I spent most of my 20s in New York reading (and rereading) Bret Easton Ellis’ novels. So let’s kick things off with a modern classic set in my hometown.
A controversial book from the get go, American Psycho is one of the greatest cultural satires of 20th-century America – one we almost didn’t get to read. Ellis’s first publisher, Simon & Schuster, dropped the book three months before publication due to its violent content. Lucky for us, Vintage Books (a Random House imprint) rescued it, publishing it in trade paperback in 1991.
Even before its launch, critics attacked American Psycho’s graphic violence and perceived superficiality. The initial reception was so damning that Ellis received death threats, and the book was banned in some places. But many great books, from Animal Farm to Catch-22, were also banned in their time, so why not give it a read?
In response to the criticism, Ellis said, ‘I was writing about a society in which the surface became the only thing. Everything was surface – food, clothes – that is what defined people.’ The book is a commentary on the monotony of daily corporate work and the ensuing banality of consumerist yuppie culture of the 1980s. Ellis’s antihero, Patrick Bateman, is both champion and victim of both. Through Bateman, Ellis commoditised everything: people, experiences and, happily for us, food.
New York restaurant culture of the 1980s was filled with food fads, excess and hefty bills – all reflected in American Psycho. In fact, there are so many options for recipes that we could probably devote an entire book to showcasing Ellis’s creative (and sometimes revolting) parody of the restaurant menus of 1980s Manhattan. To keep things simple, I’ve chosen an example from early on in the novel, which reveals both Bateman’s character and the way Ellis uses food as a comedic device.
The scene is set when Bateman’s friend, Craig McDermott, secures a last-minute ‘primo table’ at the fashionable Pastels. They begin drinking Bellinis and order lavish dishes, including gravlax potpie with green tomatillo sauce, monkfish and squid ceviche with golden caviar and the odd-sounding scallop sausage.
Red snapper pizza
The mood changes when Bateman’s nemesis, Scott Montgomery, a self-made 24-year old with a Georgia twang and a net worth of $800 million, turns up drinking champagne with his model girlfriend. Bateman tries to draw attention away from Montgomery with his new, meticulously designed business card, but is thwarted by the perfection of Montgomery’s card. While Bateman descends into a fury, Craig McDermott presses the group to order red snapper pizza until Bateman loses his temper:
I’m still tranced out on Montgomery’s card – the classy coloring, the thickness, the lettering, the print – and I suddenly raise a fist as if to strike out at Craig and scream, my voice booming, “No one wants the f*cking red snapper pizza! A pizza should be yeasty and slightly bready and have a cheesy crust! The crusts here are too f*cking thin because the sh*thead chef who cooks here over bakes everything! The pizza is dried out and brittle!” Red-faced, I slam my Bellini down on the table and when I look up our appetizers have arrived.
Coincidentally, the red snapper is carnivorous towards smaller fish. Make of that what you will…