American Psycho is a terrible novel. Written by Bret Easton Ellis, published in 1990, it is terrible in true sense of the word that it makes one afraid about the cruelty of man and of the consequences of immense wealth. It tells of Patrick Bateman, a 26-year-old Harvard graduate, living in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, flushed with funds, who disembowels women, children and the homeless, one eyeball or one finger at a time, in a bid to fulfil his empty soul. The violence in the book is so extreme and bloodcurdling (Bateman sets a ravenous rat upon the vagina of an escort, uses a power drill on her teeth, and a mace to her face) that the original publisher Simon & Schuster decided not to publish the novel, after a few pages were leaked to the New York Times just before publication. American Pscyho would find a home with Vintage Books, which possibly assumed that any publicity is good publicity. While the Times decreed ‘Snuff this book’ in their review, American Psycho did create its own legion of fans.
The most articulate of those was, perhaps, Scottish author Irvine Welsh, best known for his cult novel Trainspotting. In 2015, he wrote a defence of American Psycho in The Guardian calling it a ‘modern classic,’ for ‘focusing on the ennui of morally bankrupt extreme privilege’. Hailing the novel for its dark humour and irony, he asserts, ‘The running metaphor is one of a culture succumbing to a materialist consumerism that destroys society by eradicating its human values in favour of an obsession with image.’
American Psycho successfully creates our materialist society by using brand names and personal fitness and beauty regimens as brick and mortar to build the plot. Sample this description of Bateman’s morning routine: ‘After I change into Ralph Lauren monogrammed boxer shorts and a Fair Isle sweater and slide into silk polka-dot Enrico Hidolin slippers, I tie a plastic ice pack around my face and commence with the morning’s stretching exercises…Then I squeeze Rembrandt onto a faux-tortoiseshell toothbrush…The shower has a universal all-directional shower head that adjusts within a thirty-inch vertical range. It’s made from Australian gold-black brass and covered with a white enamel finish.’
Page after page is devoted to Bateman’s and his friends’ clothes and apartments. This accretion of consumerist markers and signifiers of wealth does sink the reader into a world of both excess and ennui. But the reader is yanked out of this stupor with the equally detailed descriptions of sadistic torture and murder. This interplay of extreme consumerism with extreme violence disorients the reader, but also hints at the moral bankruptcy of the wealthy. To Welsh, the violent scenes ‘function solely in order to show the barbaric legacy of the consumerist/imperialist world we live in.’
As a reader, I found the violent scenes off-putting, but American Psycho does warn against our consumerist obsessions, by demonising the protagonist. Here is a serial killer who is not an outcast rejected by society, lurking by the stoops; instead, here is a man of privilege who can access New York’s most exclusive merchandise and coveted spaces. In American Psycho, wealth does not inure Bateman against
barbarianism, instead it makes him a monster.
While American Psycho is a novel of extremes, fiction is seldom generous to the wealthy. This disregard, often even caricaturising, of the rich, can be disingenuous as books are mostly written by the educated well off. But of all the kinds and types of people in the world, the most affluent are afforded little empathy in our books, as they are never seen as one of us. This suspicion can perhaps be traced to the evolution of the novel itself.
Of all the kinds and types of people in the world, the most affluent are afforded little empathy in our novels, as they are never seen as one of us. This suspicion can perhaps be traced to the evolution of the novel itself
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While Don Quixote (1605-15) is said to be the earliest novel, the form gained currency with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722). In the early 18th century, wealth was inherited and not created. As Shannon Chamberlain writes in The Atlantic in an article titled The Economics of Jane Austen, ‘When Jane Austen was born in 1775, the Industrial Revolution was in the first blush of youth and the pursuit of commercial self-interest—at least partially normalised now—was still regarded with the suspicious eye of centuries’ worth of Christian paeans to poverty and aristocratic snobbery about trade, finance, and any form of non-inherited wealth.’
The religious emphasis on a life of deprivation and sacrifice ensured that society looked askance at the rich. But the attitude to the pursuit of wealth was complex, because on one hand buying, selling and production spurred the Industrial Revolution, while on the other, wealth was perceived to cause moral decay.
Austen’s novels are detailed studies of the ‘microeconomics of the three or four families in a country village,’ where marriage is the only means of wealth creation for the heroine. For Austen’s heroes, writes Thomas Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013), ‘The question of work did not arise; all that mattered was the size of one’s fortune, whether acquired through inheritance or marriage.’ And while Austen (and the reader) supports the heroine in her pursuit for an eligible groom (ie ‘a single man in possession of a good fortune’), the heroine must not be perceived as graspy or greedy.
Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth Bennet’s friend in Pride and Prejudice (1813) will marry Mr Collins for security and money, much to Elizabeth’s disappointment, as Elizabeth believes in love. When Charlotte announces her engagement to a horrified Elizabeth, she adds, ‘I am not a romantic, you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr Collins’s character, connection, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.’ Elizabeth cannot reconcile herself to so ‘unsuitable a match,’ and the fact that her dear friend ‘would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage.’
In American Psycho, the accretion of consumerist markers sinks the reader into a world of excess and ennui. But the reader is yanked out of this stupor with the equally detailed descriptions of sadistic torture. This interplay of extreme consumerism with extreme violence hints at the moral bankruptcy of the wealthy
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Even while Austen’s plots revolve around brides finding eligible grooms, the heroines cannot be seen as choosing material comforts over tugs of the heart. Worldly advantage is frowned upon, just as rampant consumerism is.
Even a hundred years later, we see how this moral attitude towards wealth remains unchanged. In The Great Gatsby (1925), American author F Scott Fitzgerald creates the world of Jay Gatsby in Long Island, where ‘a conflict of spirituality [is] caught fast in the web of our commercial life’ (Edwin Clark in a review of the novel in New York Times, April 1925).
The story of Jay Gatsby is told by his neighbour Nick Carraway. He details the comings and goings at Gatsby’s villa in vivid detail; ‘At least once a fortnight a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough coloured lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby’s enormous garden. On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors d’oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold. In the main hall, a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another.’
Unlike American Psycho, The Great Gatsby does not fetishise brand names and products. But like American Psycho, it is also a study of wealth and the wealthy. Fitzgerald has been celebrated as ‘the philosopher of the flapper,’ and in this novel he shows not the dangers of wealth but the hollowness of it. Readers will feel sorry for Jay Gatsby, a man of fortune, who has a hundred acquaintances, but no friends. He can have any woman, but not the one he loves. As the NYT review notes, this is a novel about the ‘decay of souls’ where Fitzgerald ‘discloses in these people a meanness of spirit, carelessness and absence of loyalties. He cannot hate them, for they are dumb in their insensate selfishness, and only to be pitied.’
An understanding of the perils and perks of wealth comes out wonderfully well in the Kannada novel Ghachar Ghochar (2015) by Vivek Shanbhag (translated into English by Srinath Perur). This novella maps how sudden prosperity can give a family a bigger house, and more furniture, but it might unravel ties. The family of four and an uncle is accustomed to a life of limited means, as they all survive on the father’s salesman income. The narrator says, ‘As long as the family ran on Appa’s income his finances were known to us all. If we wanted new clothes, we knew exactly how much he could spare and what cuts would have to be made elsewhere. The result was that we simply did not desire what we couldn’t afford. When you have no choice, you have no discontent either.’
Their fortunes explode with the prosperity of Sona Masala, a business run by their uncle. They get to move out of their old train-like house and into a new neighbourhood, and a larger house. The narrator notes how previously expenditure was a joint venture, as spending money meant taking away from the family coffers. Buying something meant not buying something else. With prosperity, objects fill their house, and their relationship with these items becomes more casual, even careless. If their relationship with inanimate objects changes, so does their relationship with each other. Previously, denied the luxury of independent rooms, they were forced to spend time in proximity. Now ‘locked in the cells of individual rooms’, their late-night exchanges vanish, and intimacies vaporise.
The narrator says, ‘It’s true what they say—it’s not we who control money, it’s the money that controls us. When there’s only little, it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us.’
The quality that severs the wealthy from the rest is that of leisure. In most novels centred on the rich, the rich are already wealthy, how they came by this wealth is of little significance. In The Great Gatsby, readers know that Jay Gatsby is loaded, and can get things done. It is hinted that he has connections with the underworld, but that is never elaborated upon. In American Psycho, Bateman tells women that he works at Wall Street, but enamoured by his apartment and appearance, they are not interested in his job profile. What Gatsby and Bateman have in plenty, and in common is—time on their hands. Similarly, the narrator in Ghachar Ghochar realises his uncle has made him ‘director’ Sona Masala in title rather than responsibility. A monthly deposit lands in his bank account, and he asks, ‘Who will work when they get paid for doing nothing?’
The quality that severs the wealthy from the rest is leisure. In most novels centred on the rich, the rich are already wealthy, how they came by this wealth is of little significance. What Jay Gatsby (in The Great Gatsby), Patrick Bateman (American Psycho) and the narrator in Ghachar Ghochar have in common is time on their hands
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The doing nothing of the wealthy, the endless hours of leisure, plays out most vividly at Blandings Castle in the novels of PG Wodehouse (1881-1975). In Life at Blandings, he writes of how most of the guests in the house spend their time perambulating and gossiping and bitching about one another. When the spirit and will allow, they engage in recreations, such as billiards or clock-golf. The country house does not have the buzz and brio of Gatsby’s soirees, instead it has all the liveliness of a British tea party. Wodehouse writes, ‘…It was the general opinion of the guests gathered together at Blandings Castle that the place was dull. The house-party had that air of torpor which one sees in the saloon passengers of an Atlantic liner, that appearance of resignation to an enforced idleness and a monotony only to be broken by meals.’ Decades after Wodehouse had written about the perils of leisure time, the narrator of Ghachar Ghochar similarly finds himself a victim of enforced idleness.
The ways and foibles of the English upper classes, of Blandings Castle, if you will, have also wound their way into today’s India. Mahesh Rao’s Polite Society (2018), loosely based on Austen’s Emma and set in Delhi, shows how the capital’s old rich have learned many of their codes, and some of their snobbery from the English aristocrats. Wealth is nothing, if not relative, and the one trait that Delhi’s old rich clutch onto is their ‘superiority’ over the new rich. Rao writes, ‘The older rich had ways of perturbing the newer rich. A direct snub would be too foolhardy, given the unpredictable places where political influence now arose. So they shut them out with ambiguity, glances shot across the table, a stifled smile, all the signs of a beautifully preserved way of life.’
Examining a few landmark novels that deal with wealth, we see how the rich are always seen as the other, as only they can afford the luxury of complete leisure. We pry into their homes, but know little of their interior lives. They have lives of plenty, which end up pyrrhic. But the othering of the rich also shows how in many ways our novels continue to be judgemental, suspicious even, about plenitude. As Albert Camus said, “It is a kind of spiritual snobbery that makes people think they can be happy without money.”