I’m not ignorant of the press that American Psycho has received, in spite of the fact that such press was, generally speaking, before my time. I’m not ignorant of the fact that it may seem horrific, to some, that I actually managed to read it, but then, what does that say for my psyche anyway? It would be a different matter if I sat and laughed through every page. I did not.
As with any abrupt change, the initial shift into following Bret Easton Ellis’ style was a little difficult at first, if only because I picked this up without truly knowing what to expect. In fact, my knowledge of the concept of this book was limited to begin with, and what was already there was purely superficial; I found one of Patrick Bateman’s monologues from the film adaptation five or six years ago and was both intrigued and confused by it, because of this I vaguely knew that Genesis would be referenced (and then I only knew of Genesis after picking up a copy of Disturbed’s Album ‘Ten Thousand Fists’), and after watching The Prestige, I was aware that Christian Bale played Patrick Bateman. None of this prepared me at all for what I found within the book, although reading the iconic line ‘abandon all hope, ye who enter here’ from The Divine Comedy as an opener should have given me an idea. It may only be scrawled across a wall here, but the link to Dante Alighieri’s version of Hell is blatant.
That said, there is nothing more to be said on the subject after this, and the references are, of course, brought heavily back into consumerism and yuppie culture; after all, this is essentially what American Psycho is satirizing. Even this initial literary reference seems to have little business being here, because we are in no way, shape or form supposed to believe that there is anything profound about Patrick Bateman’s lifestyle.
It is easy enough to think that this is, quite simply, just another novel about a serial killer. The brutal murder scenes are nothing short of what one might expect to experience in only the most gruesome horror, but it should not be judged on the basis of this alone; we are more than a hundred pages in before the first murder truly takes place, anyway. Women are more commonly given the blood-drenched descriptions than men, and every instance of violence is then interspersed with what one might call a version of normalcy. It is easy enough to pick the book up and flick to the first chapter that makes any reference to killing at all, looking for the ‘best bits’, but there is no point in doing so; to omit the rest of the novel would be to ignore its message in its entirety, and you would not so much be reading it as selecting the most shocking scenes one can find for personal enjoyment, and that is in essence, an insult to the novel as a whole. I feel it is also an immature way in which to handle the content, and can only lead to views formulated entirely around everything that shocks, disgusts and terrified through its explicit nature than around what should shock, disgust and terrify us for what it says about a contemporary society or sub-culture.
Ironically, these very scenes of torture and slaughter are the only ones that ever seem to be truly dragged to the forefront of the media; lines that stand out in my mind are ones like ‘a how-to manual on the torture and dismemberment of women’ and ‘people who like this book should ask themselves why they want to read pages and pages of descriptions of hacking and chopping up women (with the occasional man thrown in, but all the lavish descriptions with rats and nail guns and so on are just for the ladies)’. To me, these come across as comments born of tunnel-vision reading during which the author only took into account the black and the white; no gray shades involved. In truth, it is easy to see where such opinions can be formed – the descriptions of violence towards women are, as mentioned, much more graphic and, for lack of a better word, imaginative than those towards men for example – but of course, for people to enjoy, or simply read to begin with, there has to be something more substantial than ‘pages and pages of slaughter’. Enjoy, of course, may be rather the wrong word to use to begin with. As I mentioned before, I don’t think that these scenes were ever designed to be enjoyed.
Admittedly, the above comments riled me somewhat, not for what they say about me as a reader, but for what they say about the person that wrote them to begin with. I have asked myself why I ‘liked’ this book, although I think the correct phrasing is why I found myself intrigued or gripped by it. The fact remains that it is such a hyperbolic parallel to the culture it is satirizing that, in turn, it becomes riveting. How does Bateman survive? Contrast the visceral murders to dinner at Barcadia, and it does become more than mindless torture. It is not immediately apparent how everybody seems to overlook this one, seemingly insignificant, trait of Bateman’s because he fits in so well with the mould. I am not suggesting for one moment that anyone actually considers him a psychopath in his day-to-day life, but the slightest slips of the tongue – ‘mergers and acquisitions’ becoming ‘murders and executions’, for example – go unnoticed because nobody around him is willing to hear it as such. There is no real difference between Patrick Bateman and Timothy Price aside from the Ralph Lauren shirt, perhaps.
Easton Ellis’ prose has already been summed up as ‘cool and unflinching’. It is, for the most part, distant and uncaring, because why would a homicidal killer care about another human being after all? When you add into the fact that Bateman has, essentially, been conditioned to be a shallow human being to begin with, even without the homicidal tendencies, it makes even more sense. The lack of emotional engagement does not go amiss. It goes without saying that the more graphic the prose, the more prevalent Bateman’s blood lust; a chapter simply entitled Girl and involving the aforementioned rat, is one that may well have dissolved into such an explicit scene that it would have been nigh on impossible to finish is instead cut short by Bateman’s own ambivalence towards what he is doing. He admits that he grows bored of the spectacle, and as such, the scene dips away from intense brutality. Whether or not this is a bad thing is arguable; it does not give a sense that Easton Ellis is suddenly shying away from what has been present for the past two hundred pages or so – he has already established, by now, that he is not in the habit of doing so, that taming beastly scenes is not something that is going to happen – as much as we do, genuinely feel that even slaughter has gotten somewhat boring and empty.
Interestingly enough, it is the scenes where such brutality is conspicuously absent that drew my attention. Throughout the first hundred pages or so, I will openly admit that I found myself getting a little lost amidst a volley of names – Van Pattens, McDermotts, Carruthers and so on – with conversations occasionally taking a somewhat chaotic turn. This may have been down to my own shortcomings, and yet, I could not help but feel that it painted a more accurate picture than I even knew at the time. Bateman is constantly mistaken for a Marcus Halberstam by Paul Owen, and there is almost a note within these dinner-table conversations that encourages the reader to mistake Craig for Luis, who is then mistaken for David … the point being that identity is fragile, useless unless one is comparing the lettering on a business card. It is a point that in Bateman’s case, like almost everything else in the book, is taken to the extreme – while the fact that one of his early victims, Paul Owen, is supposed to have lunched with Bateman’s lawyer in London a matter of months after his disappearance could be Bateman’s saving grace, it is instead something of a sentence to eternal damnation. The final, capitalized line, ‘this is not an exit’ makes this abundantly clear.
If you’ve read far enough without dismissing this as ‘all about slicing and dicing’, and throwing it away, to notice the emphasis Bateman himself places on his appearance then I applaud you. As an amateur, I’m still aware of terms such as ‘Gary Stu’ that pop up on writing forums everywhere and anywhere, a nice enough compass to work by, but I feel the need to embellish this point. With Bateman, the good looks and charisma are taken to the same extreme as the psychopathy. It could be said that there is a prominent danger of Patrick Bateman being too good looking, too successful, too rich. He has all the elements of a character we should, then, envy, or feel is disproportionate within his own world. Not so. Everyone around Patrick Bateman is good looking, successful and rich, most of them summer in the Hamptons, have designer wardrobes and pay in excess of three hundred dollars for lunch. That danger of his character being over-saturated, then, is lost and his psychopathy, most likely does become more of a distinguishing feature than his tan body and worked muscles ever could. There is little inclination to want to know why he engages in such behaviour, either because it has already been established that there is nothing else there, or because we simply do not want to understand him. To do that would be to admit that people like him really do exist, after all. In a way, this could have contributed heavily to the initial reception of the book. Admitting, not that the content was too graphic for anyone to read, but instead that Easton Ellis was not simply inventing. That somewhere in the world, some woman had been murdered in a similar way.
The fact that this novel is ‘unfinishable except by adolescents and sociopaths’ is, again, arguable. I do not feel qualified to entirely disagree with this point – I’m nineteen, make of that what you will, I assume I am still an adolescent – although it paints a more extreme picture than is entirely necessary. Those who know me well will know that I have a fairly strong stomach when it comes to graphic depictions of violence and gore; I pin this on psychology rather than a mental deficiency of my own, after all, why should I be labelled a sociopath for simply not being that squeamish? Yet here there were more than a few moments that caused my stomach to turn. I don’t doubt that this will be the case for many more the world over, and have read a fair number of accounts that have verified this.
This, in turn, brings up a debate on whether reading American Psycho will have more of an effect on women than men. Unsurprisingly, the ‘morning after’ descriptions of Christie and Elizabeth’s mangled bodies (which provides a surprisingly accurate depiction of how they both died) and the later chapter, Girl (undoubtedly due to unsavoury use of a rat) had more of an effect on me than anything has in the past six or seven years (in terms of entertainment and media). This, and the fact that I didn’t eat cheese for a week. Not unfinishable, no, because I am not one to throw a book into a corner on the basis of one or two difficult scenes, but there is a certain degree of reason in where the above statement can be derived. If anyone has not dared to read this yet, then take it as fair warning that it is an explicit book, a fact that is unavoidable; different scenes will trigger different reactions. If you thought you had an iron stomach, or will, before this, think twice. I wouldn’t recommend this for anyone who will simply look at the brutality and torture and read it based on that, or pick up a copy and revel in the bloodletting. There is a lot more to this novel that far too many reviewers, I feel, have missed, opting instead to focus on what stares them directly in the face than what triggered such events to begin with. Thank goodness, then, for the number that read between the lines before casting their final judgements, regardless of what those judgements might be.
The Final Summary:
Enticing to some for all the wrong reasons, and not to be taken lightly no matter what the first hundred pages might suggest. This is an adult book in every sense of the word, not just for explicit content, but for looking past the explicit content. Where some books are difficult to put down for one reason, this is difficult to put down for another reason entirely; it quickly becomes difficult to tear one’s eyes away from the page in spite of the horror. Adversely, the first murder will cause a knee-jerk reaction that sees this book locked away for ever more. Regardless, this extremely well written and true-to-form, if you can stomach the sex and gore – an interesting and most definitely unconventional take on summer reading.
Oh, and a little, useless fact? I was asked for my ID when buying this book.
A Few Links:
American Psycho on Goodreads
American Psycho on Amazon
Bret Easton Ellis on Amazon
American Psycho Article on EW.com