…these disagreeable thoughts, he well understood, were merely that – thoughts – the fleeting vagaries of an unstable moment; later in the day he would welcome the contrary opinion. This life was a merry-go-round in which you passed through the same thoughts, the same feelings again and again until you died. He reached out to switch radio stations… He watched his hand move towards the dial, he glanced back at the road, he watched his hand, and then, without warning, he was invaded by a sensation, it began like an injection of black dye at the base of his spine and it rose swiftly up his back and spread, darkly hooded, out over the top of his head. Who was he? What was his name? Where was he now? Because it had happened before (everything had happened before), he knew enough to ignore the questions and stay with the car, maintain control of the machinery, because when a moment splintered like this into a thousand riddles, every ? was a doorway into another world, and the experienced traveller kept a firm hand on the wheel, secure in the knowledge that eventually he would catch up with himself. Even as a child, he had been subject to such interruptions, accepted their normality, and had come to see these “gaps” as the holes in the sieve of personality through which something important but undefined was being systematically strained.
The disintegration of the self is a very modern problem. The erosion of the communal in favour of the private leads to an isolated existence, and the bombardment we face in every direction from the hyperreality of the mass media and consumerism constantly forces us to question the validity of our identities. Wylie, the protagonist of Wright’s Going Native, can be described using labels we all understand; man, husband, father, middle class, but what do these things really say about any of us? Identity as a concept is something that continues to elude any sort of meaningful classification. What happens when you look in the mirror one day and don’t recognize the person looking back at you? Cannot comprehend the life that you’ve become a part of? Wylie takes one last look at the bourgeoisie dinner party, his wife who is fantasizing about fucking her best friend’s husband, and his sleeping children before vanishing forever without looking back.
Wright is too intelligent a writer to just spoon-feed Wylie’s identity disorder to the reader through a traditional narrative, instead opting to use an episodic structure that gives us an elliptical account of Wylie’s life as he drifts west from Chicago. Each chapter is set in a different place with a different cast of characters, but each examines with full seriousness and very black humour different facets of the American identity; drug abuse, violence, love, pornography, the obsession with stardom. The dark heart of the American Savage. One absurdly funny chapter charts the descent of a successful business into crack addiction, while another takes place at an outrageous porno party with an erotic re-enactment of the crucifixion. There’s also a rather touching chapter set in Nevada about a domestic abuse victim who finds love in the arms of another woman. Into each of these lives, comes Wylie, a different name and a different man every time, but always with the same car, a green Ford Galaxie 500. His influence in the chapters varies greatly, sometimes he only has a passing acquaintance with a character, in others his involvement is a catalyst, or even a direct intervention. As the novel progresses though, each time he appears his spiraling deepens, until it eventually culminates in a ritualistic act of horrifying violence.
By the time Wright allows us to see through Wylie’s eyes, he has hit the Pacific and can run no further. While other popular novels like Ellis’ American Psycho and Palahniuk’s Fight Club deal with the same themes, what makes Wright’s treatment of the subject more convincing is that rather than the ego driven construction of an ultra-masculine identity, Wylie’s identity problem disintegrates into a state of constant flux (incidently, the novel that is resembles the most in its themes is neither, but DeLillo’s 1971 debut, Americana). He travels around Los Angeles having fabricated a number of different distinct identities as if he has some sort of multiple personality disorder, compensating for the fact that his own sense of self has become so fractured that he no longer knows if he has one or not. As Wright writes,
There was no self, there was no identity, there was no grand ship to conduct you harmlessly through the uncharted night. There was no you. There was only the Viewer, slumped forever in his sour seat, the bald shells of his eyes boiling in pictures, a biblical flood of them, all saturated tones and deep focus, not one life-sized, and the hands applauding, always applauding, palms abraded to an open fretwork of gristle and bone, the ruined teeth fixed in a yellowy smile that will not diminish, that will not fade, he’s happy, he’s being entertained.
Not so much American Psycho as America’s Psycho.