Wednesday, March 30, 2011

American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis

I remember the media furor when Vintage Books finally published this novel in 1991 (after Simon & Schuster dropped it and fled, breaking their contract.)  Critics were veritably screaming about it from both ends of the love/hate spectrum.  Now, 20 years later, Audible has released a recorded version as part of their Modern Vanguard Series.  I've finally gotten around to reading it (in print). I concur with all the critical uproar -- it's a brilliant and revolting book, and I also agree with Audible's editorial team -- it's going to be a classic.

Everyone talks, of course, about the brutal violence.  Check.  Very brutal, very violent.  I will stop short, however, of calling it gratuitous violence.  This character is emotionally and spiritually dead.  He is a walking corpse (in crocodile loafers by A. Testoni).  Whether his sadistic crimes take place only in his deranged imagination, as I'm inclined to believe, or not, they are the primary symptom of Patrick Bateman's utter vacuity.  

What I had not expected to find in this novel was the humor.  Yes, Bateman and his colleagues are parodies of the late '80s Wall Street whiz kids, but the parody only works because Ellis' characterisations are so sharp.  I worked for a NYC-based hedge fund, and I could see shades of Bateman in every trader and analyst I knew there (minus, I sincerely hope, the proclivity to  use power tools as sex toys.)  The obsession with designer labels, the latest gadgets, the coolest restaurants, the hippest gym... whole conversations consisting of run-on name-dropping.  Ellis got it perfectly.  

And the ennui!  It's just such a chore to be young and rich in New York. Bateman goads his girlfriend:
"Why don't you just go for Price?"
"Oh god, Patrick," she says, her eyes shut. "Why Price? Price?" And she says this in a way that makes me think she has had sex with him.
"He's rich," I say.
"Everybody's rich," she says, concentrating on the TV screen.
"He's good-looking," I tell her.
"Everybody's good-looking, Patrick," she says remotely.
"He has a great body," I say.
"Everybody has a great body now," she says.  
Indeed, everybody in their social circle is practically indistinguishable, with designer wardrobes (which Patrick never fails to describe in relentless detail, down to and including the socks) and all the other accoutrements of the wealthy and self-obsessed.  In fact, they are all so uniformly magnificent that they routinely fail to identify each other correctly.  Patrick Bateman runs into a colleague (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) in a club:
Charles Simpson -- or someone who looks remarkably like him, slicked-back hair, suspenders, Oliver Peoples glasses -- shakes my hand, shouts "Hey, Williams"...
Patrick's friends are also remarkably resistant to what he tells them over sashimi or champagne kirs...
"My life is a living hell," I mention off the cuff, while casually moving leeks around on my plate, which by the way is a porcelain triangle. "And there are many more people I, uh, want to... want to, well, I guess murder." I say this emphasizing the last word, staring straight into Armstrong's face.
"Service has improved to the islands as both American Airlines and Eastern Airlines have created hubs in San Juan..." [Armstrong continues.]
He'll tell anyone, in fact.  Anyone at all.
I'm standing in Paul Smith talking to Nancy and Charles Hamilton and their two-year-old daughter, Glenn.  Charles is wearing a four-button double-breasted linen suit by Reaelli, a cotton broadcloth shirt by Ascot Chang...*  Nancy is wearing a silk blouse with mother-of-pearl sequins and a silk chiffon skirt by Valentino and...  I'm wearing a six-button double-breasted chalk-striped wool suit and... Glenn is wearing silk Armani overalls and a tiny Mets cap. As the salesgirl rings up Charles's purchases, I'm playing with the baby while Nancy holds her, offering Glenn my platinum American Express card, and she grabs at it excitedly, and I'm shaking my head, talking in a high-pitched baby voice, squeezing her chin, waving the card in front of her face, cooing, "Yes, I'm a total psychopathic murderer, oh yes I am, I like to kill people, oh yes I do honey, little sweetie pie, yes I do."
* The ellipses in this passage represent  Bateman's head-to-toe inventory of the adults' attire, including Nancy's jewelry.

The platinum American Express card is one of Patrick's fondest accessories.  With it he snorts lines of cocaine, pays for $400 lunches, amuses small children (as above), and distinguishes himself from lesser men who carry only gold American Express cards.

Scenes like this one, provided the reader has a blackish sense of humor, give some comic relief between the descriptions of carnage.  Ellis does much to suggest that the violence is all in Bateman's imagination, but that's small comfort to us, the readers.  His fantasies are putrid, with or without the actual corpses piling up.

Despite his possibly worsening psychosis (his ATM has started conversing with him), Patrick has one lucid and scathing moment of self-awareness, which may be, for me, the novel's single most haunting moment:
...there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an identity, something illusory... I simply am not there...  My personality is sketchy and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent. My conscience, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at Harvard) if they ever did exist. There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference toward it, I have now surpassed. I still, though, hold on to one single bleak truth: no one is safe, nothing is redeemed. Yet I am blameless. Each model of human behavior must be assumed to have some validity.  Is evil something that you are? Or is it something you do?

1 comment:

  1. I watched the movie and I think I won't read the book...


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