Thursday, September 30, 2010

Mad in America

I've been meaning to do an entry for Banned Books Week, and Jim Fallows has inadvertently helped me out.

A couple weeks ago a remarkably unself-aware Chicago professor posted a rant about taxes going up on he and his wife's combined over-$250,000 annual wages:

Like most working Americans, insurance, doctors’ bills, utilities, two cars, daycare, groceries, gasoline, cell phones, and cable TV (no movie channels) round out our monthly expenses. We also have someone who cuts our grass, cleans our house, and watches our new baby so we can both work outside the home....

The professor doesn't say how much he actually makes, but Brad Delong helpfully did the math, putting it in the ballpark of $455,000, which is more than can be said of a full 99% of Americans.

In response to the professor's bathos, Fallows posted an excerpt of Tom Wolfe's Mauve Gloves and Madmen, which can also be found at Wolfe's website (feel free to skim):

--him and this apartment, which cost him $75,000 in 1972; $20,000 cash, which came out of the $25,000 he got as a paperback advance for his fourth book, Under Uncle's Thumb, and $536.36 a mouth in bank-loan payments (on the $55,000 he borrowed) ever since, plus another $390 a month in so-called maintenance, which has steadily increased until it is now $460 a month . . . and although the already knows the answer, the round number, he begins punching the figures into the calculator . . . 536.36 plus . . . 460 . . . times 12 . . . and the calculator keys go chuck chuck chuck chuck and the curious little orange numbers, broken up like stencil figures, go trucking across the black path of the display panel at the top of the machine, giving a little orange shudder every time he hits the plus button, until there it is, stretching out seven digits long--11956.32--$12,000 a year! One thousand dollars a month--this is what he spends on his apartment alone!--and by May he will have to come up with another $6,000 so he can rent the house on Martha's Vineyard again chuck chuck chuck chuck and by September another $6,750--$3,750 to send his daughter, Amy, to Dalton and $3,000 to send his son, Jonathan, to Collegiate (on those marvelous frog-and-cricket evenings up on the Vineyard he and Bill and Julie and Scott and Henry and Herman and Leon and Shelly and the rest, all Media & Lit. people from New York, have discussed why they send their children to private schools, and they have pretty well decided that it is the educational turmoil in the New York public schools that is the problem--the kids just wouldn't be educated--plus some considerations of their children's personal safety--but---needless to say!--it has nothing to do with the matter of . . . well, race) and he punches that in . . . 6750 . . . chuck chuck chuck chuck . . . and hits the plus button . . . an orange shimmer . . . and beautiful! there's the figure--the three items, the apartment in town, the summer place, and the children's schooling--$24,706,32--almost $25,000 a year in fixed costs, just for a starter! For lodging and schooling! Nothing else included! A grim nut!

This was enough to get me thinking about American Psycho, a prime subject for Banned Books Week.

American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis, follows the exploits of Wall Street investor Patrick Bateman, who spends his free time working out, sport fucking, and prodigiously spending his money on expensive dinners and material possessions. Over time he develops a habit of brutally murdering people, mostly young, beautiful women. This latter aspect garnered considerable notoriety; the book was condemned for its depictions of violence against women and removed from many a book store (and the New York Times bestseller list!), and Ellis himself received death threats over it. When the book was assigned to us in my American History class (don't ask why), the professor permitted us to skim through and skip over passages.

Admittedly, the book's critics did not need to look very hard to find something to condemn:
His eye, burst open, hangs out of its socket and runs down his face and he keeps blinking which causes what's left of it inside the wound to pour out like red, veiny egg yolk. I grab his head with one hand and push it back and then with my thumb and forefinger hold the other eye open and bring the knife up and push the tip of it into the socket, first breaking its protective film so the socket fills with blood, then slitting the eyeball open sideways, and he finally starts screaming once I slit his nose in two, lightly spraying me and the dog with blood, Gizmo blinking to get the blood out of his eyes. I quickly wipe the blade clean across the bum' face, breaking open the muscle above his cheek. Still kneeling, I throw a quarter in his face, which is slick and shiny with blood, both sockets hollowed out and filled with gore, what's left of his eyes literally oozing over his screaming lips in thick, webby strands. Calmly I whisper, "There's a quarter. Go buy some gum, you crazy fucking nigger."

But what, the reader asks with rising indignation and dwindling patience, does this have to do with Tom Wolfe and the cruddy professor? The answer can be found in another horrifying American Psycho sample:

A hurricane halogen lamp is p[laced in each corner of the living room. Thin white venetian blinds cover all eight floor-to-ceiling windows. A glass-top coffee table with oak legs by Turchin sits in front of the sofa, with Steuben glass animals placed strategically around expensive crystall ashtrays from Fortunoff, though I don't smoke. Next to the Wurlitzer jukebox is a black ebony Baldwin concert grand piano. A polished white oak floor runs throughout the apartment.

Awful, isn't it? Even worse:

I've been a big Genesis fan ever since the release of their 1980 album, Duke. Before that I didn't really understand any of their work, though on their last album of the 1970s, the concept-laden And Then There Were Three (a reference toa band member Peter Gabriel, who left the group to start a lame solo career, I did enjoy the lovely "Follow You, Follow Me."

There are passages like this, on the most soul-crushing of pop-cultural, brand name minutiae, that go on for pages at a time. And just like with the ultraviolence, and just like with the Wolfe excerpt, and just like with the Chicago professor's whining, the only sensible response as a reader is for one's eyes to glaze over and to want to throw the (Mac)book against the wall in disgust.

For American Psycho is a satire, you see. The hatred and revulsion it provokes in its harshest critics is entirely intentional. We are supposed to find the brutality appalling, but--admittedly, perhaps very crudely put--it is to be seen as the outgrowth of a shallow mindset that prizes money and material goods over other human beings, which here are shown to be either monstrously hollow Wall Street wolves or their lower-class, and sometimes very literal, prey. Witness the mindset of but one character, established at the beginning of the book.

"I'm resourceful.... I'm creative, I'm young, unscrupulous, highly motivated, highly skilled. In essence what I'm saying is that society cannot afford to lose me. I'm an asset.... I mean the fact remains that no one gives a shit about their work, everybody hates their job, I hate my job, you've told me you hate yours. What do I do? Go back to Los Angeles? Not an alternative. I didn't tranfer from UCLA to Stanford to put up with this. I mean am I alone in thinking we're not making enough money?.... I have a co-op here. I have a place in the Hamptons, for Christ sakes.

The book takes place during the Reagan administration, that Golden Age of Limited Government. Now that we have an anti-colonialist white-hating Kenyan Muslim Socialist Fascist Antichrist Hitler in power, the problem isn't that the rich are making too little money, but that the government is taking too much of it away:

The rhetoric in Washington about taxes is about millionaires and the super rich, but the relevant dividing line between millionaires and the middle class is pegged at family income of $250,000. (I’m not a math professor, but last time I checked $250,000 is less than $1 million.) That makes me super rich and subject to a big tax hike if the president has his way.

I’m the president’s neighbor in Chicago, but we’ve never met. I wish we could, because I would introduce him to my family and our lifestyle, one he believes is capable of financing the vast expansion of government he is planning. A quick look at our family budget, which I will happily share with the White House, will show him that like many Americans, we are just getting by despite seeming to be rich. We aren’t....

I pay about $15,000 in property taxes, about half of which goes to fund public education in Chicago. Since I care [about] the education of my three children, this means I also have to pay to send them to private school. My wife has school loans of nearly $250,000 and I do too, although becoming a lawyer is significantly cheaper. We try to invest in our retirement by putting some money in the stock market, something that these days sounds like a patriotic act.

Our debt is exploding thanks to two unfunded, open-ended wars, a trillion dollar Medicare expansion, and an across-the-board tax cut. States are broke, we are dismantling the safety net and gutting school funding, and the upper crust of American society is worried that their taxes will go up to the levels of the nightmare 90s. Bret Easton Ellis saw even back then the borderline sociopathic narcissism and contempt for the lower classes latent in the powerful. The passive-aggressive attitude the rich have towards those who are actually struggling--manifested by this absurd notion of solidarity with their plight-- is different only in degree, not in kind, from Patrick Bateman's murderous indifference if not hostility to nearly everybody around him. (The ambiguous ending offers little respite: depending on how one reads it, the murders are either fantasies of a diseased mind, or actually happened but are of no concern to Bateman's friends to whom he confesses.)

The grotesqueries of American Psycho, far from being pornographic--that is, explicit and with no artistic merit--are instead very much serving a purpose. The mind-numbing, gruesome excess is entirely the point. Even when they are richer than 99% of the rest of the country, the rich still need more; they're only just getting by. And that's truly crazy.

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