A number of critics that I’ve come across have compared My Idea of Fun (1993) with Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel American Psycho. This is not, I imagine, generally intended as a compliment. My Idea of Fun merits the comparison, probably due to its gratuitous level of violence visited towards women in the course of the narrative and, in one memorable section at the outset of the text, the homeless.
If one was inclined to reclaim this contrast as a potential badge of honour for Self, one could do worse than bring together a number of comments the author has made outside the context of the novel, that prove illuminating for those seeking to understand exactly who and what the targets of his satire are.
Earlier in the year, Self spoke at an Intelligence Squared debate. He spoke against the motion: “We’ve Never Had It So Good.” Self, in his own inimitable style, argued that contemporary society’s sole moral prerogative is amoral. The only communal bonds that can be said to link us in our (post) post-modern world, is that of commerce and our raison d’être is the endless purchasing of an ever-increasing list of unnecessary things. The video is here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFNOWnklxAA) and is worth watching for those seeking to grasp the intent behind My Idea of Fun.
Much like Ellis’ darkly comic invention, Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of My Idea of Fun, Ian Wharton, is a monster. He is a psychopath, a vicious murderer and guilty of every deviant behaviour that Self can conceive of. This is curious, because of how banal his upbringing seems to be. He is brought up in a single parent household in Saltdean in East Sussex. Ian is lower-middle class, (though his mother’s changing mannerisms and dress sense implies that she is engaged in some form of social climbing) and he attends university. There is nothing in Ian’s developmental years that plant the seeds for his future psychopathy.
Self has said elsewhere that he considers the very notion of characterisation in novels to be “romantic.” This should inform one’s reading of this novel and Self’s work in general. When Ian comes under the mentorship of the enigmatic Fat Controller (moonlighting as the industrialist and entrepreneur Mr. Broadhurst), becomes employed at a PR firm for second-rate products while engaged in an intensive course of regressive psychotherapy, one can be certain that Self’s novel exists strictly in the realm of Ideas. The reason Ian seems to have so little to him, and nothing to point to in his childhood that ultimately leads him to become murderous is because he is a product of a vacuous, materially fixated culture. Like Bateman in the Manhattan of the late eighties, he is an empty vessel.
Towards the end of the first chapter, Ian informs us that the reader will be permitted to choose their own ending to the narrative. “I’m all for audience participation,” he says. Ian is here talking about whether or not he will murder his pregnant wife. This is all made with a definite point in mind about our society’s fallen state and our wrong-headed faith in an unfair economic system. It just seems unfortunate that a writer with such intellectual heft such as Self couches such an observation in a rather gruesome scenario. Even when the issue of characterisation isn’t at stake, it seems wanton to be so wasteful.