Wouldn't you?" But a melancholy fiend like Bateman is a party pooper. He gets us all worked up, then sermonizes.

"American Psycho" has been called a sadistic book, and that's true if we mean sadism toward the reader. Like the pre-"Scarface" Brian DePalma, Ellis shoves our faces into our own appetites, forcing us to see how much we'll swallow (including gross implausibilities) just to get off. We forgive him because he always implicates himself; he isn't looking down on the venality of mortals, he's here in the glitzy gutter with us.

The loudest attacks have accused the novel of misogyny, exploitation of and unremitting violence toward women. Yet of the 18 people (not to mention assorted animals) tortured and murdered by the narrator, eight are women, nine are men, and one is a small boy; of the book's 400 pages, fewer than 40 are devoted to these events. In the other 360, Ellis is unusually attentive to daily instances of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia. And he repeatedly mocks the perfunctory sexism of his upper-class males. Here is one of them summing up the irrelevance of personality in selecting a girlfriend:

"A good personality," Reeves begins, "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 . . . mouth shut ."

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