Friday, November 18, 2011

American Psycho, 60/100

The very first substantial piece of creative fiction I remember writing, as a junior in high school, was a short story about a well-dressed business man who attempts to murder a woman he approaches on the street. From what I remember it was horribly-written, tied up with a great big moral at the end, along the lines of "don't trust appearances!" or the like. Little did I know this premise had already been used 10 years previously by Bret Easton Ellis.

I've been reading American Psycho since February, which has kept me in a constant state of paranoia and anxiety nearly the entire year. If you're not familiar with the novel or film adaptation, let me fill you in:

The story is told in the first-person by the protagonist Patrick Bateman; an extremely wealthy, young, good-looking Wall Street investment banker in the late 1980s. By day at least. On his own time he's a psychotic serial killer, torturer, and rapist.

Bateman narrates his day-to-day activities, which for the most part revolve around materialism and participation in Manhattanite and yuppie culture. There are pages and pages of him and his colleagues going to nightclubs, doing drugs, talking about fashion, and discussing proper etiquette and popular culture. It's a life obsessed and saturated with consumerism. There are endless descriptions of designer clothing and products, name-brands thrown into every sentence. I'm guessing at least 100 pages are dedicated entirely to describing what people wear.

Let's put it to the test. I just did a search in the ebook format, and the word "wearing" is used 208 times. 208 times in 438 pages.

But all of this is Bateman's surface persona. The guise he's undertaken to appear human. He's studied what he believes human behavior to be, through movies, TV, and catalogs, so he knows how to act. A mask of sanity.

This is my reality. Everything outside of this is like some movie I once saw.

Surface, surface, surface was all anyone found meaning in...this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged...

There's a lot going on this novel, and I can see how people could go different directions with the meaning. It could act as an indictment against yuppie culture and the Wall Street elite, who are greatly satirized (spending gross amounts of money on meaningless things, cruel and heartless towards the poor, compare business cards to see whose is better, etc.) An exposure of unfair capitalism and separation between classes. Bateman's attitude toward the poor and needy -- almost all of his victims are dependent: beggars, prostitutes, animals, children -- is that of total disgust. Like Ayn Rand if she were a psychotic murderer. How apt that I finished reading this at the height of the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Or the novel could work as an indictment against human consumerist behavior in general, elite or not. 1% or 99%. Patrick Bateman isn't human. Being a materialistic pop culture obsessed asshole is his human disguise -- what he considers to be the norm.

Everything failed to subdue me. Soon everything seemed dull: another sunrise, the lives of heroes, falling in love, war, the discoveries people made about each other... There wasn't a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being--flesh, blood, skin, hair--but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning.

On the other hand it could be a study of how a psychotic mind works.

When his mask of sanity slips, he indulges his dark impulses by viciously torturing and killing people. He progressively becomes worse throughout the novel, with relatively little violence happening the first third of the book, to WOW, I DIDN'T KNOW THAT WAS PHYSICALLY POSSIBLE by the end.

The chapter titles give you a good heads up:

Ch. 2: Morning
Ch. 7: Health Club
Ch. 13: Video Store then D'Agostino's
Ch. 18: Lunch
Ch. 22: Killing Dog
Ch. 38: Killing Child at Zoo
Ch. 44: Tries to Cook and Eat Girl
Ch. 45: Taking an Uzi to the Gym

The novel's very graphic and extreme depictions of violence, primarily towards women, has made it controversial. In many countries it cannot be sold to minors, and stays shrink-wrapped until sold. I haven't seen the 2000 film adaptation, but it was only given an R rating, so I can guarantee you it's fluffy in comparison.

I wanted to hate this book, but I couldn't, being so well-written. It's one of the best books I've read this year. If there was a way to read it again, skipping all the extreme violence and endless descriptions of ties and dress socks, I would do so right now. But it could never be a favorite book. In fact I don't think I could be friends with someone who listed American Psycho as their favorite book. And definitely wouldn't spend any time alone with them.

So was there a point or need for all the graphic violence in the novel? Could Ellis have gotten his point across without that scene with the girl, burning acid, a starving rat, brie cheese, and one of those play mouse tunnels? (whatever you're thinking, yeah, that's what he did).

Here's Ursula Le Guin's take on violence in literature:

Can fiction still really flabbergast its readers, shock, shake, amaze, dumbfound, disturb, frighten them? Or can it merely continue meeting the expectations of those whose literary diet consists of revelations of infamy, perverted sexuality, violent injustice, monstrous brutalism, physical deformity, deliberate cruelty, and the mutual infliction of misery on one another by the members of dysfunctional suburban families?

These are revelations?

Is it news to most readers over five that people can be really, really mean to each other?

Or do they just like to read about it?

They do. I do. I sit open-jawed, horrified, enchanted to watch Atreus’s or Hamlet’s dysfunctional families destroy everybody who comes in contact with them in the process of destroying themselves. I am fascinated by Heathcliff’s cruelty and Ahab’s wicked madness and Lennie’s innocent murderousness.

But I don’t think Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Bronte, Melville, or Steinbeck were writing to horrify, to shock or frighten or sicken, to sear eyeballs or to wrench guts. They were aware of audience, oh yes indeed, but their intentions were not violent. They were not in assault mode. A writer whose intention is to frighten and distress the reader has a very aggressive program and a very limited goal. Serious writers want to do something beyond asserting power over their audience, beyond self-satisfaction, beyond personal gain — even though they may want all those things very much.

I'm not sure I can answer whether Ellis was going for pure shock value, without intention, or if the extremity of Bateman's actions was meant to illicit something more from the reader. Possibly it's a way of undermining the "moral voice" that's so prevalent in literature (as it was in my high school story). This time the reader gets to be the moral conscience.

Some moral conscience I am though, being unable to stop laughing out loud after reading the following line:

In the kitchen I try to make meatloaf out of the girl but it becomes too frustrating a task and instead I spend the afternoon smearing her meat all over the walls, chewing on strips of skins I ripped from her body, then I rest by watching a tape of last week's new CBS sitcom, Murphy Brown.

I am a horrible, horrible human being.

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