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American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (1990) 384 p.

american psycho

This is a book which divides people into camps of “utterly degraded puerile trash” and “mind-bending satire.” I ended the book slightly more sympathetic to how I began it, but – to be clear from the outset – I still believe it’s revolting, misogynistic, overrated bullshit written by a dickhead.

Most people who hate American Psycho take issue with the violence. So do I; more on that in a moment. But those violent scenes don’t actually crop up until about 100 or 150 pages into the book, and I was bored with it after the first 20. Here’s a sample from an early chapter, in which our titular psycho Patrick Bateman is describing his morning skincare routine:

I rinse again, with Cepacol. I wash the facial massage off with a spearmint face scrub. The shower has a universal all-directional shower head that adjusts within a thirty-inch vertical range. It’s made from Australian gold-black brass and covered with a white enamel finish. In the shower I use first a water-activated gel cleanser, then a honey-almond body scrub, and on the face an exfoliating gel scrub. Vidal Sassoon shampoo is especially good at getting rid of the coating of dried perspiration, salts, oils, airborne pollutants and dirt that can weigh down hair and flatten it to the scalp which can make you look older. The conditioner is also good – silicone technology permits conditioning benefits without weighing down the hair which can also make you look older.

This goes on for six (six!) pages – we’re only about twenty pages in here – and it was at this point I started skim-reading American Psycho. I’ve never done that before; normally I’d abandon a book if I felt it wasn’t worth my time. But there’s a droning blandness to Ellis’ prose which makes it perfectly easy to skim your eyes across the page and still pick up the general vibe, which is: yuppies are shallow. Wall street suits are selfish shitheads. Modern American life is hollow. Stop the press!

(As an aside: lots of people, even today, call this book a satire of ‘80s greed. What the fuck? Why do we still consider the ‘80s to be the epitome of greed? Because in 2017 we have a narcissistic game show host for a president and nobody’s in a union anymore and the youth are being crushed on an intern treadmill and we’re cooking the planet to a crisp so the 1% can make a few extra million on their Caltex shares and the people responsible for crashing the financial system and ruining millions of lives are still sunbathing outside their mansions in the Bahamas. The Wall Street of American Psycho is quaint compared to the Gibsonian dystopia of 2017.)

Anyway: the murders. I don’t have a problem with violence in fiction but I do have a problem with an author who indulges in endless, baroque descriptions of ultra-gore. It’s like comparing a well-made slasher film to the torture porn genre (films like Hostel or Wolf Creek). Violence when used sparingly is interesting. When you have fifty plus pages of lurid descriptions of vile torture, you’re an immature writer trying to provoke a reaction for the sake of it – and also, in this case, because the rest of your novel is so trite and tedious.

And yes, it’s misogynistic. Bateman’s male victims get a couple of paragraphs. His female victims are treated to entire chapters describing increasingly gruesome tortures. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

I mentioned at the start I was more sympathetic to the book by the end of it. That’s because the final fifty pages are actually somewhat interesting. Bateman’s acts through most of the book are those of a serial killer: secretive, hidden, selective. But near the end he goes on a spontaneous GTA-style shooting rampage through the streets, holes up in his office with a helicopter circling outside and a SWAT team about to storm the building, and then… nothing. He wakes up the next day and goes to work as normal. When he begins to really start unravelling – finding a bone inside a chocolate bar, becoming paranoid about a walking park bench that follows him several blocks – he returns to the apartment of his murdered co-worker Paul Owen, which he’s been using for murders and corpse storage, expecting to find the rotting bodies and scenes of carnage he left there… and instead finds it spick-and-span, ready to be sold, with a smiling real estate agent who mysteriously warns him “Don’t make any trouble.” When Bateman confesses to his lawyer that he murdered Owen, his lawyer is befuddled, insisting he had lunch with Owen in London just last week. So none of the violence in the book – or at least, not most of it – is really happening. Bateman is an unreliable narrator, and it’s all in his head. Since it’s all fiction anyway this does not let Ellis off the hook for sitting down at his desk and dreaming up loathsome torture methods for women. But it’s more interesting than the book would otherwise have been.

Does that mean American Psycho is ultimately an interesting book? No. One of my favourite short stories – and I say that despite having read it maybe once or twice – is John Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer.’ It’s about an affluent man in the affluent suburbs of Long Island, who decides on a whim at a pool party one afternoon to swim home across the pools of his neighbourhood. As he goes, he finds his neighbours becoming increasingly less tolerant of him, and he finds the weather turning; although it’s supposed to be summer, he’s cold and miserable and there are autumn leaves everywhere. When he arrives home he finds it boarded up and abandoned. It’s an enigmatic and engrossing tale.

‘The Swimmer’ is about 5,000 words long. American Psycho is nearly 400 pages, and manages to be alternately tedious and revolting. I could possibly tolerate the appalling, misogynistic violence if there was more of a point to it. But I expect a return on investment, and Ellis has nothing more to offer us than unengaging “satire” of the very low-hanging fruit of Wall Street sharks. It was banal in 1990 and it’s even more banal now. This book does not deserve its place in the canon.

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