1 Blank Fiction
1.1 A new direction of culture and literature
1.1.1 Blank Fiction and Postmodernism: attempts to classify a new literary movement
1.1.2 Fiction within a cultural context: Consumer Culture as a defining factor of Blank Fiction
1.2 American Psycho as Blank Fiction
2 Consumer Culture in Literature – A Recent Development?
3 Consumerism and Loss of Identity
3.1 Belongingness or: Trying to Fit In
188.8.131.52 Choice: Shopping and Accumulation
3.1.2 Food and Restaurants
3.1.3 Drugs and Drinks
3.1.4 Producer or Product?
3.2.1 Narrator Reliability
184.108.40.206.1 Changes in Tense and Point of View
“This is not an Exit”
3.3.2 “Abandon all Hope”
220.127.116.11 History. Or: Past, Present, Future
Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho has been labeled many things from “Brat Pack Fiction” to “Generation X” to “Minimal Realism”. While the classification of the novel might be difficult and it has often been misunderstood for its extremely violent scenes, what is clear to the attentive reader is its critique of consumer culture. Critics have acknowledged an emergence of a large number of writings dealing with this topic in contemporary American literature in the recent past. These novels focus on the relationship of American youth with consumer culture with a seemingly non-elaborate content and style. Attempts of explaining this kind of writing, which has also been called “fiction of insurgency”, “new narrative”, “downtown writing” and “punk fiction”, range from millennial angst to the classification of this literary movement as part of the postmodern culture. What seems clear is that these narrations are closely related to the society they have been created in. The way these texts incorporate products of their time as a constant accompanying element places them very clearly in a specific time period. The apparent non-existence of complexity concerning the style, which at times reminds the reader of a movie script or a sequence of an MTV video, has, in the case of American Psycho, caused many critics to classify the novel as boring and deny the author the status of an artist. Exactly this seeming meaninglessness of these novels argues in favor of a term introduced by critics James Annesley and Elizabeth Young: Blank fiction, or Blank Generation Fiction. The term Blank fiction seems to capture perfectly the emptiness created by consumer culture that has found its way into these narratives not simply in its context but also by means of its language, incorporating consumer goods into the narrative as secondary characters, in the case of American Psycho ascribing more character to these objects than to the protagonists.
The issue of consumer culture, however, is not entirely new, neither to recent American history, nor to American Fiction. The novels of modernist writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, deal with the “contrast of outer splendor and inner disintegration” in the society of the rich, which is a statement that describes perfectly well the main character of American Psycho, Patrick Bateman. Furthermore, episodes of American Psycho remind critic Elizabeth Young of Nicole Diver’s extravagant shopping excursions. While writers like Fitzgerald described the world of the rich in terms of fast cars, impressive mansions and beautiful clothes, blank fiction writers put a nametag on these things. Throughout the novel American Psycho ’s narrator Patrick Bateman introduces every character with an exact labeling of the clothes they are wearing and gives the brand names (and often prices) of everything he owns. And around these labels, everything else loses meaning. The protagonists, lost in the in the jungle of ads and image which is the only world they know, become products themselves.
This paper will mark the difference between both the effects and the treatment of consumerism in the Blank Fiction novel American Psycho and respectively in selected works by modernist writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, namely The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night. This will not lead to a complete analysis of consumerism in modernism and postmodernism, which would be a task for a larger work. The important difference between the world of the rich of the modernist “Lost Generation” in Fitzgerald’s novels and the “Blank Generation”-yuppie-world portrayed in American Psycho is to be found in the deep immersion in consumer culture of both author and protagonists of Blank Fiction. American Psycho is written from deep within consumer culture, a fact that is perfectly captured in the name Blank Fiction, a term that mirrors the superficiality of this culture concerned with nothing but surface. Both the authors and the characters of this type of fiction come from deep within this culture without the knowledge of a different way of life.
Other than in Fitzgerald’s modernist fiction, which is geared towards a resolution, in the blank fiction novel American Psycho, there is none. In the end Patrick Bateman, who seeks punishment for his actions, has to find out that he is stuck in exactly the same situation in which he started, in which he has always been. Escape is not an option, as the last words of the novel confirm: “THIS IS NOT AN EXIT”. The never-ending circle of consumption permits no stopping and has no sense of direction. This results in a complete loss of identity and individuality: much of the novel’s plot is based on the fact that the characters frequently are mistaken for one another. Since they all look the same, act the same and talk the same, there is no room left for individuality and in the end Patrick Bateman does not even know who he is or whether he exists at all.
But not only the novel’s characters are lost in the horror and circularity of the novel: The reader never receives clear information as to whether or not the murders described by the main character have actually taken place or are a construct of Bateman’s insanity. Furthermore, there is nothing in the novel that implies a critique of Bateman’s actions. The reader is left completely to his own judgment of the situation, a moral guideline is missing completely since the voice of Patrick Bateman offers no outlook on the plot but his own, conflicted viewpoint, and no closure is being offered.
In the following, after making an attempt to place blank fiction within recent American literary history, I am going to show what defines American Psycho as a work of blank fiction. We are going to see that the main point here is the symbiotic relationship between individual and consumer culture, evident in both context and language, in the latter to the point that the narrative incorporates the language of advertisements and fashion magazines. The loss of identity and de-individualization in the consumer-dominated world reflected in blank fiction, as we are going to see, is the main objective of American Psycho. The narrator’s desperate attempts to fit into a society in which appearance is everything deprive him of his identity and prompt him to construct himself purely out of objects, turning himself into a commodity. He loses the ability to differentiate between objects and persons, in the end completely losing himself without a means to find his identity or change his way of life.
Throughout the paper I am going to turn to the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald for comparison, mostly The Great Gatsby, to show how the effect of consumer culture on the individual has changed in recent American Literature. The main differences, we are going to see, lie in the way the characters deal with the consumer objects: While in The Great Gatsby consumer objects are mainly used as props, in the case of American Psycho the line between object and subject becomes blurred, in fact almost vanishes, making objects appear as characters and people as commodities. Furthermore, other than in the works of Fitzgerald, there are virtually no values left in the world of American Psycho but money and appearance. The impossibility to identify oneself with anything other than objects leads to a complete loss of identity in la life dominated by consumer culture, from which there is no hope of escape.
1. Blank Fiction
1.1 A new direction of culture and literature
The last few decades have seen a development of culture and, with it, literature, in a new direction, which has greatly been influenced by what we generally call “consumer culture”. This development, which James Annesley, one of the few critics who have tried to formulate an explanation for it, defines as putting “an emphasis on the extreme, the marginal and the violent”, “a sense of indifference and indolence” and the blurring of the “limits of the human body […] by narcotics, disease and brutality”, and which is to be found in numerous contemporary works of art, including film, literature and music, has been hard to miss but just as hard to define. It would be easiest to simply see it as postmodernism, a term that covers everything that has happened in the realms of culture, literature and art more or less within the past fifty years, but that seems insufficient. Quite a few critics have discussed the recent developments in literature and have attested to it a considerable shift in both style and content, clearly suggesting the emergence of a new movement. The obvious indulgence in materialism and decadence, egoism and excess that “find a particularly precise expression in recent American writing” calls for a more restrictive explanation. As one of the critics interested in these developments Annesley comes up with the term “blank fiction”, which I find nicely captures both the atmosphere and language of the literature in question, especially that of the novel American Psycho - written by Bret Easton Ellis in 1991 - I am about to examine, as I am going to discuss in more detail in the following chapters. Annesley clearly sees a “common context and a common vision” in many recent contemporary works, suggesting “the existence of a ‘blank scene’”.
1.1.1 Blank Fiction and Postmodernism: attempts to classify a new literary movement
The term “blank fiction” or “blank generation fiction” has appeared in the works of several critics of contemporary American literature during the past few years, mainly in the writings of James Annesley and Elizabeth Young. It refers to the writings of a new generation of American writers dealing with the experiences of young Americans in urban settings, focusing mostly on the relationship of the individual with consumer culture. This type of writing has, according to Annesley, first emerged in the 1980s with the literary “brat pack”, composed of Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz. The topics of these novels are controversial, ranging from drug-(ab)use to violent sexual practices, self-destruction and murderous ambitions and both their style and content are heavily marked by consumer culture. Contemporary culture dominated by media, materialism and appearance often plays such a large role in these novels that they simply would not function without it: through frequent name-dropping and incorporation into the narrative it becomes one of the actors and dominates the language. Annesley calls this language influenced by consumer culture “commodified”, the term marking its dependency on cultural clues and firmly setting it in a specific time and place. The superficiality of contemporary American culture has found its way into these works, creating a “blankness” which seemingly erases deeper intentions.
In an attempt to explain the development, Annesley comes to the conclusion that the most plausible explanation for this literary movement is to see it within the realm of postmodernism:
One view suggests that these disturbing thematics are the product of an ‘apocalypse culture’, the reflexive gestures of a society torn by millennial angst. Other versions see a culture dominated by a ‘Generation X’, slackers whose indifference is reflected in the atomized, nihilistic worldview articulated in these texts. An alternative account speculates about the possible existence of some kind of radical aesthetic that finds expression in extreme, marginal statements and pronouncements. More familiar and, perhaps, more persuasive is the well-worn suggestion that this modern mood can be explained in relation to ‘postmodern culture’.
Blank fiction, Annesley asserts, is to be understood as a “product of a postmodern condition” of material success replicating the logic and ideals of the consumer society at the turn-of-the-millennium. He discards the other explanations as being either “too dependent on a loosely conceived modern zeitgeist” (millennial angst and Generation X) or too “celebratory in tone” (radical aesthetic) which he finds unfitting for a type of literature that prefers a non-elaborate style seemingly empty of context. Annesley’s argument is problematic insofar that the movements mentioned above, such as millennial angst or Generation X, are themselves part of the postmodern culture: they, too, have arisen from a sense of anxiety in a culture dominated largely by consumption and personal gain. All of the above are to be included in what is generally called postmodern culture, as are the main aspects of the movement in recent American literary history I am going to call blank fiction in accordance with Young and Annesley. Still, the problem remains that the term postmodernism is too ambiguous, too general and does not provide a specific enough definition. The most recent developments in American literature call for a more precise term and “blank fiction” appears to be adequate.
This paper is not meant to be an exact assessment of recent literary history, but a close analysis of the effects of consumer culture on personal identity in Ellis’s American Psycho as a work of blank fiction. Nevertheless it should prove helpful to find a placement for the subgenre blank fiction – I will call it that for now – within all that postmodernism encompasses. Therefore it seems useful to briefly turn to postmodernism as a means to understand the development of blank fiction, as Annesley’s suggestion that the latter is a development within postmodernism might turn out to be a solid lead. It has, after all, arisen from postmodern culture. Nevertheless, this paper will not try to provide a detailed definition of postmodernism, a topic that has been discussed by numerous critics without leading to a clear agreement. Brian McHale shows this nicely in his book Postmodernist Fiction, saying that critics tend to “construct“ their own private “postmodernisms“ according to their needs and understandings of the phenomenon.
Thus, there is John Barth’s postmodernism, the literature of replenishment; Charles Newman’s postmodernism, the literature of an inflationary economy; Jean-François Lyotard’s postmodernism, a general condition of knowledge in the contemporary informational régime; Ihab Hassan’s postmodernism, a stage on the road to the spiritual unification of humankind; and so on. There is even Kermode’s construction of postmodernism, which in effect constructs it right out of existence.
In accordance with this Linda Hutcheon adds to the list
McHale’s postmodernism, with its ontological ‘dominant’ in reaction to the epistemological ‘dominant’ of modernism [...], Frederic Jameson’s postmodernism, in which the simulacrum gloats over the body of the deceased referent; Kroker and Cook’s (related) hyperreal, dark side of postmodernism; [...] and [her] own paradoxical postmodernism of complicity and critique, of reflexivity and historicity, that at once inscribes and subverts the conventions and ideologies of the dominant cultural and social forces of the twentieth-century western world.
Postmodernism is indeed a concept that is very difficult to pinpoint. Maybe this is the case because it is – although there are varying opinions even about this – still an ongoing process. Hutcheon argues that postmodern fiction is in fact to be understood as a “forum for discussion of the postmodern”, a reflection of the life that has developed in the age of consumer capitalism.
Whenever the question of how to place contemporary literature within the context of a particular literary movement arises, critics are at a loss. As many have noted before, it is difficult to classify a phenomenon that is still going on and even harder to define different directions of the same epoch. Beginning in the second half of the 20th century an exact definition of literary movements has yet to be found. Annesley’s blank fiction is one of the attempts to do so. The term “postmodernism”, as I have argued before, cannot supply a clear definition, simply because it includes too many different developments of literature, culture and arts. While writers like John Barth, Raymond Carver, Donald Barthelme and Thomas Pynchon with their use of metafiction and their disruption of traditional style and narrative form are those most often referred to as postmodernist writers (Mike Petry, in an essay about brat pack fiction, calls them first generation postmodernists ), others are not as easy to place. Assuming as one of the primary features of postmodernism the challenging of truth about fiction in a capitalist era and the quoting of other works of art, which makes the concept of intertextuality an important means to understand those texts, leads to the view of Frederic Jameson: In an essay called “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” published two decades ago he elaborates that in postmodern culture “all that is left is to imitate dead styles”, a fact he sees as leading to the emergence of “pastiche”. Pastiche is, like parody, concerned with the imitation of styles, but it is, as Jameson significantly argues, a “blank parody”, since it is “lacking the satire normally inherent to parody.” “Modern literature”, he points out, explodes into “a host of distinct private styles and mannerisms” in which social life is linguistically mirrored by what he calls a “neutral and reified media speech”. One notes that Annesley’s “commodified language” is simply a more comprehensive term for the same thing. Interesting here, too, is the usage of the term “blank”, the same term that almost twenty years later Annesley applies to the new development within postmodernism. Jameson sees a fascination with “advertising and motels” and an incorporation instead of quotation - as done previously - of this environment, leading to “the point where the line between high art and commercial forms seems increasingly difficult to draw”: that is, to “blank parody”. He further sharply distinguishes pastiche from parody saying that pastiche is influenced by the disappearance of individuality and personal style.
With his definition of the blank parody in modern fiction Jameson already alludes to what one or two decades later is the reason for literary critics to see the emergence of a new movement: Blank fiction, if we accept Jameson’s argument as valid, is merely the expansion of these concepts: the incorporation of consumer culture and its components moves so far into the foreground of fiction that it takes over the part of the protagonist, shedding a new light on the question of individuality. It becomes almost impossible to distinguish between “high art” and “commercial form”, leading to the question whether there is indeed still a difference between both. The belief that there is no such line at all, Phillipp E. Simmons suggests, is not far once it has been accepted that the difference it hard to detect. Neglecting its existence, “the world becomes all image, to be commodified and manipulated”. Contemporary writers play with this imagery. Elizabeth Young argues that they really cannot see a gap, as they have grown up with art, advertising, fiction and film as inseparable from one another.
Daniel Grassian, another critic of contemporary American literature, extends Jameson’s argument of an “explosion” of modern literature, suggesting that postmodernism has “mutated” since the early 1980s. It has developed many different branches, one of which being, I would argue, blank fiction.
Bearing this and the idea that these authors are part of a new movement within postmodernism in mind, the notion of contemporary literature branching in different directions that still share the same roots – postmodernism – appears to be logical. Grassian sees the explanation for this branching in an argument similar to what Jameson has ascribed to “modern fiction” in 1991, namely in that we can consider ourselves within a “period of literary eclecticism and hybrid fictions, which utilize a wide variety of literary approaches, have conflicted viewpoints and blend media and technological forms”. What Grassian means, is that contemporary American literature is a combination of different literary styles influenced by recent cultural developments.
To provide a definition of the recent development Grassian contrasts postmodernism with modernism. Modernists, he argues, in their disillusion brought about by World War I, tried to “situate” themselves “constructing foundations and codes” in an attempt to invent an “alternative ethos”. First generation Postmodernists, on the other hand, wanted to “dislocate” themselves. This dislocation led to fiction that is often difficult to appreciate. In its extreme it tends to become very theoretical and bears only the most minimal connection with “reality” as the authors play with irony and pastiche, the disruption of fictional traditions. Contemporary American fiction, then, Grassian explains, “still grapple[s] with the issues of both modernism and postmodernism, trying to find a place between those two extremes” developing mixtures, or “hybrids” of modernism and postmodernism in an attempt to write fiction that tells the truth about contemporary life, thus clearly distinguishing themselves from the approach of first generation Postmodernists. What he calls hybrid fictions, is one of the branches contemporary literature has formed recently. What becomes clear again in this definition is the necessity to differentiate contemporary literature from postmodernism, even though important aspects of the latter are still intact within it.
Robert Siegle jumps into the same breach, suggesting in his work Suburban Ambush that contemporary American literature ironically plays with the “hybridization” of genres. Suburban Ambush focuses on a group of writers who have emerged from the New York scene starting in the Punk Period of the mid-seventies. While, according to Young, Siegle is referring to a very diverse group of writers, some of which are “hollow-eyed sixties survivors”, what he calls “downtown writing” or „fiction of insurgency“ in fact largely includes a group of fiction that is in many aspects very similar to that which Annesley classifies as blank fiction and Grassian calls hybrid fiction.
The hybridization of genres, we find in an essay by Petry, who examines brat pack fiction in terms of “new-realism“, is a concept inherent to postmodernism:
If anything can be said about contemporary American fiction with some certainty, it is that in form and content it presents itself more diversely than ever before. In that, this body of literature is always already ‘realistic’ insofar as its very diversity mirrors one of the predominant features of postmodernity: eclecticism. Thus the cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson may coexist ‘peacefully’ with the rather straightforward realism of Anne Tyler in the general mood ‘anything goes’.
Petry’s argument in favor of eclecticism being one of postmodernism’s prime features both emphasizes the point that postmodernism is a term too general to include fictions as diverse as William Gibson and Anne Tyler and that it has branched, “mutated” or “exploded”. Different texts that have all arisen from early postmodern culture coexist next to one another, forming literary branches that spread into various directions from the postmodern trunk. One of the dominant branches, as already shown, is blank fiction. Though rooted in postmodernist culture and thought, it is moving into a new direction through a slight but clearly visible alteration of style and context. It extends the ideas of media speech, fascination with advertising and absence of individuality and personal style Jameson has identified as “blank parody” to a new movement, possibly the beginnings of a new genre, part of what Annesley conceives as the “blank scene“. The great diversity of contemporary American fiction, however, is also recognized by Annesley, who argues that there is not one “blank fiction”, but a number of them. To use again the metaphor of branching: Not only is blank fiction to be understood as a branch of postmodernism, it again forms branches in itself. Therefore the term blank fiction, Annesley goes on to say
seems fitting, offering as it does a ‘non-definition’, a definition that in the very emptiness of the terminology appears to speak of the problematic nature of the attempt to bring these writers together. ‘Blank fictions’ thus seems suitable, articulating as it does both reservations about the nature of literary categories while, at the same time, offering a label for a loose affiliation of writers who are engaged in the production of a kind of modern fiction that is flat, ambiguous and problematically blank.
The term, in other words, not only captures the way the novels deal with contemporary culture, but also offers a definition that recognizes the difficulty of grouping writers in one literary movement.
Whether this kind of writing actually marks the end of postmodernism, as Heide Ziegler or Raymond Federman might argue, is a question best left to future scholars. Whether one perceives blank fiction as a literary genre on its own right or merely as a branch on the postmodern tree, it is a movement worth to be taken seriously.
1.1.2 Fiction within a cultural context: Consumer culture as a defining factor of blank fiction
Let us turn back to the first branching of postmodernism in the 1980s. The starting point of this Grassian ascribes to the emergence of the literary “brat pack” during this time in New York, the point that Annesley also sees as the beginning of blank fiction. The brat pack, as noted before, consisted of the three young writers Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz. They wrote about the life of young Americans in the urban surroundings of both New York and Los Angeles in the 1980s.
Elizabeth Young offers a description of the retrospect image of the 1980s, an image that might not exactly capture the spirit of the decade in question, but helps to form an idea of why it inspired a new kind of literature.
… the baying backs of yuppies and estate agents, an army of entrepreneurs in red braces and jelly-coloured spectacles. […] No one sleeps, greed is good, the aristocrats have left the tumbrels, brushed off their voluminous satins and are throwing balls grander and madder than ever before. There are orgies of gross eating, a million pounds is nothing, the sky bristles with aeroplanes, giant glittering buildings spring up above the cityscapes, only to lie dark and tenantless. A constant confetti of dirty contracts, laundered money and drug profits falls like soiled snow, there is the stink of corruption and sickly blasts of insanely-priced couture fragrances. Above it all the gerontophilic courts of Thatcher and the Reagans kick up their showers of Aids babies, homeless lunatics, murderers, beggars, homeboys and hookers […] It was [a world] wherein it was harder to have a social conscience than to […] sink dully into the warm sensurround of total consumer dream.
The blatant consumerism and hedonistic attitude of this decade had such a strong influence on the public that everybody was seduced by it. Therefore it is not surprising that writers were (and are) tempted to work the images of consumer culture into their fiction in a way that, in comparison to the previous decades, required a different approach, as Petry notes. “´Losing oneself in the funhouse of fiction´”, he writes, “seemingly proved insufficient for a satisfying response to the rapidly growing commercialism and commodification process and the increasing urban violence and drug-abuse that moulded this period in America.” While a consumer-oriented lifestyle and consumer culture have always been an important aspect of postmodernism and postmodern culture, even of modernist culture, the 1980s brought a new consumer hype, which seems to have influenced writers to take a somewhat different perspective.
The eighties, Slater demonstrates, brought upon the latest relaunch of consumerism, the latter already having been an important part of modernist times, as I am going to discuss in more detail in a later part of this paper. The consumerism of the 1980s in American culture plays a much larger role for the individual and the development of society. The emerging notion of “I shop therefore I am”, cynically reminiscent of Descartes’ “I think therefore I am”, creates a society in which the individual is defined almost solely through what they consume. Suddenly consumption steps into place as a very important aspect in relations with others and the formation of the individual self. In the 1980s, the “year zero” of consumer culture, “Fordist mass consumption“, Slater writes, “ [gives] way to a newer and truer consumer culture.“ While in Fordist times identities were still somewhat fixed and limited by cultural values so that the individual still knew their place in society, the boundaries are now expanding and make the definition of identity more and more complex.
The sudden focus of consumer culture on the individual, putting great pressure upon the latter to define itself and its affiliation with a certain peer group increasingly more through fashion and commodities, inspired a new kind of writing, which saw its beginnings in brat pack fiction, as the works of the literary brat pack were soon labeled by critics. According to Annesley, brat pack fiction gave rise to “novels dealing with disaffection, decadence and brutality”. These, he goes on to say, are now, a couple of decades later, “staple elements” in contemporary American fiction: blank fiction. Referring to Mandel, Annesley describes blank fiction as “capitalism at its highest pitch”. “There is an enormous speed-up in the circulation of capital and consumption in all their phases. Turn-over times, reinvestment and capital deployment, rates of innovation and obsolescence of both producer and consumer goods, style changes – all reach hysterical velocities.” Walter Grünzweig argues that the 1980s signify the transition from one era to another. It is the beginning of postindustrial society, of cheap labor from overseas with the purpose of more profitable products. The fashionability of the product has become more important than its purpose. This is the embodiment of Beaudrillard’s thesis that objects – commodities – determine the rhythm of our lives as we see them become fashionable and loose meaning again shortly afterwards. We live by this rhythm and let ourselves be ruled by products.
Blank fiction is inspired by and incorporates all of these developments into its narratives. The over-importance of the commodity in contemporary consumer culture makes them become the real actors of the narrative. They are, in a way, more important than the protagonists because they define the character of the story that is being told. And blank fiction is aware of this as becomes obvious in its language, which is made up of a style familiar from advertising and television, capturing as it is the velocity and the experience of life in contemporary culture. Therefore, it is impossible to attempt an understanding of blank fiction without seeing it within a cultural context. The relationship between literature and culture, as Annesley puts it, goes “beyond models based on reflection”. Instead, contemporary American literature strongly blends cultural concepts with the narration. The language of blank fiction becomes more than just a means to relate a story. While Petry ascribes to brat pack fiction a “deliberate rejection of the playful ‘games of irony’ of […] the first generation postmodernists”, there is a particular property of the style of blank fiction that is even more telling of its specific characteristics:
As indicated, blank fiction boasts a high level of incorporation of the elements of consumer culture in its narrative. These novels speak in the “commodified language” of their time. This is crucial. The language of blank fiction, consisting of brand names and a style that often reminds of MTV-videos or fast-cut movie sequences, firmly places this fiction in its own time and place, and provides an approach to its interpretation. Referring to the first postmodernist texts with their high level of experimentalism Petry claims that that experimental language, which is so unlike that of the ‘traditional’ novel, is in itself a political statement. Those texts, he argues, made the reader part of the production instead of just seeing him as a consumer. Refusing to speak in the traditional form, thus, is not only a disruption of the traditional novel but carries with it a critique of traditional society the values, language and perceptions of which it shared and which was based upon capitalist logic: the interaction of production and consumption. While the degree of experimentalist style in blank fiction is, compared to that of the first postmodernist texts, somewhat small, it too carries a political statement. The commodified language and the movie and MTV-like style form a blank surface that mirrors the hedonistic emptiness of contemporary consumer society. Blank fiction, Annesley puts it, “can only exist in its time” Part of the reason for this is the fact that the writers, having grown up in exactly this period of consumerism that they are depicting, are drawing from their own experience. The writers know nothing else. Rosa A. Eberly goes as far as saying that their being so deeply rooted in consumer society deprives them of the understanding of what that society is doing to them. They have, she claims, no idea themselves that they are looking for happiness through commercial success. That notion is so innate with them that it can be understood only on a subconscious level. While the writers’ immersion in commercial times certainly plays an important role in the emergence of blank fiction it seems too much to say that they lack an understanding of these times. This would imply that any critique these writings offer is not an active one, but that it more or less creates itself without the knowing of the author. This seems too much of a generalization. The remaining fact, however, is a strong influence of consumer society on blank fiction.
1.2 American Psycho as Blank Fiction
It has become obvious that critics hold different views as to how to name the literary movement in question. Grassian and Annesley deduct that anything from fiction of insurgency, new narrative, blank generation fiction, downtown writing, punk fiction, post-postmodernism, image fiction, neorealism, to minimalism, has been attributed to the recent American writings. The great diversity of existing labels for recent American fiction suggests a branching of literature in more than one direction during the past decades. There are, of course, many overlappings; insofar that Grassian’s term “hybrid fiction” might even serve as a sort of generic term for all the others. It seems clear, however, that each of these terms means a slightly different variation of literature. Fiction of insurgency, for instance, as defined by Siegle, seems to have a much more radical, rebellious character than blank fiction. While I will not claim blank fiction to be less critical – it most certainly is not – it depicts, or more fittingly: photographs, rather than states obvious ills. A description as “hit-and-run guerilla action” that Siegle ascribes to fiction of insurgency, and for that matter, the title of his book, “Suburban Ambush”, seems misplaced. As compared to blank fiction, all this seems too direct, too obvious.
As a classification for the novel I am going to discuss in this paper, American Psycho, I find that the term ‘blank fiction’ fits perfectly. The plot of American Psycho is told quickly. Published in 1991 but clearly an exhibit of 1980s yuppie life and consumer culture it is the 1st person narration of Patrick Bateman, a 26-year old Wall Street broker whose daily life consists of meals in expensive restaurants, frequent health club visits, a talk-show called the “Patty Winters Show” and psychopathic murders.
It becomes obvious early on in the novel that its author’s Bret Easton Ellis’s main concern lies in the de-individualization and the loss of identity of the subject in consumer society, also one of the most important characteristics of blank fiction. Furthermore, Annesley’s definition of blank fiction as a writing that boasts a “preoccupation with violence, indulgence, sexual excess, decadence, consumerism, commerce” nicely captures the atmosphere of American Psycho. Also, the language of its narrator Patrick Bateman finds a fitting description in the following: “Instead of dense plots, elaborate styles and political subjects, […] these fictions seem determined to adopt a loser approach. They prefer blank, atonal perspectives, and fragile, glassy visions.” Grassian criticizes the term blank fiction for precisely this definition calling it “a gross generalization that carries a derogatory connotation of insubstantiality”. America’s contemporary writers, he argues, are not blank, but “intellectually and culturally rich”. The term “blank”, however, does not necessarily promote the absence of intellectuality or define blank fiction as insubstantial. The seemingly“blank and uncommitted” style can be understood as a mirror of the equally blank culture it relates of, a pop-culture, which is in itself so much without “real” meaning that the style serves as a contrast to the context, which, underneath the glamorous, empty surface, carries a lot of meaning indeed. Annesley states that in fact precisely the blank nature of these texts holds the key to understanding the times that inspired them .
In reference to American Psycho it can be said that the apparently empty narrations and styles that make it difficult for the reader to detect any meaning behind them, present a mirror of the meaninglessness of the protagonists’ lives. The irony lies in the opposition of “apparent” and “actual” writing, Young writes. “The book is written as if to be skimmed. It is written largely in brochure-speak, ad-speak, in the mindless, soporific commentary of the catwalk or the soapy soft-sell of the market-place.” We have seen how through “experimental” language political and cultural critique can be conveyed. Young asserts that exactly this is happening in American Psycho: “By situating this mall-speak within a serious novel Ellis destabilizes genres and suggests that, in general, a close study of our cultural debris might reveal clues.” The blank style produces a message that is far from blank.
The plot of American Psycho is indeed everything but dense, there is, actually, not much of a plot to speak of; but this does not deprive the novel of a thick layer of meaning. The superficial, seemingly unstructured (it is almost impossible to develop a concept of time) plot itself, that actually, more than once, directly states that there is no meaning to be found, is, in fact, a stylistic device of its own. The text is, as Young puts it, “richly littered with clues” which “are all entirely linguistic” instead of plot-related. A very good example for this is the first chapter, which, from its ambiguous title “April Fools” and the first words “Abandon all hope ye who enter here”- an allusion to Dante’s hell in The Inferno at the entrance of which the same inscription is to be found- on, establishes the novels themes and tone although so little seems to happen. Style and plot constitute a smooth, shiny, blank surface full of fashion, fancy restaurants and glamour mirroring the consumer society of the 1980s. Underneath there is to be found a wide variety of criticism of this society, not in the least bit insubstantial or non-intellectual. There is, in fact, also a level of political criticism, which Annesley seems to have neglected in his definition of blank fiction and which should be added. It is, however, acknowledged as a part of brat pack fiction by Petry, who describes the latter to “include direct and indirect political and social criticism”. The fact that in the case of American Psycho there is no direct critique to be found, no hint that Bateman’s actions are to be condemned, does not mean that the text approves of this world. The non-elaborate style serves as a means to caricature and satirize. As I have pointed out before, the commodified language promotes goods to actors, rendering them more important than the individuals of the narrative. The identity of these individuals in connection with the consumer culture they are part of is the main concern of American Psycho, as I am going to show in detail in the following chapters.
Therefore, we can find all of the main defining elements of blank fiction, as proposed by Annesley, in American Psycho: Firstly, an above all because it affects all of the others the relationship of the individual with consumer culture. Secondly, the controversial themes of violent and sexual nature and the consumer world which has found its way into both the context and the language of the text, creating an apparently blank and non-elaborate style which does not seem to supply meaning on the surface. Thirdly, all of this being written by an author who himself is part of that culture of consumption.
2 Consumer Culture in Literature – A Recent Development?
We have seen that the 1980s have brought upon a revival of consumer culture inspiring a new literary movement that deals with the effect this culture of consumption has on the individual exposed to it. The topic of consumer culture, however, is nothing new in American literature. To show more clearly the extent to which the effects of consumer culture on the individual are incorporated – and criticized – in American Psycho as a novel of blank fiction and to highlight its specifics in style and plot, it makes sense to turn to earlier works of American literature that deal with the same topic. In this respect I am going to look at modernist writings, especially the works of F.Scott Fitzgerald, who, with his novels The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night shows a treatment of the subject in many ways not very different from Bret Easton Ellis’s approach to it in American Psycho. Throughout this paper I am frequently going to draw comparisons to the works mentioned above in order to emphasize the aspects of American Psycho that particularly mark it as a blank fiction text.
Modernism springs to mind mainly because of the history of consumer culture. The modernist period is to be placed roughly between the years 1925 to 1940, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his novels in the 1920s and 1930s. While the 1980s can be seen as the epoch that revived consumer culture in much more extreme ways than ever before in American history, the 1920s appear to have brought upon the birth of consumer culture, making consumption a topic for the masses, not merely the very rich. The post-war middle class, according to Richard Godden, is in this period, just “learning to spend”. This is the period that brought us the “non-white sheet” and the “non-white towel“ and promoted satisfaction as a matter of money, instead of the result of social relationships. The 1920s and the 1930s defined the habits and institutions of consumer culture (such as motion picture, radio, automobile, installment buying and suburban living ) putting an emphasis on leisure activities and consumption. The individual suddenly becomes a market target. And this is not happening accidentally. Fox gives a very positive view of the consumer in the early 20th century, pointing out that the American public at that time was very much aware of its new role as a consumer, introduced to it by activists and authorities. They were not manipulated into becoming consumers but actively assumed this role. While it might be argued whether this is true or not – others, for example Stuart Ewen, are of the opinion that the American public was indeed greatly influenced by advertisers in this epoch – it is clear that an “ideology of affluence”, of “selling not just consumer goods, but consumerism itself” as Slater puts it, was established. Slater goes on to say:
The 1920s […] exhibit a similar moral split of the post-war era: Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, on the one side, exemplifies consumerism, ‘boosterism’, the life of selling and goods, as the route to empty mass conformity […]; the flapper, the cinema, the automobile and Prohibition represent the other side: the licentious, youth-oriented, pleasure-oriented orgy of the jazz age, Hollywood and Harlem nights. Again, and quite early on, consumerism shows its double face: it is registered on the one hand as a tool of social order and private contentment, on the other as social licence and cultural disruption.
Exactly this dichotomy between private contentment and cultural (or personal) disruption; the youth- and pleasure-oriented jazz age and empty mass conformity, is thematized in Fitzgerald’s novels. Just like Patrick Bateman in American Psycho the characters are situated in (or, in Gatsby’s case, have situated themselves in) a world of glamour, which promises happiness but brings only emptiness. There are, however, a few important distinctions to be made between Fitzgerald’s modernist and Ellis’s blank fiction interpretation of consumer culture. These differences are mainly to be found in the extent to which consumption dominates the lives of the novel’s characters. Patrick Bateman and his peers are much deeper immersed into this culture than Jay Gatsby, Nicole Diver, or even Rosemary Hoyt. This first becomes evident, as mentioned before, in the language: Where Bateman applies brand names to everything he owns and explicitly mentions the designers of everyone’s outfits, converting commodities to actors themselves, in the world of Gatsby goods are only status symbols: descriptions of his beautiful mansion, his nice car and his expensive clothes remain merely that: beautiful, nice, expensive. They are never labeled. Furthermore, Bateman is much more helpless in his situation. He is so much dominated and steered by commodities that he cannot act differently than he does – he becomes passive, he becomes, in fact, a commodity himself. Gatsby is active insofar that he is not completely controlled by commodities; he is more like an actor who uses them as a means to an end assuming the role of the active consumer as suggested by Fox: ”Gatsby holds himself so remote from his character that he can lift up his words and nod at them with a smile that is portable”. He is acting, playing with the status symbols and glamour constructing his personality through them. He has, at least to some extent, control over them, whereas Bateman is inseparable from them. This leads us to another important distinction – maybe the most important one: the fact that for Bateman there is no hope of escape. The last words of the novel say so: “This is not an exit.” He is so much a part of the consumer society that he cannot escape it, no matter how much he would like to. For Gatsby, at least, there remains an exit: death. Not even this Bateman is granted. As modernists are called the lost generation, struggling to find new values and putting a lot of emphasis on the individual consciousness, one might argue that blank fiction, especially taking American Psycho as an example, exhibits a much higher level of “lostness”. “Modernist narration,” Alex E. Blazer writes, is concerned with “unmasking illusions”. Gatsby, for instance, has to understand that it is impossible to return to life as it was before he lost Daisy. “Postmodernist culture”, on the other hand, “takes emptiness into its foundation”. There is, in the case of American Psycho, no individual consciousness to speak of and no lesson to be learned. There is nothing but image, illusion and void.
As Grassian puts it, “in a frightening world that threatened individuals and provided little or no emotional or moral sustenance, American modernists attempted to invent their own alternative ethos within their creative works.” Almost a century later, or so it seems, for blank fiction writers the invention of an “alternative ethos” is no longer possible, consumer culture has deprived them of values, meaning and identity without leaving a choice. Blank fiction, as I have demonstrated, makes the relationship of the individual with consumer culture the main theme of interest. It presents a variety of somewhat extreme topics, dealing with violence, marginality, and the limits of human psyche and behavior expressing a feeling of indifference and perhaps a sense of schizophrenia.
One of blank fiction’s primary specifics is its language that is greatly influenced by the time in which blank fiction is situated. James Annesley has called it a “commodified language”; it has also been called fashion-speak, media-speak or MTV-generation style. This choice of language and the inherent emphasis on time and place creates a feeling of uncommitted blankness that reflects the surroundings in which it is situated and provides a criticism that is mostly to be found on a linguistic level.
In the following chapters I am going to supply a close reading of American Psycho on the background of these elements, showing that the novel, with its main focus on the de-individualization and loss of identity in consumer culture is a very good example of blank fiction. Along with this I am frequently going to make comparisons to The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night to emphasize the specific influence consumer culture has on American Psycho as a work of blank fiction.
3 Consumerism and Loss of Identity
As the main objective of this paper is to show the loss of identity in a consumerist environment in the novel American Psycho, in the following chapter I am going to discuss at length the different aspects of the novel that underline the identity-threatening effects the consumer culture of the 1980s as depicted in American Psycho has on its protagonist, Patrick Bateman. There are three main aspects which push Bateman’s loss of identity and trigger his deterioration: His compulsive need to fit in with his peers driven by the need of identity-formation through the use of specific products in consumer society, which manifests itself in the obsession with the “right” item and the rejection of anything different from the current fads and fashions, the resulting loss of a sense of reality caused by the inability to understand the difference between consumer objects and human life and the final deterioration of a character with no personal identity and no hope of escape from a life of pure surface.
“Rational or irrational, sovereign or manipulated, autonomous or other-determined, active or passive, creative or conformist, individual or mass, subject or object” –
Slater contrasts these dichotomies in a chapter called “Hero or Fool” as a basis for the exploration of these terms from a liberal-utalitarianist perspective in contrast to critiques of consumer culture. In reference to the novel I am going to discuss, American Psycho, the view adopted concerning these dichotomies is clear: As the title of the first chapter – “April Fools” - suggests, the characters are obviously rather fools than heroes and soon it becomes clear that they are not individuals but mass, not autonomous but definitely other-determined.
I have pointed out before that one of the main concerns of blank fiction is the relationship of the individual with consumer culture. In American Psycho the reader quickly notices that this relationship provokes an identity crisis, or, better, the loss of identity. As the 1980s saw a new rise of consumer culture, with it came a new concept of individuality, which Slater calls “radical individualism”. It is not society that is most important anymore, but the individual itself and its family. It may be difficult to understand how a strong focus on the individual shall lead to the loss of identity. This becomes clearer when keeping in mind that this individualism is strongly defined through consumer culture. In order to be a certain kind of person, a certain individual, the subject needs to make a choice as to what image, what style they want to apply to themselves, to the product “self” everybody is working on. The items they choose are made for a large group of potential individuals, presuming “impersonal and generalizable relations of exchange ”. Stuart Ewen makes this clear when he points out that the purpose of advertising, crucial to the promotion of any product, is the formation of a “national homogeneity” and a “uniformity of ideas” Although Ewen is referring to the beginnings of consumer culture, or at least to the first half of the 20th century, the idea remains the same. Advertising, and the conception of goods, may have changed a lot since that time, but the concept of the homogenized consumer for a specific product persists. There are more products for more individual needs. Still individualism ceases being individual when everybody else around you pursues the same kind of individualism. Consumerism, Daniel Harris argues, successfully obscures the fact that in order to reach the delusional individuality the fashion model stands for in current advertising, we must perform “slavish acts of self-effacement and conformity”. At this point it makes sense to return once more to Ewen, who illustrates the point further. He quotes from an ad for beauty products, which suggests to the target group: “unless you are one woman in a thousand, you must use powder and rouge”. The implicit artificial individuality in this statement is obvious: If this ad is responded to as intended, using powder and rouge will have the exact opposite effect: It will turn the woman who uses it into one in a thousand (who are all using that same product) not protect her from that fate. The rules of consumerism, in other words, lead to the loss of individual identity.
 Aldridge, John W.: After the Lost Generation. A critical study of the writers of two wars. New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc.
 Annesley, James: Blank Fictions. Consumerism, Culture and the Contemporary American Novel. London, Pluto Press 1998,1
 Ibid., 2
 The novels written by Jay McInerney and Tama Janowitz include Bright Lights, Bright City, Brightness Falls and Story of my Life (McInerney) and Slaves of New York and A Cannibal in Manhattan (Janowitz)
 Annesley, 7
 Ibid., 3
 Ibid., 4
 Bret Easton Ellis, whom Annesley includes into his list of blank fiction writers, has for instance been dubbed a Generation X spokesperson (Petry, Mike. „Pulling down the Fun-House of Postmodernism: Forms and Functions of Violence in American ‚Brat Pack’ Fiction of the 1980s and 90s“. In The Aesthetics and Pragmatics of Violence. Proceedings of the Conference at Passau University, March 15-17, 2001. Passau: Verlag Karl Stutz, 2001) or the voice of Generation X (Brusseau, James. “Violence and Baudrillardian Repetition in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho”. In: Carroll, Micheal T and Tafoya, Eddie, ed. Phenomenological Approaches to Popular Culture. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 2000)
 McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Methuen, Inc., 1987, 4
 Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. London: Routledge,1989, 11
 Heide Ziegler suggests that postmodernism might be at its end (Ziegler, Heide, ed. The End of Postmodernism: New Directions. Proceedings of the First Stuttgart Seminar in Cultural Studies 04.08.-18.08.1991. Director: Heide Ziegler. Stuttgart: M&P Verlag für Wissenschaft und Forschung, 1993) and Raymond Federman argues that it, in fact, „started dying at the very moment it was born“(Federman, Raymond. “Before Postmodernism and After (Part One)”. In: Ziegler, Heide, ed. The End of Postmodernism: New Directions. Proceedings of the First Stuttgart Seminar in Cultural Studies 04.08.-18.08.1991. Director: Heide Ziegler. Stuttgart: M&P Verlag für Wissenschaft und Forschung, 1993, 54)
 Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988, 38
 Metafiction means a text that is conscious of and reflects upon its own textual nature, insofar as the writer incorporates other texts and offers to the reader the possibility to be himself part of the fictional process since the reader’s own experiences alter his reading of the text he is looking at.
 Petry, 157
 Jameson, Frederic. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”. in: Foster, Hal. Postmodern Culture. London: Pluto Press, 1985, 115
 Ibid., 114
 This again shows that it is problematic to want to define various different styles with just one term.
 Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991, 17
 Jameson, 1985, 112
 Jameson 1991, 16
 Simmons, Phillipp E. Deep Surfaces: Mass Culture and History in Postmodern American Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997, 19
 Young, Elizabeth. “The Beast in the Jungle, the Figure in the Carpet”. In: Young, Elizabeth and Caveney, Graham. Shopping in Space: Essays on America’s ‚Blank Generation‘ Fiction. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1992
 Grassian, Daniel. Hybrid Fictions. American Literature and Generation X. Jefferson, North Carolina: Mc Farland and Company, Inc., 2003
 Ibid., 2
 Ibid., 17
 Siegle, Robert. Suburban Ambush. Downtown Writing and the Fiction of Insurgency. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, 400
 Young, 12
 Annesley includes the terms „fiction of insurgency“ and „downtown writing“ in his list of possible names for the recent fiction of young contemporary writers
 Petry, 156
 Annesley, 137
 Ibid., 11
 Young, 2
 Petry, 159
 Featherstone, Mike. Undoing Culture. Globalization, Postmodernism and Identity. London: Sage Publications, 1995, 76
 Slater, Don: Consumer Culture and Modernity. Bodmin, Cornwall, Harnolls Ltd, 1997, 1
 The beginning of consumer culture can in fact be placed as early as the late 19th century as many critics argue. The early 20th century is merely a harvesting of what has been begun to bloom much earlier. Most mark the 1980s as the start of consumer culture, a decade in which the consumerist ideals of living first begin to surface. (Slater, 13; Fox, Richard Wrightman and Lears, Jackson T. J., eds.. The Culture of Consumption: Critical Essays in American History 1880-1980. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983, 103)
 Slater, 38
 Ibid., 1
 Ibid., 10
 Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1990, 338/39; Slater 63-66
 Grassian, 11
 Annesley, 2
 Ibid., 8
 Mandel as cited in Slater, 195
 Günzweig, Walter, ed. Constructing the Eighties. Versions of an American Decade. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1992, 14
 Beaudrillard, Jean. „Consumer Society“. In: Glickman, Lawrence B., ed. Consumer Society in American History: A Reader. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999, 33
 Annesley, 6
 Petry, 157
 Annesley, 7
 Petry, 158
 Ibid., 4
 Eberly, Rosa A.. Citizen Critics: Literary Public Spheres. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000
 Annesley, 2; Grassian, 14
 Siegle, 3
 Young asserts that American Psycho is a „classic of the 1980s, in a sense it is the 1980s“ (p. 88) in the sense that it so accurately – and of course, exaggeratedly - portrays the greed, consumerism, hedonism and aggression of the life of upper-class young successful Americans in that decade
 Annesely, 1
 Ibid., 2
 Grassian, 18
 Annesley, 4
 Ibid., 10
 Young, 101
 Ibid., 99
 Petry, 155
 Slater tells us that this is not exactly the case and that the consumerism of the 1920s, although at that time clearly visible for the first time, seems to be „merely the harvesting of a much longer revolution, commonly periodized as 1880-1930 (Slater, 13)
 Godden, Richard. Fictions of capital. The American novel from James to Mailer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, 105
 Ibid., 78
 Fox, 103
 Godden, 42
 Fox, 103
 Ewen, Stuart. Captains of Consciousness. Advertising and the Social Roots of the Consumer Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1976
 Slater, 12
 Ibid., 13
 Godden, 80
 Aldridge, John W.. After the Lost Generation. A critical study of the writers of two wars. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1951, 49
 Ellis, Bret Easton. American Psycho. London: Picador, 2000, 399
 Blazer,-Alex-E. “Chasms of Reality, Aberrations of Identity: Defining the Postmodern through Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho.” Americana :-The-Journal-of-American-Popular-Culture - 2002 Fall: 1(2): (no pagination)
 Grassian, 8
 Connections to the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald have been drawn by some scholars. Elizabeth Young states, for example, that episodes in which Bateman goes shopping remind her of Nicole Diver in Tender is the Night (111)and names Fitzgerald as a „forerunner“ (17) of the literary brat pack. Linda S. Kaufman sees American Psycho as a „debt“ to The Great Gatsby (Kauffman, Linda S. Film Quaterly, Winter 2000. http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1070/is_2_54/ai_71875706).
 Slater, 33f.
 Ibid., 10
 Ibid., 26
 Ewen, 41
 Harris, Daniel. Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic. The Aesthetics of Consumerism. Da Capo Press, 2001, 224
 ???? as cited in Ewen, 44
- Quote paper
- Anja Schiel (Author), 2005, “Abandon All Hope” - consumerism and loss of identity in Bret Easton Ellis’s "American Psycho" as an example of blank fiction, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/90034