Thursday, 21 September 2017

Book Report Part 10: American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

Damn! It was all going so well. Having set myself the goal of reading 25 novels I really should have read, between March 2017 and the end of February 2018 (it all started here), I'd read nineteen of the books on my original list, when I made the mistake of trying - for the fifth time - to read a Thomas Hardy novel. I reached page 60 of Tess of the D'Urbevilles three weeks ago before shouting out something obscene and sending it sailing across the bedroom (fortunately, it was a paperback rather than a Kindle edition). I know several Hardy-lovers -  I admire his poetry, and there's nothing particularly difficult about his prose - but I loathe the atmosphere of his novels (and the plots and the characters). Rather than give up for the second time this year (I would rather read The Collected Speeches of Jeremy Corbyn than pick up The Wings of the Dove again) I've set serious fiction aside until the end of the month, when I will - yet again - go mano a mano with the Wessex chucklemeister. Maybe I should have read it...

...straight after finishing Madame Bovary - another "fallen woman" novel - than after several 20th Century American works: the cultural and cognitive dissonance created by leaping from the last page of American Psycho straight into Tess of the D'Urbevilles was evidently too much for me to handle.

Brett Easton Ellis's 1991 gore-fest is - as all the hooplah about it at the time would suggest - a horribly violent book. Had it been a straight horror novel written by a 50-year old genre writer operating out of Crudbucket, Arkansas the critics wouldn't have deigned to crack the spine of their review copy (in fact, they wouldn't even have been sent a review copy). But as the writer was a sleek young New Yorker with a literary bestseller under his belt (Less Than Zero), they read it from cover to cover and, to an extent, excused the frequent, detailed descriptions of sadistic sexual violence, mutilation and murder as an attack on the "shallow and vicious aspects of capitalism." It's postmodern and transgressive, you see, so that's okay.

Patrick Bateman is a investment banker in his mid-twenties from a wealthy family, living a sleek late-'80s "greed is good" Manhattan existence, who spends a lot of time hanging out with a bunch of interchangeable sleek young finance industry types and sleek young women ("hardbodies") in a bewildering succession of super-trendy bars and restaurants which serve ridiculously over-priced and fantastically pretentious food. Patrick is obsessed with fashion: his "friends" are forever asking him to explain the rules of what goes with what. He reads glossy magazines voraciously, beds meaningless girls of his own class, spends vast amounts of money on exorbitantly-priced fripperies, obsesses about his skin, his hair and his age, rents sleazy porn videos, listen to Phil Collins albums, does drugs, hires hookers, and tortures women and the occasional man to death - often several at a time - in graphically-described, extended orgies involving torture, mutilation and necrophilia. In other words, Pat's a fun guy.

Yes, I know - it's not your kind of book. When I finished American Psycho about six weeks ago, it wasn't my kind of book either. I immediately sat down to write a kneejerk, scathing report. But something stopped me from doing so, and now I think I understand what that something was.

I'll start by admitting that the book is undoubtedly flawed. For a start, it's far too long, mainly because Bateman's spending sprees, the silly food he eats, the crappy music he reveres and his tedious obsession with contemporary fashion trends are described so often and in such excruciating detail that the reader soon starts to skip over these passages to prevent themselves bursting into tears of sheer boredom. I know all that stuff is there for a good reason - but Ellis could have got his point across more succinctly (about 50 pages more succinctly, in fact).  The descriptions of Bateman's torture sprees are truly revolting: I used to read and write horror, and still read true crime books, and I've never encountered anything remotely as stomach-churning. Then there's the fact that Bateman is such a ghastly, vapid waste-of-oxygen that one doesn't feel the slightest twinge of sympathy for him - but, at the same time, many of his victims (at least, seen through Bateman's eyes) are equally vapid, so it's bizarrely hard to get too worked up about their fate either. At least, that's how I felt when I'd finished the last page.

Despite those criticisms, and my initial distaste for the book, it has stayed with me more tenaciously since I finished it than any of the other books I've read since the start of March, many of which I've loved - and that's not just because the subject matter is so horrible. If Bateman were a standard, fictional psycho killer, the book would be unreadable. But, after a while, we start to realise that we're dealing with our old chum, the "unreliable narrator". Only he's not unreliable in an impish, tricksterish way - Bateman simply can't tell reality from fantasy. According to Bateman, his friends hang on his every statement about fashion (mainly culled, we discover, from a book) - but, about half-way through, we begin to realise that his pseudo-friends are only asking his advice because they think he's a pompous prat: they're ribbing him, without him realising it. He's a successful investment banker, with a flash office, but we never discover what he actually does all day (he seems to spend all of his time at "work" reading glossy magazines and planning where to have dinner, and the only one of his colleagues we ever hear about is his secretary. And why does he keep mistaking people glimpsed in bars and restaurants for other people? It's as if he's losing his grip on reality. And why, if he's so mega-rich, does he constantly get into such a tizz about returning his torture-porn videos on time? And how exactly does he regularly manage to clean up his apartment and get rid of all the body parts after bouts of violence that must have left it reeking of - and drenched in - blood?

Our suspicions are confirmed when Bateman murders a bi-sexual who keeps making sexual advances to him, and then uses his dead victim's apartment to commit further outrages. He pretends to others that his victim has gone to Europe for a while - only for the police investigating the man's disappearance - and some of his friends - receiving messages which suggest the missing man actually is in Europe. When Bateman subsequently visits the man's flat in order to clean up after his latest killing spree, he... well, I won't give all of it away. Let's just say that, by the end of the book, I wasn't sure that any of Bateman's claims were genuine - he repeatedly tells us that he's sensationally handsome and well-endowed, but what if he's really just an ugly young man with a small penis and an addiction to torture porn?

Before American Psycho was even published, feminists launched a campaign against it on the grounds that it glorified and encouraged violence against women. (Obviously, they hadn't read it, but what does that matter?) Those objections evaporated after the first reviews appeared and it became apparent that it neither encouraged nor glorified violence against women. Certainly, the attitudes towards women in the book are appalling - but, then, the attitudes to everything in American Psycho are appallingly shallow, amoral, inhuman and tasteless. That's sort of the point. This bloke's a psychopath, incapable of empathy. The violence in the book is described in such a mundane, untitillating manner, it's impossible to imagine anyone actually being aroused by it (but, of course, you never know). Bateman's reactions are almost entirely emotionless, affectless. His anger towards his victims seems ersatz, almost part of a ritual. The ever-worsening depths of de Sadean horror he plummets seem to offer him no genuine pleasure. In the end, strangely, his utter inability to feel the slightest remorse for the grotesque suffering he's causing, strike one as more pathetic than monstrous: he's a deeply boring, worthless human being making others suffer as some sort of revenge for his grotesque deficiencies. (Strangely, I find myself more troubled by his victims' suffering now than I was while reading the book.)

I'll end with politics. Yes, American Psycho deals with the dehumanising effects of the rampant consumerism and conspicuous consumption associated with Thatcherism and Reaganism in the 1980s. As a great admirer of both Thatcher and Reagan, I was prepared to be vaguely annoyed by the sort of standard-issue anti-capitalism message I expected to find in book. There's some of that, certainly. But even the most ardent free-marketeer wouldn't necessarily have welcomed the nauseating excesses of the late '80s - even Mrs. Thatcher expressed alarm at the untrammelled pig-trough yobbery of braying youths in braces gluttonously downing Flaming Ferraris in the City: nobody said capitalism was perfect - it's just that it's evidently exponentially less imperfect than any other economic system currently on offer. And American Psycho isn't really about the politics, as (I was pleased to discover while checking out something on Wikipedia just now) Brett Easton Ellis made clear in an interview nearly a decade after the book was first published, in which he explained that the book emerged:
"...because of my own isolation and alienation at a point in my life. I was living like Patrick Bateman. I was slipping into a consumerist kind of void that was supposed to give me confidence and make me feel good about myself but just made me feel worse and worse and worse about myself. That is where the tension of American Psycho came from. It wasn't that I was going to make up this serial killer on Wall Street. High concept. Fantastic. It came from a much more personal place, and that's something that I've only been admitting in the last year or so."
It's really up to us as individuals whether we succumb to the prevailing excesses of the age - whether they be the displays of vulgar, maw-stuffing greed that marred the late '80s, or the displays of shrill, vindictive self-righteousness that we're currently forced to endure. They're both the result of inner emptiness, and neither leads to happiness.

1 comment:

  1. Girls I've met like "Tess" and , in order , to impress them with my intellectual independence and also quickly rule them out as being imminently enjoyable I told the truth about my lack of interest in the tiresome tome.

    Imagine my surprise when, developing my theme , I remarked that Muslim immigrants would rather their daughters lose an eye than breach a hymen, only to discover that I was a racist and a sexist.