A world where only money matters : comparative analysis of Ellis’ American Psycho and Amis’ Money
A core tenet of any consumerist society is that there must be choice. We live in a world spoilt by choice: our supermarkets contain aisles of options just for cereal, picking a career involves a careful analysis of the millions of doors open to us, and the breakdown of rigid gender and religious norms has opened a new frontier in the choice of individual identity and expression. So too is the case in the analysis of the hyper-consumerist societies in which we now live. Many of the most notable works of literature of the twentieth century, from Lady Chatterley’s Lover to The Great Gatsby, examine Modernity and consumerism closely. What does this mean for individuals? Is balance ever possible? Indeed, as the twentieth century unrolled and mass production, advertising, and the firm grip of money came to have an ever-increasing role in our lives, it seems impossible for any work of literature not to touch on this issue.
What has money, a symbol of the hyper-consumerism and materialism done to us? Two works in particular shed light on this issue: Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, and Martin Amis’ Money. I read American Psycho first, piqued by raw tone and curious to find out what lay behind the mind of serial killer Patrick Bateman.
Bateman is a psychopath. He cares about one thing and one thing only: money, and the status it confers. American Psycho is the embodiment of a psychopathic thriller — Bateman displays every trope and characteristic you’d expect from a psychopath. He kills a child, rapes girls, despises everyone but himself yet depends on them for he can only feel good in the knowledge that he dominates. Money gives him the tools to do this. Yet like all psychopaths: there is far more to this book than meets the eye. Ellis’ work goes deeper than being a pure thriller. It is an examination and reflection of the society in which we live: we all have elements of Pat Bateman within us. That Bateman was meant as a caricature but is now idolised by the yuppies of New York, London, and Paris attests very strongly to this fact: this world of hyper-consumption surrounds us all.
Unlike Patrick Bateman, who is good looking, wears slick suits, and has a degree from Harvard, John Self is despicable.
He’s ‘five foot ten and sixteen stone.’ Early in the novel, in a self-deprecating tone, Self says that ‘I’m so fat these days. I tell you, I appal myself in the tub and on the can.’ He has no illusions: for him life is a joke, and he is the butt of it. Yet just like Patrick Bateman, he continues to wallow in ‘booze, alcohol, and pornography.’ In their actions, they are the same. Bateman kills out of self-hatred. Self attempts to rape his girlfriend Selina Street when she refuses to give into money and denies him sex. At their core, whilst Bateman’s good looks might make him seem charming, his inner instincts are the exact same as Self’s. They are both driven by self-pity and an intense desire to be liked — something both believe money can resolve. Yet confidence comes from within, it is something that no amount of money can offer. It may well be that Patrick Bateman, twenty-six years old, will turn out exactly the same as Self a decade later. In the epilogue, Self says that in his twenties, his ‘rug was frizzy but strong and electrical. My gut was flat, my teeth were white. I was better then. But they told me I was everything, and they were lying, those old fucks.’ Yet his physical condition is the inevitable result of a lifestyle of excess. The swollen tooth that is dead but lives on in his mouth until the end of the novel is a metaphor for the life he leads, just as I noted in my analysis of American Psycho that beneath the good looks, Bateman is an empty shell. Money can give us appearances and power, Self could get the plastic surgery he desires in LA and Bateman could buy all the suits he likes, but beneath that their excessive focus on the material at all costs leaves them lost.
Bateman and Self share many similarities, but there are also key differences. Whilst both set in New York City (and London, in the case of Money), Money was a far more thrilling read than American Psycho. American Psycho started off as an exciting, outrageous novel, but Bateman’s life of drinks, work, clubs, and expensive restaurants quickly became repetitive and mundane. It got to the point where the violence was the only interesting bit as the reader waited to see the true extent of Bateman’s depravity. This is possibly a literary technique: through contrasting Bateman’s elite yet very mundane everyday life with unimaginable acts of violence, it shows the way in which we’ve become so desensitised to the extent of the hyper-consumerist world in which we live. In a world of constant advertising, pornography, and fast food, only the most extreme brings satisfaction.
As for John Self, this analysis works well in explaining his lifestyle too. He constantly strives for more, downing glasses of alcohol to the point where he is blinded as to what is actually happening (something revealed clearly at the end), and always looking for the next big thing. Self himself made his money in advertising, creating pornographic television ads for fast food and other consumer staples. Yet the difference is that John Self realises the extent and destruction his habits are causing. He realises it and at one point shows signs of redemption: when Self fights the mugger to protect his lover Martina (who seems outside of the grip of money yet comes from a monied class and so is never truly outside its grip), he is rejecting the grip of money and fights back, beating down the boy. His entire romance with Martina is a sign of change, of maturity as she gives him books and pushes him to think. Though in the end, Self cannot escape the consequences of his love for money and it all comes crashing down on him when he returns to his old, all-to-predictable habits. He was the instigator and the victim of his own sad descent.
I found Money to be a far more interesting read than American Psycho. The novel started slow and the language took some time to adapt to. But it quickly gathered pace as the reader, addressed directly by Self in Money, which is a novel in the form of a suicide note, learnt more and more about the inner functioning of John Self. The book was full of surprises, including the self-insertion of Martin Amis as a character which John Self despises at first but quickly warms to. I quickly became engrossed in this curious world. This perhaps serves as a useful tool to distance Amis from Self, something which was absent in American Psycho and has led some to criticise Ellis as misogynistic and inciting violence against women. I do not think this is the case: American Psycho is meant as a satire, not something to aspire to.
What can we learn from reading Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho and Martin Amis’ Money? For me, it is the need for balance. The pursuit of money at all costs leads to a feeling of emptiness, the same feeling of emptiness that leads Bateman to kill and Self to try and take his own life, downing one-hundred tranquilizers in one go. American Psycho reframed Corporate America from being a source of goodness to a sick joke. Corporations are vitally important, but consumerism risks becoming just another form of faith. Money, on the other hand, did an excellent job of showing the effects of a life without restraint. Everything becomes blurred, and it becomes impossible to focus. In both, it is clear that Bateman and Self attempt to fill a hole of nihilism and lack of meaning with money. This can never work: to live the good life, we must rethink our priorities and place living over fear.