July 20, 2015

How is American Psycho still causing problems?


american-psychoThe cultural legacy of American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel about homicidal yuppie Patrick Bateman, is a checkered one, and it’s still going. Though arguably given a second cultural wind in 1999 after Christian Bale turned in an iconic performance as Bateman in the film adaptation, the nearly 25-year-old novel has ruffled feathers since publication for its explicit depictions of sex and violence.

Australian feathers are the latest to be ruffled, as the Daily Mail reports.

An Adelaide bookshop has received an unexpected visit from police for selling copies of Bret Easton Ellis’ cult classic American Psycho that are not wrapped in plastic.

Under national censorship legislation, the R18 psychological thriller should only be sold in plastic wrapping and sold exclusively to those aged over 18.

According to co-owner of Imprints Booksellers, Jason Lake, a representative of a Christian group contacted the bookstore with concerns after reading a news column that said the book could not be sold without being wrapped in plastic. He believes the same individual contacted police.

Let’s put aside, for a moment at least, how unintentionally hilarious it is that Australian editions of American Psycho are required by law to be wrapped in plastic. Let’s also put aside how totally uncool it is to narc on your local bookstore for selling books. Instead, let’s focus on finding fault.

Mr Lake said he had no idea that the book had to be covered in plastic because that’s how the store had started to receive it from the publishers.

‘It used to be sold in plastic but new copies have not been sent to us that way, so we thought the classification had been lifted because that’s how it was sent to us,’ he said.

While news reports have classified this as a “raid”, conjuring issues of jackboots carrying rifles or whatever, Lake describes it as more of a polite request by police to remove the unwrapped book from shelves, which he did, while throwing some Australian shade in the process.

Mr Lake said that removing the novel from their shelves was not disappointing because he usually deterred customers from reading it anyway.

‘I have often stopped people from buying American Psycho anyway because it’s so terribly written, so I had no problem in removing it but it will probably be back on the shelves once it’s wrapped in plastic,’ Mr Lake said.

What a sick burn! If Ellis accepted literally any criticism, that might hurt him, but he doesn’t. He’s also well aware of the Australian law; in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, he called it “cute”.

”I love it, love it, love it,” he says. ”I told my publisher I want all my books restricted and put in little bags. It’s like a little sandwich!”

It’s been a long while since the heyday of the so-called “literary Brat Pack”, consisting of Ellis, Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz, plus (depending on who you ask) Donna Tartt, but American Psycho has managed to hang on to cultural relevance and attention. On one hand, controversy begets itself; parents and other self-appointed arbiters of cultural protection are still arguing about Holden Caulfield, after all. And Ellis thrives on this; when Gloria Steinem, who criticized the book for its depictions of sexual violence against women, ended up becoming Christian Bale’s stepmother, Ellis was quick to write about this in his fictionalized memoir Lunar Park.

But while popular culture can shift over 25 years so that previously controversial material becomes palatable, it’s not quite long enough for a novel depicting multiple rapes, murders, necrophilia, and cannibalism, no matter how satirical the author’s intent, to become tame.

However, it is long enough for the book to receive the Broadway treatment. After an acclaimed London run, the Duncan Sheik-penned musical adaptation is set to open in New York this year. Which puts American Psycho in the same company as American Idiot, in terms of widespread cultural acceptance and dated artifacts of a particular era (the Bush years for Idiot and the Reagan years for Psycho). And while this hints at current interest in American Psycho‘s outsized and often very funny skewering of American capitalism, it also points out Australia is saddled with a somewhat outdated law; the shrinkwrap and age restriction was put in place before the Internet made it much easier for anyone under 18 to access content as much if not more explicit than Ellis’ coke-fueled murder prose.

Jordan Debor put the law in a national context in a piece he wrote for PEN America:

As its criminal past has shown, Australia is no stranger to violence and has seen its fair share of deadly gun massacres, which may have come into consideration when judging the content of Ellis’s work. While Patrick Bateman uses various instruments in the implementation of violence, there are several scenes of reckless shooting sprees, and he is assumed to be carrying a gun at all times. The 1991 Strathfield massacre in Sydney, Australia saw Wade Frankum stab and shoot fourteen people, eight of whom died. Police later found a collection of violent films and literature in his apartment, among which was a well-worn copy of American Psycho. Five years later, the Port Arthur massacre bore witness to Martin Bryant (later termed the “Australian Psycho”), who killed thirty-five people and wounded twenty-one others, resulting in a government–issued gun buyback that successfully collected 600,000 firearms. Port Arthur was the last massacre the country has seen since.

That Americans are culturally resigned to violence in ways Australians aren’t is a compelling hypothesis, but the question remains why the publisher began shipping copies without the shrinkwrap. I’d hazard that it could simply be an oversight; book fulfillment typically applies shrinkwrap via a special packaging process, which requires a work order and extra lead time, all of which costs money and requires close attention.

If a few cases of American Psycho got shipped without the wrapping, it doesn’t necessarily imply intentionality on the part of the publisher, but it does raise the question as to how many copies have already been sold without plastic, without any nosy Christian groups in the vicinity, and without any subsequent corruption of childhood innocence.

Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.