I read this last week – no, two weeks ago (lol, that’s ages and eons but feels like nothing because nothing I do feels like feelings feel y’know (actually my dog had diarrhea for a few days, that felt impactful?) whoops lol) – when I was in Copenhagen, a place I went to for 20 hours just to watch TV funnyman Nathan Fielder (check out my hat in the above photo) be interviewed in a passagg way. It was not a bad day.
I read that excellent novel The Employees while I was there and I read the vast majority of Black American Psycho, too, while drinking natural wine in a Thai restaurant before chugging a couple of slightly too warm beers in the cheapest hotel room in the city before sleeping for four hours then getting on a plane and arriving back to London, getting showered and changed then working all day and having a panic attack about an absence of paper cups. What a life. What a sad little life.
Black American Psycho is not about a sad little life, far from it, and nor is it an unimaginative rewriting of American Psycho (remember that?) with the simple edit of the protagonist’s race… Although there is some violence here, it’s not violence in the way that Bret Easton Ellis uses violence (a “hyper violence” kinda thing, y’know) as a synonym/metaphor/synchedoce (I don’t know what that third word means and I’m not going to find out now): Ernest Baker’s violence is not an example or a symptom of excess, rather it is background, it is bleakly inevitable and it is part of the awful texture of reality that money and sex and drugs and travel and fame and success are sought in order to distract from.
Why did I come to read this self-published novel written by a possibly right wing now former Vice journalist and former friend (maybe they’re still friends, I dunno; next time I’m playing catfish in Toronto I’ll ask) of the Canadian rapper Drake?
Is it because I’d read Ernest Baker’s journalism from a decade ago and become enraptured? Is it because Black American Psycho has become a potent and important text in the wider literary canon? Is it because one of the two people I regularly see without being paid to do so irl told me to read it?
No, it is none of these things: it is because I read about it in a book by Jarett Kobek and Jarett Kobek said it was excellent so I immediately, of course, ordered it.
Is it excellent? Well, it wasn’t the best novel I read on that 20 hour trip, but…
Is it good? Yeah, I suppose it is. Yes. Good enough.
It is certainly compulsively readable and a real page turner of a thing, despite fundamentally being an episodic text.
Black American Psycho is about a hip, ultratrendy music journalist who becomes an international superstar writer and friend of international superstar musicians (if we acknowledge Drake (or “Rake” as the barely fictionalised version of the king of the 6 is styled in Baker’s novel) counts as an international success. Which, I suppose he does – that meme is global!) due to his phenomenal writing.
With success and money comes coke and casual sex, and eventually enough people are pissed off by the protagonist for his downfall to come a-calling, led by his former (white) girlfriend, who very publicly accuses him of domestic violence then, once his career is destroyed but before he is sent to jail, retracts the charges. There is some truth to her accusation, though the injury she reports him for was caused (as Baker depicts it directly in the text) in the context of self-defence against the far more aggressive intimate partner violence that the superstar journalist’s ex had regularly used to commit, often with the racist threat that were he ever to respond in kind she would go to the police and America’s racist state would listen to her pleas and – literally as is depicted in a dreamlike final scene – lynch a potentially violent Black man at the first hint of evidence.
This is a very classic great American novel in that it’s about someone who starts small and unhappy, becomes big and more unhappy, then returns to being small while being a little bit happier, but then a final twist (the dreamlike lynching sequence that happens as the no-longer superstar journalist sleeps deep in a backwater with his nice new girlfriend and their nice new baby) implies that even this brief respite is undeserved and potentially unmaintainable.
It engages with internet culture, with cancel culture (before it was called that, back then we called them pile-ons ([insert old man yells at cloud meme], then a more contemporary meme about how old people use old memes)) and with the hypocrisies and moral failings of a fundamentally racist state. It’s about partying and travelling and fucking and being free, too, and though there is of course a moralistic edge as novels like this have had for as long as they’ve been written, the moralistic edge doesn’t equate to the half-arsed, hypocritical and puritanical conclusions of your The Beautiful and the Damned, of your The Sun Also Rises, of your [white] American Psycho, i.e. that ever having a good time is an unforgivable thing to do. Getting wasted and getting laid doesn’t make you evil. What’s evil is maintaining, benefiting from and acquiescing to fundamentally inequitable social hierarchies.
Black American Psycho is a good novel. Maybe not a great novel, but definitely readable, engaging, articulate (enough) and kinda funny.
Pairs excellently with Orange wine and a Danish Pad Thai.
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