Anonymity in the City: Crime, Spiritual Vacancy and the Loss of Selfhood in Less Than Zero and American Psycho


A business card that reads Patrick Bateman Vice President, flecked with blood

The American metropolis is the zenith of capitalist aspiration. As the centre of commerce, consumerism, and mass culture, the American city is where wealth is most broadly and brightly on display—albeit through a glass ceiling. The cost of existing on such elevated platforms is measured spiritually more so than financially: the price one pays is that of their own individuality, subsequently forfeiting all comprehension of their own selfhood. Here, luxury wreaks apathy and social disconnect, with what The Twentieth-Century American City: Problem, Promise and Reality author Jon C Teaford calls America’s “urban hubs [as] the chief characters in this drama of dreams and frustrations.”

Within this article, I shall be exploring how the construction of anonymity within a homogenising social class can catalyse acts of violence and criminality. Aiding my investigation are the Bret Easton Ellis novels Less Than Zero and American Psycho. Set in Los Angeles and New York City, respectively, both feature settings that serve as Teaford’s so-called “grand monuments to American wealth and enterprise, but [which] also reflected the social and economic fragmentation of the nation.” Within these metropolitan settings, Ellis situates characters that are incapable of understanding personal identity and possess an extraordinary deficit of empathy for those around them. 

Lost in the Material World: The Horror of Consumerism

A living room that's been abandoned, full of knick knacks

When commodities and consumers alike are immediately accessible, universally similar and ultimately unfulfilling, the correlation between consumption and homogeneity becomes absolute. The person becomes the product, consumed and traded with numbing indifference. In Shopping in Space: Essays on American “Blank Generation” Fiction, Elizabeth Young and Graham Caveney describe Ellis’ “bleak vision in depicting a society virtually anorexic in its extremes of emotional and spiritual starvation.” Through this, Ellis exhibits the compulsion felt by affluent individuals to satiate themselves with illicit thrills, often at the expense of others.

Ellis’s first novel, published when he was 21, Less Than Zero explores the vapid social circles inhabited by the likes of its 18-year-old protagonist, Clay, and his similarly privileged friends. The detrimental absence of parental guidance is a prevalent concern of the narrative: as early as page 10, Ellis demonstrates the dissolution of the nuclear family. Returning home after a four-month absence, Clay sees, 

“There’s a note on the kitchen table that tells me that my mother and sisters are out, Christmas shopping.”

Brett Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero

Through the detachment of Clay from his parents, Ellis immediately establishes the emotional distance maintained between other characters throughout the novel. We observe such an absence of the familial support base that the purchase of commodities is deemed an acceptable substitute. As Sonia Baelo-Allué asserts in Bret Easton Ellis’s Controversial Fiction: Writing Between High and Low Culture, “Lacking family support to shape their identity, the young people in the novel have to trust commodities to shape it.”

With trust wholly invested in material goods, there remains a bankruptcy of emotional substance as to render the society of Less Than Zero incapable of meaningful relationships. Ellis soon demonstrates this when, discussing a video game, Clay fails to differentiate his sisters or even assert their exact age: 

“Mom, do you think if I asked Dad he’d get me Galaga for Christmas?” the other one asks, brushing her short blond hair. I think she’s thirteen, maybe.

“What is a Galaga?” my mother asks.

“A video game,” one of them says.

“You have Atari though,” my mother says.

“Atari’s cheap,” she says, handing the brush to my other sister, who also has blond hair.

“I don’t know,” my mother says, adjusting her sunglasses, opening the sunroof. “I’m having dinner with him tonight.”

“That’s encouraging,” the older sister says sarcastically.

Brett Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero

With so much of their interaction conducted through the prism of material consumption, members of Clay’s family are themselves relegated to the status of commodities: my mother, my sisters. It is telling of how deeply the society of Ellis’s fiction is influenced by consumer culture that the only subjects awarded a proper noun in this exchange are the video games discussed, Galaga and Atari. No one else is identified by name. 

Ellis demonstrates that the homogenisation of individuals within an affluent social class is compounded when their values are placed empirically upon the worth of commodities. Human interactions are accordingly discounted as inconsequential: the father enters conversation only as a financial agent to satisfy the sisters’ desire for a video game. Within Less Than Zero, the parent is not a guide but an exploitable resource, leading to what Baelo-Allué describes as “the self defined by surfaces and commodities.” Clay’s family symbolise the bodies of American privilege within a metropolis, adhering to one uniform “personality constructed out of fragments” where what one buys essentially becomes who one is.  

Loss of Hope, Loss of Self

A closeup picture from inside a closet

Overwhelmingly, the interchangeability of Ellis’s characters is evidenced with the indistinguishable roster of names he offers them: Blair, Derf, Trent, Dead, Kim, Clay, Finn, Rip, Spin. Combined with their monosyllabic rhetoric, it is amusingly difficult to differentiate any one character in Less Than Zero. Of Ellis’s writing, Elizabeth Young perceives such a “disinclination to invest character with meaning [as] a reflection of a society overloaded with the endlessly circulating signs and signifiers of consumerism which are themselves devoid of meaning.”

This meaningless passivity is most recognisably embodied by the novel’s protagonist. Clay, like clay, is moulded by external influences and thus the pervading circumstances of his affluence render him both a product, and a consumer, of the society within which he exists. His identity is formed by homogeneity, “doomed to revolve forever without substance or hope of signification.”

Elsewhere in Less Than Zero, the correlation is more clearly identified between consumer goods and the erosion of individuality. Taking place within a restaurant, the short scene between Clay and his film-producer father appropriately unfolds like a tableau within a film. The brief chapters, which comprise the entirety of the novel, “work like soundbites or Polaroids,” situating the reader deeply within the image-saturated environment of Ellis’s narrative.

The emphasis on visual media is underlined by the role of Clay’s father. As a purveyor of homogenised visual media where content is secondary, or even superfluous, his monetised outlook extends to the fashion in which he presents his son as a commodity: 

“at lunch my father talks to a lot of businessmen, people he deals with in the film industry, who stop by our table [and] I’m introduced only as “my son” and the businessmen all begin to look the same and I begin to wish that I had brought the rest of the coke.”

Brett Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero

In being paraded as a possession – my son – Clay becomes a consumable good, like one of the father’s films. Moreover, Ellis’s heavy use of syndetic listing forces details to merge into one another, demonstrating the spiritless monotony of the social circles inhabited by Clay’s father. As Young puts it, “There are too many people, there are too many things and they have both become interchangeable.” As we see through Clay’s perspective that these men “all begin to look the same,” Ellis demonstrates that from the featurelessness of the father’s identity, so too shall the son inherit a diminished comprehension of his own identity. 

The Dangers of Dehumanization

A close-up of a fly on a window

The nuclear family as presented in Less Than Zero fails to nurture the concept of individuality within its offspring; nor does it foster any nourishing capacity for togetherness. Built around discussion of consumer goods or business, Clay’s interactions with his sisters and his father inspire irritation and listlessness. The dominant characteristic of the city, as illustrated by Ellis, is one of wholesale indifference. 

It is towards the end of the novel that the process of dehumanisation reaches its morbid conclusion. While in a club, a drug dealer named Rip – Rest in Peace, an ominous allusion to death made with every one of his frequent appearances – coerces Clay into seeing the body of a dead teenager in an alleyway. A small crowd soon gathers:

“Jesus, Ross, who is that guy?”
“I don’t know, Alicia.”

“Have you called the police?”

“What for?”

“Jesus,” Rip says.

Spin’s eyes are wide.

Trent just stands there and says something like “Wild.”

Rip jabs the boy in the stomach with his foot.”

Brett Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero

In this one excerpt, Ellis presents the apotheosis of urban apathy: loss of identity (Who is that?), indifference (What for?), and lack of empathy (Trent just stands there). Clay and his friends are so numbed of human feeling that they cannot articulate a response to the corpse of a boy close to their own age. Ellis demonstrates the incapacity of his characters to even exercise rhetorical distinction, the repeated exclamation of “Jesus” emphasising their homogeneity. Their experiences, and their means of expression, are universally borrowed and proliferated within a secluded social class. The corpse represents for Clay’s friends nothing more than a wide-eyed spectacle, something Wild, something of so little consequence as to be jabbed by one’s foot like an empty Coke can. Indeed the experience of seeing the dead body makes such a shallow impression upon Clay that, when asked about the events of his weekend, all he can say is, “I don’t remember. Nothing.”

Existential Horror Finds a Home within the American Metropolis

A building looms down against a cloudy sky

While the detached narrative voice Ellis employs throughout Less Than Zero “offer[s] no comment on the despicable events that take place,” (as suggested by Baelo-Allué) it otherwise affirms his authorial intent by illustrating contemporary American society as obsessed with the material. Ellis’s condemnation is not spelt out with the finger-wagging of a damning treatise but in the pseudo-journalistic prose of his satire. Ellis himself ponders “we’re a society that totally believes the surface, and we want to believe the surface, and we find truth in surfaces. And that is, I would hope that isn’t true, but I do think it is.”

Thus, in his depiction of the maddening inactivity purchased by affluence, Young ascertains Ellis “had no hope of inspiring his audience,” because his characters “by very dint of their lack of individuality in a homogenized society…are doomed because personality has itself become a commodity.” Thus the city becomes an accomplice in the erasure of personal identity, a metaphor extended throughout Less Than Zero via the spectral presence of a billboard emblazoned with the words “Disappear Here”. Indeed, Ellis closes the novel with a haunting indictment of Los Angeles. As Clay returns to the East, 

“The images I had were of people being driven mad by living in the city. Images of parents who were so hungry and unfulfilled that they ate their own children.”

Brett Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero

Ellis succinctly captures the crisis of existence within the American metropolis. Though his characters have inexhaustible material resources at their disposal, the apathy created by this drives them mad. The city is defined by the insatiable famine it breeds within its inhabitants, where the only means of satiation is cannibalism; according to Young, they are “driven to extremes in their efforts to experience something. To feel.”

These promises of murder and psychosis in the city are brutally fulfilled in Ellis’s third novel, American Psycho. For Young, Ellis’s exploration of the serial killer narrative was inevitable, having already expressed his “belief that only the most extreme and disruptive images…can penetrate the bland vacuity of his generation.” Both Clay and American Psycho’s protagonist, Patrick Bateman, just eight years older, share many similarities: affluence; consumption of hard drugs and visual media; exclusive association with others of their own social class. But where Clay practices a passive detachment to the reprehensible acts of his friends, Bateman is a far more active perpetrator of violence and murder.

Patrick Bateman and the Self-Oriented Horror Narrative

The corner of a building against a cloudy sky

Hinted at in Less Than Zero, the overbearing influence of cinema is viscerally emphasised in American Psycho. Appropriately, I refer here to Mary Harron’s 2000 adaptation, which strongly correlates Bateman’s homicidal behaviour to that of Leatherface, the antagonist of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre series. Both men are characterised by their murderous alter-ego, and as such, from the outset of Harron’s film, there is heavy emphasis placed upon masks and the erasure of identity. Bateman’s lack of self-understanding precipitates his lurid fantasies, for that which he consumes – horror cinema – is what he produces: his own horror narrative. 

We find this incomprehension of personhood in the first act of American Psycho, as Bateman provides a disembodied narration while applying a cleansing facial mask. Staring at himself in the mirror, we are told, “There is an idea of Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction; but there is no real me…” Bateman slowly removes the facial mask as his narration concludes, “I simply am not there.” The camera holds Bateman’s vacant expression for a few moments, demonstrating no apparent understanding of what he is looking at. 

The suggestion here of Bateman’s interior vacancy is affirmed by the linguistic choices of his narration: “an idea,” “some kind of abstraction,” “no real me.” The vagueness of these nouns underlines a failure to register any concrete aspects of his own identity. Thus Bateman is a character defined unilaterally by the exterior, whose methodical skin-cleansing regime is ostensibly to maintain his good looks, but also key to his own psychological myopia. Bateman has only the most near-sighted perspective of who he is.

It is this chasm within Bateman’s personhood that is both filled and widened by his consumption of visual media. As Barry Keith Grant says in “American Psycho/sis: The Pure Products of American Go Crazy”, “Bateman is nothing more than a complete product of popular culture, his imagination both limited and shaped by it.” This assessment is realised in another scene of Harron’s adaptation, which depicts Bateman rigorously exercising with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre playing in the background. The images of a female character soaked in blood and screaming wildly, as Leatherface swings a chainsaw over his head, synchronize with the manic intensity of Bateman’s stomach crunches and skipping. 

Bateman is not only desensitised to violence but fetishises it, the screams of the terrorised woman acting as an endorphin while he exercises. Moreover, the whipping motion of Bateman’s skipping rope is similar to the crazed swinging of Leatherface’s chainsaw, representing Bateman’s metamorphosis into the figure of horror cinema.

Elsewhere within Ellis’s novel, the application of filmic language is especially intrusive, exposing the artificiality of the narrative in which we are otherwise striving to engage. Scenes are separated with “a slow dissolve” and images “fade…in what seems like time-lapse photography—but in slow motion, like a movie,” in such a way that Bateman’s interactions within the real world become indistinguishable from the visual media he consumes.

This metafictional usage of filmic language shatters all pretence of upholding a believable fiction. By intentionally intruding upon the narrative with jarring stage direction, Ellis constantly undermines Bateman’s reliability as narrator. Young assesses this device as “a refusal to mirror ‘reality’ and a constant examination of the ways in which fiction is ordered, ever aware of its own status as discourse and construct.” Thus both novel and adaptation operate through an awareness of the falsity of literary and cinematic forms, taking liberties to expose Bateman as an unreliable narrator. 

With Bateman’s consciousness heavily affected by the fabrications of visual media, it is unsurprising to find that his life represents a film wherein he acts as star and director. Grant elaborates upon this point: 

“[since] everyone else in American Psycho is, like Bateman himself, an image, then to commit violence is simply to enter the image flow that marks contemporary consciousness and to cast oneself as a star in a world with others who are assigned supporting roles as victims.”

Barry Keith Grant says in “American Psycho/sis: The Pure Products of American Go Crazy”

Restricted by the first-person perspective, it is through Bateman’s cinemascope that we perceive the dominant role he performs aside other characters. This is exemplified in a scene in Harron’s film where Bateman picks up a sex worker and essentially casts her, informing the anonymous woman that she will answer only to “Christie.” At this point Bateman is himself masquerading as Paul Allen, a colleague he has (questionably) murdered with an axe. Thus, situated in someone else’s apartment, the film now has its own bespoke “set.”

Bateman’s grasp of reality hereafter becomes violently demented. In the middle of attacking another woman he has invited into the apartment, “Christie” escapes into the corridor, pursued by Bateman wielding a chainsaw. By aping Leatherface like this, Bateman has wholly entered the “image flow” of horror cinema, a transition affirmed by the presence of the chainsaw. Its incongruous presence within a penthouse apartment demonstrates how actively Bateman has, like a production designer, modified his surroundings. 

The scene culminates as Bateman dropping the chainsaw down five flights of stairs while “Christie” tries to escape: the chainsaw punctures her body with perfect accuracy. This feat of aim and timing is simply unbelievable—and Harron asserts this with the use of a snap-cut from Christie’s bleeding corpse to an illustration of her skewered body, sketched by Bateman on a table cloth. We are now in a restaurant, inside Bateman’s imagination, and everything that has just taken place has been a fabrication. It has literally been designed on the fabric of a tablecloth. 

Loss of Self: Violence in Anonymity

The front steps leading to a gated entrance

The void of Bateman’s own personhood provides a purely blank canvas, upon which the stimulus of film can exercise enormous influence. His incomprehension of personality allows for the chrysalis of this “idea of a Patrick Bateman” to materialise so radically, in the form of the cinematic serial killers he idolises.  

Within the novel, meanwhile, we find that Bateman’s failure to identify himself in a mirror extends to those around him, for he cannot divorce the material from the individual. There are innumerable instances throughout American Psycho where a character is introduced, and defined, by their wardrobe. Ellis robs us of the opportunity to identify a person when they are catalogued like fashion magazines:

“one is wearing a chemise dress in double-faded wool by Calvin Klein, another is wearing a wool knit dress and jacket with silk faille bonding by Geoffrey Beene, another is wearing a symmetrical skirt of pleated tulle and an embroidered velvet bustier by…”

Brett Easton Ellis, American Psycho

And so on. As in Less Than Zero, Ellis exhausts the reader with saturation of detail, but uniquely in this case offers insight into the psyche of a serial killer. Ellis presents identity as defined by commodity: the maddening excess which afflicted the adolescent Clay has, in the adulthood of Patrick Bateman, manifested itself in psychopathy. Baello-Allué upholds this “may have been done on purpose to increase the horror and intensity of a mind that cannot distinguish human beings from consumer objects.”

This is demonstrated most viscerally in Bateman’s fulfilment of the promises of cannibalism established at the end of Less Than Zero. While torturing another nameless girl, Bateman “imagine[s] that my virtual absence of humanity fills her with mind-bending horror.” He then makes her watch

“the last girl I filmed. I’m wearing a Joseph Abboud suit, a tie by Paul Stuart, shoes by J. Crew, a vest by someone Italian and I’m kneeling on the floor beside a corpse, eating the girl’s brain, gobbling it down, spreading Grey Poupon over hunks of the pink, fleshy meat.”

Brett Easton Ellis, American Psycho

The identities of the women here are subsumed by the proper nouns afforded exclusively to material goods. Prevented by his “absence of humanity” from distinguishing his wardrobe from the women he devours, Bateman’s victims are totally anonymised. His own lack of interiority produces this despicable lack of empathy; according to modernist scholar Julian Murphet, “[a]nything and everything in Patrick’s own life is actually a token of the ‘chasm’ in his being. The products themselves, with their certain properties and price-tags, retain some relative integrity.” As he had done with Clay, Ellis illustrates here a personality informed not by relationships but purchases. 

Moreover, Ellis plays here with a frightening metaphor for consumer culture. Insofar as Bateman is himself a victim of capitalism, “someone who is composed entirely of inauthentic commodity-related desires” (Young), so too are the victims he literally consumes. Just as Clay’s friends do not register a dead boy as any more than a fascinating oddity, neither can Bateman recognise his victim as a human being in any substantial way. As capitalist and cannibal, Patrick Bateman assumes what Young calls the “role of ultimate consumer.”

***

From the foundations of identity-erasure established in Less Than Zero—where emotional nourishment is substituted with material goods—to the void of selfhood expounded in American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis demonstrates how the excesses of wealthy urban environments can foster apathy and catalyze acts of violence.  

When families operate through the prism of consumerism and personality is defined by the clothing one wears, the greatest societal casualty within the city is that of empathy. In considering the crisis of existence in the American metropolis, one can do no better than adopt Ellis’s own outlook: “Individuality no longer an issue… Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in.”

An empty cityscape and river walk

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Categories: Media AnalysisTags: , , , , , , ,

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