‘At the edge of art and insanity’

Postmodern elements in Bret Easton Ellis' "American Psycho" (1991)

Seminar Paper, 2006

26 Pages, Grade: 1,0



I. Introduction and objective

II. Postmodernism and postmodern literature

III. Postmodern features in American Psycho
III.a Intertextuality
III.b Structure and style: Break-ups?
III.c Shocking the audience
III.d Breaking restrictions
III.e Opening up new spaces
III.f Meta-fiction
III.g A limited segment of the world
III.h Liquefaction of the subject
III.i Crticism against reality

IV. Conclusion

V. Bibliography

VI. Appendix:

I. Introduction and objective

With the attention-grabbing novel American Psycho Bret Easton Ellis entered quite a dangerous ground. The bizarre mixture of yuppie satire and splatter horror caused reactions of scathing criticism, indignation, yes, even murder threat. As a consequence, the publishing house that had the first contract with Ellis and was supposed to edit the novel, namely Simon & Schuster, responded to this radical refusal and cancelled the deal already made.[1] This decision, not to publish a book due to the negative responds against it, meant another scandal since it was a sensation in the American publishing business.[2] Anyway, brushing aside all moral standards, Ellis’ shocker was published in 1991 by Vintage books,[3] and for a while, the young writer became the “meistgehaßte[…] Autor der Welt”[4] – evidently, because critics considered his narration too pornographic, sexist, anti-women, disgusting, boring and beyond belief. Yet, American Psycho was regarded with interest – probably last but not least because Bret Easton Ellis had been celebrated as a great talent when publishing Less than Zero.

Meanwhile, countless studies with many diverging approaches manifest that American Psycho may not be condemned and dismissed as a pure splatter work glorifying violence. There are works analysing the publication and the reception of the novel as well as the socio-cultural background;[5] other studies focus on content and stylistic device[6], or on the motif of the serial killer as postmodern anti-hero.[7] Additionally, some special analyses examine the position of the novel within the American history of censorship[8] or even attempt to draw a parallel from Ellis’ Bateman to Goethe’s Faust.[9]

Thus, it is substantiated that the interest in American Psycho has spread widely and quickly. And still, 15 years after its publication the ambiguous novel, which was, besides, brought to screen in 2000, offers many subjects of discussion.

The aim of this paper is to analyse in what way and to what extent Ellis’ work is distinctive for the period of literary postmodernism. Definitively, there are several innovative and scandalous stratagies applied in American Psycho, but are these devices really symptomatic for a postmodern perception?

To answer a question like that, first of all, an essential condition is of course a definition of postmodern terms. Which features qualify and characterise this literary flow?

II. Postmodernism and postmodern literature

Postmodernism is an expression that cannot be fixed, no matter how extended a definition will be. Even the transcription of its meaning does not remain without problems, since laying down any rules in a non-rule postmodern world is a paradox attempt in itself. However, there are several traits typical for postmodern thinking – and, thus, also for postmodern writing, which are worth presenting in advance.

First of all, postmodernism confirms a totally pluralistic view of the world: Pluralism can be seen as a key term of the conception. Deleuze invented this expression, speaking about an opening of all meaning without limits. In the postmodernist’s view, knowledge is neither restricted in any ways nor can it be separated into more or less worthy knowledge – all obligations are abrogated, because postmodern thinking forbids any rating of value.

Likewise, a feature of Postmodernism is the elimination of all binding structures and rules. Life means chaos – in all respects.[10] This aspect goes together with Jacques Derrida’s postmodern idea of deconstruction,[11] which aims at prescribing the removal of all idealistic and abstract conceptions of thought. In the same manner, the conception of the self cannot exist any longer. Nobody in a postmodern, deconstructed, pluralistic world can definitely say who he is. Nothing is concrete any more; every subject has to face its liquefaction.[12] This cognition can be traced to Siegfried Freud’s thesis that the human mind not only consists of one part, but is split into the EGO, the SUPER-EGO and the ID. These three components explain the existence of the human subconsciousness and the break-up of the unity of mind.[13] There is not one self hidden in each of us, but at least two selves, which makes life much more intricate. And since real life is always full of open questions, a postmodern text contains as well lots of gaps and ambiguities, which must be filled with meaning by the reader.

Apart from this, postmodern literature strives to scandalize in order to open new ways of thinking.[14] Maybe the most essential cognition of a postmodern world is that all, fragmentation and meaninglessness are – in contrast to the modern view – seen as new chances rather than as apocalyptic catastrophes. Postmodern authors recognise that the abolishment of all borders means great freedom; “anything goes”.[15] The postmodern freedom allows every author to create pieces of art without a special shape, without any borders in themselves. In fact, a text has no limits at all, but Postmodernism supports the theory that the whole world is a text, and that any text itself is, likewise, never-ending since its (meta-)fictional body cannot be isolated.

The circumstances of literary writing have changed as well. In postmodernism, literature is rather seen as a game. The author is no longer the genius initiating the works creation, but his new position is (at the utmost) somewhere in the middle of the conception, since all text material is already existent before he starts writing. Thus, he can only produce a work out of ideas and words that have already been invented by someone else, long time ago. Moreover, postmodern thinking supports the idea that reading merely has to focus the text and not the author, because no unique true meaning exists and the reader is free to interpret a text the way he wants to – without searching for some intention of the author.[16] This reader-oriented approach favours the style of the “écriture automatique”,[17] suggesting that the text shall at best ‘write itself’, without any authority or guidance.[18] The author must try to make his writing independent from himself. Whereas before, he spoke to his readers through the text, in postmodern terms the text, which has countless potential connotations, is no longer controlled by but has rather been detached from its creator. Consequently, it has to be filled with some kind of meaning by the reader – and only by the reader. Roland Barthes, therefore, speaks of the “death of the author”.[19]

Another consequence of the existence of innumerable texts, concepts, aesthetics etc. in the world of a postmodern author is his work’s inevitable intertextuality. A text always refers – directly or indirectly – to a text already existing.[20]

What is more, meta-fiction is a facet we often come across in postmodern writing. Since postmodern thinking cancels – as already mentioned – all borders, it also cannot distinguish between reality and fiction any more. In each fictitious text, we can find references to reality; and in our reality we likewise meet elements of fiction every second of our life. Postmodern writers, therefore, are aware of their perforce imperfect illusion. The consequence is a steady play with the destruction of fictional illusions.

The last literary quality, which cannot exist any longer in postmodern writing, is the assignment of a literary text to a special genre. Postmodernism favours hybrid texts; and, likewise, it favours polyphony. Not only a single voice but a choir of countless tones is contained within a postmodern novel.

All these characteristic traits of postmodern texts, necessarily, entail altered conditions for the reception of literature. Readers have to be aware that they are not supposed to search an ultimate truth within the texts, but that should rather take them as a mysterious message full of different possibilities to read every passage and every sentence. The postmodern author wants them to understand his work as a kind of riddle to play with, as an incomplete creation to cut into pieces and fragments, as a polyphone view of a pluralistic, borderless world of ambiguousness, in which everything already exists and any form of idealism must be refused vehemently.

Of course, this is only a very brief and summarised introduction into postmodern (literary) theories,[21] but it should be a sufficient base for the further analysis.

III. Postmodern features in American Psycho

III.a Intertextuality

As the chapter on postmodernism manifested, one important feature of postmodern literature is the notable and intended intertextuality. Bret Easton Ellis also uses this device in order to link his text with works already existing.

First of all, he directly refers to two of his own, former novels, namely Less Than Zero and The Rules of Attraction. From the former work, he occasionally adopted whole passages.[22]

Moreover, it is quite obvious that the surname of the first-person-narrator and protagonist, Bateman, is a modified adaptation of the name of a serial killer in the famous movie Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock: Norman Bates. Unequivocally, Ellis connects his novel with the great forerunner hereby – and, unmistakably, also by choosing almost the same title. The effect of this deliberate association is that – highly probable – the audience expects some analogousness connecting both these fictional works. Again, it can be interpreted as an astonishing – and, hence, postmodern – device that this prospect is answered only partly: Some aspects concerning the content can be recovered in American Psycho, but concerning the structure of the plot Ellis breaks with the (likely) expectation that, like in Hitchcock’s Psycho, the story will follow a clear line of suspense, approaching a definite climax and finding a solution in the end.[23] Besides, this is not only an example for intertextuality, but also for intermediality, showing how two media, literature and film, converge. This feature of postmodern intermediality is likewise reflected by a quote on American Psycho bringing in one more intertextual reference, namely to a famous horror movie: “Disgustingly graphic as they are, Bateman’s acts are perhaps the most unreal aspect of the novel, as though Ellis watched the Friday the Thirteenth canon and translated Jason’s spezial effects-laden acts into words.”[24]

Another intertextual bond to be mentioned is that the name of Bateman can be linked explicitly with the character of the popular comic hero Batman. At first glance, this intertextual connection seems completely absurd because it draws a line from a positive superhero rescuing people in danger to a murdering beastly creature acting irrationally and inhumanly. However, also in this context, one might come up with the idea that the bizarre junction makes sense, since Bateman, like the – almost – identically named superhero, has two very different, contrasting faces: Batman is a brooker and a hero; Bateman is a brooker and a killer. This strange comparison opens up a (postmodern) new view on a well-known motif by turning the preconditions upside down.


[1] Cf. Ursula Voßmann. Paradise Dreamed: Die Hölle der 80er Jahre in Bret Easton Ellis’ Roman “American Psycho“. Essen: Die Blaue Eule, 2000: 10.

[2] This issue is dealt with in detail by Phoebe Hoban. (Phoebe Hoban. “Psycho’ Drama .“ New York 23.49 (17.12.1990): 32-37.)

[3] This edition is also the primary source from which all quotations are taken.

[4] Christian Jürgens. “Das Monster ist ein Moralist“. Die Zeit 32 (05.08.1999): 33-34, here: 33.

[5] For example Voßmann’s study.

[6] Clare Weissenberg. This is not an Exit: Reading Bret Easton Ellis. Essex: University Press of Essex, 1997.

[7] Joe Applegate. The Serial Killer as Postmodern Anti-Hero and Harbinger of Apocalypse in Contemporary Literature and Life. Florida: Florida State University, 1996.

[8] Carla Freccero. “Historical Violence, Censorship, and the Serial Killer”. Diacritics – A Review of Contemporary Criticism 27.2 (Summer 1997): 44-58; Rosa A. Eberly. Novel Controversies: Public Discussions of Censorship and Social Change. Pennsylvania: State University Press, 1994.

[9] Altrud Dumont. “Er, unbefriedigt jeden Augenblick! Oder: Was hat Bateman mit Faust zu tun?“Weimarer Beiträge 40.3 (1994): 417-432.

[10] Here it is important to see that the abolishment of all structures does not mean that there are no structural elements in postmodern arts at all. It is rather often the case that postmodern literature ignores expected structures and develops its own new ones.

[11] For more detail cf. Martin McQuillan (Ed.). Deconstruction. A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000, especially part 4 (161-216): Literature. Cf. also Horace L. Fairlamb. Critical Conditions. Postmodernity and the question of foundations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, chapter 3: Theory and/or deconstruction: Derrida’s slippage (81-103).

[12] Cf. Svenja Blume. Texte ohne Grenzen für Leser jeden Alters. Zur Neustrukturierung des Jugendliteraturbegriffs in der literarischen Postmoderne. Freiburg im Breisgau: Rombach Verlag, 2005, 83.

[13] For more information also cf.: Siegmund Freud. The Ego and the Id. New York/ London: Norton & Company, 1960.

[14] Cf. ib., 82.

[15] Cf. Blume, 73.

[16] Of course, this is a contradiction in itself, because the by trying to be create a text as independent as possible, the author already follows an intention – and, what is more, it is an illusion that you can write objectively.

[17] The expression ’écriture automatique’ first appeared in a manifest by André Breton in 1924. (Cf. André Breton . Manifeste des Surrealismus. Translated by Ruth Henry. Rohwohlt bei Hamburg: Reinbeck, 1968.)

[18] A method to shut off the mind, for postmodernists, could e.g. be taking drugs.

[19] Roland Barthes. “The Death of the Author.” Image, Music, Text. Ed. and trans. by Stephen Heath. New York: Noonday Press, 142-148 [La mortes de l´auteur, 1968].

[20] An original expression for this phenomenon is “Pla(y)-giarism“. Cf. Blume, 92.

[21] A very useful introduction is for example Niall Lucy’s work „Postmodern Literary Theory“. (Niall Lucy. Postmodern Literary Theory. An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.)

[22] Cf. Voßmann, 33f.

[23] Besides, Ursula Voßmann mentions that the structure of American Psycho ’s bewildering beginning has its roots in Hitchcock’s Psycho, where, for the first time, the audience is confused who will be the main character. (Cf. Voßmann, 103.)

[24] Applegate (1996), 99. (This statement, furthermore, already hints at another passage of this study to come: the chapter on the connection between reality and fiction.)

Excerpt out of 26 pages


‘At the edge of art and insanity’
Postmodern elements in Bret Easton Ellis' "American Psycho" (1991)
University of Siegen  (FB 3 (Literatur-, Srach- und Medienwissenschaften))
„Postmodern Fiction“
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Sabine Buchholz (Author), 2006, ‘At the edge of art and insanity’, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/82600


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