In 1987, during a CNN interview with Republican political consultant Pat Buchanan, author and real estate developer Donald Trump was asked about his taste in literature.
“Well I have a number of favorite authors,” Trump replied. “I think Tom Wolfe is excellent.”
“Did you read Vanity of the Bonfires?” Buchanan asks.
“I did not,” Trump responds.
“It’s a phenomenal book,” Buchannan explains, while quickly correcting himself: “Bonfire of the Vanities.”
When asked what he is reading now, Trump responds: “Well I’m reading my own book again because I think it’s so fantastic…The Art of the Deal.”
“Besides your own book, what are you reading?” Trump is asked.
“Well I’m reading Tom Wolfe, his new book.”
Now, wait: In 1987, Tom Wolfe’s new book, published the same week of the Black Monday stock market crash on 19 October was, of course, The Bonfire of the Vanities.
When told that, Trump looks askance and begins fidgeting with his earpiece. “He’s a great author. He’s done a beautiful job. I really can’t hear because of this earpiece.”
The whole scene is absurd. Circular and contradictory, it could easily be from the pages of the other famous novel of the late 1980s, American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. Like Wolfe’s novel, Ellis’s novel revolves around murder, wealth, and a Manhattan investment banker. The “psycho” of the title refers to the protagonist and narrator, Patrick Bateman, who is narcissistically confident but often delusional. It’s hard to tell what of his observations are truth or fiction and the novel moves in a non-linear fashion, repeating itself, circling back, sometimes stopping mid-sentence.
In fact, Ellis did base a scene in American Psycho off Donald Trump’s interview. Indeed, Trump is a character in American Psycho and Ellis’s novel is a satire of both Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities and Trump’s autobiography, The Art of the Deal, also published in 1987.
Welcome to the strangely literary world of high finance in the 1980s, a time in which many famous financiers published their autobiographies and some of the most well-known novels were about finance. Meanwhile the financer financial journalists called a “fraud,” and whose co-writer, Tony Schwartz, called a “sociopath” has become the president of the United States.
If this all sounds too postmodern to be true, then that’s simply another historical facet of our story: It was in the 1980s that postmodern fiction finally arrived on course syllabi, in news stories, at conferences, and even in public discourse. In his 1989 book, The Condition of Postmodernity, geographer David Harvey defined postmodernity as “dominated by fiction, fantasy, the immaterial.” Nowhere is this description more accurate than in the decade-long comingling of finance and literature.
The Automated Teller Machine was introduced that decade and it quickly developed a narrative presence in novels including Don DeLillo’s 1984 White Noise and Ellis’ American Psycho. The Savings and Loans scandals dragged on throughout the decade. Jane Smiley would later memorize them in her novel, Good Faith. And then there were the financiers themselves, they both published autobiographies and became involved in financial scandals.
In neat reply, American Psycho itself became a scandal. After some of more gruesome passages were leaked to the press, Simon and Schuster dropped the book, weeks before its scheduled publication. Vintage picked it up and published it anyway.
Critics have had much to say about this grisly and controversial novel, but few of them have situated it in its appropriate historical context.
What can we make of the violence that saturates American Psycho? One thing we can say is that it’s historically accurate. Violence was the idiom of finance in the 1980s. By 1982 The New York Times was reporting on a new type of businessman, the corporate raider: “They have even developed their own language, laced with the images of aggression and sexual conquest: raids, battles….”
The financial autobiographies of Ivan Boesky, T. Boone Pickens and Donald Trump adopt this violent language, in part codifying it and in part representing accurately the financial world. For Boesky, a financial deal “is like war.” For Boone, “it’s like murder.” In Trump’s The Art of The Deal he includes a picture of himself in full military regalia marching down New York City’s Fifth Avenue with the caption, “my first real glimpse of prime Fifth Avenue property.”
Is it any wonder that the best satire of 1980s finance would be laced with violence? Asked at a club what he does, Patrick answers, “I’m into, oh, murders and executions mostly.” The female interlocutor responds, “most guys I know who work in mergers and acquisitions don’t really like it.” It’s not only that this language of financial violence was omnipresent, it was also rarely noticed.
American Psycho not only satirizes financial autobiographies by literalizing violence, it is a postmodern satire of Wolfe’s widely hailed “new realist novel.”
Like Tom Wolfe’s protagonist in The Bonfire of the Vanities, Sherman McCoy, Patrick Bateman works at a fictional bond-trading firm called Pierce & Pierce. Unlike Sherman McCoy, Patrick never gives us any indication of the work that he does or of his technical knowledge of finance. In his office, he does crossword puzzles, listens to popular music on his Walkman, and manages his extensive social life. The only financial object to be found on his desk? Donald Trump’s memoir, The Art of the Deal.