Arts & DesignLetters

English Psycho

Men who write novels mostly responded to feminism in one of four ways. The first was to ignore it. The second was to attempt to write women characters even better than women write them (cf what Rebecca Solnit calls ‘Men Explain Things to Me’).

The third, and perhaps dominant mode was to stick to writing from the male point of view, but to make the male character a nebbish. As if to say: ‘see? How could we possibly be implicated in patriarchy? Men are so hopeless! Jerks, sure, but incapable of dominating their own laundry let alone others!’

This character shows up, for example, in Sam Lipsyte, Gary Shteyngart, and Benjamin Kunkel. He bumbles and fumbles his way through narrative, not knowing what’s going on, emotionally inert, sexually inept. Not particularly likeable – but oh so loveable!

The fourth way to go is for the male writer to stick with the male protagonist, but make him a complete asshole. Aggressive, misogynist – a prick. Rather than make him neurotic, as Shteyngart does, make him psychotic (in the literary rather than the clinical sense). The great precedent here is American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis.

Back in 1991 this was a controversial book. Its central character Patrick Bateman may do unspeakable things to women. (It is not entirely clear what’s actual in the book and what is not). Personally, I think that book is prophetic. It captures in advance the id of reaction that twenty years later is now out in the open and running for office.

The limitations of the book are elsewhere. It is that Bateman’s vile misogyny aligns too neatly with two other things. Firstly with his yuppie Wall street-ish vocation. It aligns misogyny too neatly with capital. Secondly, and more curiously, it aligns misogyny with a certain kind of aesthetic bad taste. When Bateman starts extolling the virtues of the band Huey Lewis and the News, that’s when the reader who can read the cultural cues knows we are dealing with a psycho serial killer.

This is where Stewart Home’s most recent book, Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane (Penny-Ante Editions) is of interest, although it too has its critics. Its serial rapist, murdering, psychotic misogynist is not a yuppie Wall street type, but a lecturer in cultural studies at a provincial English university. Charlie (if that is indeed his name) has strange cultural tastes. He has rather fine observations on certain kinds of contemporary art. Observations which seem like the kind Home himself might make, which rather complicates any attempt to read Charlie as a regular novelistic ‘character.’ The entanglement of art and misogyny might be a complicated one.

Of course his specialty is teaching certain subgenres of horror movie: “I’ve got to go. I’ve a class of gore hounds who want their weekly fix of slasher theory.” As the book progressively becomes the narrative of just such a movie, its not entirely clear whether what is happening in actually happening or happening in Charlie’s psychotic imagination. The challenge of the book is that misogyny is aligned not just with capital but also with culture. Or what’s left of culture. In Home’s more recent books there’s no refuge in culture, all of which is of a piece with both capital and violence.

Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane is a either a campus anti-novel or an anti-campus novel, or both. It is an anti-novel in the sense that it has no interest in the novel’s conventions. Characters are mere cyphers. There’s no ‘fine writing’ in its description. The anti-novel is relentless in its refusal of a redemptive dimension to the ‘literary’ as that which sets its petit-bourgeois readers above the world of capital and violence.

It’s fitting then, that its setting is the campus. If the literary was one space of petit-bourgeois redemption, the campus has remained the other. As if by the teaching of culture, a realm of aesthetic contemplation could be carved out of a venal world. Its striking how, in the English context, cultural studies never got that far away from its original impetus in the work of F. R. Leavis. Home’s book is about the death of that impetus, and its replacement by a purely market-based hierarchy of cultural values.

Our anti-hero Charlie is a rather unsuccessful scholar, destined more for the admin track. The new cultural studies superstar explains to him what his mission is to be once he has control of the department: “The cultural studies client base has shifted. We need to attract kids from wealthier backgrounds…. The only way to pull in the ackers is by telling posh kids what they want to hear. They don’t want to be fuddy-duddy conservatives like their parents. They want a world-shaking neo-liberalism that comes replete with a radical rhetoric and ideological put-downs of everything they don’t like.”

What these students like least is ‘ambiguity’. Which would have rather upset the late William Empson, author of Seven Types of Ambiguity (although I always thought that books should have been called Seven or Eight Types of Ambiguity.)

If one looks through the catalogues of British publishers with cultural studies lists, this is pretty much where we are now. Endless primers and anthologies which revalidate what the market has already constructed as the culture of record, without ambiguity. Aimed at a clientele whose vocation is not the critique of the ‘culture industry’ but the ambition to be in the ‘creative industries.’

Not surprisingly, Charlie is a terrible teacher. The reason for this is curious. His slasher-movie tastes are in a weird way a kind of aesthetic outside market logic. He hankers for a loud and lurid kind of violence, not the slow and methodical kind of commodification. His students just don’t see any point in studying any cultural artifact which is not popular. And of course in a way they are right, even though it leaves them blind, here fatally blind, to a kind of power outside of the market.

But there is to be no academic bulwark against the banality of culture. Perhaps the funniest parts of the book happen between academic dons, arguing the merits of various prog-rock bands. As if all that was left of cultural taste and distinction were petty arguments about the respective merits of Yes and Pink Floyd, and the application of ‘Hegelian dialectics’ to the relation between prog, punk and postpunk.

Neither culture nor the academy can save us then. As Catharine Lumby once put it: ‘the barbarians are not outside the gates, they are inside, redecorating.’ There’s no romanticism or nostalgia for the lost Leavisite byways available as an option on Home’s campus, however. All that was already swept away, and now what allegedly replaced it, ‘cultural studies’, is in turn being swept away too.

What for Raymond Williams were the two sources of culture are gone. There is neither selective tradition coming from the past, nor is there a struggle toward a cultural future. There is only the commodity and violence. The culture wars are over, and neither culture won. Culture as a whole way of life is what has ceased to exist. There is only the narcissistic relation of selves to their products. Or in other words, Coldplay.

Until fairly late in the book women appear as Charlie’s victims. He doses them with a date-rape drug so he can rape their inert bodies. Or in other words, there’s a refusal of any sexual relation at all. As a ‘scholar’, Charlie has not quite succeeded in producing work that meets the market’s new demands. But in his pure self-involvement and violence, he is the contemporary commodified subject perfected. His relations are only with objects – Home describes in detail his online shopping sprees for dvds – and not with subjects at all.

This changes when the documentary film maker Sue Williams shows up. I won’t give away the ending, although I wouldn’t say sweetness and light are restored. But not the least achievement of Mandy, Charlie & Mary-Jane is to strip away the alibi of the nebbish anti-hero of so many post-feminist novels written by men. Those novels which want to say: ‘look, we get it, patriarchy and all that. But we are different! We men of culture! We harmless men with our detailed knowledge of books and movies and obscure rock bands! We can’t even talk to women so how could we hurt them?’

Here this very claim to exemption turns ugly. That playlist-saturated hipster culture has in any case revealed its other side, what Beverly Hames calls ‘brostrophobia’: “The feeling you get when bros start closing in all around you. See also: Brooklyn.” Home has their number.

McKenzie Wark

  • DonE

    I’m reminded of two pieces of internet imagery- the first the use of Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in meme form ( https://gs1.wac.edgecastcdn.net/8019B6/data.tumblr.com/tumblr_llrngcMr7S1qzzb5v.jpg ), and the second the remix of Kubrick’s image of Jack Torrance bursting through the door in the recent explosion of criticism under the #notallmen or #yesallwomen hashtags ( http://cdn.memegenerator.net/instances/250×250/50075582.jpg ).

    Finding that Bateman meme in the wild was kind of exciting, as it seems to rely only on the violence associated with the visuals of the film adaptation while ignoring what is meant to be Bateman’s own psychotically poor taste. In the ongoing conversation that uses impact font text over digital video grabs, Bateman simultaneously loves Huey Lewis and the News and hates Bruno Mars. The use of Kubrick’s image seems more on the nose and less ironic, maybe as a reflection of the earnest feeling that its users wanted to project.

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