Discussed in this essay:
Scream: A Memoir of Glamour and Dysfunction, by Tama Janowitz. Dey Street. 304 pages. $25.99.
Bright, Precious Days, by Jay McInerney. Knopf. 416 pages. $28.95.
American Psycho The Musical, book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, music by Duncan Sheik. Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
“I paid the bills, bought his ribbons,” we read in a story by Tama Janowitz written in 1979. The narrator is a New York City prostitute, the man in question her pimp, so there is nothing out of line about the financial arrangement. It takes a small act of the historical imagination, though, for today’s reader to understand that the ribbons are not for his hair but for his typewriter.
You’ll have heard of such things, or seen them in old movies. You didn’t have to keep saving your work, but you did have to hit the machine to get it to move down a line. Glanced at now, the instrument becomes a picture of an old world, a marker of lost time. Jay McInerney’s new novel, Bright, Precious Days, fondly remembers “a big beige IBM Selectric,” described as “the ultimate writing machine.” But that was then, when his characters had just graduated from Brown, in the early Eighties. A lot of ultimate machines would follow, and many ways in which the machines could talk to one another. Bret Easton Ellis’s most recent novel, Imperial Bedrooms (2010), involves internet videos and text-message stalking in significant roles.
These thoughts come to mind because the writers are themselves currently taking journeys into the past, or being taken on such journeys. Janowitz is publishing a memoir, Scream; McInerney’s new work is full of anxious or sentimental returns to the New York culture of the 1980s; and Ellis’s novel American Psycho (1991), having survived an excellent movie adaptation (2000), has become a musical. These core members of the so-called Brat Pack — a name derived immediately from that given to a cluster of Eighties film actors, and more remotely from the Sinatra–Martin–Davis Rat Pack — all published highly acclaimed works of fiction when they were in their twenties. They portrayed New York as modish, coolly presenting violence, obscenity, and delight in drugs as facts of life that no one else had caught up with. All three are haunting their own beginnings as writers, and the question is not so much where are they now as what were they then? Or perhaps, how do the old days look from the perspective of the new?
A little foggy, is the short answer. This is partly because so many things have happened since, apart from the technological wonders. We can’t look back beyond them, or imagine a world without them: 9/11, the crash of 2008, the election of Barack Obama, the rise of global terrorism. In the 1980s, many people seem to have thought that they were smart and worldly and living dangerous lives; Patrick Bateman, the man who boasted of his prowess as both an investment banker and a serial killer, said as much in American Psycho: “This is no time for the innocent.” Now it looks as if it might have been a time for them more than it was for anyone else, as if there were something safe and charming about the very risks people were taking. This can’t be quite right, since everyone knew about AIDS, and there were many deaths from drug overdoses and drunk driving. But it is one of the effects that the early Brat Pack books create.
A longer answer dissipates some but not all of the fog. One of Janowitz’s best stylistic tricks is the sped-up hyperbole, where “lots of men,” for example, become “all the men.” In the story “The Slaves in New York,” a woman is thinking of moving to the city. Her plan is to live with a man she doesn’t like and then change her partner when she gets a chance. Her friend, the narrator, the expert on New York City living, discourages her firmly. There will be no such chance. “In today’s world, it’s the slave system.” A woman can’t afford to move out, because she can’t afford to live on her own. The friend is still uncertain. “Are you sure there’re no available men in New York?” “There’re women,” the narrator says. “There’re hundreds of women. They are out on the prowl. And all the men are gay or are in the slave class themselves.” The analogy is outrageous by any standards, quite apart from the drastic simplification. But it is part of the comedy, and the comedy is part of the mangled truth — about women’s submission, men’s entitlement, high rents, and writers’ whining. In another story the same narrator says that her partner is “authoritative and permissive all at the same time. In other words, I can do whatever I want, as long as it’s something he approves of.”
This is how Janowitz’s strongest writing works, in her new memoir as well as in her older fiction. It’s not a matter of confusing fact with invention, but of stylization. Facts can be stylized, too. It’s perfectly possible that her father and brother are as monolithically awful as she says they are in Scream, and her mother as impeccably, sweetly dotty. But the effect is still one of streamlining and shaping, even if life itself is taking care of that.
The same principle allows her new book to be about the mentality of New York City while ostensibly situated in the wilds of New York State. The natives don’t see the region as wild, of course, but the writer does, as if she were on a trip to a strange place called America. One of Janowitz’s new upstate friends used to live in a place that was “not near any stores and it snowed most of the time, and when it wasn’t snowing it flooded.” How does Janowitz find her way back to her own remote house? “Simply by remembering the various bathtubs that local residents had discarded along the trail.” The men up there are not slaves or slave owners. They are an all but invisible species, “like rare, elusive birds who cannot leave their indigenous habitat. . . . They don’t leave their trucks. Or their barns, or tractors, or recliners.”
The tone of the exiled New Yorker works well for the memoir, as does the implication of the writer’s stubborn helplessness. This is what I’m like, Janowitz is saying, and don’t you dare give me any advice. She has moved to the wilds to look after her mother, a poet who used to teach at Cornell and now, severely overtaken by dementia, has been migrating from one care facility to another. Janowitz is in the process of having a little house built, but her mother dies before construction is finished. The account of Janowitz’s desolation, the shock of the slippage from constant preoccupation to irreparable absence, is genuinely affecting, because, rather than in spite, of its touch of Brat Pack narcissism: “I would never have a mother again.”
But curiously, the events of the past, the memory bits of the memoir, fall rather flat. Janowitz mentions her association with the Sex Pistols and Andy Warhol, but assumes that we know all about that stuff. Even when she thinks there is more to say, she doesn’t say it. Of Warhol’s published diaries, she remarks that they “are not at all what it was like to talk to him or listen to him.” This could have been the moment to tell us. She does affirm, a few pages later, that Warhol was not as shallow as he tried to seem. “You could tell he was more complicated than that. Inside there was a suffering, lonely entity.” But the word “entity” really does suggest that the writer has turned off her stylistic hearing aid. (Lou Reed fares a little better.)
Generally Janowitz does make an effort to conjure up the 1980s. But she somehow manages not to have been there. “I didn’t realize how unique or special the times were that I was living in.” And: “There were a lot of fabulous times. Too bad I was afraid to enjoy most of them.” She remembers her fellow Pack members, but not too fondly, it seems. “I knew each of my two packmates a bit,” she says. The next sentence reads, “I did get to meet many interesting people, though.”
What is striking, and in its way moving, is Janowitz’s assumption that the dead past, once real to her, can only seem improbable to us, a sort of depleted Oz. “Back then,” she keeps saying. “See, back then, there were no credit cards”; “people today . . . have no idea how limited the lives of women were back then.” There were no suitcases with wheels. People did not take snapshots of everything around them. “New York City just isn’t the same.” These instances feel like invitations to write, to re-create a world on the page, even if the author seems too tired to act on them. But then she is writing the invitations too, and perhaps feels that time regained would be even worse than time lost.
Lou Reed, a symbol of the cool New York City of the old days, also figures in McInerney’s Bright, Precious Days. A couple is thinking of moving uptown, or even out of town, or at least the wife is. Eventually they buy a house in Harlem. TriBeCa, she says, is no longer “funky and cheap . . . the artists have been replaced by bankers and trust fund brats.” “Lou Reed and James Rosenquist still live here,” her husband says. He knows, though, that he is losing this battle:
What he wanted to say was that being a resident not only of Manhattan but of downtown was an irreducible core of his identity. He was as much — if not more — a New Yorker as those who found themselves here through the accident of birth. . . . This was the city he had chosen of all the places in the world; to live anywhere else would feel like exile.
The mockery is sympathetic but it is mockery, and of this crop McInerney is the writer who is funniest and most precise about the view from New York City, that special theory of exceptionalism. Everything outside the city is unreal. Of course, the city and its inhabitants are unreal, too, but they know how unreal they are, and in any case their unreality is much more interesting than anyone else’s.
This pattern of thought was already present in the opening pages of Bright Lights, Big City (1984). Our hero, who addresses himself and us as “you,” is stoned and sad and out of control. “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning,” he says. Translation: This is just the kind of guy you are, but unlike the others, trapped in a drearily accurate idea of themselves, you prefer to believe you are someone else, whatever the evidence. Exceptionalism doesn’t have to be proved, just doggedly dreamed.
There is pathos, even glamour, in these illusions. It has to be felt in the prose, though, and it is very hard to catch in another medium. This is why the film version of Bright Lights (1988) seems so dated and maudlin. The protagonist has lost his job at what but for the laws of libel would be The New Yorker, his mother has died, and he can’t leave off the cocaine; he has nowhere to go. What we are missing from the novel is his bouncy jokes (“the dawn’s surly light”), and sentences like this one:
But what you are left with is a premonition of the way your life will fade behind you, like a book you have read too quickly, leaving a dwindling trail of images and emotions, until all you can remember is a name.
We still catch some self-pity here — the name is Amanda, the wife who has left him — so the general theory circles back to the self. But we can recognize the fading effect even if our companions are still happily with us.
McInerney’s readers have already met the TriBeCa couple, in Brightness Falls (1992) and The Good Life (2007). They are Russell and Corrine Calloway. He is a publisher who sees himself as a latter-day Max Perkins but may be more of a belated Gordon Lish; she is a former investment banker whose life is vanishing into her charitable work for various expensive organizations on what she thinks of as the “wealthy, skinny island” of Manhattan. The new novel begins around 2006, but soon the last Harry Potter book comes out, the 2008 election arrives, and the stock market crashes. The marriage runs into various kinds of trouble, and so does Russell’s career. McInerney’s prose in the book as a whole is rather bland, as if steady-state naturalism about these times of ours were more than enough, without any irritable reaching after stylistic excitement. But here, as elsewhere in his writing, there are terrific comic set pieces — in one scene, a drunk and high dinner-party guest kills a pet ferret after mistaking it for a rat, and in another, Russell is chased around Lower Manhattan by a woman he thought he could ask for some literary advice without invoking his old erotic relation with her.
There are elements of Brat Pack branding and competitiveness in the novel. Russell is proud of having had a table at a Village gastropub “before it became one of the toughest seats in town,” and there has been a newfound interest in the Eighties “on the part of those who were too young to have really experienced that decade.” This is good news for Russell, since he has just reprinted the books of his old friend Jeff Pierce, who died of AIDS at the height of the crisis. There is even a movie version of one in the works, with Corrine as scriptwriter. But the novel’s main discussions of the 1980s resemble the elusive mentions in Janowitz’s book. “New York in the Eighties,” a young Southern writer says. “That must’ve been rad.” Russell’s friend replies, “We didn’t know it was the Eighties at the time.” Corrine adds, “Let’s not get nostalgic for the era of muggings and graffiti and crack vials in the hallway.” When a young woman at a gallery opening says, “You guys are so lucky you were around then,” Corrine agrees that the Eighties were “memorable” — “Except that, as they say, if you can remember them, then you probably weren’t there.” And then she reflects but does not report on how frightened she was in those days, her mood caught by one of the most vivid phrases in the novel, “the dread and menace that was the psychic weather of the city back then.” Back then: for all the other resemblances of failed or averted recall, this is far from the feeling of dead old worlds that Janowitz conjures up with the same phrase.
You can love the Eighties if you weren’t there. If you were there you may have thought there was some sort of magic in the moment, but you just didn’t know what it was. Or you may have thought that what others were calling magic was really dread. Perhaps these takes are not so incompatible. All involve ideas of excitement and risk in a different time, its dominant feature being that it is not now, that we can’t get there from here.
Will the new musical adaptation of American Psycho help us with our thinking? The novel is relentless in its satire, so dogged and detailed in its recording of fashion and food and snobbery that we could be forgiven for thinking of it as a work of manic realism. It’s funny but only when we are not reading it, the way some Coen brothers movies don’t start us laughing till we get home. It seems as if no paragraph goes by without informing us what someone is wearing. Patrick Bateman, who can recount bloody crimes and acrobatic sex acts with admirable calm, almost cries because he may not have a reservation at the right restaurant. (“I’m on the verge of tears by the time we arrive at Pastels since I’m positive we won’t get seated.”) He is not cool enough to keep quiet about his coolness. (“I try to act casual . . . but I’m smiling proudly.”) And in one magnificent passage, a nerdy critical essay on the career of Huey Lewis and the News, we realize that even a professed serial killer can lose himself in the innocence of pedantry. The first album “seems a little too stark, too punk,” the second album offers a “surprising, infectious change,” the third album is a “flawless masterpiece,” and “Small World (Chrysalis; 1988) is the most ambitious, artistically satisfying record yet produced” by the band.
We don’t get all this commentary in the musical, but we do get the music: Bateman kills his rival, Paul Owen, who has committed the unforgivable offense of mistaking Bateman for someone else, to the rousing tune of “Hip to Be Square.” Blood splashes out toward the audience, who are saved from the mess by a convenient clear plastic screen. End of Act I.
Asking how anyone could make a musical out of American Psycho is a bit like asking how you solve a problem like Maria. The show opened in London in December 2013, with Matt Smith as Patrick Bateman. The American version premiered in April 2016, with Benjamin Walker in the title role. Bret Easton Ellis attended a preview, and after what a New York Times reporter described as a hesitant first response, settled down to enjoy himself and laugh a lot. Critics were divided in both cities, along much the same lines. They thought the show was slick and entertaining or — slick and entertaining. The difference was the value they attached to those words. For Variety’s Marilyn Stasio, “The violence is not violent enough.” Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times, “This psycho is neither scary nor sexy, nor is the show in which he appears.”
I thought the music was pretty tame, both the original 1980s numbers borrowed from Tears for Fears, New Order, the Human League, Phil Collins, and Huey Lewis and the tasteful new material created by Duncan Sheik. Tameness is a liability for a live spectacle (the show ended its Broadway run early, on June 5), but here it’s surely part of the point. Patrick Bateman is a very tame fellow — that’s why he worries so much about his suits and his aftershave. He was certainly scary in his print and film incarnations, but tame fellows often are. The real fear on offer has to do with the link between the frightened socialite and the bloody murderer. Many people rent horror movies from the video store instead of killing people, but Bateman does both — “thirty, forty, a hundred murders,” as he admits to in the confession that ends the story. Or does he?
Mary Harron, the director of the film, said she wanted
to be ambiguous in the way that the book was. . . . I think it’s a failing of mine in the final scene, that I just got the emphasis wrong. I should have left it more open-ended. . . . It makes it look like it was all in his head, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s not.
This is well put. Some of the violence and strange goings-on are in Bateman’s head, whatever version we look at. The question is what “all” means. In one scene, for example, an ATM tells Bateman to feed it a stray cat, and he goes on a wild killing spree borrowed straight from a gangster movie. Here’s what he says in the book:
I’m having a sort of hard time paying attention because my automated teller has started speaking to me, sometimes actually leaving weird messages on the screen, in green lettering, like “Cause a Terrible Scene at Sotheby’s” or “Kill the President” or “Feed Me a Stray Cat,” and I was freaked out by the park bench that followed me for six blocks last Monday evening and it too spoke to me. Disintegration — I’m taking it in stride.
Even Bateman knows this is “in his head,” but what about the rest? If he hasn’t committed a hundred murders, does that mean he has committed none?
I don’t think Harron failed in her emphasis, but I do think we may worry about the wrong things, in the book and the movie and the musical. Is the tale equally scary regardless of whether Bateman has piled up these serial atrocities? If he has, it’s scary that he gets away with it, that no one believes he could have committed these crimes. (That is how people routinely talk about serial killers, who are stereotypically the nice guys next door until we learn that they are not.) And if he hasn’t, it’s scary that a thoroughly conventional, fashion-ridden executive should harbor such a nightmare world in his dreams — all the more so since he is repeatedly seen as indistinguishable from his colleagues. What if they all have such fantasies, and we get to know about Bateman’s because this is his story, not theirs?
How have they solved the problem like Maria? Does the 1980s dread and menace that McInerney evokes, and that Janowitz half hints at, survive in the musical? The show looks terrific: all monochrome, glaring lamps, trapdoors, turntables, moving furniture, snappy group dancing. Benjamin Walker manages to appear discreetly and charmingly implausible in whatever role he plays, self-conscious yuppie or screaming axe murderer. This is quite a feat. It’s not that he winks at the audience or suggests it’s all theater, although that is the effect. He just seems to find all his roles funny.
The show slows down in the second act, and begins to feel like a musical about life in the Hamptons, but the ambiguity of what is really happening is well preserved. It’s true that Bateman can’t really be prancing around in bloodstained clothes without anybody noticing, but all art forms have their figurative freedoms, and what people will and will not notice is one of this story’s great puzzles. Certainly I thought, as the show ended, that Bateman had done much of the killing he claimed to have done, notably of Paul Owen, and that this crime in particular had been covered up by others for reasons of their own, while my wife was sure Bateman had dreamed the whole thing. Two is not a large sample, I know, but it’s a start.
All three works — the memoir, the novel, the show — look back at the past with a certain helpless fascination, as if it just will not come into focus. But the musical does something else, because performers and audience are necessarily living in the present, as readers and writers may or may not be. The great pleasure of the work, as of almost any successful musical, is in what it does with the idea of dance. In this production the actors walk in sync, and when they dance, the stage looks like a well-choreographed gym class (one routine is an actual gym class in the show). These effects don’t turn violence and psychosis into fun or fantasy, nor do they help us to explore them as if Gene Kelly were channeling Dostoevsky. They do, however, suggest that even without great music there’s a lot to be said for the skillful coordination of human bodies in time, for the contagious sense of energy at work that results from it. Synchronization may be a problem in the mechanical modern world: too many people doing the same thing at the same time. This is what Patrick Bateman represents and imagines he is rebelling against. But onstage he dances with the others, looks for no private beat, and faces the music he can’t otherwise bear.