In the month of August 2008, a month after I’d met her, a person I once eventually came to (used to…) think very highly of (understatement), mentioned this book, “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis and how she thought it was the most disgusting and vile book on the planet and how one of her friends from the time, Alicia, loved it. A couple of years later I found the book for cheap, bought it and figured, “What the hell? I’ll give it a read.”
I’d watched the movie adaptation of “American Psycho” (starring Christian Bale) and while it was out there, the book blows it out of the water.
After finishing this, I was forced to wait until my brain had cooled down and re-congealed before I could cogitate sufficiently to put my experience with this novel into words.
And yet, even after so many hours have ticked by, the only word that keeps bubbling up to the surface of my consciousness is…”wow”.
…in both the good and not so good variety.
At first, I had thought about trying to do a “tongue-in-cheek” review by imitating the narrator and describing what “designers” I was wearing while typing this review and what “brand” of shampoo and shaving cream I used this morning, and the excellence of L’Instant de Guerlain Extreme Pour Homme. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized I wanted to play this one straight given the profound effect the book had.
Therefore, you get (mostly) serious Troy today.
On the one hand, this novel is a visceral, disturbingly dark portrait of the 1980s as an emotionally vacuous, disconnected and superficial bastion of consumerism in which the people living through it became more and more detached from society and less and less able to emote for anyone beyond themselves. In essence, the book deals extensively (and brilliantly) with a loss of empathy.
The protagonist, Patrick Bateman, is the personification of the darkest extreme of this lack of empathy. He is, by definition, a psychopath which has as one of its primary characteristics, the “inability to feel guilt, remorse or empathy towards another person.” Patrick is outwardly charming and good mannered with all the outward indicia of normality.
Inside… there is NOTHING.
I found the beginning of the book to be hilarious in a dark, satirical way. Almost every sentence out of Patrick’s mouth included a description of a specific product “brand” or status symbol. He didn’t just reach into his wallet and pay the cabbie — he opens up his “Ermenegildo Zegna” suit coat, pulls out his “Tumi” calf-skin wallet while seeing in the corner of his eye the “Fratelli Rossetti” wingtips that his friend has on and pulls out cab fare before putting the wallet back in his new black leather attache by “Bottega Veneta”. As the narrative goes on, you realize that we are seeing the world through Patrick’s “distorted” lens and this focus on brands is simply a result of Patrick’s twisted world view.
In addition to having some serious fun with the out of control consumerism of the 1980s, Ellis slowly begins to reveal to us the fact that Patrick (and I might add all of the people he associates with) have no empathy or compassion for anyone but themselves. Upon arriving at a very high-end restaurant where Patrick and his friends will spend an exorbitant amount of money (and barely eat any of their food), Patrick casually narrates for us:
“Outside Pastels, Tim grabbed the napkin with Van Patten’s final version of his carefully phrased question for GQ on it and tossed it as a bum huddling outside the restaurant feebly holding up a sloppy cardboard sign: I AM HUNGRY AND HOMELESS PLEASE HELP ME.”
No further comment is made about the scene and it is only after many more similar occurrences that you begin to get the “picture” that is being portrayed.
I thought that the first half of the book was nothing short of brilliant as an indictment of the period. However, that is not where the book ends and it’s the second half of the book that, while equally well written, was arguably the most disturbing writing I’ve read in a while.
As the book progresses, Patrick’s night time activities become more and more bizarre, sadistic and just plain brutal. Now, I’ve read a lot of horror and seen my share of movie gore and while I don’t enjoy “slasher” movies (or torture porn novels) I certainly have been able to deal with some very brutal images and scenes in the context of a what I read and watch. Well, the images and descriptions of Patrick’s murders unsettled me as much as anything I have ever experienced. It was not just the graphic, detailed AND PROLONGED scenes of rape, murder and torture (not always in that order). It was inner monologue of Patrick totally devoid of empathy for his victims that will probably stay with me for the rest of my life. I had read reviews that the murder scenes were graphic, and I thought, “Thanks for the warning but I should be OK.” Well, I want to say again:
Be warned — it is about as disturbing as you can imagine.
I wanted to make sure I said that because, despite my cautions above, this is a book I will recommend provided people understand the level of gut-wrenching depictions in the novel. It’s not a book to read for pleasure and it is not a book I believe I will ever open again. However, I do believe that this is an IMPORTANT work and will be remembered as one of the seminal novels written about the 1980s.
It shines a harsh and brutal light (if exaggerated for effect) on a way of life and a mindset that has become, over time, all too familiar.