Tales of connivers, criminals, and killers have a long history in our culture, but Bret Easton Ellis’s novel American Psycho—about a Wall Street investment banker whose notion of making a killing is literal—struck some people the wrong way when it came out, in 1991. In fact, its original publisher backed out before publication, and the rights were sold to another house. Its violence against women was decried; its author received hate mail and death threats; The New York Times Book Review published a piece headlined “Snuff This Book!”
I haven’t read the novel, but c’mon—look at the title. Ellis hardly presented his tale as a straightforward celebration of murder. In any case, the furor subsided, the book was made into a smart movie in 2000, and preparations for a musical version began sometime in the late naughts. The musical played London for a short spell in late 2013 and early 2014; that it sold out was no doubt helped by the fact that Matt Smith, who had just finished playing Doctor Who in the BBC series, took the central role of Patrick Bateman. American Psycho is now in previews on Broadway.
For the March issue of Vanity Fair, James Wolcott wrote a delectable commentary on the book and the film, with a nod to two possible outcomes for the stage version (Carrie: The Musical or Sweeney Todd?), that you can find here. Book critic Dwight Garner discussed the changing reception of the novel over time in a think piece for the theater section of The New York Times here. Incidentally, Wolcott and Garner seem to differ on one point. Wolcott finds the book still potent: “There are novels whose shocks and outrages seem almost quaint with the passage of time. American Psycho is not one of them.” Garner argues that “this novel was ahead of its time” but suggests that neither it nor anything else can shock us now. As for me—yes, I’m willing to speculate without having read it—I imagine that the novel’s fixation on surfaces, borrowed from Bateman himself, doesn’t neutralize a reader’s deeper responses, and that we still get both thrills and frights, a certain fascinated horror, from coming close to characters such as Bateman, or Tony Soprano, or Walter White in Breaking Bad.
The website for American Psycho: The Musical is here. Surely the show has a built-in audience in New York’s financial industry, but given that mezzanine seats can currently be had for as little as $69 plus fees (I recently skipped an Off-Broadway show because tickets cost more than that), Wall Street types won’t be the only ones in the audience. Any financiers among my readership who want to take me along for bohemian color are welcome to submit an invitation.