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Bret Easton Ellis: American Psycho

© 1991
– Mar. 19, 2023
Posted to the Adversaria Dec. 27, 2021

Imagine a world populated by men who can parse the designers of each other's clothing down to the pocket squares, but, outside of their immediate circle, are unable to recognize each other's faces; who know the up-market brands and statistics thereof of stereo equipment, tv's, cars, and any other imaginable luxury items; men whose description of personal experience — their restaraunt adventures, their overseas vacations — are described in canned language taken from guidebooks; men who compare their business cards as though comparing the beauty of their very souls, and whose defeat in such comparisons are felt deep there within. It is a world where Les Miserable is ubiquitous, and within which debates over the cast recordings are held with the highest sincerity. This is the world of American Psycho, a story that exists mostly in a New York that is markedly divided between the haves — the high salary businessmen and their shallow, almost interchangeable girlfriends — and the have-nots, consisting mostly of beggars in the streets. (Only infrequently is there shown something of the inbetween).

And it is a hilarious world. Ellis sets up his unwitting clowns with care and precision, and takes them down as though weilding a stilletto, which such sudden and unexpected sentences as: "There's a black-tie party at the Puck Building tonight for a new brand of computerized professional rowing machine . . . .", or such wonderful moments of unveiling such as the laugh-out-loud "What's 'broiled,' Luis." That world is a world of brilliantly written comedy. But it is not the only world in American Psycho.

There is also the world of the lead character, the titular character, Patrick Bateman. Though, that world we enter only very slowly, at first with but passing glances, but then with unabashed violence, moving late in the book to grand guignol gore.

When it first came out I gave Ellis's Less than Zero a chance, but did not at all take to the writing. American Psycho I took to like ducks eating peas in a pond. It is wonderfully written. Masterfully controlled. Not just at the sentence to sentence level but also across passages. A simple thing as a jump cut could leave me saying "damn, that was excellently done."

Except for the sex scenes. They were oddly mechanical. Perhaps intentionally, as Bateman brings no emotion into sex, and perhaps so they would stand out against the horror (ascending through the book) that follows. But for me the languag there would falter. Become pedestrian. I am made to wonder if it is intentional to the book, as said, or if is a fault in Ellis's writing and in other books the sex scenes are delivered in the same way. Even if intentional, for me they fail, because the flow of the book comes almost to a stop within those long paragraphs.

A minor quibble that I would not mind discussing. There are, though, two major questions that must be asked of the book, questions I would ask in a classroom.

(1) If the movie version took the violence to the extremes to which they go to in the book, after the first instance the audience would be so shocked and disrupted by the extent of it that the satire, the comedy, would be entirely broken. There would just be a sustained "what the hell did I just witness?" that lasted, problably with no small tension, until the next dose. Indeed, in the film the violence is laced with the comedy that runs through the satire half of the book. That is not so within the book. The vilence is extreme, and it is not until the end, when it becomes absurd, that any sense of comedy returns.

So, the question: how do the two halves of the book tie together? After all, Bateman is a solo worker in the world of death and destruction, it is not part and parcel to the class of people he works with. To the end of the book I was unsure how to meld the two parts together, and wonder, even after closing the book, if the "Psycho" part of American Psycho is just the means to make the "American" part of the phrase that much more exciting to read.

(To note, the movie is highly praised. And though I find it funny, I do not think it as good as people say it is. Now that I have read the book, I think even less of the film. It breaks substantially from the book, and with that undermines itself.) I should also point out that there is throughout the praise of the movie the taint that that praise might be greatly because the director, Mary Harmon, is a woman.)

(2) The second question is: Is this book now dated? It was born as a critique of 1980s yuppie-dom. Most young readers these days (I am thinking collegiate) would not even know what the term meant. And does that world anymore exist? Does Ellis's book now satirize something of the past, not something still relevant today? Indeed, even then the question would have had to be asked, how much is Ellis creating the world he is satirizing? Did the world of Patrick Bateman ever actually exist? There is some linking between America Psycho's New York and the outside world, but not much. So it cannot help but be wondered if the book's realm is free-floating.

Curiously, does the book now inversely critique contemporary hipsterism?

Still, it is a wonderful, quite funny read about absolutely shallow people, and one who is also a raging, homicidal lunatic. The language is marvelous. The skill in writing is top notch. Of course, there is always the question of "Is this art? Or is this just a brilliant novel?" Another question I would ask in class. (I lean, actually, to the latter.) But, whichever, if you can handle it, it is a must read. I look forward to exploring Ellis's other books if I come across them.