"American Psycho," Bret Easton Ellis

Pros: Beautifully crafted
Cons: Boring and difficult to read in places; extremely graphic
Rating: 3 out of 5

First posted 3/14/2001

Somehow after the reviews I’d read of the book “American Psycho,” I didn’t expect what I got when I finally sat down and read it. At its simplest, it’s about a yuppie who kills people in gruesome ways. But really, it’s much more complex than that.

Brilliantly Crafted

One read and it’s hard to miss that this book was brilliantly crafted, each and every word chosen carefully. The book is told in the first person from the point of view of a real lunatic (by the name of Patrick Bateman), so everything is filtered through his sensory impressions. His life is completely whacked out, doing coke with friends in hip restaurants, working some undetermined job on Wall Street that he really doesn’t have to be working (his family is wealthy) – just so he can fit in; working out for hours every day, and helping his friends and co-workers to figure out the complex rules of wardrobe choice.

As he loses touch with reality, you realize something beautiful – that there’s no way to know for sure which things he’s hallucinated, which things he’s imagined, and which things he’s really said and done. All you can do is sift through the clues and hope that your guesses are right. As he loses touch with his reality, the reality presented to the reader becomes less and less certain as well. You try to figure out which things are real and which aren’t. Who ignores his outbursts because they think he’s joking, who “ignores” them because he never really did or said what he thinks he did or said, who ignores them because they think he’s someone else, who ignores them because they’re too self-absorbed to notice, and who ignores them because he’s wealthy and his family is wealthy.

Every word is carefully chosen. There are single phrases that give new meaning to entire chapters. There are single sentences that throw 200-page assumptions into doubt. There’s a temporary tense change later in the book from first person to third person that oh-so-eloquently conveys Bateman’s dissociation. The blatant hallucinations make you realize that the believable details might be wrong, as well. It really is beautiful to behold. It is perfectly crafted to let you feel what it’s like to be psychotic, and yet to show you how “normal” Bateman is in certain ways. With its legions of yuppies all being mistaken for each other and Bateman’s futile attempts to tell people of the horrors he’s perpetrated, it’s a hell of a treatise on identity.

I’d heard that this book was a brilliant satire on the 80s “me culture,” mostly through its long catalogues of designer items, in-depth analyses of light pop music, and so on. I think this is missing part of the point, though. What really condemns the culture that Bateman lives in isn’t the music or the consumerism. What condemns it is the fact that he can be so totally psychotic – and no one notices enough to do anything about it.

The best part is that you see little signs of consequences attempting to intrude on him. He’ll mention off-handedly that he needs to see his lawyer, or he’ll allude to rape charges. By mentioning these things so briefly, however, we see just how little impact they have. He’s so well-protected by his position, family and culture that rape charges hardly register on his life.

But does all of this brilliant satire, horror and craft mean that the book is a good read?

Books Must Be Readable

There’s something I’ve learned about writing fiction, and this is that above all, it must be readable. It doesn’t matter how beautifully-crafted something is, if the reader doesn’t enjoy reading it on some level. It doesn’t matter how honest it is, or how complex, or how brilliant, if it isn’t “readable.”

So is this book readable?

Yes and no. It’s fascinating. It’s more a character study and case study than a story. There’s no linear plot. There’s no beginning, middle and end. There’s just a person, and the very psychotic world he lives in. I am glad that I read this book, particularly since I have a strong interest in psychology.

On the other hand, there are entire swaths of pages that I skipped and skimmed. Quite a few of them, in fact. Why? Because they were boring, particularly early on in the book. It doesn’t matter that the long catalogues of brand names and people’s possessions were so carefully crafted, because they were meaningless to me, and dull. It doesn’t matter that the analyses of Bateman’s favorite albums were so brilliantly written – they were still boring. I ended up skimming them for those small details that lent insight into Bateman, and just skipping the rest. It doesn’t matter that the author so thoroughly said so much about the greed and narcissism of Bateman’s crowd or the time period, because I ended up not reading the majority of these pieces anyway. The same things could have been said more interestingly, or in less space. Certainly they could have been made less dull.

The Sex and Violence

There are also parts that are going to be very difficult for some people to read. I read & write horror, so it wasn’t a problem for me. But there are some extremely graphic (and disturbingly imaginative) sex and violence scenes in here. If this bothers you at all, then don’t even pick up this book.

Ellis at least gets points for making the scenes of rape and murder brutal rather than erotic. He doesn’t mince words; he doesn’t try to make murder attractive. He doesn’t eroticize it. It’s brutal, it’s horrific, and that’s all it is.

I do, however, sometimes get this niggling feeling. I imagine the author and a friend of his sitting down over dinner, and talking about his writing. His friend says something like, “I’ll bet that you could write about a man walking around naked with a severed head on his [censored], and The Washington Post would call it brilliant.” And I imagine that this is how this novel was born.

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