American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

Week one: the running joke

The running joke is an ignoble device, beloved of TV comedy. You won't find it described in dictionaries of literary terms (despite the fondness for running gags of highly literary novelists such as Sterne and Nabokov). American Psycho relies on running jokes, being all about repetition. Its narrator Patrick Bateman, a 26-year-old Wall Street operative (his activity at work is left unspecified), dedicates himself to pleasure and conspicuous consumption. The novel is a sequence of restaurant meals, parties and clubs – interrupted by episodes of psychopathic violence (for which the novel has become infamous) and bouts of heartless sexual athleticism. Narration is in the present tense, dramatising Bateman's obsessive dedication to a lifestyle. This is a character deliriously doomed to repetitive self-indulgence. The best running jokes are evidence of human helplessness – the inability to stop doing certain things, or escape the same situation. Sometimes things are only funny because they are always happening. So when we catch a running joke we see the mechanical human behaviour behind the mere surface of variety.

The restaurant meals in American Psycho are never the same twice, but the business of detailing those meals is solemnly repetitious. "For dinner I order the shad-roe ravioli with apple compote as an appetiser and the meat loaf with chèvre and quail-stock sauce for an entrée". Bateman may despise his dining companions, but he dutifully records their menu choices too. "Price orders the tapas and the venison with yoghurt sauce and fiddlehead ferns with mango slices . . . Van Patten has the scallop sausage and the grilled salmon with raspberry vinegar and guacamole." There are recognisable foodstuffs, but mingled in compositions that flout credibility – can there be such a thing as "cold corn chowder lemon bisque with peanuts and dill", or "kiwi mustard"? Sometimes it dizzies the characters themselves: Bateman finds himself arguing with his fiancée, Evelyn, about whether someone ordered tuna carpaccio or tuna cappuccino. The joke seems all the better almost 20 years on from the book's first appearance, with a lexicon of inherently improbable dishes now familiar to us from Masterchef et al.

Bateman is dedicated to his appetites: food, alcohol, drugs, sex, violence. But he also has to dignify his vanity with a language of propriety. So one running joke involves him being questioned by a male acquaintance about what items of clothing can be worn together. "'Hey Bateman,' Craig says in a voice that suggests this is not his first martini. 'Is it proper to wear tasselled loafers with a business suit or not?'" A weird etiquette attaches itself to dedicated hedonism.

Bateman's endless lists of the items in which he and others are clothed are supposed to proclaim his taste, but some of the novel's running jokes keep displaying his tastelessness. He is addicted to a TV programme called The Patty Winters Show, which jumbles triviality (Princess Di's beauty tips, talking animals), sensationalism ("Teenage Girls Who Trade Sex for Crack", shark-attack victims) and real horror (toddler murderers, Nazis). He always has to tell the reader, in an interested fashion, about the latest episode. His favourite cultural phenomenon is Les Misérables – which seems Manhattan's favourite, too. It is everywhere. When Bateman collapses with nausea on a New York street, he finds himself "leaning against a poster for Les Misérables at a bus stop". A muzak rendition of the score from Les Misérables plays in DuPlex "the new Tony McManus restaurant in TriBeca" (Bateman is always going to somebody's "new" restaurant). When a fellow guest at Evelyn's Christmas party (waldorf salad handed round by dwarves dressed in elf costumes) suggests putting on a CD of Les Miz, Bateman is ready with a probing inquiry. "'American or British cast recording?' My eyes narrowing. I'm testing him." The narrator's pride in the discrimination is characteristically absurd.

The novel's running jokes are about replication – the satirical reduction of narration to a crazed pattern. Which is why one gag concerns the apparent interchangeability of the twenty-something Wall Street brokers and dealers with whom our narrator consorts. "Someone who I think is Charles Fletcher walks over . . . I make my way slowly through the dining room, waving to someone who looks like Vincent Morrison, someone else who I'm fairly sure is someone who looks like Tom Newman." Of course, just once in a while it could happen to anyone; the joke – the running joke – is that it happens to Bateman all the time.

He gets misrecognised himself – a joke because it is always happening, often unremarked by the narrator. A colleague who was at school with him gets his name wrong. Supposed friends (though there are really no such creatures in this book) casually address him as "Taylor" or "Kinsley", and the narrator casually records them doing so. When he does notice, Bateman can even be rather pleased to be taken for another. "Owen has mistaken me for Marcus Habelstam . . . but it seems a logical faux pas." Marcus works in the same place, wears the same clothes and glasses, "and we share the same barber at the same place, the Pierre Hotel, so it seems understandable; it doesn't irk me". This is satire, and in satire there are no individuals, only types.

John Mullan is professor of English at University College London. Join him and Bret Easton Ellis for a discussion at 7pm on 14 July at Hall One, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1. Tickets are £9.50 online (www.kingsplace.co.uk) or £11.50 from the box office: 020 7520 1490.

Contributor

John Mullan

The GuardianTramp

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